Going Home

THEY CAME ALONG DIRT ROADS, WEARING WHATEVER THEY HAD, CARRYING whatever they could. They were numbered in the thousands and then the tens of thousands. They left refugee camps whose names the world has already forgotten and were heading for villages that will be no more easily remembered. But the Rwandans who marched to those villages had remembered, and for a good reason. They were going home.

The churning mass of humanity around the great lakes of central Africa this fall did more than remind the comfortable world how much of the planet remains an unsafe and fearful place. It symbolized, rather, a human instinct as ancient as the hills, but still powerful--people belong somewhere. They have roots, traditions, myths, cultures. They know who they are.

In that sense, the crisis in central Africa should have acted as a useful corrective to what has become a stultifying conventional wisdom. This is how the story normally goes. In the last 10 years, a half century of global ideological struggle between capitalism and communism has ended. Capitalism won. Finance has been rendered electronically mobile, with zillions of dollars winging their way at the press of a button from this resting place to that, searching for that extra edge of profit. The pursuit of economic efficiency has become a universal human goal, since those who run countries fear that they will be punished if they do not provide the capital markets with tribute. This economic imperative has squashed political discourse into narrower channels than once seemed possible--to call yourself a socialist is to call yourself a dinosaur. Moreover, technology has smoothed over cultural differences; the world has become Westernized. As a book by Pico Iyer once said, you can have a video night in Katmandu; you can watch Rupert Murdoch's TV programs in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Asia. All of this goes by the name of ""globalization.'' It has become the standard multisyllabic description of what shapes the world as the century ends.

But what if globalization doesn't describe the world? Or per- haps, rather, what if people don't want it to? What happens when the economic realities of globalization force workers to give up habits and benefits to which they think they are entitled? Or if the coming of a global culture is perceived as threatening people's sense of identity? As it turned out, 1996 was the year when such heretical thoughts began to surface, both in academic works and on the streets. In the summer, Ethan Kapstein, then the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, issued a blunt warning in Foreign Affairs. ""The global economy,'' wrote Kapstein, ""is leaving millions of disaffected workers in its train. Inequality, unemployment and endemic poverty have become its handmaiden.'' In the fall, Harvard's Samuel Huntington published ""The Clash of Civilizations,'' the year's most eagerly awaited book on international relations. ""World politics,'' said Huntington, ""is being reconfigured along cultural and civilizational lines.'' Moreover, Huntington argued, ""what Westerners see as benign global integration, such as the proliferation of worldwide media, non-Westerners see as nefarious Western imperialism. To the extent that non-Westerners see the world as one, they see it as a threat.''

Neither claim was uncontroversial. Economists lined up to tell Kapstein, broadly, that he didn't understand their discipline. Huntington's book, brilliant though it was, overreached, trying to shoe-horn too much into his thesis. But even critics were bound to admit that there was something to these jeremiads.

Consider Latin America. For more than a decade, governments have promoted neoliberal economic reforms, stressing free markets, privatization and the reduction of ""wasteful'' subsidies. But in most of the continent, such programs have failed to lift millions out of poverty. In the week before Christmas, as if to mock those who hoped that a democratic, economically prosperous era was about to dawn, guerrillas from the Marxist TUpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed a party at the Japanese Embassy in Peru, taking 490 hostages. A few days earlier, a helicopter carrying 13 British Petroleum employees narrowly avoided being shot down by guerrillas in Colombia. Mexican politicians claimed that their country was recovering from the economic crisis of two winters ago, but sporadic uprisings continued in 1996. For years, technocrats have said that Latin America's economic reforms, designed to make the continent globally competitive, were ""irreversible.'' In 1996 the best reply was ""maybe.''

And what about a global culture? Sure, Madeleine Albright, whom Bill Clinton chose to be the secretary of state, may have said that CNN was an extra member of the United Nations Security Council. Kids throughout the world may have gone to school with Disney characters on the backpacks and Michael Jordan on the T shirts; a film starring an American singer, written by two Britons, based on the life of an Argentine woman, may be a hit. But to conclude from such a list that the world was finding a set of common cultural attributes seemed a little, well, premature. From Singapore and Kuala Lumpur came the familiar drumbeat that ""Asian values''--less individualistic, more consensual, dedicated to the family--were different from (and better than) ""Western'' ones. And then there was Afghanistan.

When the Taliban militia took control of Kabul in September, first reactions from the world's capitals were positive. Afghanistan had suffered 16 years of fighting. A sort of peace--any peace--seemed preferable to war without end. Rather quickly, this view seemed quixotic. Applying what they said was Islamic law, the Taliban decreed that men must be bearded and women veiled from head to toe. They burned films and broke up television sets. Girls' schools were closed, soccer and other games banned. Adulterers were stoned to death. In December a man whose wife and children had been murdered was granted the perquisites of Islamic justice. Before an approving crowd, he killed the murderer.

THE TALIBAN'S ACTIONS BORE MOST HEAVILY ON THE many middle-class women who had been the backbone of international-aid offices. ""The women were vital to our work,'' said Sue Emmott, head of the British aid organization Oxfam's operations in Afghanistan, but the Taliban ""want an Islamic state where... the educated women of this city are reduced to the level of the illiterate in the village.'' In truth, Oxfam's Afghan workers reveal a larger point. For many, connections to the global economy and the coming of Western values have been profoundly liberating, removing old constraints and providing new opportunities. ""Going home'' can mean rejecting what some have come to cherish. What happens next year, for example, when Hong Kong ""goes home'' to China? Nobody thinks that the Chinese equivalent of the Taliban will march from Wan Chai to Central. At the same time, some who live in Hong Kong can reasonably doubt whether the rule of law, intolerance of corruption and a boisterously free press will long survive the handover.

In 1997, to make such an observation will be particularly tricky for Americans. For in much of the world, ""globalization'' is considered a euphemism for American hegemony; for the pervasiveness of American pop culture, the power of American capital markets and companies. A backlash against globalization means growing anti-Americanism: the two are the same thing.

This poses a novel challenge to the second Clinton administration. From the mid-1980s--say, from the day in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger blew up--many Americans have been convinced that their nation was in a sort of decline. At times, others (especially, in the years of the ""bubble'' economy, the Japanese) thought so, too. In the late 1990s, however Americans think of themselves, the rest of the world sees an aggressive bully. Washington has forced open foreign markets, demanding specific market shares for U.S. goods, while threatening sanctions against those who do business with Cuba or Libya. It has kept the dollar undervalued, pricing competitors out of business. It has thrown its weight around, sending troops or missiles to Iraq, central Africa, Haiti, the Taiwan Strait. It first insulted and then fired a secretary-general of the United Nations, while continuing to be behind in its U.N. dues. Even among U.S. allies, resentment at American power is becoming fashionable. In much of the European Union, the coming single currency is seen quite explicitly as a way to challenge American economic might.

Little of this mood, or its potential for trouble, seems to have permeated the councils of Washington. In the first Clinton term, America's foreign-policy panjandrums were obsessed with the need to define and assert American ""leadership.'' In most of the rest of the world, this is fatuous: American leadership is a fact of life, like the sun rising in the east each morning. What matters is the type of leadership America offers. What other nations want is an America that is predictable in its actions, sensitive to the concerns of its allies, and quiet. If America can't offer that, more than refugees will ""go home.'' And when they get there, they won't think much of the nation in whose image globalization was made.