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Globalization Under Fire, From Protectionism To Pandemic

The world's prevailing trade system was facing major challenges even before the pandemic. But that doesn't mean globalization is destined to die.

The pandemic has had a brutal impact on globalization
The pandemic has had a brutal impact on globalization
Carlos Espósito*

-Analysis-

MADRID — The pandemic has had a brutal impact on globalization, so it's only reasonable that people are questioning whether COVID-10 will spell the system's eventual demise.

The rules governing international trade took a hit months before the virus appeared, with a proliferation of protectionist measures, budding trade wars and especially the U.S. administration's decision to block the reappointment of the WTO's appellate body judges. The latter effectively halted the trade organization's disputes resolution mechanism from Dec. 10, 2019.

But what's happened since then — with lockdowns and border closures — is a different type of challenge, and one that's defined by the immensity of its scope. Indeed, the measures states have taken to protect people from the virus are affecting all economic areas: tourism, aviation, the global economy's value chains, higher education... all of that and more!

As a result, obituaries have begun to appear for globalization. The philosopher John Gray has declared that its apogee is past and we are moving into a less interconnected world that will function more online and have more physical restrictions.

Such trends are evident, but it is too early to be certain about the world order we may expect once we emerge from the pandemic, especially when we don't even know what the "end" of this pandemic means exactly.

More useful are the arguments put forth by jurists Nicolas Lamp and Anthea Roberts, who believe there is no single answer to whether or not the virus is killing globalization. They contend that numerous narratives are fighting to forward their version of reality before this global crisis.

They are approximative discourses, with narratives that run the gamut. Some are globalizing (this is an opportunity, they argue, to improve global cooperation against a global virus). Others are climatic (it's time for economic reconversion), security-oriented (fighting the virus pertains to national security), democratic (authoritarian regimes are worse at fighting the virus), authoritarian (democratic regimes are a disadvantage in imposing anti-virus measures), conservative (the virus further proves the need to curb migratory flows) or progressive (we need universal healthcare and universal basic income systems).

We could be looking at a world of much more isolated states.

With due caution in predicting any global model to come, one can already say that this crisis and preceding developments herald some profound changes to the way the world economy is organized. There is even talk of a new form of sovereignty — strategic sovereignty — whose contours remain vague for now.

The idea carries some central tenets like power and responsibility, as part of a primordial concern with the state's duty to protect its citizens and essential goods like food, drugs and technologies. Its emphasis is on the idea of resilience. A fragmented world peppered with strategic sovereignties seems incompatible with hyper-globalization, but the process has yet to become definitive.

We could be looking at a world of much more isolated states, with exclusive regulatory regimes that may be harsher for weaker states, and costlier for the powerful ones. Or we may see a different type of globalization, more limited in its forms and contents, and with different goals. Its emphasis may become regulating global public goods, within a framework of strong and genuine international cooperation.


*Espósito is a lecturer in public international law at Madrid's Autonomous University.

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