Why has the world taken against globalisation? And so quickly? As recently as two years ago the economic scene looked set for expanding international trade, increasing travel and a world fraternity that if not federal was more open to discussion than to war. In a spectacularly short time people have turned protectionist. The price of such behaviour will be disaster.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, has come out fighting. “Restricting trade is a clear case of economic malpractice”, she told an audience in Chicago on Wednesday. She went on “Limiting economic openness is sure to worsen the growth outlook for the world and especially its weakest citizens”. She pleaded that we reverse the trend towards protectionism and restore a climate that supports a rebound in trade.
The evidence is all there. In France, Marie Le Pen; in America, Donald Trump; in Britain the Brexiteers; in Germany the anti-migrant faction. It is understandable. Most of our decisions are driven by greed or fear. In a world of invented money, with as many as 50% of jobs likely to be lost to Artificial Intelligence, fear sadly combines with greed to produce a return to our basic instinct, survival. We view survival in the short term. We should look longer term.
But we are beginning to ask ‘how we could do that?’ when, every day, we hear of new technological developments that move the goal posts to a different side of the playing field. Forecasting has never been so difficult in the history of the human race. We become wary of forecasting at all, let alone long term. These understandable reactions need to be re-thought.
General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in WWII, had a famous saying. “Plans”, he said, “are for the birds, but planning is everything”. Hidden in this rather arch statement is a pearl of wisdom. We should be planning all the time, even though we know plans seldom work out exactly as we intended. But the process of planning makes us anticipate as many of the possible outcomes as we can. That way we will seldom be caught unawares.
Our planet houses over 7 billion people. That number is forecast to increase to 9 billion in twenty years’ time. Nobody knows how many people it could reasonably house but we all know it is getting very crowded. Too many rats in a cage lead to several undesirable consequences, ultimately to cannibalism. Rats don’t do a lot of planning, you see.
The consequence of protectionism is almost always war. What starts as an economic defence soon becomes territorial. We are territorial and possession-based creatures. The rival monarchies that started two world wars have disappeared but in their place is a much mightier monarch, democracy. Protectionism in the name of democracy spells war.
It is time to face outwards, not inwards. To celebrate and cope with new technologies, not adopt a Luddite attitude towards them. Time to see the other person’s point of view so that they, in turn, may see ours.
We can no longer live alone in our small corners.