Sold! Dubai Ports World's chunk of the red, white and blue

But Arab or American-owned, it's still all in the globalization family.

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 11, 2006 6:36PM (EST)

Dubai Ports World announced today that it had finally completed the sale of its right to operate six American ports to an American company, AIG Global Investment Group.

Back in March, a storm of bipartisan political protest broke out when it was learned that as a result of Dubai Ports World's purchase of U.K.'s Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, an Arab company would gain operational control of vital U.S. transportation infrastructure. At worst, the purchase was depicted as outright treason. Slightly calmer heads saw it as a potent metaphor of globalization gone out of control. How could something so essential to the lifeblood of American commerce -- control of our own ports! -- be bartered and sold by foreigners like so many bales of cotton?

You might think that you could hardly get more red, white and blue than AIG -- the American International Group. Recently famous for the showdown between its longtime CEO, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, and Eliot Spitzer, AIG is a massive insurance conglomerate that has its fingers into just about everything.

Funny thing, though -- despite the name, AIG was not originally a U.S.-domiciled company. It was founded in Shanghai in 1919 by an American insurance agent with the glorious name of Cornelius Vander Starr (who, by the way, was the uncle of Whitewater prospector Ken Starr).

C.V. Starr called his company "American Asiatic Underwriters" -- and made a good business selling insurance of all kinds to the Chinese. So good, that he quickly established offices throughout Asia, and ended up expanding back to the United States at the height of the Great Depression. Starr was driven out of China by civil war and invasion in the late 1930s, but insurance companies are nothing if not resilient. In 1998, AIG set up shop in one of its old office buildings in the Shanghai Bund.

C.V. Starr, naturally, has been dubbed a "pioneer of globalization." So if you're looking for a metaphor for the global economy, out-of-control or not, AIG is at least as good a flag-bearer as Dubai Ports World.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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