The 1990s slide towards greater poverty and environmental breakdown, together with the dilution of powers of developing countries to manage their own affairs, led to a strong public reaction against global bodies deemed to be responsible. Although the activists became known as the anti-globalisation movement, their grievances were equally vehement on capitalism, corporate power and US economic and cultural imperialism.
After violent clashes at a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999, subsequent gatherings of G8 world leaders and international financial institutions retreated to inaccessible and remote locations, encircled by massive security operations.
The 2008 financial crisis revived anti-globalisation sentiment, but from a rather different perspective. Replacing the Seattle focus on injustice experienced in the developing world at the hands of global governance, contemporary protests – such as the Occupy Movement – are concerned for the poor everywhere, the 99% disadvantaged by economic globalisation. Oxfam research concludes that “eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity,”
No greater damage could be done to the creed of globalisation than the extensive state support for failed western banks that prevailed for years after the crisis. World leaders continue to convey a sense of helplessness at the sheer complexity of the interdependent world created by globalisation. Artificial monetary measures such as quantitative easing and negative interest rates have unknown consequences.
There are many signs of globalisation in retreat, none more dramatic than the UK public vote to withdraw from the European Union, the world’s most ambitious economic and political integration of nation states. In the US, there is a backlash against international outsourcing of back office functions and mass production. The association of cyber-crime, trafficking, terrorism and super-bugs with porous borders adds to the woes of globalisation.
Traditional US enthusiasm for trade agreements has abruptly reversed with the election of President Trump. Instead of celebrating low prices of consumer goods, many workers now blame international competition for stagnant wages and loss of jobs in traditional manufacturing industries. Features of contemporary trade agreements, such as investor-state dispute settlement, appear to bestow corporations with powers normally the domain of national governments.
Despite these setbacks, globalisation has avoided a knockout punch. No credible alternative global economic model emerged, even when the world’s investment banks were at the mercy of public opprobrium. Anti-globalisation sentiment has missed its golden opportunity.
Tackling the planet’s major problems urgently depends on a new vision of globalisation, recalibrated to address the mistakes of the past.
more Globalisation briefings (updated December 2017)
Winners and Losers
International Development Model
Globalisation and Environmental Limits
Globalisation and Migrant Workers