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For one brief moment less than a decade ago, the idea of “globalization” was viewed with more promise than peril. At the time, it represented an emerging economic reality: the merging of national markets into a single entity that traders and merchants anywhere could access at anytime. This “24-hour, borderless economy” was being created by the revolution in telecommunications networks and information technologies.

Some, most notably U.S. theorist Francis Fukuyama, saw this new world as a triumph of liberal values. That window of optimism quickly closed. Other analysts preferred to focus on the sparks that flew as previously separate cultures and societies were forced to rub shoulders in a rapidly shrinking world. Strategists such as Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington and journalist Robert Kaplan envisioned a coming clash of civilizations or a descent into anarchy as Western values intruded upon, threatened and sometimes even erased traditional mores and the social order they supported.

Although the pessimists covered a lot of territory in their views — and usually took offense at being lumped together — several common features dominated their thinking. Yahya Sadowski, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. summarized their views in a recent book, “The Myth of Global Chaos.”

First, the spread of Western institutions around the world — what Sadowski considers “globalization” to be — “is forcing more and more people to confront alien values, whether in the form of glitzy television commercials or through the resettlement in industrial shantytowns where tribes of different religions are forced to live cheek-by-jowl.”

Second, when a society’s basic values are threatened, violence becomes more common and more savage.

Third, globalization and its threat to traditional values have caused an explosion of irrational violence.

As proof, the pessimists point to the horrific slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda. Images of the bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged behind jeeps in Somalia only drove the point home: The world had been turned upside down and the clash of First World and Third World values was doomed from the start. As Sadowski explains, “Thus the same process of globalization that Fukuyama thought had destroyed communism might be planting the seeds for an epoch of global chaos.”

That grim picture no longer dominates our thinking when the word “globalization” is mentioned, not because the world is any less chaotic, but because the word has taken on another nuance in the interim. Unfortunately, this new meaning is no more comforting.

Since the summer of 1997, globalization has become shorthand for the forces pushing the world economic and financial system toward collapse. The chain-reaction collapse of economies that started in Southeast Asia, spread to Korea and then toppled Russia and Brazil has wiped out untold wealth and plunged once prosperous societies back into poverty and unrest. Only continued growth in the United States and Europe has kept the world from revisiting the Great Depression.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, captured the prevailing mood in recent comments at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Annan said, “The spread of markets far outpaces the ability of societies and their political systems to adjust to them. People do not yet have confidence. Until they do have it, the global economy will be fragile and vulnerable to backlash from all the ‘isms’ of our post-Cold War world: protectionism, populism, nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, fanaticism and terrorism.”

The fragility certainly exists. The question is why, because the closer we look at the problem, the more it becomes clear that the relationship between cause and effect isn’t so straightforward. Take the clash of cultural values, for example. Television is often cited as one transmission belt for the intrusion of alien values. But Sadowski’s statistical analysis notes that “only a handful of culture wars occurred in countries where television sets are commonplace.” In fact, “the frequency and intensity of violent cultural conflict seems to increase as television sets become scarcer.”

Similarly, the idea that wars have become more savage or more irrational in recent years is not true. A more chaotic world _ or a world free from the specter of a superpower confrontation _ should be more violent. Yet Sadowski’s “back of the envelope” calculations show that “the number of deaths from wars of all kinds in the developing countries has consistently hovered around 400,000 per year since 1945.” In other words, neither the rise of globalization nor the lifting of the restraints imposed by the Cold War has increased killing.

In fact, one interesting correlation turns the chaos theorists on their heads. Globalization — in the economic sense, meaning the creation of more economic opportunities — seems to dampen violence. Another set of “back of the envelope” calculations leads Sadowski to argue that “countries with more economic freedom are markedly less likely to suffer from cultural conflict than states with [less freedom]. . . . Countries that experience economic globalization will not be prodded into ethnic or cultural violence. Futhermore, countries that are open to the global economy may enjoy fewer cultural conflicts.”

The problem with that reasoning is that it assumes continued growth and, as we all know, that is a dangerous assumption. Today, globalization seems to be shorthand for contagion, deflation and diminished economic opportunities. Liberalization and market reform have meant increasing susceptibility to foreign influences, at least in the economic sense.

But the link between those influences and chaos or instability is a weak one. An economic downturn has to be exploited. It takes a politician — or a charlatan or a demagogue — to turn a crisis into chaos. Culture, ethnic identity or history may sound like good reasons for a fight, but in and of themselves they won’t suffice. As Sadowski explains, “Identities, loyalties and hatreds are not eternal facts but social constructs. They come into being when conditions are right. . . . To sustain an ethnic hatred — even when conditions are favorable, even when it has the benefit of resting on ‘tradition’ — takes effort.” In other words, someone has to provide the spark.

Contrary to the claims of the theorists, chaos isn’t the product of abstract forces. Misunderstandings may arise and confusion may persist, but clashes of civilizations are in no way preordained. The fears of globalization are overblown. The real troublemakers are much closer to home.

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