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Definitions / July 24 2019

How definitions drive debates: What we mean by “globalization”

by Daniel King
All illustrations by Kent Hernandez for Doha Debates

The growing threat of climate change, nuclear war, job loss from automation, and the spread of infectious disease isn’t confined to a single country or stoppable at borders. Global challenges are rising. But as soon as “global” takes on “ization,” “ism,” or “ist,” meanings multiply, debates intensify and we’re in new territory of language and politics. What exactly do we mean, and not mean, by variations of the word “global”?

Solutions start with definitions, so here’s an overview of the essential meanings to keep on hand for our live debate on July 24, 2019, when three experts share their arguments on whether globalization is our future or our failure — whether it will solve or deepen the world’s problems, or if that is even the best framing for today’s challenges.

The root word defines itself: Globe means world, and global refers to it. But “ization” is the tripwire. “Ization” turns almost any concept into a process or result: the carrying out of a system, doctrine or theory. Globalization is an inexact term, but it generally means the process of the world becoming more interconnected or being treated as more interconnected. Within globalization, there are generally two kinds: governing, which takes the form of institutions like the United Nations, and economics, which shows up in bodies like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Many people support one kind of globalization but not the other, a selective stance at the heart of movements like alter-globalization, or alternative globalization, which promotes limited global action to protect human rights and the environment, but opposes economic entanglements.

Critics hear “globalization” as a slippery slope to imperialism or colonialism, with fears of bullying, bigotry, elitism and bureaucracy. The good of globalization — cooperation and shared action — risks a heavy price: the threat to national sovereignty and self-determination. Critics also say globalization risks the exploitation of cheap labor and the bulldozing of cultures in developing countries, a key argument against a globalized economic model.

If “ization” is the implementation of a system or policy, “ism” is its underlying theory and mindset: Globalization is globalism in action.

The conversation veers toward a cliff when the word globalist is introduced. “Globalist” has long been an epithet with deeply racist roots. It’s been used as an anti-Semitic slur to disparage Jewish people on false accusations of harboring loyalties to a global takeover conspiracy. Although some advocates call themselves “globalists,” a more common self-identity today is “global citizen.”


Is globalization our future or our failure? Is global citizenship our path forward?


The greatest competition to globalism is nationalism. Nationalism is the worshipful devotion to national identity, or “nation first” — a flag-waving anthem-singing celebration of national greatness. But nationalism does not have to mean isolationism, which is the refusal to participate in anything internationally. Many nationalists support free trade.

Nationalism and globalism are incompatible on that view: You’re in or you’re out. A more compatible pairing is patriotism and globalism, where patriotism is national pride that is not unconditional. A patriot is proud of a nation’s most admirable actions and efforts, but can criticize, as a duty, those actions that betray the values of that nation. A nationalist is proud of a nation no matter what it does.

It’s a false choice to pit globalism against patriotism, but some nationalists try to, a rhetorical trick to convince people that nationalism and patriotism are synonymous, to position nationalists as the true patriots of a nation. But the distinction holds: A patriot often protests a country’s actions and criticizes its power grabs. Nationalists tend not to, or will even celebrate those efforts.

Underlying many of these positions is a fear of totalitarianism, which can creep up slowly or quickly. Totalitarianism is a system of government so centralized and absolutist that it requires total submission to the state. Whether the state is national or global, totality is the fear.

Like many of these words, “globalization” is a mirror. It reflects how we see ourselves and our roles in the world. It tests whether we all see a world stage or just hear talk of one. It challenges us to find the best ways to respond to cross-border challenges and define our relationships with other nations and people. It asks whether the world must agree on common principles and an economic model that can benefit everyone, or if there is some way in between. Ultimately, it asks if we can agree, across differences, on a path forward.

Doha Debates invites everyone to share definitions and opinions now @DohaDebates with the hashtag #DearWorld, and watch the live debate on July 24 on Twitter. Get tickets to attend in person here.

Watch the full debate

globalization_full debate