Cambridge, Massachusetts -- The "globalization" of national economies, so enthusiastically promoted by American government and business today, as during the past decade, amounts to an ideological form of Western imperialism, to which the rest of the world is compelled to react. It now is meeting significant opposition, increasingly expressed in political as well as economic terms.
The pattern is familiar. The center of Western power -- the U.S. today, Britain yesterday, Spain before that -- attempts to impose upon others its own vision of how the world should be ordered. A workshop, mainly composed of senior economic historians, convoked at Harvard by the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies, recently asked why some countries are rich and some so poor. It found a part of the answer in the fact that the modern world is largely of Western invention, as are the industrial techniques for making a society rich.
It is politically incorrect in many American academic circles to speak of the West's originality, while highly correct to talk about Western imperialism. Unfortunately the two are aspects of the same thing. The West's imperialism was not a criminal enterprise, as some believe, but a natural product of the West's sense of mastery over things and over nature, and its conviction that its ideas are universal ideas that are valid for every society everywhere.
Other societies have since the 15th century had a choice between imitating the West, or rejecting it and paying the price for doing so. The Luxembourg Institute meeting provided testimony that in today's case the option of rejection is again being considered by elites in important countries.
In Japan, under constant assault from the United States to open its markets, there is current concern not only that America's trade demands are impossible to meet within the established framework of Japanese society and economy, but also a fear that Japan's economy may become "hollowed out" by the competition of cheap labor in Asia's poorer countries.
Some in Japan's leadership thus are determined to resist the globalizing forces. They consider the example of what has happened to American industry and the American labor force in recent years a dissuasive rather than persuasive example of the consequences of trade liberalization.
Japan's national development has always been conducted on its own terms rather than those dictated by others. The Japanese took from the West in order to create their own version of industrial society, first in the 1920s and 1930s, and again since 1950. Their purpose has been to become able to deal with the West on equal terms.
Both those efforts provoked Western hostility, particularly that of the United States. Mickey Kantor and Bill Clinton do not realize it, but they are acting in just the way American political leaders and economic policy makers did in the pre-war years, once again provoking an agitated reaction among the Japanese.
A Russian at this Cambridge meeting described the last few years in his country in terms of national humiliation. First came the collapse -- deserved, he agrees -- of the Soviet system and of the doctrine which had governed Russia's actions since 1918.
That was followed by a chaotic and caricatural economic Westernization, producing robber-capitalism and inviting Russia's exploitation by Western interests. At the same time many ordinary Russians have experienced falling living standards, and a certain demoralization of Russian society has taken place.
He spoke of the times when Russia was isolated, and pursued its own course, as the best and most confident periods in its history. One may wonder if that is really true, but the sentiment expressed is very important. Once again an unconsidered and largely self-interested foreign intervention is generating negative consequences among thoughtful people, and not merely among demagogic nationalists -- although the latter profit from this.
The West's aggressive promulgation of its own ideas and values has in the past produced both good and some extremely bad results. World wars and universal ideologies are characteristic Western products. Other cultures have been undermined and destroyed because of the West's thoughtless conviction of the natural superiority of its own ideas. Material success has produced arrogance.
However the West's domination was in the past achieved over relatively weak societies. Neither Russia, China, nor India in the 18th and 19th centuries had the confidence or resources to impose their alternative visions.
Japan, though, succeeded in doing so, taking from the West only what it wanted. It is again in a position to do so. This might also eventually prove true for Russia. It is significant that in today's situation the West itself is divided. In the specific case of economic globalization, America is the totally committed advocate, while there is resistance in Western Europe.
Europe, Britain excluded, is reluctant to impoverish a part of its work force and abandon its welfare society for the putative gains promised, in some more or less distant future, by a globalized economy. There is some support for a policy of European trade preference, and caution about the trade pressures coming from America. The future could prove to be other than the one now commonly expected in Washington, and at such institutions as the Harvard Business School.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.