THE coronavirus crisis has shown vividly that we live today in one world which is linked so closely that events in one place can have profound impacts elsewhere. Earlier, it was said that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. Today, bad culinary choices in one Chinese city can create severe indigestion globally.
These linkages are created by the increasing flows of seven elements that cross borders: goods, services, money, people, power, ideas and ecology. Globalisation refers to these increasing flows and the consequent homogeneity they create in economic, political, social, psychological and ecological domains. When flows increase so much across a piece of land, it becomes crucial to have governance structures across it to manage those flows to ensure the public welfare.
This is the process that was witnessed in Europe with the emergence of modern states. Increasing exchanges in a region led to the creation of a single governance structure where earlier there were many competing local powerful lords using raw power to determine outcomes. The emergence of modern states based on the democratic idea of social justice for all replaced the rule of raw power with the rule of law to increase public welfare.
However, despite increasing connectivity, global governance structures to manage it are not strengthening, but weakening. Today, the global picture resembles that of the pre-modern-state world where powerful lords decided common matters according to their whims. In today’s global landscape, we have powerful states behaving similarly. And ironically, it is not just autocratic regimes like Russia and China. It is democratic states like America that behave whimsically in the global arena and undermine world institutions to achieve their own narrow interests.
Globalisation has unfolded at the whims of the US.
Greater interconnectedness, driven by a global governance structure that prioritises public welfare, can be beneficial. But actual globalisation over the last few decades has unfolded at the whims of the US and its allies to largely benefit its rich elites. The global flow of goods and services was for long controlled by Western corporations. Ultimately, the World Trade Organisation was formed to provide a rule-based global trading system. But it soon became controlled by the US to serve its interests and ignore those of developing states. And when developing states like China and India slightly increased their power in it, the WTO was discarded by the US in favour of bilateral and regional treaties that largely benefit it. The global flows of money are also largely controlled by the US. Even aid flows from the World Bank and IMF to developing states are subservient to US interests.
The strong control the US has on mainstream and social media and entertainment industries means that the global flows of ideas also help in perpetuating its cultural hegemony. In contrast to these four types of global flows, the flow of people to the US and other Western states is increasingly restricted. This makes the patterns of globalisation related to these five flows beneficial mainly to rich states. This situation in turn is underpinned by the global flows of American power, based on military and economic might.
But there are always limits to the powers of even the most powerful despot and the same is true for the US. While it is able to control the flows mentioned to serve its own interests, the wild cards are ecological flows, which it cannot control fully. In recent decades, these have included two flows which are creating enormous risks not only for developing states but also the US and other developed states. The first consists of flows of gases that cause ozone layer depletion and climate change. The second consists of biological flows that cause pandemics, such as the coronavirus. The first flows are mainly caused by rich states. China is rivalling them in this, but much of even its polluting manufacturing serves Western consumption and is produced by Western capital.
Such globalisation is creating high inequality, conflicts, diseases, nuclear war concerns and environmental pressures, pushing the world towards major catastrophes. One hopes the huge impact of the virus will push the world towards strengthening global governance. Yet an economically declining and xenophobic US is obstructing global cooperation and encouraging hyper-nationalism. Thus, the coronavirus impact may actually strengthen these urges. China is trying to fill the leadership gap. But a world dominated by autocratic China would be even worse than one dominated by the US, which is at least internally democratic. What is needed now is not another global hegemon but democratic global governance. The king is dead; long live democracy.
The writer is a fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2020