When you go on the Internet to buy any random product these days, a funny thing happens. You are not only given the choice of thousands of varieties of products from thousands of merchants, but among the choices will also be products produced on every continent, by the vast majority of human cultures. The percentage of humanity that is plugged into the worldwide economy is greater than at anytime in history and the sheer number of participants is unparalleled. There has never been a more integrated and inclusive economic balance in the world. What that means for the democratic world in the 21st century remains a vitally important topic of discussion.
Certainly, a thousand years ago, there was no possibility of someone in the Americas trading with someone in Europe, or even someone in southern Africa trading with someone in Russia. Cultures were cut off from one another largely because of geography. The exchange of ideas and goods was limited as the vast majority never traveled many miles outside their home. When new technologies allowed increased international contact, for the first time, trade was global but characterized by competing colonial empires exploiting the continents that fell into their control and leading to suffering on an immense scale.
By the end of colonialism, very few cultures in the world escaped the armies of European empires who’s stranglehold on the economies of the ill-fated colonies brought terrible and long-lasting results. Cultures with ancient origins like the Native
Americans and India were forever altered by subjugation to the European empires. The slave trade permanently rearranged entire continents involving tens of millions of individuals especially in Africa and the Americas. The vast majority of humanity were victims not participants in this competition between the colonial empires. Certainly, it was not a golden era of trade for most of the world.
After the colonial era came to ferocious end with the two world wars, the world empires were largely dismantled. It was at this time that trade liberalization between the U.S., western Europe and their allies was beginning to lower the boundaries on trade that had divided the world and sowed the seeds of war. While this did mark a new period of economic balance between the U.S. and western Europe, the effects of colonialism were still an unbearable burden for the vast majority of the non-European world with few exceptions. The Soviet Union’s economic separation from the democratic world continued to wreak havoc.
Post War Democracy and the Interconnected World Democracy
The combination of the political and military conflicts between the democratic world and the Soviet Union, and independence struggles in countries recently freed from foreign empires made the post-war period violent and chaotic for most of the world outside of Europe and the U.S. By the time of the dissolution of the Russian empire, much of the worst effects of colonialism had thankfully subsided in much of the non-European world including the two giants India and China, that together make up two-fifths of world population. Both countries joined a growing list that had modernized their economies, focused on international trade and participated in globalization.
China’s rise during this period has been most dramatic with China’s share of the world GDP outpacing Japan and approaching fifteen percent (see first graph). Today, in 2012, most economists predictions range from fifteen to as little as three years before China’s economy has grown bigger than the U.S.
Along with China, most of the non-European world is beginning to become involved in the world economy from the smallest island nations to the biggest population behemoths. India and Brazil are following China’s meteoric rise up the rankings in nominal GDP and across the world, even in Africa, a continent of 56 different countries, massive growth is being accomplished in the last several years reshaping the world economic landscape. Today, there are close to 200 independent countries in the world and almost all of them participate in the global marketplace. Vastly more people, both in terms of raw numbers of participants and the percentage of world population, are getting the chance to compete in the same marketplace.
World Democracy and the Modern Economy
From the perspective of democracy this represents both great opportunity and potential danger. Although the world economy was greatly uneven in the period between World War II and the end of the Cold War, the core of the dynamism of the world economy was in the U.S. and Western Europe, both centers of democratic governance. Yet, from now on, the progress of democracy, or lack thereof, in countries that were absent from world power since the beginning age of colonialism will be at center stage.
The most complicated products we buy, like smart phones and cars, will now almost always have parts that are produced in multiple countries. Yet, although merchandise is now for sale on a global basis, the spread of global information and ideas is still often hampered by interference from dictatorial governments and anti-modern groups.
China maintains an estimated 30,000 Internet police to monitor the country’s internal system of repression and censorship. The Nigerian insurgent group that is responsible for the recent vicious attacks on innocent civilians is named Boko Haram which literally means “western education is forbidden”. Certainly, there remain potent threats to the freedom of information.
Yet, equally important, there is real potential for the new rising economic powers to have a positive impact on democracy. Many of the rising countries, including India and Brazil, have developed systems of democratic elections for leadership that can be admired.
Success stories of the modern era include giants like Indonesia but also more unknown accomplishments as in Ghana and Eastern Europe. The existence of democratic regions, including in the Americas, Europe and southern Africa, mean real progress has been achieved for democracy. China is the biggest single opportunity for democratic progress and outside China, less than fifteen percent of the world’s population lives under dictatorship.
A simple fact remains: the vast majority of the world’s population today is connected to a vast network of trade and competition. The geography of economics has been changed fundamentally over the last few centuries with the Internet and smartphones being only the latest chapter in the increasingly interconnected world. All of this means that every purchase today we make reflects the unprecedented economic participation of people in the modern world. Certainly, the answer to whether the accomplishments of economic unity transfer into a more peaceful and democratic world, is worth all the tea in China.