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Beyond the Beltway

The pope, the premier, the president – and the retreat of globalization

Meetings in Washington. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters; Mike Thaler/Reuters

Globalization first became a bedrock of our vocabulary in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Proponents of globalization then argued that everything would change – and for the better.

There would be more prosperity as we moved to the integration of markets and the decline of trade barriers. We’d see greater people-flows as the traditional barriers that had impeded travel during the Soviet era would disappear. American-style democracy and its foundational values of individualism, the rule of law and freedom of speech would flourish. Indeed, so would American-style capitalism and with it the end of too much regulation and state control of assets. New technologies would change every aspect of our lives, induce wealth, enhance democracy and bring the power of states to their knees.

Most pointedly, we were told that these changes would sweep all before them – and were irreversible.

Today, however, there are clear signs that key elements of globalization are in retreat.

Globalization critic number one: the pope

Last week, Washington played host to two of the most notable and distinguished leaders on earth: one from Rome, the other from Beijing.

Pope Francis heads a church with 1.2 billion members. He has quickly redefined the modern role of the pope – to include both being a spiritual leadership and a moral entrepreneur – when it comes to tackling some of the most pressing issues of our time like poverty and climate change.

Long before his arrival in the US in July, while visiting Bolivia, Pope Francis reputedly described the unfettered pursuit of money as the “dung of the devil.” He criticized what he regards as contemporary forms of colonialism by rich countries that have left far too many in poor countries effectively abandoned.

Critics have called him a Marxist, his advocates a humanitarian. What is clear is that he is not a fan of globalization in the way it was lovingly exalted by those proponents of what was called the “Washington Consensus” back in the 1990s.

Globalization critic number two: the premier

The pope was immediately followed by Chinese [Premier Xi Jinping.](]( With a Chinese population of nearly 1.4 billion, he leads an even larger group that Pope Francis.

Xi Jinping is no fan of America’s version of globalization either.

Certainly, he is not opposed to free markets – at least less regulated ones than have traditionally been the case in the Peoples Republic of China. He demonstrated as much in announcing China’s new Cap-and-Trade program at the White House, a landmark innovation meant to limit China’s greenhouse emissions which is itself built on market principles.

But both the Chinese state’s control of the internet and the limited progress of human rights and democracy in China remain areas where the promise of globalization clearly remains unfulfilled. And the purported relationship between the Chinese government and some of China’s largest companies suggests it still controls them, even if it doesn’t own them.

Globalization in retreat

The fact is that two decades on from the end of the Cold War, the foundations of a process that we once were told was irreversible are now being questioned around the globe.

The growth of a global economy, where trade and non-tariff barriers would come tumbling down, has stuttered and often reversed. Big trade agreements like the Doha Round, designed to reduce barriers to trade, have been abandoned.

Instead, Preferential Trade Agreements between limited numbers of countries have proliferated. As their name implies, these give preferential treatment to their members, and thus discriminate against those who are not signatures to the agreement. By this April there were 406 such agreements in the world, according to the World Trade Organization. The United States likes them. It is, for example, busy pursuing such an agreement in Asia that would exclude China as a member.

Borders were supposed to be more porous, encouraged by the growth of treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Both Americans and Europeans were among the vanguard as advocates of the liberalization of border access. Yet the EU, faced with the unending tide of refugees, is busy reestablishing border controls.

And many Americans agree.

Like other Republican candidates running for president, Donald Trump announced that he wants to build a wall along the US border with Mexico (paid for by the Mexicans, no less, at a reputed price of US$7 billion). His Republican colleagues want to send the National Guard to patrol that border.

Don’t worry, the Republicans are not alone in erecting barriers. Like each of his predecessors dating back to Bill Clinton, President Obama has increased the border guard along the Southwest border. By 2014 he had added over 3,000 agents from when he first came to office. And he claims to have cut the number of illegal crossings in half in that time.

Where globalization has effectively made borders more porous are not in areas that were promised to us.

They are the flows of drugs, guns and trafficked people by smugglers, part of what distinguished columnist Moises Naim once called the “five new wars of globalization.”

Democracy on the defensive

As for the triumph of American values, that prospect has long since receded.

The most pernicious and public challenge to those cherished values of individualism, democracy, tolerance, secularism and universalism are evident in the varied forms of theocracy that dominate the Middle East: from ISIS’s caliphate to the Gulf States, from Iran to the failed states of North Africa.

The Arab Spring has clearly failed. But the Middle East and North Africa are far from alone in this regard.

Russian democracy looks more Czarist than western. And from Latin America (think of Venezuela) to across Asia (think of Turkey) and Africa (think of Zimbabwe), liberal democracy in its more conventional form is often on the retreat.

The number of formal democracies has certainly grown. But Freedom House, the bible when it comes to analyzing this issue, noted in its most recent report that civil liberties and political rights have declined globally every year for the last eight years.

Those same values of tolerance that form any country’s social fabric are under assault in Europe from the right and the left in very different ways.

Fringe nationalist parties have spawned or grown across the EU in response to the combined effects of the Great Recession and the recent flood of refugees. Nationalism and xenophobia have gained currency from Greece and Italy in the South to Austria and Hungary in the East, from France in the West to Denmark in the North.

On the left of the political spectrum, the message is a different one. It is one in favor of independence (Scotland or Spain) or against the economic forces of globalization that have bought years of austerity (Greece or Spain).

In each case the politics of consensus has given way to those of immoderation.

After globalization – what comes next

We were once told that globalization was the future. That now looks highly questionable.

We won’t return to the past – and I wouldn’t suggest we should. But it looks increasingly likely that the confluence of economic and political liberalism, American-style, that was the heart of globalization may have been a short-lived era.

When the pope and the premier of the second largest economy on earth reject its values, and the US president pursues policies that undermine them, then it looks like it may be time to discuss what will follow in its wake.

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