As the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world, many countries reacted in what some may term as rather selfish ways. Countries producing masks and disinfectants and the materials that go into their manufacture started hoarding supplies for the needs of their own citizens. All ideas of vasudaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) and existing trade agreements were ignored. Travel in and out of countries was prohibited.
When vaccines were developed at a few centres around the world, the story repeated. The US began restricting the exports of some key chemicals to maximize their availability for domestic production. India fell back on its commitment to WHO and restricted exports of its vaccines to meet domestic needs.
These events seemed to culminate a trend that began earlier when major economies were into trade wars and imposing tariff and non-tariff barriers and so led to people declaring the end to globalisation. But looking at globalisation in terms of trade and exchange of goods and services is a limited view. You may call it economic globalisation, if you wish. For, even sticking to the Covid theme, we saw plenty of sharing and exchange of ideas across the world, and it was driven by national interests.
Countries were learning the best practices in testing for the virus and its treatment, in regulating public interactions, and in the measures taken to minimise its spread such as tracking, by looking at what other countries were doing. While this did not involve a transaction, it involved sharing. So also, the development of the vaccine by a few countries was based on the research that is constantly being carried out by scholars around the world and being published in globally accessible journals.
Governments who are responsible to their people cannot be expected to cooperate with other countries in violation of their national interests. Thus, when we look for actions that seem to support or oppose globalisation, we need to remember that underlying them all will be national interests. Conflicts arise when the actions of one, in its national interest, are seen to be at the detriment of the others. This is why the restrictions on availability of the vaccine was looked down upon. It is a big leap from this to judge an end to globalisation.
Covid has also set off a series of supply chain problems around the world. Production and distribution of various commodities from apparel, textiles to iron and steel, chemicals and so on had been globally integrated on purely economic criteria, such as scale economies, price and resource availability. These chains have now been disrupted as different countries are gearing up to post-Covid economic activity at different speeds.
Moreover, the policies and procedures of each country and their respective priorities have also changed. Shipping lines have backed up. As these issues are being resolved, companies are re-thinking their former laser-like focus on integration and are spreading supply sources, building domestic capacities and so on. Yet, companies will continue to share their technology across various sites, and continue to look for global markets, while production may be loosely coupled between country operations of companies and their sub-contractors.
Thus, sometimes, globalisation can seem like a two steps forward and one step backward process. That is still a one-step progress! Individuals, organisations and governments learn from their experience and from going through crises to constantly revise their path forward.
The best test of global cooperation, of course, will be the COP26 climate change summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, between November 1 and 12. The representatives of about 190 countries are meeting to arrive at policies and targets that would try to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius and reach net zero by 2050. Even the protestors outside the venue are probably representing activists from those countries. You can well imagine the amount of cooperation, exchange and sharing that is going on inside and outside the venue.
Hence, in future, when you hear the word globalisation, don’t restrict your thinking to merely economic activity such as trade and investments. That is only one, albeit an important one, part of globalisation. There are social, political, business, technological and other interactions involving exchange and sharing taking place across the world that are also components of the same globalisation.
(The writer is the author of ‘Globalization: A multidimensional system’ published by Edward Elgar, UK. He is also an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston)