Dangerous games without frontiers

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The Independent Online

High above Geneva, the UN complex stands at a suitable distance from the international banks. A pantheon of multinational organisations inhabit this Olympian world, each in a monolithic grey edifice looming up from a sea of manicured green lawns. On Monday, I stood with a diplomat in front of one of them and tried to identify it through the flutter of national flags, one for each member. He pointed up at them. "Now do you see why nothing gets done? So many national interests have to be taken into account."

This concern has been exacerbated during the current crisis. During the Gulf War, the world's press hung on every UN resolution as crucial landmarks in the conflict, but this time the organisation has been marginalised. So great is the horror at the 11 September attacks that the US has been able to act without it.

But while this demonstration of raw US power is the ultimate expression of national interest, it has provoked many observers to question our nation-centred view of the world. Arab intellectuals have even suggested that this crisis results from the subordination of US national interest to the focus of one section of the American electorate – the pro-Israel lobby.

In his speech on Monday, Jack Straw also urged us to do some rethinking. The long period of peace and prosperity we have lived through has been built on the nation state and national sovereignty. What do we do when whole nations are kidnapped by the likes of the Taliban and how do we cope with supra-national networks such as al-Qa'ida? We must reassess concepts of the nation state and sovereignty, premises on which the UN is based.

Down in the valley where the bankers hung out, we have been playing our own version of Jeux sans Frontières. In what NTT calls "this borderless world", large companies have fallen over each other to go global, creating global workforces, products and markets. Globalisation has long been a financial and economic reality, but only now are we coming to terms with the political consequences.

This is not to suggest that business has found all the answers – take the Swissair affair. The Swiss banking community started with a "You can't buck the market attitude", only belatedly realising the effect of the corporate collapse on Switzerland as a brand name. They ended by joining a Swiss club rescue with every company being asked to put its hand in its pocket. One furious US banker put a fax requesting X million straight in the bin. A Swiss colleague wrote the cheque.

But the business community has left the politicians behind in the speed with which it has gone global. The growing anti-capitalist movement has its roots in the fact that three quarters of the world's population seem to be losing out in the globalisation game.

This unease naturally focuses on the US, the main champion and beneficiary of globalisation. It is not helped by the insensitivity of some multinationals. I remember one executive who told me that his company employed thousands of people in many countries, but as a "unifying element", all internal communications were in English.

At the softer end, this struggle between all-pervasive global business trends and cultural and political identities has led the French to talk of "the cultural Chernobyl". At the harder end is al-Qa'ida.

As I crossed the manicured Swiss lawn I saw a motley bunch of UN workers waiting at a bus stop. My attention was caught by the bright advertisement splashed across the shelter, apparently in Japanese. It was from McDonald's. Business organisations have changed and globalised. It's time politicians did the same.