Alumni Column – Colgate in the Global Future

Peter A. Sears '60

When the subject of world affairs arises, people often think about government interactions. It may very well be that such interactions over recent decades have paved the way for world affairs to take on a much broader meaning. In particular, leaders of the industrialized countries have encouraged free and open commercial activity. This, along with the communications revolution, has contributed to economic interdependence and social intercourse on a scale heretofore unimaginable. And this result reduces the power and significance of individual national governments.

Major corporations today are losing their national identities. My own career started in 1963 with a company that had operations principally in the U.S. and the U.K. and had very little activity elsewhere. At my retirement in 1999, the company had its headquarters in the U.K., but plants and offices in at least sixty other countries. It had an Englishman as Chairman, a Dane as CEO, a Frenchman as next in line, an American of Japanese descent as head of research, an Israeli as head of business development, a Belgian as head of one of its most significant divisions, and a polyglot of managers down the line.

When companies take on this character, national identities fade rapidly. For example, the leaders of the Sony Corporation pride themselves on being international, not necessarily Japanese. The oil and gas business is another example of a truly global enterprise. And, of course, you have a myriad of examples cited in Thomas L. Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat.

This interdependence and blurring of national identities is not restricted to big business. Emerging companies are encouraged to think about international operations from the outset and numerous start-up companies receive financing from foreign sources. Scientists pride themselves on having their laboratories staffed with people from all over the world. Universities actively solicit foreign students.

Lawrence Summers, the recently retired president of Harvard, said, “Globalization is making the world smaller, faster and richer. One third of human beings now live in places where the standards of living may increase 30-fold in a single human lifespan – a transformation that dwarfs what we call the Industrial Revolution.”

It is only through the continued acceleration of worldwide economic growth that improved standards of living can be extended to more people. And, correspondingly, a slowing of economic growth can create serious problems.

This evolution is frightening to some. First, those who may have to yield power, namely governmental bureaus and the military, become less relevant. Second, people who are less skilled are fearful of job loss. Third, the poor can be made to feel even more disenfranchised than ever. Lastly, those who take great comfort in ethnic and religious identities may resist dilution.

We have witnessed a rising tide of disaffection resulting from this process of global interdependence. Those who have benefited from the economic trends of recent decades are largely silent, perhaps because they are satisfied.

Yet, the strident voices of the disaffected seem to be getting louder. Does this portend greater conflict ahead? Are we witnessing a new form of struggle, between the new “know-nothings” and what might be called the “knowledge” class?

On one side are the many disaffected groups that raise hell at G-8 Summit meetings. How about the religionists who put roadblocks in the way of scientific discovery? And then there are the terrorists who attack the symbols of commerce and achievement. What of the bureaucrats who, in the name of national interests, erect obstacles to open communication and trade?

On the other side are the rest of us. If, in fact, the struggle intensifies, don’t we then have an obligation to support international interdependence to strengthen our ties with those in other lands and cultures and to resist those who, for reasons of nostalgia or parochial political gain, stand in the way of continued economic progress around the globe?

Where does Colgate stand in all this? Currently the Class of 2010 contains representatives from 36 foreign countries. Given that Colgate offers 24 off-campus study groups to places as far flung as China, England, Japan, Moscow, Madrid, Italy, Australia and the West Indies (to name only a few), it is up to each undergraduate to take advantage of such exceptional opportunities. There is much still to be done and it cannot be done alone. For it is up to you, the students of today and citizens of tomorrow, to embrace the possibilities that you find before.