Our globalized world is not dying, but evolving
Beware the shiny new global affairs narrative. There is one that has been taking hold over the past year — accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — that goes something like this: Globalization is dying, the hardening geopolitical battles lines between China and the US (along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) are forcing countries to choose sides, and a new cold war is taking shape in which alliances and blocs harden and nations are further divided.
There are many flaws with this narrative, but it ultimately comes down to this: The Cold War era is over and the new era of multipolarity that has been the norm over the past three decades or so is stronger and more resilient than one might think, while globalization’s raw numbers show no signs of abating despite what the pundits might say.
With the world’s leaders gathering at the UN for the annual General Assembly, there will inevitably be much cocktail chatter and seminar discussion about our “emerging world.” Where are we headed? Are we about to enter a new era of geopolitical protectionism and “friend-shoring” of supply chains and trade? It is never easy to see the forest amid the trees, especially when there are so many fires in front of you, but it remains vital that we not succumb to false narratives about our evolving world based on the headlines of the day.
To understand where we are going, it may be useful to remember where we came from over the past few decades. In the detritus of the fall of the Soviet Union, a new world dawned. It was messy and chaotic (but so was the Cold War, just ask the so-called proxy states) and ultimately grew into a concert of nations with a discordant tune. Eventually, the many tunes arising from the rapid changes of the past half-century or so, starting with the post-1979 rise of China, grew into a less discordant but still raucous hum of globalization’s march.
In this era, trade boomed, from Shanghai to Dubai and beyond, and the shipping container became the symbol of the day. Air travel revolutionized our geography and led to the “death of distance,” as some commentators suggested. Information technology flourished, delivering another fatal blow to distance as we knew it. Entertainment crossed borders to receptive audiences in far-flung locales, from K-pop to Turkish soap operas. Hollywood — still powerful — met the multipolar world by ensuring its big budget releases would be embraced by China and other major emerging markets.
Globalization’s raw numbers show no signs of abating despite what the pundits might say
Yes, today feels different from the mid-2000s, when all the talk was of BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China — as the next big markets and US presidents met regularly with their Chinese counterparts. Back then, Vladimir Putin’s Russia was still a member of the G8 and he would backslap and joke with President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at international meetings.
But a curious thing happened on the way to our more globalized world. More and more countries developed geopolitical diversification strategies. They traded more with China, but did not see this as a reason to cut ties with Europe or the US. Smaller states courted investment from China, Russia, the EU, Turkey, the US, the Gulf Cooperation Council states and beyond. There were no longer just two blocs to play off each other. There were Turkish construction companies, GCC sovereign wealth funds, China Belt and Road Initiative investments, US and European energy majors, and new development banks from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the Silk Road Fund. The menu of options just kept getting bigger.
A good example remains the GCC states, all of which trade more with China than the US while having much deeper security ties with Washington. In this era of choosing sides, the GCC states may be in a bind, but the reality is that the oil and gas that has been vital to their development has also been vital to the development of Asia, from Japan to South Korea to Singapore and, yes, to China.
This brings us back to globalization. In so many ways, the rise of China has been a key component of the globalization of the past generation. Today, the Middle Kingdom is the world’s largest trading nation, though its recent actions, from its zero-COVID policies to a general shutting down of what we have come to know as “China Global” — its tourists spending worldwide and its companies investing globally — signal a slowing of the unleashing of China on the world stage. We should watch this space because China is not just a manufacturing engine, but also a demand engine of the global economy.
All told, however, the key flows that make up globalization — the cross-border flows of goods, people, services, data and ideas — remain robust or are recovering rapidly. For that to be so in the wake of a pandemic and a war in Europe is testament to globalization’s strength.
The great British economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote that “the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” We must escape the old idea of conceptually dividing the world into Cold War-style blocs and understand that our new world is something more complex and fluid and evolving than that.
• Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the founder and editor of the Emerging World newsletter. Twitter: @AfshinMolavi