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Jeffrey Simpson: Globalization and its discontents

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude. – Sir Karl Popper

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Sir Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, once wrote a book titled The Open Society and Its Enemies. Today, the title might read, "Globalization and Its Enemies."

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Globalization means an interconnected and, to its adherents, an uplifting world of commerce that raises living standards, communications that enhance understanding and people movement that makes the world less parochial. It means, in the words of a popular and deeply superficial book of the same title, that "the world is flat."

Maybe for well-educated elites, the world is flat. They can revel in interconnectedness, move from country to country with their skills, travel widely, speak more than one language, master the Internet, use their talents to get ahead. For them, globalization was a "rational" response to the modern world.

But in almost every Western country (except perhaps Canada, Australia and New Zealand), "globalization" is under assault.

Globalization means, among other things, the movement of people, legal or illegal immigration, and talent sourcing from overseas, all of which produce inevitable changes in the demographic composition of countries. Such changes produce backlashes against the intermingling caused by newcomers. Traditional majorities feel their cultures to be under assault. Some from the majorities are willing to welcome greater diversity; others fear diversity leads to the dilution of national values and traditions.

In Germany, more than one million migrants/refugees have given rise to the new Alternative fuer Deutschland, a strongly anti-immigrant party. In France, the Front National is anti-European Union and anti-immigrant. Britain has seen the emergence of the UK Independence Party, an anti-Europe, anti-immigrant party. A referendum on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union might produce a very close result, and possibly a new Little England if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom.

In Eastern Europe, borders are slammed against even a small number of migrants/refugees. Conservative, nationalist governments, both hostile to some of the rules of the EU, are now governing in Poland and Hungary. Denmark, Sweden and Finland feel themselves besieged by outsiders. They all have anti-immigrant political parties now.

In the United States, the Donald Trump candidacy is based, in part, on hostility to at least certain kinds of immigrants who, it is alleged, have taken Americans' jobs. We have seen backlashes before. The country slammed its border shut in the early 1920s in reaction to anti-immigrant sentiment. Chasing "wetbacks" – that is, Mexicans and other Latino illegal arrivals – has been as American as apple pie.

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Still, this is supposed to be the golden age of globalization where backlashes are so yesterday, except that they are happening and growing today. Of course, they don't show up in Japan, Russia, China or Latin America because there are few immigrants or refugees there. And in the Middle East, there are plenty of refugees and migrants who invariably augment existing tensions among local ethnic and religious groups.

Globalization, in the form of freer trade, is also under political assault. Some of its old champions, such as U.S. Republicans and mainstream Democrats, have hauled down the free-trade flags and scurried for protectionist cover.

China, Japan, India and South Korea, to name a few, are nominally free-trading countries but somehow manage through non-tariff barriers, deep cultural preferences for local products, and favouritism to state-owned or state-protected industrial giants to be somewhat less the unfettered free traders in practice.

The long drive for global free trade through multilateral trade negotiations has foundered. In its place have sprung up regional free-trade deals such as the one between Canada and the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These now, in certain quarters, are seen as threats rather than opportunities – threats to local jobs, local procurement preferences, local cultural institutions and efforts to protect local environments.

Companies that develop natural resources and move them around the world are hounded by hard-line, implacable environmental groups that insist tankers are dangerous, as are pipelines or trains that feed them raw materials. Environmentalists of this type are among the most protectionist and parochial groups on the planet, their vision being local, local, local.

Globalization has always had its enemies, going back to the 19th-century trading empires. Today, globalization again faces its enemies who in many parts of the world (although less in Canada than elsewhere) are gaining political strength.

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