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Long live globalisation

Geneva — Will global cooperation finally emerge from the doldrums in 2019? The international community’s recent agreement on a “rulebook” for implementing the Paris climate agreement seems to offer some hope. But opinion polls suggest that many remain concerned that a global economic recession or major geopolitical crisis will test the international system’s resilience. And it is not at all clear that the system will pass.

As it stands, perhaps the biggest barriers to international cooperation are political. In recent years, there has been an intensifying backlash against international cooperation, rooted partly in fears — stoked by populist political leaders in many countries — that transnational “elites” are trying to impose “globalism”: an “ideology that prioritises the neoliberal global order over national interests.”

But perspectives that refute this narrative seem to be gaining ground. Many world leaders believe that the Western countries squandered their influence over the international system by intervening politically and militarily in the affairs of others without any clear endgame. Some also argue that the global elite has only pretended to pursue socioeconomic change, while actually maintaining a status quo that has benefited them.

Many believe that now, however, the vertical hierarchies that have long sustained the global order are being disrupted by the growing political and economic influence of horizontal networks. Even the United States, it is often claimed, has moved from supporting the multilateral system to undermining it.

But, though belief in globalism — a top-down conspiracy to impose an international system that trumps national sovereignty — may be dead, globalisation is alive and well. As the historian Yuval Harari put it in his book Sapiens, history continues to move “slowly in the direction of global unity.” An effective and resilient international order, comprising strong nation-states, thus remains essential.

World leaders do not question the need for such an order. Rather, the major political challenge to global cooperation lies in managing our diversified and pluralistic world within the established institutional architecture, while overcoming the tendency among some to associate any effort to shape globalisation with globalism, internationalism, or imperialism.

What would it take to build a more resilient system, capable of withstanding sudden shocks while maintaining its core functions? The answer is not cut and dried. While there has been important recent research into what makes a person resilient, there is no clear overarching explanation of what makes a resilient country or international system.

Nonetheless, humans seem to have a predisposition toward building broad organising systems. In Sapiens, Harari chronicles the efforts of merchants, prophets, and conquerors, over millennia, to “establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.” This leads him to the observation that humans are the only social animal “guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs.”

In practical terms, an updated international order must account for the four distinct developments that characterise the latest incarnation of globalisation. For starters, the world is moving toward a multi-polar system, in which the US is no longer the dominant international force. Moreover, we have entered the Anthropocene epoch, in which human activity is the primary influence on the climate and environment. We now have the capacity to destroy other species so effectively that, as Edward O. Wilson warns, we may well “eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century.”

Third, sharply rising inequality has made economic inclusion and equity a priority for many voters. This will shape national politics for the foreseeable future, and thus help to determine the fate of the current liberal order.

Finally, what WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab calls the fourth industrial revolution is forcing us to consider “how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments.” For example, the economist Richard Baldwin foresees arbitrage of wage rates in the service sector, enabled by digital platforms. As a result, he cautions, “hundreds of millions of service-sector and professional workers in advanced economies will — for the first time ever — be exposed to the challenges and opportunities of globalisation.”

Given globalisation’s shifting nature, it may be better understood in conceptual terms than as a historical phenomenon. This is the rationale behind the theme of the forthcoming annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Figuring out how best to influence the course of globalisation will not be easy. But here, too, humans seem to have a natural inclination. Indeed, many scientists now believe that thinking about the future is humans’ defining characteristic, and argue that “looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain,” and that planning for it results in less stress — and more happiness.

We are hardwired to think about the future of our planet — and that future demands a more robust and resilient institutional architecture that accounts for the four key forces shaping Globalisation 4.0. We should get to work on building it.

Lee Howell is a member of the Management Board of the World Economic Forum.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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