Globalization, a central phenomenon of our time, has made a surprising and tumultuous return to the agenda, judging by upheavals in various political arenas. There are those who herald a turn towards a post-liberal cycle, while others sound the death knell of economic globalization. Without losing sight of the gravity of the situation, we should rejoice at the uproar that has arisen to resignify and grasp these mutations in global affairs. Those occurring before our eyes today are starting to draw a line of disturbance in global governance, wiping out in their wake some obvious facts about the dynamics at work and the reality of international balances.
Few predicted that the weight of the world would return with such a fuss to the field of political opinions and debates on the national scene. The spectacular protectionist U-turn in the English-speaking world—from Donald Trump in the USA to Brexit in the UK—has been echoed by turbulence shaking the European political class, confounded by the nature of the problems they face and hounded by the breakthrough of reactionary and ultra-nationalist sectors. The situation is appreciably different in the countries of the global south, particularly in the (re)emerging ones, which have been able, ups and downs and contradictions notwithstanding, to immerse themselves without supremacy and in a more permeable way into global interdependencies. However, many reconfigurations and phenomena comparable to those of western countries are developing in India, Japan, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, South Africa and the Brazil of Michel Temer. Through these different scenarios, far from constituting a system but forming a base line from which History has shown us some possible ways out, they are developing new models of interpretation and new rules of play on the international scene. What voters have just elected in the USA confirms and deepens one of those lines of force. No one wants to be the boss or the docile servant of a globalization that is scattered, unpredictable, hard to tame and, to make matters worse, less “profitable” on the economic plane. It is necessary to firmly tighten the shackles of globalization in the vice of national interest and forge, where necessary, a mixed ideology that can win over the excluded and calm security fears.
This apparent new deal is a real bludgeoning blow to globalization, in a figurative sense as well as in a real sense, particularly for the United States, which has constantly oozed the liberal opium the world over since the 1980s and which, after the bipolarity of the Cold War, took control of a kind of unipolar geo-economic order. That transitory order, floating on universalist narratives of a pax americana and the remains of the post-war institutional architecture, never really led to the rewriting of a new set of rules of play, as had been the case at the end of previous major international conflicts. The slant of that geo-economic model has continued to grow steeper towards a threefold crisis in relation with the planet’s biophysical conditions, among societies, social classes and individuals themselves. Furthermore, with the rapture of the US as a hyperpower burned out, the present day shows us that Washington diplomacy has not completely lost its trump cards as a major nation, but has certainly lost the capacity to impose its rules of play on the rest of the planet. The proof can be seen in Syria, in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, with China and with Russia, and even with Mexico, Cuba, and Latin America. After the bitter failure of the Neocons’ messianic crusade, mounting their evangelizing projection on the back of globalization, Barack Obama replaced a timid but significant divorce with Anglo-Saxon ambition, entirely founded on the free trade launched by his predecessors and clumsily recycling imperialist pretensions in the form of interventionism and participation in irregular conflicts. Everyone, including the advocates of “Make America Great Again”, admit quite frankly now that the USA’s monopoly dissipated in the flood of globalization, a fact that we can only delight in, a priori, as it is synonymous with the retreat of imperialist reflexes. But it has to be recognized that the immense vacuum created by the retreat of the west is still a long way from
leading to genuine perspectives of regulation of our multipolar pre-system, or guaranteeing a fortiori the governance of an increasingly unstable world.
However, the path that is being consolidated at present, even with major political nuances from one context to another (Alt Right, birthers, ultranationalism, isolationism, regional separatism, negationism, etc.) takes in contrast a relationship with global interdependences experienced as unfinished, naïve, long-suffering and ultimately destabilizing for the communities framed in their national State. Opposed to the “business as usual” of a transnational elite that takes the reins of economic globalization to the detriment of marginalized sectors and national coherence is a recuperation of bilateral, nay, unilateral control of trade based on patriotic priorities that almost magically are made to coincide with established corporate interests. The racial cosmopolitanism attempted by Obama and the incantations of European leaders in favour of social diversity and solidarity are replaced by a reaffirmation of walls and separation, of borders and of the national space, against a background of offensive and exacerbated identitarianism which in practice translates into a wave of xenophobia and the repression of migratory flows. Add to this the political apparatus’ tendency to use the media for propaganda, emotional runaways and diplomatic improvisation in lieu of the patient search for (naturally hesitant) multilateralism, and covering up at times the exercise of power relations, but showing at least a willingness to pursue the common interest. Let us remember that the concept of globalization, although it is often epitomized for many of the world’s people as financial domination and neo-colonial looting, is not synonymous with the “world internationalization” we put forward here to tackle the complexity of the world order. This refers to a model based on the principles of interdependence, widespread communication, solidarity, meta-sovereignty, multilateralism and the common good. The political challenge consists of translating this model into a new architecture of world g
In principle, one is not obliged to see only the negative side to these different positions. An adapted and modernized nationalism is a central factor of economic dynamism and of the defence of sovereignty of emerging nations evolving in the context of a globalization that is, unfortunately, merciless. An anti-establishment reaction is legitimate against an endogamous ruling class, trapped in its routine of staying in power, having managed to install its “globalization software” in the matrix of globalization in order to get hold of wealth and significant power. OXFAM’s 2017 figures on world inequalities speak volumes in this respect. But as legitimate as some precepts may appear, they nonetheless go against a plausible alternative and the very foundations of that global matrix mentioned above and whose current failings are one of the main tectonic faults in the stability of our international system. Identitarianism is an effective sedative for easing frustrations, but it silently secretes its poison when one tries to approach, at least with a little relevance, one of the hottest questions on the global agenda: human mobility. Defensive nationalism cuts back and destroys solidarity and the common good, as illustrated by Donald Trump’s dramatic refusal to take on the delicate agenda of climate transition set out by the UN. Bilateralism has no longer any real impact on the structural questions of a community made up by almost 200 nation states and has become a leitmotif for triggering all kinds of skirmishes in the shadow of weak multilateral institutions and international norms. The hostile position taken recently by Netanyahu on Palestinian territory or the US government’s plan to apply a trade barrier at its borders under the noses of the WTO and China are only the beginning. As for populism, while it expresses a desirable return of the political sphere and a new relationship with the elites, today it is just as useful for positively shaking up institutional conser
vatism as it is for setting out a permanent denouncement of the adversary and manipulating fear.
This grey water that leaks into the shaky foundations of the geopolitical chessboard is doubly alarming and leads us to reason about a certain number of strategic questions or factors. Firstly, far from leading to a new regime of balance of the multipolar pre-system, the absence of an arbiter or kingpin in the current stage of geopolitical transition is confirmed as a factor of growing instability and of the potential emergence of new conflicts. History has shown more than once the role of the kingpin: Persia at the heart of the Eurasian chessboard (4th to 5th century BC); Britain in the European continent (1648-1789, then 1815-1914); the United States after the fall of the USSR from 1991, with the mistakes that we are dealing with today. The American retreat, the incapacity of Europe to influence world issues, as demonstrated in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere, and the will of other powers to exploit these weaknesses all contribute equally to this situation. China, on the threshold of becoming the new centre of world production, delays for now, absorbed by its own weight. Russia, always clever in power relationships and diplomacy, lacks the size necessary to occupy such a role. And the (re)emerging countries, despite their overly criticized efforts to build an active diplomacy at the heart of new clubs of powers (such as the BRICS) do not yet appear ready to take on this responsibility. This trend towards a “centrifugal” multipolarity, i.e., the anarchic dispersion of the poles of power—even when some powers are still in the growth phase—is even more problematic when the matrix of the problems to be tackled will quite clearly exceed national sovereignties from now on. After all, the current scenario is characterized more by a situation of weakening “within the system” of the traditional powers than by a competition exacerbated by the hegemonic leadership of global affairs. Rivalries on different fronts between Russia, the USA and China are far from being resolved. Non
etheless, let us remember that the road travelled since 1991 in the deregulation model of the post-Cold War, so convenient for Washington, shows us that local instabilities have not engendered escalations of conflicts at global or intercontinental level, hence no peace conference or any major reconfiguration has taken place in this period. However, it is perhaps timely to begin to explore a new model that would be capable of bouncing back from this trend and identify the main variables on which to conceive a genuine system of multipolar balance, as was the case four centuries ago with the Treaty of Westphalia.
Related to the first point, the second point is that the diagnosis shows that a short-term international action, mixing genres and periods in an amalgamation of moralism, activism and vestiges of imperialism is no longer a viable solution for tackling the burning questions on the agenda, nor for stabilizing an international chessboard made up of heterogeneous units. As mentioned above, this time it is the electors of the middle classes who send a message of distrust to the exclusive and deficient construction of global interdependencies. However, all things considered, the form of governance of global matters remains an unfinished mosaic, the product of slip-ups from the past which has evolved very little since the end of the bipolar world with the rise of the emerging powers. Except in the rare case of referenda, liberal democracy literally outsources international matters, delegating them to the formal and factual environments of transnational power. Decisions are taken in an environment of diplomacy of powerful clubs and oligarchies, superimposing a multilateralism of good will, international institutions and relatively outdated collective security devices (particularly NATO and the UN Security Council), all operating in a reality constantly modified by the permanent flux of power relations and new complexities. In this governance gap with polarizing effects, the shortest path, consisting of favouring false solutions that respond to the heroes and passions of the moment, is destined to gain ground, in so far as a public opinion tied to new political spaces is not sustained in the long term to discern and support new perspectives of the global (and regional) society. However, these new perspectives cannot simply rest on new structures of regulation and the formation of a world public opinion, separating anachronistically material and economic variables. The seriousness of social and bioclimatic crises, both capable of causing the next geopolitical explosions, plac
e the refounding of a bio-geo-economic pact or state of emergency at centre stage.
Lastly, the current nationalist retreat will make a fantastic smoke screen for the shifting of underground plates that revolutionize the matrix of world power. Among these movements, the intersociality and mutation of power constitute two main driving forces. On the one hand, global interdependencies and widespread communication, in the south as in the north, have considerably shifted relationships of competition between powers towards the issues of social and political rebalance. That is, towards relations in which the effective power is recentred in logics that may contain social inclusion and integration, repairing social resentments and inequalities, or investing in the regeneration of social contracts. Both the multiplication of intra-state confrontations since 1991 and the disorientation of traditional kingpins to exploit their military power politically constitute important markers. It is enough to observe the way in which new points of conflict happen to take place in a strip of social and institutional precariousness stretching from Mauritania to Afghanistan, with the appearance of new mercenaries who ensure the continued existence of their trade on these societies’ distress. In fact, the sources of violence and of security deviations are more radicalized in those areas of socio-political vulnerability, in an environment where resistance and resentment are not willing to give up ground. This does not herald the end of military rivalries between traditional states, nor of historic sources of confrontation, as the current arms race shows. Simply, the army and traditional peace talks no longer decide exclusively the fate of armed conflicts, military action being less and less legitimate in the eyes of the population. These conditions lead, furthermore, to a change in the face of war that has been recycling itself for the last two decades in the fields of the media and economics. This factor of intersociality also has to be correlated with the changes that took
place in the reformulation of the power emerging from the geoeconomic pact of the 4 Ds1: financial innovation, control of international law, monitoring of communications, the influence of public opinion, productive transition. Although the US hyper power has a head start in some of these areas, we can clearly see that the geometry of the rivalries has tended to reorganize itself around these lines of power and to reformulate geopolitical alliances.
In this period of transition, the neo-nationalist view, the dramatization of fear and the reflexes of power will not cease to be manifested as right hooks and upper cuts in the global boxing ring. The deglobalizing narrative and the rejection of political elites (in the style of the “que se vayan todos” (“may they all be gone”) protests in Argentina), remarkably effective and propagated in the transboundary space of the internet, seems to put paid to the narrative of an optimistic globalization that was born with the hopes of the post-Cold War. But let us not forget, however, that the pseudo-complicity among supporters of the isolationist withdrawal is clearly unnatural, one that sails into an economic system with no way out, with deflation and over-production joining the immediate pressures weighing on the system. It is enough to observe the internal squabbles between industrial-financial conglomerates and their get-tough policies that they exercise in peripheral economies, in the wake of the 2007 crisis. There is nothing to suggest, indeed, a viable and secure path for governmental measures that are clearly out of synch with the realities of global governance that we saw previously. If the end of the great ideological struggles of the last century allowed us to think of a less fratricidal world, reality shows us that, with the twenty-first century barely begun, the institutions, political leaders and economic tools are today utterly disarmed when it comes to tackling the threats of the age. Does this mean that we must wait with our arms crossed until the next flare-up? No. It is necessary to be vigilant, intelligent and active, as it is in these key moments that alternatives appear or, on the contrary, the system disintegrates, because it is incapable of responding to the demands of the age. Will the advocates of a positive globalization who have not yet taken the initiative of a global union be able to take advantage of this opportunity?
1 Deregulation, Disintermediation, Defragmentation and Dematerialization.