Our globalized world is not dying, but evolving
Beware of the shiny new tale of world affairs. There is one that has taken hold over the past year – accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that goes like this: globalization is dying, geopolitical battle lines hardening between China and the United States (as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) force countries to choose sides, and a new Cold War takes shape in which alliances and blocs harden and nations further divide.
There are many flaws in this narrative, but it ultimately boils down to this: the Cold War era is over and the new era of multipolarity that has been the norm for the past three decades or so is stronger and more resilient than one might think, while the raw numbers of globalization show no signs of slowing down despite what the experts might say.
With world leaders gathered at the UN for the Annual General Assembly, there will inevitably be much chatter and discussion at seminars about our “emerging world”. Where are we going? Are we about to enter a new era of geopolitical protectionism and friend-shoring of supply chains and trade? It’s never easy to see the forest among the trees, especially when there are so many fires ahead, but it’s still vital not to succumb to false narratives about our changing world based on the headlines of the day.
To understand where we are going, it can help to remember where we have come from over the past few decades. In the detritus of the fall of the Soviet Union, a new world was born. It was messy and chaotic (but so was the Cold War, just ask the so-called proxy states) and eventually turned into a concert of nations with a discordant melody. Eventually, the many tunes from the rapid changes of the past half-century, beginning with the rise of China after 1979, morphed into a less jarring but still raspy hum of the march of globalization.
Around this time, trade boomed, from Shanghai to Dubai and beyond, and the shipping container became the symbol of the day. Air travel has revolutionized our geography and led to the “death of distance”, as some commentators have suggested. Information technology has flourished, dealing another fatal blow to distance as we know it. Entertainment has crossed borders to reach receptive audiences in faraway places, from K-pop to Turkish soap operas. Hollywood – still mighty – met the multipolar world by ensuring its big-budget releases would be embraced by China and other big emerging markets.
Globalization’s raw numbers show no signs of slowing despite what experts might say
Yes, today looks different from the mid-2000s, when everyone was talking about the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – as the next big markets and US presidents met regularly with their Chinese counterparts. At the time, Vladimir Putin’s Russia was still a member of the G8 and he mocked and joked with President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at international meetings.
But a curious thing has happened on the way to our more globalized world. More and more countries have developed geopolitical diversification strategies. They traded more with China, but didn’t see that as a reason to cut ties with Europe or the United States. Small states have courted investment from China, Russia, the EU, Turkey, the United States, Gulf Cooperation Council states and elsewhere. There were no longer just two blocks to face each other. There were Turkish construction companies, GCC sovereign wealth funds, Chinese Belt and Road Initiative investments, US and European energy majors and new development banks, from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the Silk Road Fund. The options menu kept growing.
A good example remains the GCC states, all of which trade more with China than with the United States while having much deeper security ties with Washington. In this age of choosing sides, the GCC states may be at an impasse, but the reality is that the oil and gas that has been vital to their development has also been vital to the development of Asia, the Japan to South Korea to Singapore and, yes, to China.
This brings us back to globalization. In many ways, the rise of China has been a key part of the globalization of the last generation. Today, the Middle Kingdom is the world’s largest trading nation, although its recent actions, from its zero-COVID policies to a general shutdown of what we now call “Global China” – its tourists spending in the world and its companies investing around the world – signal a slowdown in China’s rampage on the global stage. We need to watch this space because China is not only a manufacturing engine, but also a demand engine of the global economy.
Overall, however, the main flows that make up globalization—the cross-border flows of goods, people, services, data, and ideas—remain robust or are recovering rapidly. That this is so in the aftermath of a pandemic and war in Europe testifies to the power of globalization.
The great British economist John Maynard Keynes once wrote that “the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping old ones”. We must escape the old idea of conceptually dividing the world into Cold War-style blocks and realize that our new world is something more complex, fluid, and evolving than that.
• Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and founder and editor of the Emerging World newsletter. Twitter: @AfshinMolavi
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News