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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 11:41 GMT
The new rules of the global game
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Bill Gates
Microsoft's Bill Gates is amongst those who say the world is 'flatter'
"Globalisation" has become one of the great buzzwords of modern times.

It came to the fore during the 1990s, and the impact of globalisation looks set to play a prominent part in shaping our world during the first decades of this new century.

To see the advocates of globalisation at work and play there is no better vantage point than the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Its members have probably all read columnist Tom Friedman's best-seller, The World Is Flat: A Brief History Of the Twenty First Century, many times over.

Friedman accepts that what he calls the "flat world" - measured, say, by comparing the more equal life-chances of a software engineer in Bangalore with those of another working in California's Silicon Valley - is a great all-simplifying metaphor.

While it certainly contains a truth, it is not so much a flatter world as one with many more peaks and troughs.

There are of course the success stories of Indian software engineers, but, as Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek International told me, the process of globalisation is leaving hundreds of millions on the margins - Chinese, Indian, Africans and, yes, even tens of millions of Americans and Europeans too.

Asset and vulnerability

But progress has always been unequal.

Of greater concern is what might be called globalisation's "dark side" - the extent to which the new linkages in this increasingly borderless world are helping to promote crime, terrorism and the spread of pandemic disease.

Freight being moved by boat
You gasp at the way the modern world is joined up
Globalisation is really about flows of everything, from money to microbes. And the bad inevitably travels with the good.

As Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief technical officer points out, criminals are among the earliest adopters of information technology.

If you visit one of the great hubs of the just-in-time economy - for example, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad's huge container terminal outside Fort Worth in Texas - you gasp at the way the modern world is joined up.

Here, giant, brightly-coloured steel boxes with goods from China, Taiwan, Europe, Israel - all computer-tracked - are routed on their way to consumers in American cities.

But as the commentator Philip Bobbitt told me, these linkages illustrate both globalisation's "greatest asset and greatest vulnerability."

At the giant control rooms that regulate the passage of container trains on BNSF's tracks, you see the potential weakness of the emerging globalised world: break any one link in the chain and the result could be disruption on a major scale.

Pandemic disease has the capacity to bring our world to gridlock.

Eastward shift

The key thing to understand is that globalisation is not "unequivocally good."

John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, says that "like any other large historical change rooted in technological development , globalisation will have both good and bad aspects".

Globalisation is not simply about China or India punching their weight in the world economy; as the "Davos view" would have it, becoming more like "us".

Phishing emails
Scams like phishing occur as criminals worldwide exploit IT
It is also about a fundamental shift of economic power - perhaps eventually even political power - eastwards.

Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard University calls it "a resurgence of the Orient"; part of what he describes as a "great re-convergence".

In our new series for BBC World Service radio we grapple with the complex world that is slowly emerging from the fog of aspirations prompted by the ending of the Cold War.

It's a world, which, as Moises Naim, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy magazine told me, is crying out for some form of global governance.

But who is to set the new rules of the game? Will it be the international lawyers? Or will it be re-vitalised international institutions that will take charge?

According to Niall Ferguson, the new rules of the international system will not be so very different from those of the past.

"The forms of the global order are far more elaborate than they were a hundred years ago," he says.

"But the fundamental content of international relations is just the same as it always was."

Welcome to the shock of the not so new!

The New Rules of the Game is broadcast each Monday at 0905 on BBC World Service from 20 February 2006.

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