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OPINION: For Better and Worse, We’re All Connected

By Lee Hamilton

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It’s a cliché to say that everything is connected. But we live in a world where this is clearly true. Ideas, goods, services, workers, tourists, commerce, communications, drugs, crime, migrants, refugees, weapons, climate impacts, and, of course, viruses — they all cross borders constantly.

 This is one reason I have come to believe that drawing a distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” policy, while often helpful, is also misleading. Globalization essentially means that we can’t escape the impact of what’s happening in other countries and regions around the globe — either at the policy level in Washington or on the street where you live.

 This is often beneficial. The free movement of goods and services from this country to others builds our economy and creates jobs. Likewise, goods and services produced elsewhere and imported or used here have provided many American consumers with a quality of life that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The relatively free flow of ideas, cultural life, and people with talent, skill, ambition, or all three, have enriched this country and many others.

 Yet managing globalization is also a clear challenge, because it’s not only the good stuff that goes along with it. The work of government — not just at the federal level, but in our states, counties, cities, and towns — is to find ways of promoting what’s good and mitigating what’s bad.

 Sometimes, this takes global coordination. The UN Climate Conference in Scotland is one clear example. Climate change affects everything, from the kinds of plants and animals you might see in your backyard to the behavior of the oceans and global wind currents. The Glasgow meeting was aimed at accelerating governments’ action on ratcheting back the human-made causes of climate change and at finding ways for nations and communities to adapt to the changes that we’re too late to prevent.

 Sometimes, this demands clear-headed national strategies. All countries need goods and services from other countries: food, cars, entertainment, manufacturing parts. And economists would argue that our inter-connectedness on these fronts has on the whole, served both the U.S. and the world well, raising standards of living, lowering costs, and expanding the array of choices available. Yet when factory workers are thrown out of work, farmers are disrupted by competition from overseas, or over-dependence on the global supply chain proves to be a vulnerability — as during the pandemic — these demand thoughtful policy change from the federal government. [That includes] pursuing trade talks, developing support for re-training programs, or buttressing small-scale agriculture and local supply chains.

 And at the local level, the forces of globalization clearly require a community response. Maybe it’s finding ways of assimilating and educating migrant workers or refugees. Maybe it is helping small farms connect with local markets that will boost their chances of success and help feed surrounding communities. And maybe it’s promoting home weatherization and other energy-related policies that help reduce carbon emissions. 

 The point is that the forces of globalization are with us whether we like it or not, and we can’t ignore them. We’re affected by what takes place everywhere else, and both at home and in the halls of power we have to understand and manage it. It’s inevitable that we’ll face challenges and disruption. Our task is to recognize the opportunities and spread the benefits.        

Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.