Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Analysis or a PR exercise for economic globalisation?

BBC R4 Analysis - globalisation image

Review of Analysis: The death of globalisation?

BBC R4 Alaysis - globalisation image

The death of globalisation? is an episode of the Radio 4 Analysis programme broadcast on 27th February 2023. The presenter was Ian Goldin1Ian Goldin is Professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford and there were contributions from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala2Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Minouche Shafik3Minouche Shafik is President and vice-chancellor of the London School of Economics, Zanny Minton Beddoes4Zanny Minton Beddoes is editor of The Economist, Rana Foroohar5Rana Foroohar is a Financial Times commentator and author and Kishore Mahbubani6Kishore Mahbubani is a former Ambassador to the UN. Early on in this program, globalisation was defined thus: “globalisation is about the movement of things, finance, ideas, people and communication across national borders”. That’s a very open definition from which two truisms follow: 1) globalisation has been around for as long as there have been nations with borders and 2) globalisation has the potential to deliver great benefits and an equal potential to deliver great disbenefits. Despite the broad definition, the analysis in this programme concentrated on the international movement of things and finance, in other words, economic trade. If any confirmation of this were needed, simply look at the expertise of the programme participants (see footnotes) – an embarrassment of economists and not an ecologist, anthropologist or sociologist to be seen.

Economic globalisation has a very chequered history with one of its darkest episodes being the period of European colonialism, driven by the birth of capitalism, which started in the mid 15th century and lasted for the best part of 500 years. The hallmark of European colonialism and capitalism was the enrichment of European society, especially the upper echelons, at the expense of the colonised peoples and their lands. Along the way it encompassed the rise and fall of the global slave trade. However, that period of globalisation was not the subject of this programme: here the focus was the last 30 years. Ian Goldin defined it like so: “the globalisation tidal wave we have experienced started around 1990 with the end of cold war and opening of China, integration of Europe, global agreements to reduce trade barriers and development of the world wide web”. Thus, despite the broad definition of globalism provided at the start of the programme, its subject was really the increased level of economic globalisation of the last 30 years.

The core argument of the analysis presented in this programme was that  ‘deglobalisation’ (which, as we’ve seen, really means rowing back on some of the increased economic globalisation of the last 30 years) is a bad thing: increasing political tensions between countries; making it more difficult to slow climate change; putting barriers in the way of stopping the next pandemic; slowing GDP growth; increasing poverty; increasing national protectionism and perhaps toxic nationalism. But the arguments presented in support of these assertions were, at best, weak and often consciously contradictory. For example several of the contributors acknowledged that recent economic globalisation has increased inequality. Increased inequality is a major contributor to poverty (especially within the ‘advanced’ economies), therefore, logically, reducing globalisation could reduce inequality and poverty, especially if paired with new policies to strengthen local communities and informal economies. In a remarkable passage it was stated that globalisation has increased knowledge of the impacts of climate change but has also accelerated climate change; and that globalisation brought us COVID vaccines but also the pandemic! From those arguments its difficult to find a case to support globalisation!

Another problem with globalisation, acknowledged in the programme, is the fragility of the supply chain which has developed in many areas of the global economy. Examples given included the reliance of the world on Taiwan for microchips and Africa’s near total dependency on the rest of the world for medicines. But rather than examining how rowing back on economic globalisation can address these and the other problems it generates, the contributors to the programme advocate ‘reglobalisation’ with some sort of ‘fixed’ configuration – “globalisation with a more human face”. But why this zealous attachment to economic globalisation, even if the face of its manifest disbenefits? Ostensibly it is because we need globalisation to tackle the multiple crises facing the world today and in as far as globalisation encompasses communication and sharing ideas across national boundaries, I would not disagree with that. But economic globalisation is not a prerequisite for international cooperation in the political, social, scientific and other realms! We can ramp up globalisation in all those areas without incurring the damage done by economic globalisation. Of course a degree of economic globalisation is necessary: as stated in the programme, no country is entirely self-sufficient in goods and services, but that simply points to the inevitability of international trade as has existed for hundreds of years – it does not indicate a requirement for excessive economic globalisation.

It seems to me that the real reason for the attachment to economic globalisation is its proven track record in generating wealth, particularly for the ‘advanced’ economies, and most particularly for the most wealthy within those economies. I think I saw the mask slip when one of the contributors said that the UK and USA cannot afford to shut out Asian markets because that is where all the growth is going to be. Of course underdeveloped parts of the world require economic growth, but the benefits of growth there should accrue to the citizens of those countries, not to the already rich economies elsewhere in the world! The UK and the USA already have more than enough wealth to provide good lives for all their citizens, but we do not currently choose to distribute it to that end. Historically, much of the wealth of the UK, USA and other advanced economies was generated by the exploitation of other parts of the world during the period of expanding globalism that was European colonialism. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of that period again into the 21st century.