Manning The Front Lines

We don’t know what name history will bestow on the conflagration currently proceeding. Will it be the War Against Terrorism, the War for Civilization? Perhaps in the sweep of history, it will come to be known as World War IV, in which the Cold War is seen as World War III. Only time will tell. But in a real way, the war could be viewed as the War for International Trade.

It sounds petty when one is speaking of a war that has already claimed over 5,000 lives to speak about trade in ginger root or canned fruit. Yet, it is not so petty, and understanding the stakes will influence one’s attitudes toward the war.

In thinking about the Taliban, one cannot help but think about the destruction of the massive stone statues of Buddha that stood for eons in Afghanistan. The destruction of these statues spoke more clearly of the mindset we are confronted with than anything else. After all, there is no Buddhist movement in Afghanistan; no Muslims were tempted to convert by these statues. There are no Buddhist nations contiguous to Afghanistan, and Afghanistan was threatened by no Buddhist power.

Yet the statues were intolerable to the Taliban. Why? In the end, because the statues stood as representatives of foreign ideas. And although the statues were remote, and 99% of the Afghan people would never even see them, the mere presence of the statues was intolerable.

Trade is not mostly about goods. It is mostly about ideas.

When a U.S. exporter sells a convenience food, he is also communicating a notion about the value American culture places on a woman’s time. And, inevitably the conversations and communications between trading partners lead to a cross-pollination of ideas.

Historically, this is all for the best. Societies intermingle, exchange products and ideas, adapt them to their own circumstances, and total wealth increases. Just as trading within a nation means we don’t have to all be subsistence farmers, so trading between nations allows for specialization.

However, the ideological tenet of the Taliban values purity of thought over increasing wealth, so they will willingly trade prosperity for isolation. Fortunately, there is not an indication that many people of any faith are willing to make the same exchange.

Of course, trading and, more broadly, the intercourse of people and civilizations, depends on both parties feeling that the exchange is voluntary and that considering the exchange is without risk.

Because the ideology of the Taliban has never been widely accepted, the more proximate threat to trade is that countries, such as the United States which theoretically would back the idea, retrench out of fear.

Trade doesn’t only involve goods, it involves services as well. One of the biggest U.S. industries is education. The Terrorists of September 11 were just a few of the many foreign students who attended American flight schools.

With astonishingly few exceptions, America is an open society and anxious to encourage the exchange of goods, services, ideas, even people. However, if Americans start to fear this exchange, they will change attitudes.

Already there is a strong feeling that our immigration and travel laws are too open — that people who wish to come to America to travel, to go to school or to live permanently, need to be more closely investigated.

There is also a sense that dependence on foreign sources of supply may be dangerous. In a world of peace, where trading is uneventful and uninterrupted, trade has many appeals. But if the people of a country feel they will be vulnerable to, say, an embargo, then a trade is not such an appealing prospect.

So those who attacked on September 11th, and those who support them, attack trade in two ways: Ideologically they reject all but “home-grown” influences. And, practically, they create instability that makes even trade advocates feel that they need sources of supply close to home.

Most business people are non-political. They may be involved in lobbying their governments for certain policies or procedures, but, basically, business people are interested in doing business.

The important realization is that during times like these, all who want to trade must realize that they have a vested interest in the preconditions of trade. These preconditions are the social stability to accept interdependence among nations and the cultural strength to accept interaction with foreign ideas.

Few of us are soldiers, but in trading, we man the front lines of a new war. We cannot be indifferent to its outcome.