The Brexit vote may not be the last nail in globalisation’s coffin, but it has ensured that the pallbearers have been set on high alert. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a despondent America considers a vision of the country modelled on a gilt-edged and inaccessible penthouse apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue. After all, the promise comes from the owner of such a penthouse; Donald Trump intends to impose punitive tariffs, deny entry to Muslims and others deemed undesirable, while dismantling trade deals and security alliances. What is more, his rhetoric has struck a chord in America and beyond. Nativists sentiments, growing inequalities and a sense of insecurity about the disappearing middle-class dream is a dangerous mix when there are politicians who — to use my favourite example of madly mixed metaphors — are prepared to lead their countries off the edge of a precipice with their heads in the sand.
Is globalisation giving way to globa-tribalisation aided by opportunistic leaders? The nativist sentiments are not limited to the UK and the US. China is rattling sabres along its maritime borders. Russia has settled into its role as the world’s outcaste. Japan and Europe have become the world’s standstill societies, hostile to immigrants. Even emerging markets that once offered the world dynamism are slowing; recessions and horrendous governance across Brazil, Russia and South Africa and Turkey’s failed coup followed by repression have cooled the enthusiasm of global investors. The so-called “last frontier”, Africa, that only recently enjoyed a short-lived “Africa rising” moment, now struggles with drought, dropping demand for its commodities and multinationals headed for the exits: Nestlé is cutting 15 per cent of its workforce, while Barclays is out altogether.
On the geopolitical front, the ISIS is intent on driving a wedge between the Muslim world and the world, and even among Muslims themselves. On the technological front, the angels of automation in Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are talking up the “second machine age”, where technology will displace the helping hands from overseas. Across the world, social media algorithms are tracking our past and feeding us what they think we like based on our click-trails — a self-reinforcing closed loop.
Troubled by this giant “selfie” moment for human civilisation, I have been spending the summer looking for signs of hope. I note, with some pleasure, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a standout among the world’s politicians. Despite several contradictory actions — running an internationally respected RBI governor out of town — he has made international outreach a key policy pillar. As of July 2016, he has hop-scotched across over 40 countries. Most other political leaders are struggling to juggle domestic priorities that keep overtaking global agendas.
With the intelligentsia generally is a reliable booster of globalisation and seamless connectivity, I checked to see where they stood in the midst of this globa-tribalisation wave. I am happy to report that despite being ignored by the Brexiteers, Trumpeteers and exiteers of all stripes their high-minded commentaries fill airport bookstores, opinion columns and digital soapboxes. I picked up three recent books that have a common theme: The importance and inevitability of global connectivity.
Singapore-based intellectual, Parag Khanna’s new book, Connectography, argues: “Competitive connectivity is the arms race of the twenty-first century”. I agree. As if sensing that the global citizenry is not buying this for now, Khanna goes to great lengths to drive the point home. Consider: “Globalisation has become a multidirectional series of tsunamis that surges across the oceans and undertows continents into the collective currents.” I am left practically speechless by that one. But here is a recommendation I would repeat: “We expend huge effort to measure the value of activity within borders; it is time to devote equal effort to the benefits of connectivity across them.”
A second book, by Wired magazine’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, pushes back against the promoters of the second machine age, who suggest that technology will displace human hands, Kelly says, “This is not a race against the machines. This is a race with the machines.” This ode to connectivity is both perfectly zen and apt for tweetability. Consider three favourite samples: ”Everything had to flow into the stream of now.” “Once something, like music, becomes digitised, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked.” “Soon a book outside the universal library of all will be like a web page outside the web, gasping for air.”
The third book on my list is by Joshua Cooper Ramo, CEO of Kissinger Associates. Ramo finds a single thread running through disparate rising phenomena: ISIS, China, Airbnb. He calls for a need to invoke the “seventh sense” — also the title of his book — the ability to look at any object and see the way it is changed by connection. He claims this sense will divide those who master the age ahead from those who will be mastered by it.
What about the globa-tribalists, who feel they are losing out? NYU’s Nouriel Roubini suggests that winners must find ways to compensate the losers. I agree; abstract welfare theorems from neo-classical economics cannot compensate for lost jobs. The problem is that Roubini’s solutions, such as schemes to replace income foregone because of jobs displaced feel like band-aids on much deeper wounds. Princeton’s Harold James offers a solution goes further in quirkiness. Is there a political equivalent to Airbnb, he asks? Could world leaders live and work for an extended period in a foreign country instead of dashing in and out? He cites the example of Winston Churchill camping out in the White House for 24 days, after World War II, presumably bonding with Roosevelt, while cementing Britain’s trans-Atlantic alliance.
Now that’s an idea for Modi’s travel planners. A few weeks immersed in Nairobi’s slums, iHub and outlying areas,
interrupted by a few days off to witness the migration of the wildebeest in Masai Mara? I wonder if the citizens of India would see the value of immersive foreign relations. The citizens of the UK, US and elsewhere, may not object to their own politicians exiled to the Masai Mara for an extended period of time. One thing these politicians might learn is that even ostriches — of which there are many in the Mara — contrary to belief, do not spend their time with their heads in the sand.
Saving globalisation from the globa-tribals requires leaders with courage to emote with and yet challenge populist sentiment, vision to connect the theory with the reality and pragmatic ideas to help those who have lost jobs due to globalisation . Today’s adversities present opportunities to re-use fallow resources and under-employed human capital to start-up the next industry, with the whole world as its marketplace.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The return of boundaries”)