New York – Among the byproducts of the coronavirus pandemic has been a spate of obituaries for globalization: “A Global Outbreak Is Fueling the Backlash to Globalization.” “Spread of Virus Could Hasten the Great Coming Apart of Globalization.” “Will the Coronavirus End Globalization as We Know It?”
Short answer: Not if you define globalization as more than intercontinental supply chains and huge container ships. Moreover, such premature death notices undermine the challenge of managing globalization as the world’s balance of power shifts.
Many of these analyses focus on one dimension of globalization within a narrow time frame: the spectacular growth and integration of global markets over the last few decades. They ignore not just globalization’s political, social and cultural components, but its ebb and flow over the 150 years.
Consider what happened during the latter half of the 19th century, when imperialism opened new pathways for trade and investment. New international congresses convened in disciplines like mathematics, statistics, chemistry and philosophy. National public health authorities teamed up to cope with diseases such as the yellow fever that, abetted by greater trade, cut a swath through Madrid, Havana and Memphis during the 1870s, or the bubonic plagues that periodically hit port cities during the two decades before World War I.
True, that war’s outbreak and unfathomable carnage shattered both the emerging global marketplace and smug complacency of internationalists. The subsequent economic and political consequences of the peace, in turn, led to the Great Depression. But even during this period, notes historian Emily Rosenberg, “the extension of transnational networks in science, health, entertainment, and other specific affiliations accelerated.” Despite the growing nativism and xenophobia that all but slammed shut the U.S. golden door in the 1920s, the interwar years also saw the creation of wealthy nongovernmental organizations such as the Carnegie Corporation (1922) and the Ford Foundation (1936), which established international educational and cultural exchanges.
Moreover, notwithstanding the failure of the interwar League of Nations to prevent World War II, the league provided an intergovernmental umbrella for everything from disarmament conferences and the fight against sexual trafficking and narcotics to the International Labor Organization. These were then subsumed or re-created under the postwar United Nations.
Bottom line: Even after several seismic disruptions, the process of globalization persisted, creating political, cultural and social networks and links that sometimes even expanded in times of extreme dislocation.
That pattern continued through the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession. By 2004, in fact, international tourism had reached record levels, Internet connectivity continued to spike upward, NATO and the European Union expanded, and there were hefty rises in international trade and investment. Unlike the Great Depression, the economic crisis of 2007-08 did not cause levels of global trade and investment to plummet; if anything, the Great Recession forced policymakers to realize that interdependence demanded greater global coordination.
There is no gainsaying the coronavirus’s massive disruptions to supply chains, international commerce and all forms of travel, let alone daily life. But supply chains were already shifting and becoming shorter and more regional even before COVID-19.
Moreover, the evolution of the global economy has made services more significant, relatively, than goods. Companies have become more multinational, innovation more global. Even more fundamentally, widespread connectivity and the cascading surge of digital information have turbocharged the flow of ideas and virtual links, whether among individuals, institutions or nations. That’s something that can’t be quarantined.
Globalization does, however, need to be managed. Unfortunately, as the bungled U.S. response to the coronavirus has once again shown, that is neither President Donald Trump’s inclination nor his forte. He has denied the urgency of climate change and he sees technocratic expertise as just a manifestation of a “deep state” that resists his agenda. And the multilateral organizations built to cope with globalization, whether the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, are viewed as infringements on U.S. sovereignty, not as ways to leverage U.S. influence and promote burden-sharing.
Nativism, xenophobia and the bashing of government bureaucracy and global institutions are staples of U.S. politics. But in an era of rising great-power rivalry and declining U.S. (non-military) clout and influence, they are increasingly counterproductive. An authoritarian China is working hard to reshape the global order to advance its interests, and its iron-fisted decisiveness in containing COVID-19 has won it some new fans.
But admirers of China’s model shouldn’t kid themselves: The Chinese Communist Party leadership would happily balkanize the internet, reduce transparency, deprioritize human rights, and rig the liberal international order in its favor. The correct response to this reality is for the U.S. to shore up its alliances, bolster the multilateral institutions it created to advance shared values and take the lead in meeting global challenges.
Yes, the decades-long effort to maximize globalization’s benefits and minimize its costs was overstated, if not misleading. But the Middle Kingdom’s effort to fill that vacuum won’t yield results to the U.S.’ liking. It will, in fact, be the end of globalization as we know it.
I am not one of those evangelists for globalization, which is fundamentally value-neutral. It is an equal-opportunity conduit for both misery and happiness: pandemics as well as vaccines, criminal activity as well as legitimate business, jihadism, fascism and communism as well as human rights and democracy. But the forging of closer connections, whether for good or ill, is not just necessary on a small planet with a beleaguered ecosystem. It’s inevitable.
James Gibney is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.