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Forum 2000: Speakers Ambivalent About Globalization

Prague, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Forum 2000 conference in Prague had as its main theme this year the process called globalization -- meaning the increasing interlinking of national economies around the world -- and the impact of that process on cultural and political identity. In the course of debate, sharp differences of view were revealed among the intellectuals, politicians and scientists gathered at Prague Castle for the conference, hosted by Czech President Vaclav Havel.

Many expressed concern with the negative effects of economic globalization. They blamed the process, with its emphasis on the quick movement of investment money, for helping to create conditions for the current world financial crisis. They also said it is placing a destructive stress on societies which have long had their own way of conducting their own affairs.

At one point Kurt Biedenkopf, Prime Minister of the German state of Saxony, compared the present early stage of globalization to a large tanker truck which is trying to turn a sharp corner too fast. The weight of the liquid inside the tanker is surging backwards and forwards, threatening to tip the whole vehicle into the ditch.

One speaker who was optimistic was Hans van den Broek, European Union Commissioner with responsibility for eastward expansion of the EU. He suggested that the 15-nation European Union was a kind of a model for globalization. He noted that 50 years ago, when Europe lay in ruins, the EU's founding fathers had a vision of a united Europe, politically interdependent, with wide cooperation between governments, and with citizens able to travel freely without cumbersome border controls.

Van den Broek said the founders had to struggle against narrow nationalist and protectionist voices to achieve their aim. Many people were doubtful of the wisdom of pooling economic resources, and opening markets, dismantling trade barriers and developing common policies. But he said the visionaries won, and today the EU is the largest free market in the world, and what he called a zone of peace, stability, freedom, prosperity and social justice.

Globalization has similar aims, but skeptics would say van den Broek did not address the issue of how to achieve the same results world-wide among countries with far greater differences of wealth, social customs and political systems than was the case in Europe.

As Indian philosopher Karan Singh put it, the move to a global society will be one of the most difficult ever undertaken by mankind. He said that powered by vast changes in science and technology, all aspects of life are affected, from economics and politics to dance and music, food and drink. He said it is as yet unclear whether the modern world is what he called the "new Atlantis" -- a rich and glittering continent which one night sank into the ocean because it was unable to survive its own technological inventions.

Grappling with the problem on a practical level, Chilean economist Osvaldo Sunkel said governments need not feel helpless in front of what he called the dinosaur of globalization. He said that after his own country returned to democracy following years of authoritarian rule, the new government implemented specific policy steps. These were aimed at allowing the country to join in globalization without being overwhelmed by it.

Among the steps were: tax reform to increase revenues, which were then used on anti-poverty programs to alleviate the social dislocation caused by swift economic change; the enactment of labor laws allowing flexible, but not "brutal" use of labor; laws to give more power to regions, since most of the economic changes occur at the regional rather than national level; and laws to regulate monopoly practices. Also, and perhaps most important, were rules to control the short-term movement of capital in and out of the country, to avoid sudden financial destabilization. Sunkel said Chile's moves were widely decried at the time, but they have gained more favorable attention since then.

Saxony state Premier Biedenkopf also took up the theme of regionalization. With reference to his tanker truck analogy, he said he believes global markets will eventually destroy themselves unless governments learn to harness the forces being set free. He said strengthening and vitalizing regions is the key to coping with globalization. That's because most employment and education is regionally-based. Following the reasoning of Biedenkopf, it could be said that a workforce which is properly educated and trained, and which can adapt quickly to new conditions, is one which will reap the benefits of globalization.