For the last few years globalisation has been under threat. Even before President Trump took office the US had had enough of China’s cheating on global trading rules. President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was starting to be seen as a misstep. David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s love-in with China was a damp squib – largely because China itself changed dramatically under President Xi.
The idea of globalisation as a universal good for everyone had long been abandoned as the security concerns, distributional effects, and geopolitical power effects of globalization in a twenty-first century world became ever clearer.
Two years ago I was co-author of a book titled Backlash: Saving Globalisation from Itself. We argued that the 20th century order had run out of road. If we were to save what was good and correct, and fix what was bad about globalisation and international trade, we had to embark on wholesale reform.
Our arguments went down like a lead balloon among committed ideological globalists. Any perceived criticism of the system was interpreted as an attack on the whole concept of international trade. Economists far and wide regurgitated the same old tired arguments we have been hearing for decades; arguments with some merit but which were no longer robust enough in a rapidly changing world. The more we argued for reform, the angrier they got.
Eventually the World Trade Organisation was emasculated as the US blocked new appointments to its arbitration body. Leaders of countries such as Germany and China, highly dependent on export markets, continued to make grand speeches about the benefits of open and fair trade in Davos and elsewhere. But their actions belied their words. Both retain essentially mercantilist attitudes.
Then came Covid-19 and the acceleration of the breakdown of global trade and international cooperation. It was every man for himself – even within blocs such as the EU supposedly built on collaboration and solidarity.
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The genie of de-globalisation is now out of the bottle and out of control. In a world divided into three major trading blocs – the US, China and the EU – there is no longer a global hegemon able to restore order. So-called “global governance” bodies have ever decreasing influence. All of which we laid out two years ago.
Are we now too late to embark on the process of orderly reform we recommended in 2018? Has Covid-19 been the Humpty Dumpty moment for globalisation?
It need not be so. And herein may lie the opportunity for the UK’s new-found status.
In a world where order can no longer be imposed by a global hegemon, orderly and fair globalisation will require collaboration willingly given through a process of skilled diplomacy. What is now needed is an honest broker with the diplomatic skills to bring together the three major trading blocs and their respective spheres of influence.
The UK now finds itself the largest economy and the largest military power outside Russia that is not formally aligned with any of the three major blocs, yet with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In spite of the difficulties the country has faced in the last few years, and, no doubt, with some further difficulty to come, the UK still commands widespread respect. It continues consistently to top soft power rankings.
All that puts it in a unique situation. One that may, with skill and a steady hand on the tiller, provide an opportunity for a valuable role throughout the rest of this century. It has the opportunity to help the world navigate the new model of globalisation and international trade.
Of course, that is easier said than done. It would require long and patient investment in re-building a Foreign Office and a diplomatic service that have been allowed to wither as government after government increasingly prioritised trade and finance over diplomacy. It would require a re-definition of “Global Britain” along diplomatic lines, not the venal fantasy of a buccaneering, beggar-thy-neighbour, low-tax, low-regulation state of the kind that would only demean Britain’s global status.
It would require finding renewed respect for the institutions that give Britain its soft power status – the BBC, the British Council, its cultural sector, and others, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of free market ideology. It would require a re-think of how the high regard in which its research and tertiary education sectors are held can be reinforced and turned into an integral part of projecting Britain abroad, as they once were. It would require positioning as above all else a principled nation.
When combined with the UK’s traditional support and leadership of open markets and fair trade, it is not too far-fetched to believe such a role could be a logical evolution from Britain’s recent attempts to act as a cultural and diplomatic bridge between Europe and the US.
Most importantly, such a vision will require buy-in across the political spectrum to ensure long-term commitment. Abandoning our childish adversarial politics, in which each new government beats its chest by dismantling everything the previous one has built, is a crucial starting point.
It has been said that post-colonial Britain never found its new role in the world. The world has changed and therein may lie the opportunity if we are smart enough to seize it. Well managed, this new vision for Britain could turn London into that which until now Geneva has been – the pivotal axis of international trade and diplomacy of the whole world.
Joe Zammit-Lucia is a Founder of the think tank RADIX.