The Globalization Backlash

In case you’re not in the practice of doing so, I highly recommend clicking through to WPR’s daily Media Roundup as a supplement to your regular news aggregator if you have one, or as an intelligent survey of the morning’s top news and commentary if you don’t. That’s where I ran across this Henry Kissinger op ed on the globalization backlash and what to do to keep it from gathering steam. The irony of the current wave of protectionist sentiment is that it’s coming from the “consumer” nations, and is accompanied by the growing sentiment that globalization poses not only an economic, but a strategic threat to the developed world. One of the more alarming aspects of getting older is the extent to which I increasingly find myself agreeing with Henry Kissinger. So be it.

I’ve been convinced for a while that this is a delicate time for globalization. Left unbridled, it can easily lead to strategic decay (think wealth transfers and foreign ownership of vital sectors). But any attempt to rein it in too abruptly could create a system of parallel markets that could risk coalescing into competing spheres on influence. The biggest problem is that now my thoughts on the matter have taken on a heavy German accent.

The Globalization Backlash

Mark Thirwell of the Lowy Interpreter points out that globalization’s successes were already generating the beginnings of a backlash within the developed world, and argues that the advent of the subprime failure makes one even more likely. I’d point out that the Asian financial crisis and the internet bubble had already raised some red flags about the potential dangers of globalization, albeit in a different historical context. But Thirwell’s point is well taken. So many of our futurist scenarios are based on the assumption that barriers to trade will continue to fall, and in the context of a global order. But the trend could very well reverse, or fragment into various pockets of competing free trade zones.

With that in mind, one area that Thirwell doesn’t mention, but that I think will also have a significant impact on the future of globalization, is the West’s increasing emphasis on economic sanctions as the primary enforcement mechanism of the multilateral order. When globalization involved mainly freeing trade between developed poles and the undeveloped periphery, sanctions represented a coherent tool for encouraging good behavior on the part of states solicitous of joining the global community. Now that trade has truly become globalized, with a dramatic increase in the commercial links between developing nations, the impact of sanctions is felt far beyond the frontiers of the country targeted. That, plus the fact that sanctions are in perfect opposition to the logic of globalization (which was supposed to be an essentially transformative phenomenon) makes it harder both to generate political support for applying them, and to enforce compliance once they’ve been applied.

While proposals for adjusting globalization (mainly to render it more socially, politically and environmentally sustainable) abound, we don’t see too many hypotheticals about alternative scenarios to continued globalization. If Thirwell’s right, and I think he is, we need to start coming up with some.

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