World

Can the forces of globalization ever hope to outlast the coronavirus?

Paul Wells: Openness and trust were fraying before COVID-19. The damage done to this world view is certain to last.

Suddenly, amid a global crisis, everyone’s getting back to the soil. The other day in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou, a village in western France, Emmanuel Macron visited the medical supply company Kolmi-Hopen to thank them for accelerating production of medical-quality face masks.

The French president said he was happy to see companies working hard to import more masks. “But we also—and in my eyes, above all else—must produce more in France. On our soil. We must produce because this crisis teaches us that for certain goods, certain products, certain materials, their strategic character demands a European sovereignty. We must produce more on European soil to reduce our dependence, and to be prepared for the long haul.”

The same day and an ocean away in Ottawa, Canada’s industry minister, Navdeep Bains, sang a similar ode to what can be built at home. “I will say that in addition to the immediate mask procurement, we are in the process of finalizing an agreement to support the development of manufacturing capacity in Canada,” Bains said. “It’s strengthening our domestic supply. That remains a core objective—to make sure we have the ability to build these masks within Canada.”

It’s hardly surprising that, amid a life-or-death global run on medical equipment that’s pitted long-standing trade partners against one another, political leaders are suddenly less enamoured by global trade networks. “All leaders, economic and political, are wondering whether they went too far in optimizing supply chains,” Bernard Gainnier, the president of PwC for France and French-speaking Africa, told Le Monde.

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Amid the worst health crisis in a century, political leaders in Canada and elsewhere are leaving skid marks as they reverse course on decades of conventional wisdom. Global travel has been grounded, the Canada-U.S. border is closed to most of us, travel even between regions in Canada is mightily discouraged by provincial authorities.

A week after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Justin Trudeau tweeted what he clearly intended as Canada’s defining brand distinction. “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” Three years later, Canada’s strong message to a barely newer generation of migrants is stark: To those fleeing contagion, keep out. Diversity is a variable we cannot afford to integrate just now.

But just for now, right? Drastic times, drastic measures. And what was wrong—hell, anti-Canadian—when others advocated it is defensible, indeed necessary, when the red team does it? Just for now?

Perhaps. But you don’t have to push that fortress-building instinct very far before it becomes unnerving or worse. And if there’s one thing we should have learned already during a young 21st century already full of shocks, it’s that whenever the world changes, it rarely goes back to the way it was.

Macron and Bains were, after all, simply hoping to cut China out of the global supply chain for crucial medical equipment. Turns out we’ve built the manufacturing networks of the 21st century on deeply unstable ground, and the pennies per unit thus saved suddenly seem like less of a bargain. Sure, their late-breaking fascination for a more-or-less protectionist industrial policy is worth noting, but it’s hard to mistake for root-and-branch rejection of the world outside national borders.

One notes, however, that around the world, people who are inclined to dismiss, reject or fear the world outside their borders view the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity.

“On Capitol Hill,” Matthew Continetti wrote in the staunchly conservative Washington Free Beacon, “the virus has elevated the senators and staffers who have spent the last few years calling for a ‘realignment’ of Republican politics away from the prerogatives and priorities of corporate America and toward those of middle- and working-class families without college degrees.”

Continetti predicts a post-crisis generation of new Republicans who will be even “more suspicious of uncontrolled flows of labour, capital and goods across borders.” And “they may find that they have company,” he adds, “since the number of unemployed and nonparticipants in the labour force is about to swell.”

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What happens when we push this tendency a little further, in places where the authorities were already deeply suspicious of any outsider? Hungary closed its borders on March 1, before a single COVID-19 case was diagnosed within the country, alleging baseless risks. “We observe a certain link between coronavirus and illegal migrants,” said György Bakondi, a national security adviser to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. This was a flat lie from a government that was barely getting started: Less than a month later, Orbán got Hungary’s parliament to pass a bill giving him the right to rule by decree indefinitely, with no parliamentary oversight and no elections.

This is the dictatorship of xenophobia, and to the extent it bears eerie resemblance to the actions of governments that would have sworn they could have nothing to do with Orbán, well, that’s the times, isn’t it. And surely we have already learned that this sort of crisis-driven change almost never gets rolled back. That when the world changes for the worse, it stays worse.

Older readers will be able to remember a more optimistic time, not all that long ago, during the years between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and other American targets. By the end of that happy decade, the NAFTA continental trade deal was in place. The leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico were talking about hemispheric free trade, “from the North Pole to Tierra del Fuego.” The European Union was abandoning border checks and national currencies. U.S. military spending was flatlined at its lowest level in generations.

The international elite consensus in favour of free trade, open borders, economic integration and a global labour market was nearly complete. It was hard to imagine this consensus ever fraying. In his farewell address from the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 2001, U.S. President Bill Clinton marvelled at his country’s leadership role in an interconnected world of opportunity. “Because the world is more connected every day, in every way, America’s security and prosperity require us to continue to lead in the world,” Clinton said.

“At this remarkable moment in history, more people live in freedom than ever before. Our alliances are stronger than ever. People all around the world look to America to be a force for peace and prosperity, freedom and security. The global economy is giving more of our own people and billions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity.”

Clinton’s speech wasn’t all triumph. He also offered warnings that in hindsight seem eerily prescient. “The forces of integration that have created these good opportunities also make us more subject to global forces of destruction—to terrorism . . . the spread of deadly weapons and disease, the degradation of the global environment,” he said.

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In the decades since, the threats have had a better day of it than the opportunities. 9/11 was an attack on U.S. economic and military superiority that turned the basic tools of the modern world—airplanes and trust—against its targets. When the attacks ended on that horrible Tuesday, there was no way to be sure anything was really over, and the lasting effect was an increase in paranoia and suspicion in North American society.

The banking crisis of 2008 shattered the livelihoods of millions who believed the interconnected world had permitted them to work and live and raise their families with dignity. Home ownership, a cornerstone of American community life, became a vehicle for community ruin. And when it was over, the banks were protected and the families weren’t. This fuelled lasting resentment that’s still felt today.

It just goes on and on. The migrant crisis of 2015, which saw millions of refugee claimants spread across Europe. The Russian attacks on the U.S. presidential election of 2016, using the most ubiquitous and banal weapon imaginable: Facebook. The connected epidemics of deadly opioids, suicide and alcoholism that the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “diseases of despair.” It’s really hard to spot the prosperity, freedom and dignity in all that.

This constant assault against the assumptions of pluralism and openness could hardly fail to have an effect. The effect has been global and profound.

On March 4, the same day Justin Trudeau announced the creation of a top-level cabinet committee to guide Canada’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Freedom House released its annual “Freedom in the World” report. And for the 14th consecutive year, the report showed a net worldwide decline in political rights and civil liberties. That decline was measurable not just in authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran, but also in long-standing democracies. Of the 41 countries that Freedom House had rated “free” for 20 consecutive years before 2005, 25 have since seen their scores decline.

Airport receptionist wearing a face mask as a protective measure against the corona virus checks the body temperature a tourist at Suvarnabhumi airport.

The current anxiety that links disease outbreaks and international travel isn’t going to go away (Adisorn Chabsungnoen/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

All of this suggests that the Western world arrived at the coronavirus crisis with comorbidities. Our patience for the modern connected world, our willingness to make our way in it despite obvious substantial risk, was already worn down before the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Canada. The damage this crisis does, the lessons we will still be drawing and applying long after it ends, will be complicated by the pre-existing conditions of a weary and fearful world.

With what effect? One hardly knows where to start. Maybe here: You’ve been taking your shoes off and offering your hair gel up for inspection at airports for 20 years. Do you really think you’ll ever be allowed on a flight again if you have a fever? For how many decades will skeptics of immigration use infectious disease as part of their argument?

China’s cornerstone role in global supply chains may well be broken for good. But it’s a little early to celebrate, for two reasons. First, the regime in China probably won’t dutifully act like its influential days are behind it. Second, the regime’s clients in the West have nothing ready to replace it.

Part of the grim enjoyment to be had from watching Navdeep Bains at that news conference on hospital masks was the dawning realization that Canada’s industry minister has no real vocabulary for describing industrial production and no real sense of how it can be encouraged in a country that, through nobody’s fault and for the next couple of years at least, won’t have much of a functioning economy to speak of. For his first four years as industry minister, Bains did not even have the quaint and old-fashioned word “industry” in his job title, because the consultants and Banff Forum alumni who designed his job never paused to consider that a country might someday need to make things within its borders. But it turns out that everything is on the exam whether you studied for it or not.

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I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m claiming globalization is the most important casualty of the 2020 pandemic. If only we were so lucky. No, the most significant casualties will be the dead and their bereft loved ones, the communities whose hearts and lungs—arts organizations, restaurants, gathering places—will carry scars for years to come. But the damage to trust, openness and a global perspective, though less important, seems certain to last.

There’s a speech Justin Trudeau gave to the Liberal Party convention in Montreal in 2014, a year and a half before he became prime minister, that I keep quoting because I think he glimpsed a truth in it. It was the kind of ambitious argument you almost never hear anymore from the Prime Minister, his ministers or indeed from their political opponents. For a big speech at a partisan rally, it was surprisingly foreboding.

Trudeau’s claim, in that speech, was essentially that the big consensus Bill Clinton had celebrated in his farewell speech was already behind the eight ball. Was the global economy giving billions the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity? Not the way too many of them saw it. And very soon, Trudeau warned, that could become a big problem.

“The growth we have seen over the past three decades has been the product of a broadly supported agenda,” Trudeau said. “Investments in education, fiscal discipline, openness to trade. All of which the middle class voted for, repeatedly.”

But “the original promise of that agenda was that everyone would share in the prosperity that it creates. That hasn’t happened.” And “if we don’t fix it, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda. That will make us all poorer.”

The assumptions that once seemed poised to fuel a 21st century of growth and opportunity have been battered, again and again, with increasing ferocity, by the forces of regression and a little lousy luck. That’s the hand fate has dealt us. How we play it, once we can even come back out to play, will define the rest of our lives.


This article appears in print in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “There’s no turning back.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.