Airports are the ultimate institutions of globalization

Airports are the ultimate institutions of globalization

Passengers enter the security control area at Helsinki airport in Finland. (Reuters)

Major international airports are the greatest petri dishes of global interaction ever built. At the world’s most important airports — Heathrow in London, O’Hare in Chicago or Dubai, for example — we can all be scientists, observing the unique, peaceful and cooperative interaction of travelers from every corner of the world. There is no other place like an international airport, where we might see Chinese tourists, Nigerian businessmen, Irish students, Israeli professors and Venezuelan emigres with one glance. It is at the airport where we can learn the best lessons on how to get along with those who appear different from us.

While the international news is filled with debate over the migration of people, we can lose sight of the fact that, at this very moment, the world is experiencing the greatest mixing of peoples ever. Yet all the attention goes to the major hotspots of migration. The events that grab attention are those involving undocumented migration and asylum seekers and refugees. 

For the last several years, Europe has faced an influx of migrants from the Syrian civil war and from North Africa. Barely a week passes without the tragic story of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes they are killed at the hands of other migrants because of unimportant differences like religion. At the southern border of the US, the country is facing unprecedented levels of undocumented migration, primarily from Guatemala and Honduras, but also including people from East Asia and the Middle East. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled extreme poverty and political repression in their homeland over the last few years, often ending up in neighboring Colombia or other South American or Caribbean countries.

The migration of the world’s most desperate people is important, but it is not the predominant type of movement of peoples today. Most people who travel or settle abroad are not doing so in desperation or without papers; they are traveling for personal edification, to improve their enterprise or to help humankind. In 2017, almost 5 million students studied in countries other than their own, according to UNESCO. The same year, about 258 million people were living in a country other than that of their birth, according to the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank. These numbers do not include the millions of people traveling outside of their home country at any time for business, conferences or leisure.

In short, the people of the world are mixing like they never have before. Some newer countries, like the US, Canada, Australia, and Singapore, have been home to mixtures of people for decades. In the US, Americans proudly say that the country is a melting pot, where people come together to form a new culture and society. But, until recently, this has not been the case in most of the world, where the heritages of the countries, if not the political institutions, are more established.

At the airport, there is no time to ponder our differences and there is no rabble-rousing power-seeker leading us to distrust.

Ellen R. Wald

Now, when you walk the streets of any major European city, you are likely to encounter a multitude of accents and even a diversity of ethnic wardrobes. In airports, the phenomenon is even more pronounced. Moreover, in airports there are no weapons and everyone who is there is supposed to be there. Air travelers carry both tickets and passports, as well as visas when necessary. And everyone gets along, minding their own business.

At airports, the peacefulness and coexistence of so many different people is due to the purposefulness of the activity. We go to the airport to get somewhere. It is part of our work, holiday, relocation or study. We also know that every other traveler we see at the airport is there for a purpose. At the airport, there is no time or opportunity to ponder our differences and there is no government or rabble-rousing power-seeker leading us to distrust. At the airport, we are all there for our own purposes, coexisting in peace.

This is why people who are drawn together by common interests can get along despite their differences in other areas. Businessmen can get along in the common pursuit of profit. For instance, Gulf states and Iran work together through OPEC. Artists and athletes regularly get along. Humanitarian aid workers also learn to get along. Just as travelers have a common goal of movement, people with a common purpose come to respect each other. There is no time for hate.

There is no greater force for peace and mutual understanding than free commerce and cooperation. When we travel through airports — for any reason — we do not care about the religion of our neighbor at the restaurant or the political leanings of the person sitting next to us in the waiting area. We care about productivity and movement. Thus we respect each other and get along.

The international airport is the ultimate institution of globalization. What makes it work — what is necessary for all globalization and global cooperation to work — is a general respect for each other. It requires a respect for different cultures, customs and faiths. Those who practice such respect thrive best in the globalized world.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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