The New Internationalism: The Fact and the Response

by John Kenneth Galbraith

The most common and perhaps the most serious error in modern political and social comment comes from overestimating the power of political and public action. We rejoice in believing that for better, and not too infrequently for worse, leaders-people-are in charge. All but invariably there is a deeper force to which the oratory and the action respond. I do not wish to deny or denigrate the role of political leadership; I will have something to urge in this regard later in this paper. I do wish to suggest that much, indeed most, political action is shaped by deeper change, by independently controlling trends. So it is with the greatest of political conflicts of our time, that of national interest as opposed to international, transnational concern and responsibility. Here, the history, not the public action, is indeed the controlling force.

Opposite: Detail of the centre panel of a mural depicting "Man's struggle for peace", in which a giant, four-armed figure implants the emblem of the United Nations. Created by Jose Vela Zanetti of the Dominican Republic under a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the mural begins at the left with the destruction of the family and ends at the right with its resurrection and a bright eyed child looking toward a generation of peace.

The history begins with agriculture and the two primary essentials of life-food and textiles-which it provided. For both of these, land is essential; from both came the primal role of those who owned or worked the land. Commonly this awarded power to the landed aristocracy; this in turn held dominance over a peasant population distributed over the realm.

Subject to some exceptions, this was the basis for a strongly nationalist response. Territory was the essence of economic position and political power; it was strongly sought and defended. A peasantry was amply available for both defense and aggression, which often had a distinctly recreational aspect. This situation was most extreme in Europe and Asia. The United States, Canada and in some measure Latin America were spared because land was essentially a free good. But the United States, as recently as the last century, endured a bitter conflict with its agricultural and feudal South.

With the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution came a major change. Power passed from the landlord to the capitalist. Here too there was a strong economic foundation for nationalism. Markets, including those of the new arrivals on the industrial scene, needed, sought and received tariff protection on national grounds. And as the landed classes once brought nationalism and patriotism to the support of landed interests, so the new industrialists made it the hallmark and servant of their economic interests. As war once protected or expanded landed territory, so it now returned revenue to those who directly or indirectly armed the military forces. And war, as ever, deepened and was used to deepen nationalist passion. Here in microcosm was the history of the first half of the present century with its two infinitely cruel and devastating conflicts. Here is the situation which in the second half of the century we escaped. Here too there are underlying economic forces. In these days, we do not speak of economic determinism; there is a grave Marxist overtone which the careful scholar avoids. However, the reality intrudes.

In the last 50 years, those since the Second World War, there has been a massive and again controlling economic and social change. This has been the internationalization of economic and larger social life. There has also been an expanding role of purely national needs and the response. The two we find in constant, vigorous conflict. Much political action and agitation, much economic and social comment succumbs to one or the other side of this conflict.

The most visible, most mentioned force for internationalism has, of course, been international trade. This was not, much as we may regret it, the result of a new economic enlightenment. It was brought about by a marked change in the nature of the national and international trading community. Once there were nationally separate firms acting in relatively small markets. These markets were a private preserve. The modern large enterprise sweeps across national frontiers. Tariffs and other restraints, once a protection, are now an aggravation. Once the case for free trade rested on efficiency, production where at best cost, or to be more precise, that which reflected comparative advantage. This refined and intellectually delectable view still lurks in the deeper recesses of the economic mind. It has been swept into irrelevance by corporate market power and its pursuit.

The transnational character of modern economic life is a controlling fact of our time. Political oratory, social comment and the meetings of the "Group of 7" leaders all reflect this fact. But this would be of small effect in the absence of the underlying and controlling economic force.

This great international thrust has not been of trade alone. Travel, technology and communications, the arts and entertainment have also had a strong international thrust. All enjoy a substantial measure of social acceptance. (Even morally depraved television programmes are now readily tolerated.) Close and amiable international relations has its advocates. Also its public encouragement. Beneath and dominant, however, is the larger pressure of economic and social change. Nor in a world which in the course of one half century saw the incomparable cruelty of two wars, soldiers and citizens assigned to fear and then to death, can this be regretted. But the story is not complete.

There have also over the last half century, and in Europe over an even longer time, been powerful forces enforcing and reinforcing nationalism. In the new world, this came more or less automatically with the end of colonialism. There was a national entity to celebrate and defend. Colonialism and its demise, I would note, also had a strong element of economic determinism. Colonies, once a source of raw materials, once a valued and protected market, were set aside by the larger thrust of trade between developed nations and by the new market reward from domestic economic growth. It has been estimated that the loss by Holland of her great Indonesian empire was made up for by a couple of years of international economic growth. In the United States, the Philippines were allowed silently to slip away-no economic lobby raised strong objections. The new countries were free to celebrate their newly acquired independence-a new and proudly acclaimed nationalism.

In the economically advanced lands also, sovereignty is routinely celebrated in political oratory, on television, in print. Patriotism, Dr. Johnson observed, is the last resort of the scoundrel. He sadly underestimated its power; for many, it comes close to being a religious rite. One can be forgiven for retreating even from the love for a long-time marriage partner. Retreat from love for country is a more serious matter. And here too there is a deeper force.

That is the modern welfare State. Capitalism as it developed in the last century had a viciously cruel aspect. It relegated the unneeded without income into unemployment, the old into poverty, the ill into sickness and death. And it left a large fringe of the population without either income or the hope for employment. From production, finance and from its products, there were other threats to well-being. All of these the national State addressed. The modern economy is international; with rare exceptions, however, its adverse human effects are a national concern. From this too comes a solid support of modern nationalism. Here in the United States, a vocal current of political thought, or what is so designated, urges a return to the economic and social world of the nineteenth century or that before. It will not happen; the welfare State is at the hard core of modern nationalism in the more fortunate countries of the world. What is the longer-run answer to this conflict?

The international thrust, economic, cultural, technological, in modern times must be accepted. It is indeed controlling. And none can doubt that it is much to be preferred to the war-inducing nationalism of earlier times. It offers instead a relatively civilized relationship between the peoples of the globe. Those who speak for a narrow nationalism are out of step with this great force of history. Like all others, they must be allowed their voice. That should not contribute to belief or acceptance. We see here the greatest social and political problem of our time. That is the reconciliation of modern internationalism in all its inevitability with both its own needed guidance and constraints, and with the humane social protection accorded by the welfare State.

International trade and financial relationships cannot be without a measure of public supervision; the opportunities for deviant behaviour and action are beyond doubt-their exploitation are in the press and on television every day. There must also be international action to protect and coordinate the welfare measures of individual States-unemployment security, social security, health care, education, and the budget and budget deficit, to mention only the most obvious needs. Such coordination, now a matter of no slight effort in Europe, must be a larger international action. Only this will keep the larger internationalism from being in conflict with the national commitment to social well-being. There is no conflict it is more essential that we avoid, much as it would be welcomed in one retrograde political view.

Over the longer time, there is a larger, more comprehensive institutional change that must eventually be faced and must now be discussed. The problem is that our institutional structure in international relations is now out of step with the new reality. The United Nations of which I have long been and remain a strong supporter is risking obsolescence. It is not fully abreast of the great change in the national, international context.

Significantly, it remains in both structure and competence in the age of the dominant nation State. These and their then unchallenged dominance were what brought the United Nations into existence. It was these that gave it its structure. The Second World War had shown beyond any conceivable doubt the need for a mediating instrument, one that would in the future avert such tragedy. National sovereignty was accepted; it was only that it must not lead to war, along with action, as necessary, to resolve lesser disputes. The context, to repeat, was still the independent nation State. The penumbra of accompanying and supporting institutions-the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund-extended and supplemented that responsibility. At the centre was still the older question of the relations between nation States.
That problem has in substantial measure succumbed to the larger thrust of history. Not for years now has the United Nations reacted to a military problem as between major countries. Even perpetually troubled areas, such as the Middle East, have largely avoided the reality of open conflict. In former Yugoslavia and in troubled African countries, the United Nations has indeed intervened. This, however, has been to arrest internal conflict, a continuing problem. That of one country attacking another, Iraq against Kuwait perhaps excepted, has not recently been an issue. We are naturally reluctant to assume the obvious; peace must not be threatened by over-confidence. Nonetheless, peace there is.

As will be evident, I associate this with the underlying thrust to economic, financial, cultural, technological, scientific and other closer association. But this in turn has spawned new problems-trade relations and associated differences and disputes; international financial transactions and associated economic disturbance and malpractice; speculation and speculative collapse; the associated threat of boom and recession; the global threat to the environment; and the continuing and socially demanding presence of the poor of the planet. The several agencies of the United Nations-the Economic and Social Council, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs-and the outlying work of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and yet other international agencies do not reflect and respond in any unified and adequate way to the modern reality. The United Nations agencies have discussion, but alas not power. This we must now correct.

The central role and responsibility is that of the United Nations. That is the basic institution, the powerful first step. But the United Nations role must now be open to major discussion-and change. The day will come I believe for a legislative oversight of the world economic and social system, the first step toward world government. And a tax base-a beginning might well be the tax on international financial transactions proposed by Professor James Tobin-the Tobin tax. And more generally and urgently, it must have responsibility in keeping with the new problems-economic, financial, cultural-of internationalism, of the modern global village and the protection of the welfare State.

This is not in the area of fantasy. Rather, it is action to accommodate to the modern reality. It is what the underlying and controlling economic and social change has made essential. Let us now begin the serious discussion.

John Kenneth Galbraith is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University. He is internationally known for his development of Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics, the economics of the modern large firm, as well as for his writing and active involvement in American politics. Professor Galbraith has had a distinguished career in American and international politics. He served as President John F. Kennedy's Ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he served in early 1940s as the Deputy Administrator in the Office of Price Administration, where he organized and administered the wartime system of price controls.

Professor Galbraith, known for his lucid, persuasive writing style, has published many books and articles. The Affluent Society (1958), for which he won the Tamiment Book Award and the Sidney Hillman Award, challenged the myth of the United States economy's reliance on the gross national product for its social stability, positing instead that consumers' taste for luxury goods dictated the economy's focus at the expense of the common welfare. The New Industrial State (1967) and the Economics and the Public Purpose (1973) continued the examination of this thesis, to critical and popular acclaim.

He had been an adviser to Messrs. Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy and Johnson in their presidential campaigns; a Member of literature and former President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; an Honorary Foreign Member of the Academy of Sciences of the former Soviet Union and now that of Russia; and earned a Ph.D. from the University of California and honorary degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Paris and other universities.

-The New Internationalism: the Fact and the Response. United Nations
49th Non-Governmental Organizations Conference.