Protect globalization — it’s not a dirty word

Protect globalization — it’s not a dirty word

Globalization was initially viewed as a natural result of the movement of people from one part of the world to another, particularly when it spread previously localized customs, ideas, knowledge, money, practices, products and ideals, via tourists, merchants, migrants, workers and soldiers, to name a few. The Islamic world, in the past, is a good example.

But was this movement really global?

Not exactly. Although resources, commodities, goods and people crossed oceans and borders, political and socioeconomic thinking was still isolationist, protectionist and insular. When the slave trade ended, for example, European nations deployed their armies, navies and bureaucracies far and wide to safeguard resources and commodities that sustained industries at home. 

By the time nation states recognized the need to develop genuinely global institutions to protect trade and govern economic cooperation, Hitler’s tanks and soldiers had occupied Poland and the Second World War began.

This thinking drove the conclusions of the Bretton Woods Conferences in 1944, at least for the West. For the rest of the world, the Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam Conferences that ended the war laid the foundations of an unprecedented level of global interdependence, albeit one designed solely to protect and expand Western influence. 

For a time, this strategy worked. Organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank spearheaded efforts toward effective economic and political cooperation between countries. These organizations ensured to some extent that newly emergent nation states previously under colonial rule were not isolated, or left to fend for themselves. This was particularly crucial during the “East versus West” dynamic that in part characterized the Cold War, when each “sphere” sought to establish its political and economic ideologies in newly independent nation states.

In these challenging times, proposals to “fix” the problems inherent in free trade and open borders largely fall on deaf ears. The Pew Research Center found that only18 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington “to do what is right.” 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Globalization was in the spotlight in the 1990s, especially after the founding in 1994 of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The 1990s were an interesting decade, given the collapse of the Soviet Union — an event construed as a resounding victory for Western capitalism and its outsized influence on global politics and economics.

Unfortunately, for less economically developed countries (LEDCs), globalization failed to deliver wealth, economic sophistication or social development, as it did for European countries recovering from the Second World War and for the rapidly growing Asian economies that relied heavily on outsourced manufacturing.

Eventually, even affluent nations suffered wage stagnation, rising inequality, declining industries, mass layoffs, inadequate and overburdened welfare systems, and diminishing opportunities for personal advancement — all of which pundits and politicians have collectively referred to as “economic anxiety.” These factors, along with poor environmental protection, waste dumping, deforestation and other costs (often incurred through the unmitigated exploitation of resources, communities and underpaid labor in LEDCs) — all in the pursuit by multinational corporations of capital returns — began to reap negative consequences. 

When a WTO meeting in1999 was shut down by protesters, the elite proponents of globalization had to face a new reality; real and sustained talk of, and growing calls for, anti-globalization. Protesters and detractors often quote statistics and case studies of the disastrous effects of globalization, and urge a revisiting of its premise. A further complication is a deep decline in people’s trust in their governments and politicians. Political candidates (especially in the West) and parties with anti-free trade and anti-globalist views have gained tremendous public support, successfully challenging establishment thinking that globalization is an unstoppable phenomenon. Donald Trump in the US, Theresa May in the UK and Marine Le Pen in France have all resorted to anti-globalization populist rhetoric.

In these challenging times, proposals to “fix” the problems inherent in free trade and open borders largely fall on deaf ears. The Pew Research Center found that only18 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington “to do what is right.” Similarly, in the UK, Ipsos-Mori found in 2017 that just 18 percent of people trusted politicians.

These abysmal polling results on public trust in government suggest it is difficult for leaders to craft policies to address this “economic anxiety” underpinning anti-globalization. In fact, many attribute Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 US presidential election to the perception that, as an “insider” and a traditional politician with an establishment past and a pro-globalization stance, she could not be trusted to address the concerns of citizens.

As the saying goes, something’s gotta give: if globalization is truly an inevitable and unstoppable force, then its proponents must quickly devise solutions to safeguard it against these relentless attacks on its foundations. Anti-globalization’s pursuit of protectionism, isolation and nationalism is happening at a time when nation states can no longer on their own address such serious challenges as climate change, global cross-border terrorism and massive immigration. These challenges can be addressed only through global cooperation.

The world must not allow the reversal of decades of progress and global technological advances merely because panicked governments want to offer what can be construed as temporary relief against an irreversible force; indeed, there is an urgent need for global cooperation that addresses the gravest problems of our times.

  •  Hafed Al-Ghwell is a former adviser to the board of directors at the World Bank Group.

    Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell

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