The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing us another opportunity, more intimate and harrowing than a global financial crisis, to recognize how urgent it is for us to think, feel, act, and react as one planet, one global community. And yet we are living this challenge in the midst of a wave of resurgent nationalism that seeks to chart a course through this crisis by denying interconnectedness, emphasizing difference, and treating domestic and international relations as a series of zero-sum games. This reaction began before the pandemic and has deep roots in the way globalization has been mismanaged to intensify capitalism’s inequality effects on a global scale, including right in our own affluent countries. We thought we could pursue robber-baron capitalism abroad and preserve social welfare capitalism at home, but that has turned out not to be possible.
Some see in this moment the death of globalization, rather than merely the failure of one version of it. Instead, I think we could come out of this with a renewed faith in global connections that are about flourishing together, rather than surviving apart. As we start to peer ahead towards what a post-Covid world might look like, what will it take for us to apply these painful lessons towards a more integrated, supportive, and just global economy?
I think this begins personally. We must try not to forget what we’ve learned from the pandemic about isolation, economic insecurity, and our longing for connection, when we extrapolate to the global. From this perspective, the world consists of eight billion people wanting mostly the same things: life and health for their families and communities, strong social bonds, and economic relations that build opportunity and prosperity.
What does this mean at the level of trade policy and global economic structures? I think this also calls for an act of remembering. In our daily lives we all understand the difference between consensual economic exchanges (even if they ultimately disappoint us), and transactions that are coerced or exploitative. And yet when we come to the global economy, we too often label as “trade” something that is predatory, coercive, or exploitative.
Unfortunately, the current US administration has made coercion a signature of its approach to our transnational economic relationships, threatening or imposing illegal tariffs, for example, to force concessions from key allies like Canada, Mexico, and Korea. No one denies the need for trade to be a mutually beneficial bargain, but such tactics don’t make trade “fair”—they aren’t even trade at all, but something darker and more oppressive, which over time makes everyone more vulnerable to the damaging effects of a globalized and underregulated finance capitalism, which is where the real problem lies.
As Covid-19 decimates the global economy, we can recapture a vision of trade as mutually beneficial consensual exchanges, and build treaties and institutions that protect and enhance consent, rather than undermine it. Instead of reacting to economic and social challenges through old strategies that aren’t working, we can engage the real problem, and work towards rebalancing economic globalization. This way when the walls start to come down, it won’t just be the temporary barriers of social distancing and travel bans, but nationalist tariffs and marginalizing global economic structures as well. That is a recovery worth hoping for and working towards.
Professor Garcia’s recent scholarly interests are reflected in Consent and Trade: Trading Freely in a Global Market (Cambridge).
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