Saskia Sassen
George Soros
Anita Sieff
Ronald. M. Bosrock
Slavoj Žižek
Umberto Galimberti
Francesco Antinucci
Timothy Druckrey
Marina Gržinić
Rudi Rizman
Carlos Basualdo
John Peter Nilsson
Olu Oguibe
Mika Hannula
Jordan Crandall
Eda Čufer
Aleš Erjavec
Nataša Petrešin
Mark Amerika
  Viktor Misiano

As Political Borders Fade, Cultural Differences Re-emerge

By Ronald M. Bosrock

For most of the 20th century, the nation-state, with clearly defined borders, has been the dominant political entity. Whether they kept people in or out, almost all of these borders divided people along ideological and political lines. When major military or political conflicts arose, combatants usually wanted to change political borders or subjugate a political/ideological system. The sovereignty of the nation-state was more important than the cultural groups within its borders. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization of the world economy has made political borders less important. Strategic alliances that would have been impossible during the Cold War era have developed to allow more economic and cultural interaction.

But while globalization has had many positive effects, it has allowed cultural differences, which often lay just below the surface, to come rushing to the top. Cultural differences that once were suppressed, or secondary to a government's geopolitical objectives, can now take a primary role in people's lives. The lessons for business and political leaders alike can be hard ones. Yugoslavia offers a tragic example. In the autumn of 1992, I spent two weeks in Belgrade on a business trip. Yugoslavia still was somewhat intact, although the republics of Slovenia and Croatia had declared their independence. During my stay, amidst one of the almost daily demonstrations, I met a young married couple. Both were educated professionals, who told me that all of their lives they had considered themselves Yugoslavians despite the fact that she was from Croatia and he was from Serbia. She told me: "Only recently has ethnic background become an issue again. Since the breakup, when we go to visit my family in Croatia, my husband is treated with less respect because he is Serbian." I wonder about them today. Did their marriage survive the ethnic resurgence? Will they survive today's hostilities?

More complicated world

In many ways, globalization has made the world a more complicated place, particularly in eastern Europe. The Soviet Union was one of the world's most formidable concentrations of political and ideological power. It not only had strong borders of its own, but also strengthened the borders of its client states. And yet, the Soviet Union was made up of 15 republics that were extremely culturally diverse _ from the European Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Central Asian republics like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Yet often the world simply referred to them all as "the Russians."

Yugoslavia was created after World War I, a political arrangement that was intended as a bulwark against Germany. Yet it was also a multi-cultural entity with three major religions and six nationality groups, each with a history that often pitted one group against another. The federation held itself together until the next world war because of the defensive benefits of unity. But once war was declared, the country split between pro-Axis and pro-Allies camps. After World War II, the country was reunified under Communist President Tito. While he was alive and in power, and the Soviet sphere of influence was intact, Yugoslavia was unified and at least two post-war generations grew up identifying themselves as Yugoslavs _ including the young Belgrade couple. Yet as soon as the power propping up the political borders came down, the cultural differences rose to the surface. Slovenia declared its independence in June 1991 and Croatia followed four months later. When people began to lose their national identity as Yugoslavians, their cultural identities resurfaced and the results have been campaigns of ethnic cleansing and, eventually, NATO bombing.

The matador's cape

It need not always end this way, however. In some countries with well-defined political boundaries, governments have voluntarily relinquished part of their sovereignty for the benefits of an economic union _ the European Union is the most obvious example. Despite this peaceful and democratic arrangement, some countries have felt the need to re-assert their cultural differences to distinguish themselves from the greater entity.

In Spain, for example, before it gained membership in the EU, the government was about to abolish the sport of bullfighting _ which has a long and colorful history but which had come under criticism as a blood sport. But since becoming a member of the EU, Spain has dropped its plans to abolish the sport and re-embraced bullfighting as a defining event in Spanish culture. A new generation of matadors has gained rock-star popularity in Spain and around the world. So as Spain entered the global economic arena, it did so with the matador's cape in hand.

Cultural globalization will dictate how we deal with each other in the 21st century. Harvard University Prof. Samuel Huntington postulates that as globalization continues to evolve and the importance of political borders fades, people will increasingly identify with cultural factors such as ethnic groups or religious affiliations. It will be these differences that will be the basis for future confrontations. Again, the current events in Yugoslavia make this painfully clear.

Globalization in the 21st century will not only require an understanding of the cultural relationships between regional groups, but also an understanding and appreciation for how cultural entities in one part of the world will link up with similar cultures in different geographic locations. In his book "Tribes," Joel Kotkin discusses how cultural elements such as race and religion determine success in the new global economy. He points out that new means of communication - fax, e-mail and modern transportation - have allowed members of a once-dispersed culture to come together again and re-establish ties to family and to tribe. The sameness of their cultures tie people closer together than political affiliations, which can change over time.

As a result, a worldwide cultural re-unification is underway. Overseas Chinese are already the biggest investors in the People's Republic of China, and Indian computer programmers have returned to their homeland to make Bangalore a worldwide software competitor. It will also cause members of one cultural group to be more aware of the plight of other members of the group anywhere in the world. For example, Muslims in Indonesia or Malaysia may feel solidarity with Kosovar and Bosnian Muslims. The rise of culture as the main source of identity creates a need for business and government to know more about world cultures and how they will affect policy and planning. It will no longer be "nice" to know something about a country; it will be essential, lest the lack on knowledge spell the loss of a business opportunity or a miscalculation as to how a particular leader will react to a threat of force.

Culture will be crucial

For most of the 20th century, the government and business leaders of the world only had to deal with a few key capital cities such as Moscow, Beijing or Washington. In the 21st Century, we will have to deal with Kiev, Minsk, Zagreb, etc. The challenge for the 21st century will be for government and business to understand the new importance of world cultural differences and integrate them into their planning before they become an issue. This challenge will weigh pI

It will be incumbent articularly heavily on the United States, as the dominant economic and military power. upon the leadership of American businesses and educational institutions to prepare their employees and students to be mindful of the impact of culture. Domestically, we are not off the hook when it comes to cultural understanding and the role it plays in our daily lives. Immigration has added new cultures to our mix, with more coming from central and west Africa, the Balkans, the Indian sub-continent and other parts of Asia. The vanguard of this wave already is here. Is our knowledge of these cultures strong enough to allow for a smooth transition, or could we all benefit from some additional homework?

Ronald M. Bosrock is the founder and executive director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Global Expansion, an international academic, business consulting and research group at St. Mary's University of Minnesota. He can be reached at