“GLOBALIZATION,” a now-ubiquitous term, is generally understood to mean the integration of economies around the world through cross-border flows of trade, capital, data, and people. Prompted by the devastation of two World Wars, the United States, and the countries of Western Europe have led a 70-year project to construct and maintain an international economic order premised on the shared benefits of openness. As a result, global real per capita income has quadrupled since the 1950s and one billion people have escaped extreme poverty since the early 1990s.
But this consensus among US and European policymakers is now under attack. As part of an “America First” agenda, President Donald Trump has expressed deep misgivings about the institutions and agreements that enable globalization, which has also become increasingly unpopular across Europe. Brexit has reduced the United Kingdom’s politics to a state of disarray; the virulently anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen moved out of the fringe to reach the final round of the French presidential election; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is proudly attempting to transform his country into an “illiberal democracy” that refuses to accept refugees.
The speed and severity of this transformation has left observers around the world unmoored and grasping for answers. The body of literature attempting to shed light on this worrying trend extends beyond the traditional boundaries of analysis and into autobiographies depicting “forgotten voters” and the rural right-wing, like Hillbilly Elegy by American J. D. Vance, as well as The End of Eddy and Returning to Reims by Frenchmen Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon. The dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World, each portraying a nationalist nightmare, have also returned to best seller lists. Paying explicit homage to Aldous Huxley, Stephen D. King’s Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History is a nuanced nonfiction addition to this literature of discontent.
As the title suggests, King argues the collapse of globalization may be imminent and impossible to avert. Once considered inevitable, global economic integration actually rests on ideas that demand broad support. “Globalization is driven not just by technological advance, but also by the development — and demise — of the ideas and institutions that form our politics, frame our economies and fashion our financial systems both locally and globally,” he writes. “When existing ideas are undermined and institutional infrastructures implode, no amount of new technology is likely to save the day. Our ideas and institutions shift with alarming regularity.”
King believes our current international economic order is at risk of meeting the same end as the last era of unfettered globalization, which began in 1850 and thrived from 1896 until the outbreak of World War I. The globalized economy of the early 20th century witnessed remarkable growth that was enabled by the United Kingdom’s leadership, the predictability of the gold standard, and rapid technological progress. World trade increased from $8 billion in 1896 to more than $18 billion in 1913, international investment reached $44 billion, and migration soared. Like today, many observers at the time saw open economies as normal and certain. This globalized system, of course, was premised on the inherently unjust practices of colonialism, which proved to be its downfall. World War I swept away the economic progress of the era. Efforts to restore the system in the 1920s collapsed, as new powers emerged and the Great Depression caused the world’s major economies to turn inward and pursue “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies with devastating effects. According to political economist Jeffry Frieden, it took nearly 100 years from the beginning of World War I to return to pre-1914 levels of globalization.
King worries that present threats to globalization could lead to another sustained period of disintegration, conflict, and turmoil. He is particularly focused on rising inequality, mass migration, disruptive technologies, competitive monetary policy, and the relative decline of the United States.
Inequality resurfaced as a pressing political issue in the wake of the Great Recession. The wealth of globalization heavily skews toward the top one percent of earners and the emerging middle class in Asia. The United States’s top one percent has accrued 41 percent of the country’s total net increase in wealth since the early 1980s, and China’s middle-income earners, who remain significantly less wealthy than the middle classes of developed economies, saw their real per capita income more than double between 1988 and 2008. At the same time, the lower middle class in industrialized Western countries has experienced zero or limited growth in real income, creating immense pessimism in Western democracies about the fairness of globalized economies. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey, only 30 percent of Americans, 23 percent of Brits, and 13 percent of French believe the next generation will be better off financially than their parents. By comparison, in China, that number is 85 percent.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is raging as well. In the United States, Pew Research found that 79 percent of Trump voters said illegal immigration was a “very big” problem and 86 percent believed it had gotten worse since 2008, despite the fact that fewer unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in 2015 than in 2009. The European migrant crisis and freedom of movement within the European Union (EU) proved to be decisive issues in the Brexit vote. While economists remain divided over the effect of immigration on wages, it provides rich fodder for populists and has significant implications for the welfare state, as support for social spending decreases when concern is high. More than one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 alone, provoking backlash across the EU. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic have all refused to accept refugees as part of the bloc’s relocation plan, threatening the future of Europe’s Schengen Area. Unfortunately, as King describes in great detail, these challenges will only get worse in the years ahead, as millions of additional migrants and refugees are likely to head to Europe.
King also makes a compelling case about how technological progress and monetary policy, which have been essential drivers of globalization, may threaten its future. Automation and robotics are poised to destroy global supply chains. With the cost of labor eliminated, companies will be increasingly incentivized to cut transportation costs by shifting production to the same country in which the goods are intended to be consumed. While global flows of capital, data, and services would likely continue, the resulting reduction in codependency among nations could easily enable the rise of protectionist economics and more antagonistic foreign policies. Additionally, in the absence of international coordination following the Great Recession, countries and their central banks have increasingly resorted to monetary policy to solve domestic problems such as unemployment, growth, and financial stability. King fears that in our present era of slow growth, this trend could easily devolve into a period of “endless currency wars” as countries shift the burden of economic adjustment to one another.
The extent of the United States’s relative economic decline is a topic of constant debate among foreign policy experts. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union was the primary competitor; in the 1980s, it was Japan; today, it is China. King contends that the United States’s and Europe’s shrinking share of the global economy, combined with the rise of China, India, and the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, will increasingly create conflict over the future direction of the international economy. This tension is already materializing. Chinese President Xi Jinping doubled down on globalization at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, stating, “The problems troubling the world are not caused by globalization […] we should not retreat into the harbor whenever we encounter a storm or we will never reach the opposite shore.” But his vision for globalization is primarily designed to advance China’s economic and geopolitical interests, not to reinforce the existing system. For example, the policy of “One Belt, One Road” enables China to extend its reach into Eurasia and simultaneously relieve the pressures of domestic overcapacity, while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is increasingly in competition with the World Bank.
King’s pessimistic opinion leaves readers with more questions than answers, and leaves his own thesis short on potential solutions. He proposes a “Global Organization for Financial Flows” to help resolve obligation issues between creditors and debtors across borders. The organization, structured as a hybrid between the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution system and the International Monetary Fund’s lending function, would be responsible for assessing whether and to what extent debtors or creditors (think Greece and Germany) are to blame for the underlying imbalance and deliver punishment or required loans accordingly. Although it is a creative solution to a daunting challenge, King concludes there is little appetite to establish new global institutions in the present political climate.
King offers little else to those seeking a plan of action. His broad claim that “national governments have been unable to marry global market outcomes with domestic social and political goals” risks conflating the costs of globalization with failures in domestic policy. After dismissing “technical” proposals as unable to address the underlying discontent driving support for antiglobalists, he concludes “governments, policymakers and commentators could at least attempt to challenge the inconsistencies of those who seek to pursue policies of disintegration.”
This step is undeniably necessary. Furthermore, as economist Dani Rodrik has suggested, these same people must do more to publicly acknowledge the costs of globalization in addition to touting its benefits. However, King’s proposal is directly in conflict with his own argument that social media creates partisan bubbles that are difficult to penetrate.
Are the challenges facing globalization as existential as King claims? Certainly the trends are disheartening. As Ed Luce writes in The Retreat of Western Liberalism, the challenge to globalization is accompanied by a growing disenchantment with democracy. According to the nonprofit Freedom House, 2016 was the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The last decade has also witnessed a substantial rise in the number of citizens in mature democracies — including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom — who see nondemocratic forms of government as a viable alternative.
Other data suggest King may be overstating his case. Although many of its underlying causes remain, the populist surge has slowed down in 2017. In continental Europe, Marine Le Pen and her National Front party delivered a weak performance in France’s June legislative elections, winning only eight of the 577 seats in parliament. Italy’s nationalist Five Star Movement may be losing steam, as it was handily defeated in a number of municipal elections on June 11. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union remains strong in the polls, while the Alternative for Germany party struggles. Geert Wilders underperformed in the Netherlands’s general election in March, and the United Kingdom Independence Party received less than two percent of the vote in the June 8 parliamentary election as support builds for a soft Brexit. Trump’s struggles and plummeting popularity reduce the likelihood that the Republican Party will go wholesale populist.
Supporters of globalization must capitalize on this moment. Macron’s proposals to cut government spending and boost labor market flexibility will likely pass, given his legislative majority, and would come as a much-needed win. Progress is also being made on the Greek bailout plan and Italy’s banking crisis. Signs from the European Central Bank point toward a return to a normalized monetary policy. Although the EU’s migration crisis shows few signs of abating, Macron has praised Merkel’s approach and the two leaders appear set to cooperate on Europe’s response. The threats remain serious, as does intra-European conflict over the best path forward, but meaningful progress is possible.
Looking beyond Europe, China has a significant amount at stake in the existing system. China’s economic reforms since 1978 and its integration into the global economy generated unprecedented economic growth, pulling hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. Moreover, as opposed to its troubling incursions in the South China Sea, initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road” may not be as antithetical to American interests as is often assumed, and may even generate opportunities for US firms. Finally, China is unlikely to be accepted by its counterparts as a paragon for globalization anytime soon: its economic reforms have stalled, market access for foreign firms remains low, and recent moves to stabilize the renminbi reintroduced concerns about its currency.
The real wild card is President Trump and the possibility of the complete abdication of US leadership. As displayed at the July 2017 G20 summit, Trump’s incompetence and misguided foreign policy is breeding anxiety around the world and prompting significant concern that we are entering a “G-Zero” era. But even at his worst, Trump will be under tremendous pressure to keep American skin in the game. The introduction of limited protectionist measures would be a setback, but is unlikely to fundamentally threaten the system. The same can be said for the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the TPP, which was a major foreign policy blunder but not an existential systemic challenge. Beyond a trade war, the greatest threat may be one that has received surprisingly little attention in this debate: Trump’s aggressive deregulation of finance.
The sudden and intense focus on the United States’s losers in globalization has hidden from view its many winners, including those within the top one percent who have an outsized influence on American politics. The broader tide also seems to be shifting, as April 2017 polling data from Pew Research indicates that 52 percent of Americans support free trade, whereas 40 percent are opposed. These supporters and others around the world are hoping that the system can survive what former President Obama recently deemed a “temporary lack of U.S. leadership.”
Over the longer term, King’s concerns about the leading proposals to reform globalization may still prove justified. Populists will be primed to make a comeback if economic insecurity increases further. Establishment prescriptions such as apprenticeships and workplace training would unquestionably improve workforce competitiveness but have negligible impact on rising inequality, particularly as professions are increasingly scalable and automation replaces jobs across sectors. Neither Universal Basic Income nor taxes on robots can resolve this challenge either. Additionally, social safety nets in the United States and in advanced democracies around the world are at risk from serious budget cuts and aging populations that undermine their sustainability.
This is a moment of tremendous global risk. Following World War II, open markets were restored on the basis of meeting societies’ demands for stability through the establishment of modern welfare systems. At our present moment of uncertainty, inclusive and sustainable economic growth combined with a more equitable distribution of the gains from globalization must be prioritized in order for the system to survive.
David Talbot served in the Obama administration as a policy advisor on international economics to US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. He holds degrees from Oxford and Yale Universities, and will begin a doctorate at the University of Cambridge this fall.