Stemming the Tide of Globalization

Every now and then, an event comes along which exemplifies perfectly a concept in international politics.  Last week the city of Lucca, Italy, enacted a ban on non-Italian restaurants operating in the city center.  According to a widely circulated report, the new ban was intended to “protect” local specialties from the rising popularity of “different” (read: foreign) cuisines. The measure also bans fast food restaurants and hopes to reduce littering within the city’s ancient walls, a magnet for tourists.  According to city spokesperson Massimo Di Grazia, “By ethnic cuisine we mean a different cuisine…That means no new kebabs, Thai or Lebanese restaurants.”  It certainly means no McDonald’s or Pizza Huts as well.

A chorus of critics immediately raised concerns of “culinary racism.”  And the city did itself no favors when Di Grazia attempted to clarify the ban, stating that while it was unclear how “different” a restaurant would have to be to fall under the terms of the ban, a hypothetical French restaurant would be allowed to open but restaurants using “Middle Eastern ingredients” probably would not.

As a phenomenon, globalization is nothing new.  Marco Polo’s journey to China was but an early step in the process of increasing economic and cultural interconnections between countries and regions.  Ironically, Italian cuisine itself is the product of globalization.  Prior to the Columbian exchange in the early 1500s, there were no tomatoes in Italy.  It may be hard to imagine Italian food without tomato sauce, but prior to the 16th century, tomatoes were not part of the Italian diet.

Nevertheless, the increasing intensity of globalization today often sparks sharp responses.  Recall the purchase of American brewer Anheuser-Busch by the Belgian brewer In-Bev, which led to proposals to boycott Budweiser and “drink American.”  Political scientist Benjamin Barber analyzed the effects of globalization and cultural resistance in his seminal article “Jihad vs. McWorld,” which has increasingly become a must-read article for those interested in the topic.  Barber noted that responses to globalization often involve a strong affirmation of local identity-based politics, sometimes leading to increasing tensions.  In this sense, Lucca’s ban on foreign foods represents just another attempt to stem the tide of globalization.

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