02 Oct 2018 20:13 IST

Why is the world moving away from globalisation?

President Trump’s UN speech called on nations to embrace their sovereignty rather than a global order

US President Trump’s UN General Assembly speech last week was telling for how far the world has come since 2016. He departed from nearly 70 years of custom by calling on the world’s nations to adopt sovereignty as the driving force to organise their countries, rather than obeisance to the rules-based global order.

So pronounced was this departure from a US president’s speech that he did not even mention the IMF and the World Bank, institutions that are slowly beginning to see a decline in the face of weak support from America as well as robust competition from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

It was left to French President Macron to deliver a powerful speech on protecting the entrenched world order. He got the strongest cheers from weary leaders who hate the way the US and a few other nations are attempting to pull the world’s carpet from underneath their feet.

Resounding sentiments

Earlier in the day, Trump hailed all of the changes that are taking place in the US and on the global stage since he took office. Continuing to emphasise the idea of self-governance, he said that the US would no longer support the International Criminal Court. “As far as America is concerned,” he declared, “the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.” Such a statement from even a despot would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Other international initiatives, such as the Human Rights Council and the Global Compact on Migration, learned that they were losing the US as a crucial partner.

But Trump’s brilliance lay not just in promoting the idea that the US was going it alone. He advocated for each country to do the same thing. “Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth,” he said.

This part of the speech was particularly shrewd because no country’s leader can disagree with the sentiment. Just tune in to the campaign rally of anyone running for office, from the world’s poorest nations to the wealthiest. Each leader draws applause when she or he touts the greatness of their country and its peoples. Trump chose to draw on the pride we all have in our flags but cleverly mixed it with the all-important P word: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

Patriotism vs nationalism

Patriotism. Not nationalism. In an instant, his speech sounded a lot more reasonable. Who in the world doesn’t want to be patriotic about her or his country? Who doesn’t want to place a country’s interests ahead of the larger good? Patriotism is a deeply-held sense of emotion that is cultivated by our surroundings, from birth. We are first patriotic to ourselves as individuals, then to our families and community. But that we are patriotic to the flags we represent is unarguably authentic; and because nationalism may have racial undertones, Trump was smart not to go there.

In his gripping book Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, author Ian Bremmer outlines many of the points that this column has consistently made. Bremmer says that those who championed globalism promised a world of winners, one in which global free trade would lift all of the world’s boats. But globalism produces its share of losers too and those who have missed out want to set things right.

Trump has been saying this for 30 years. In 1987, when Bremmer was still in high school and most world leaders of today were not known beyond their local communities, Trump took out full page ads in US newspapers with the headline, ‘There’s nothing wrong with America’s foreign defence policy that a little backbone cannot cure’. He was referring to his favourite topic of trade. Talking to Oprah Winfrey in a 1988 interview, he said, “..and yet we let Japan come in and dump everything in our markets. (What we have) is not free trade. If you ever want to go to Japan and try to sell something, forget about it. It’s almost impossible.”

This idea was patriotism sheathed in commerce. And Trump has not wavered in his stated solutions to the problem. The entity directly in Trump’s crosshairs is the World Trade Organisation (WTO), established in 1995 and headquartered in Geneva. The WTO has a staff of 600 people just to push pen and paper to settle complex deals between nations. If there is a dispute, the settlement process involves a huge bureaucracy and detailed procedures — case-specific panels, dispute settlement bodies, appellate bodies, arbitrators and advisory experts.

Protectionist policies

Dispute resolution is always a sticking point when there’s commerce between parties. But delegating a nation’s sovereignty to a set of faceless, unelected bureaucrats in a distant country has not worked well. It takes the WTO nearly 20 months to resolve a dispute and issue a ruling. And WTO rulings have no teeth. A country can choose to ignore a ruling that it does not like because there are no direct penalties associated with non-compliance. This is why even the stated goal of the WTO — to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible — is not absolute.

Since becoming president, Trump has sought to chip away at this rules-based international trade order. Instead, he has begun to engage the US in bilateral trade deals. The US and Japan are in deep discussions about a trade agreement. The US and South Korea recently signed a deal. And this week, the country re-negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with both Mexico and Canada, calling it the United States Mexico Canada Agreement. Mexico agreed to the terms first; Canada, hesitant at first, realised that it risked distancing itself from the huge US market, and agreed later. The US is Canada’s biggest trading partner. Trump also mentioned India in glowing terms and a trade deal between the two is likely.

For all of the world’s modern problems — trade, immigration, security — Trump is implementing a patriotic, America-first approach, urging each country to do the same for its own peoples. Trump is not alone. Leaders in Austria, Poland and Hungary are doing the same. Concluding his speech, Trump said, “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.”

Whether one agrees with Trump or not, he does have a point about external control and domination. Just look at the struggles the UK is facing in trying to implement Brexit. It seems as though the European Union (EU) is more in control of the process than Britain, even after the Brits voted to leave the EU. So much for sovereignty.