Can trade change the way we see globalization?

Many voices have been prophesying the end of globalization. Koert Debeuf, political analyst and visiting research fellow, CRIC, Oxford University, writes in the aftermath of the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015: “The world has left the path of globalization and is taking the trail of tribalization.” Are we facing a new trend?

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Globalization is a multidimensional phenomenon – the interconnectedness, interdependence and integration of cultures, markets and individuals. The emergence and growth of the global net of diverse national economies has brought new perspectives and prosperity to countries, companies and citizens. Although the trade flows are changing and the growth has slowed after the global financial crisis, connectivity is the key enabler of modern life.

Despite all connectedness and convergence, the world remains diverse. And that diversity is a major source of creativity; it drives innovation and progress, growth and prosperity. Connections and interactions within and among groups with a multitude of races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations are driving creativity and innovation in companies and across geographies. Competition makes us focus and keeps us contributing to economic growth.

However, diversity and competition are also leading to anxiety and conflict.

There is a need to strike the right balance between growth and prosperity on the one hand and preservation and protection on the other. What are the specific roles governments, businesses and resources play in this respect?

Borders aren’t always barriers

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York, and more recently in Paris and Brussels, governments have attempted to protect citizens by raising the barriers at their borders. The intentions are good, but the practice risks burdening the economy or even excluding their own consumers, investors, brands and manufacturers from the many benefits and opportunities created by international trade and globalization.

However, today’s governments may not have the mandate to make this decision themselves. One of the deep-rooted desires of humanity is to exchange with other people and travel the world. As we see in the ongoing “hacktivist” challenges to the national firewalls, people will not give up on finding ways to access what is kept away from them – even if they simultaneously fear losing the security provided by national borders.

Borders do not need to be barriers. Modern technology has reached a stage where both security and fluidity is possible. Despite open borders, local cultures persist – as many examples show. Nations should continue to set the rules based on local codes, interests and needs, while regional and international bodies, such as the ASEAN and the World Trade Organization, help to prepare, negotiate and execute international frameworks and implement tested tools for secure borderless flow of goods and people, capital and data.

This often challenged but widely used model requires from the various actors – mainly governments and international organizations – empathy, creativity, diplomacy and pragmatism.

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Small businesses with global goals

Multinational companies have been developing the capacity to thrive in global commerce for some time. Thanks to internet, small and mid-sized companies have also gained access to the global markets. Although the physical supply chain still struggles to overcome the various hurdles to make international commerce easy and truly a reality, many online platforms and sites already exist to serve sellers and buyers, independent of location.

On the back of international agreements and with the help of supply-chain service providers, global brands have built global sourcing, manufacturing and distribution networks. The diverse range of companies competing in today’s worldwide markets do not only design, manufacture and provide us with the goods we enjoy – but also offer jobs in the many countries in which they operate.

Therefore, not only are global companies likely to object to regulation that significantly restricts their ability to manufacture and sell abroad, but smaller players, employees and consumers might well join the effort to maintain access to resources, products and customers in the digital global market.

Global solutions to global problems

On the one hand, the planet needs preservation and protection: if we do not act there will be more plastic than fish in terms of weight in the world’s oceans by 2050. On the other hand people need food, shelter, healthcare, education and jobs: in 2015, 836 million people around the world were living on less than $1.25 a day. While there are grave concerns about the effect of industrialization and consumption on resources and the environment, there is no doubt that poverty should be eradicated. And as the poor often live on the most affordable and hence vulnerable land, one obstacle to ending poverty is climate change.

We can observe that no barrier, no net, no firewall is large, long or strong enough to keep pollution, micro-plastics, terrorists and other threats away. Considering the magnitude of today’s environmental threats, there is a need to act fast and collectively. The world needs a cross-disciplinary and cross-industry effort, not only to effectively respond to the global environmental and resource challenge but also to other crises, such as pandemics, conflicts and the refugee challenge.

COP21, the Bali package and many other initiatives and agreements show that governments and enterprises are willing to stand together to develop more effective global frameworks and mechanisms. We need to strengthen the global platforms of collaboration and impact on which international organizations and governments, businesses and academia can co-create the most effective and balanced global solutions.

Ultimately, globalization is not an on/off exercise but the ongoing responsible management of global conventions and national codes, global markets and diverse economies, global commons and inclusive global growth. This requires confident and capable actors with strong identities not afraid to open up and willing and able to respect the different cultures while complying with international treaties and law. Even more so, globalization should be the golden path that connects and lifts the diverse global community to the next level of prosperity.

Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

This blog was originally posted on the World Economic Forum Agenda.