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Defending globalism: Why we have a responsibility to connect

Alejandro Reyes considers a new strategy for convincing governments to uphold their global commitments while implementing domestic initiatives focused on those most vulnerable to the forces of globalization. 

By: /
15 March, 2017
A delegate walks outside International Monetary Fund headquarters after closing of the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington, U.S., October 9, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
By: Alejandro Reyes
Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong

Last year’s Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and presidential election in the United States have been widely cited as resounding rejections of “globalism,” a term used disparagingly by some to describe the creed or ideology of the proponents of globalization. “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism,” President Donald Trump said in a campaign speech last April.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the strongest defender of globalization and the leader arguing most robustly for the need to address its flaws was a Communist — Chinese President Xi Jinping. The normally pro-free-trade “global elite” seemed cowed by perceptions that a wave of populism signalled by Brexit and Trump constituted a global mutiny against globalization. 

Resolve turned into apology among the usual proponents of globalization from the West, leaving it to leaders from developing economies, like Xi, to wave the globalist standard in a new world of American isolationism, protectionism and paranoid foreign policy. 

But why should defenders of globalization be cowed? Globalization has many flaws but it is not time (nor will there ever be a time) to de-globalize, whatever that means. Rather, it is time to make globalization great again. 

Globalization is the expansion of interconnections and interdependencies that shape our world, from digital communications to the spread of communicable disease, from transnational terrorism to migration. But in recent political discourse, particularly in the populist rhetoric of the right and the left, the word “globalism” has become a pejorative that refers to a conspiratorial effort among the decision-making elite, mainly in the West, to subvert the will of the people by imposing supranational laws and norms that supersede those of the nation state. Globalists, their critics say, want to create a world government that would subvert democracy and take precedence over — or even do away with — national sovereignty. 

According to their accusers, the conniving globalists are an unholy establishment of entrenched politicians and leaders of the biggest global companies, entangled in pay-for-play collusion, making rules that only benefit vested interests. Prime examples of their complicity, the detractors argue, are free trade arrangements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and single market initiatives such as the European Union and the euro. Outsourcing and immigration are especially contentious issues. “We literally have lost our sovereignty, lost our borders, lost our ability to regulate,” Trump booster Nigel Farage, then-leader of the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party, told members of the European Parliament in June. 

There is no doubt that the proponents of globalization — whether they belong to a scheming alliance or not — oversold the positives of greater interconnections in the world, without adequately explaining the negatives. It is also true that corporatist collaboration between negotiating governments and business interests has shaped globalization policy, including free trade initiatives. Practically every regional or global entity that is promoting economic integration or cooperation includes a mechanism for the business sector to channel advice and recommendations to political leaders. A key criticism of the TPP, for example, was that the big pharmaceutical companies dictated its provisions on intellectual property rights.

But setting up a globalist bogeyman and appealing to nation-first patriotism is the last refuge of populist scoundrels. Using Brexit and the election of Trump to pronounce globalization dead is misguided. 

“There is no doubt the proponents of globalization oversold the positives of greater interconnections, without adequately explaining the negatives.”

Brexit and Trump’s election were complaints about the responsiveness and responsibilities of leaders. Voters were willing to take a gamble on big change because they perceived the political class to be detached from their reality. They felt that they are not being heard and that their economic and social mobility has stalled as a result. It is not really about preferring left or right policies. What people want is effective leadership — politics that actually gets meaningful things done.

Clearly, people — especially youth — want results, and they want them sooner than later. Public- and private-sector leaders who are driving globalization and wield the tools and institutions that are used to manage its many processes must focus more on delivering benefits for society. “Globalization needs to mean global responsibilities,” Ngaire Woods, the dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, said at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils in Dubai in November. 

She is on to something. In 2005, the international community redefined the term “sovereignty” as the state’s “responsibility to protect” (R2P) its citizens and accepted it as a norm in international relations to guide humanitarian intervention. 

In the same way, “globalization” could be defined as a “responsibility to connect” (R2C), an obligation on the part of a government to connect its citizens to the world, participate in global initiatives and abide by fairly negotiated norms, because doing these things would in fact be in the national interest and congruent with the need to ensure that the country and its people are ready for the future. 

Too often, governments separate global and national interests, as if somehow they are incompatible or that one should take precedence over the other. Meeting global responsibilities, however, must be regarded as a critical national responsibility and not an imposition that nullifies state sovereignty. 

Consider the commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Companies have found that pursuing sustainability can actually increase profits, gain favour with stakeholders and benefit society — whether through a cleaner environment or better health. The same for governments. Meeting global responsibilities can advance national interests, though ensuring that they do is likely to require more attentive domestic policies that help those who are left behind or are disadvantaged. Mitigating initiatives may have to focus on specific regions or communities — coal miners in certain states, farmers in a particular region, or autoworkers displaced by the closing of an inefficient factory.

What happens if a country’s government should fail in its responsibility to connect? With the responsibility to protect, the UN Security Council can decide to invoke R2P and agree to humanitarian intervention in a country. But the use of R2P has been hampered by the narrow strictures on its application and the decision-making dynamics on the Security Council. 

With R2C, there could be a similar responsibility to intervene by the international community or countries party to a multilateral negotiation — but through negotiation and collaboration among stakeholders (government, business and civil society) to resolve differences and concerns in the country in question. There would be no trumping of Westphalian sovereignty. A stakeholder approach would obviate the need for formal buy-in by states (promises found to be empty in the case of R2P). 

The hope would be that peer pressure from countries in willing coalitions, business interests and civil society groups would prompt reluctant sovereign authorities to recognize that part of their responsibility to their people is to meet global norms and address borderless challenges that have domestic consequences. The power of global competitiveness rankings to spur countries to implement reforms is an example of how this might work.

This will require innovation and flexibility in global and regional governance institutions — moving away from the traditional convention of requiring unanimity among member states to best-possible agreements by plurality or willing coalitions. It will require using technology to enhance transparency and communications and interaction between government and citizenry. It will also require recognition that micro solutions — at the city or community level — may be the best way to align national interests with the global public good. 

Domestic initiatives focused on those most vulnerable to the forces of globalization — whether the outsourcing of jobs, the introduction of automation, or the implementation of a global trade deal — are the tools that can tame globalization and make it fair and flexible. An example: Providing broadband internet to communities at the same time as access to water and sanitation. Connect the dots — freeing up women and girls from the burden of fetching water and raising standards of hygiene, while connecting them to the internet, offers them opportunities for education and for contributing to productivity.

Country-first policies cannot work in today’s world. Modern governance must be about reconciling nationalism and globalism, not pitting them against each other in false battle.

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