Well before the novel coronavirus reared its spiked head, the world was turning away from free trade and open borders. Britain was pulling out of the European Union. The United States was picking trade fights with its biggest partners, including its good friend Canada. Populist leaders from Brazil to Hungary to Mexico were embracing an inward-looking, me-first nationalism. U.S. President Donald Trump told the United Nations that the future belonged to patriots, not globalists.
The pandemic threatens to deepen the backlash against the phenomenon known as globalization. The virus spread around the world on that symbol of global interchange, the airliner. Air traffic has plummeted since the globe went into lockdown. Trade took a similar plunge. The great lockdown could easily become the great reversal, a lasting and damaging decline in international exchange and co-operation.
Globalization’s critics at both ends of the spectrum are rubbing their hands. Those on the left see a chance to expose it as a conspiracy to enrich the one per cent at the expense of the poor; those on the right a chance to return power to the nation-state and take it away from meddling global bureaucrats.
The defenders of globalization are sounding defensive and apologetic, if they speak out at all. Its opponents are full of fire and brimstone. In the opinion pages of this paper, a well-known economist, Jeff Rubin, went as far as to say that “globalization has left an industrial landscape every bit as cratered as the destruction left by a nuclear warhead.” At least no one can accuse him of pulling his punches.
If the opponents win out, walls could go up all over, blocking the flow of goods, capital, people, technology and ideas. That would be an obvious mistake. Every high-school economics student knows the story of how the United States built a wall of tariffs in 1930, stifling global trade and worsening the Great Depression.
Globalization has helped far more people than it hurt. Thanks to a growing world economy fuelled by expanding trade among nations, hundreds of millions of people from Shanghai to Sao Paulo have risen out of poverty. The proportion of the world’s people living in extreme poverty has fallen by half in the past 20 years. A vast global middle class has sprung up, now embracing fully half of humanity.
Their buying power has created a whole new market for the products of developed countries, from cars to phones to lumber. Their humming factories make floods of affordable goods for the world’s consumers, a particular boon for those with limited means. So it’s simply not true that established economies have lost out through the dramatic rise of workshop nations such as China and India.
Some workers have suffered as old industries like shipbuilding or textile-making move offshore, but new industries in services and tech have sprung up in their place. Economists who claim that globalization has nuked Western economies pass over the fact that, before the virus hit, Canada was enjoying the lowest jobless rate in 40 years.
As a trading nation with a long history of growing through immigration, Canada has been one of the biggest winners. The millions who have come to its shores in recent decades have enriched it not just economically and demographically but culturally. Cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have been transformed into global cities whose vibrant diversity is a marvel to see.
A return to walled isolation would squander these gains and make the world a poorer, more dangerous place. If the current crisis has proved anything, it is that we are ultimately all in the same boat. To fight international emergencies like this, we need stronger global institutions and global treaties. Imagine how much better we might all have fared through this if, instead of fighting the virus singly, as individual nations, each reacting it its own way and at its own speed, the world had marshalled its resources for a unified, co-ordinated counterattack: all for one and one for all.
An important byproduct of the free exchange of goods and people was to bring into being a network of international bodies and agreements that oversee everything from trade to public health to the environment. Many of them have grown moribund. Unless we’re careful, the crisis could kill them off. Then we are all truly in our own boats, adrift in a roiling sea. The alternative to all for one is every man for himself.
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