Among the fears and concerns generated by recent globalization, the most basic is the perception that globalization progressively circumscribes the autonomy of governments, nations and peoples. Relentless global market pressures and the ever more pervasive influence and requirements of multilateral organizations and agreements limit the capacity of governments to pursue their own national priorities and their citizens’ preferences. This perception is shared by bitter critics of globalization and by many of those who argue that its potential benefits outweigh its risks.
The charge that globalization reduces national autonomy underpins many other fears and criticisms, since it implies that governments and peoples cannot take countervailing actions to prevent, dilute or compensate for adverse effects. There is now widespread agreement, even among enthusiastic proponents of globalization, that it carries many risks. High on the lists of threats are environmental damage, erosion of workers’ rights, and growing inequality within as well as between nations. In principle, governments could adopt policies to regulate firms and groups that damage the environment, design programmes that promote workers’ welfare, or pursue strategies to reduce inequality. Many governments do attempt such corrective measures. But to the extent that their autonomy is indeed constrained, such countervailing measures cannot be carried far without incurring heavy costs. Globalization's threats to the environment, labour rights, equality, and a range of other goals are severe in part because nations’ autonomy to counter the threats is limited.
Globalization also generates threats that cannot be effectively addressed at the level of action by individual nations. International financial crises, climate change, the cross-border spread of diseases and many other problems largely or partly caused by globalization can only be effectively addressed through international collaboration. Nevertheless, many impacts within nations could be eased by national policies and programs, if governments could take those actions without incurring large costs such as reduced trade, aid or investment; disapproval in regional or global organizations; or possibly even sanctions.
A dissenting strand in the discourse regarding globalization challenges the “loss of autonomy” hypothesis. Since the mid-1990s, a growing number of analysts suggest that the impacts of globalization are filtered through the circumstances, policies and capabilities of each country's society, economy and political system. Hence similar pressures and opportunities have different effects in different countries. This is particularly clear with regard to links between globalization and growth.