What Type of International Relations Following the Decline of Neoliberal Globalisation?

Paolo Gerbaudo

7 mins - 4 de Mayo de 2023, 07:05

We currently stand on the passage point between two eras. As neoliberal globalisation fades away, we may well start asking for what different form of planetary relations – or if you will for what different kind of globalisation – we should advocate. Rather than a unipolar globalisation trying to engulf the entire world in a pervasive common market, as it was the case with neoliberal globalisation, what needs to be pursued is a multipolar globalisation where respect for sovereignty and autonomy makes for a more solid basis for internationalism and mutual benefit.

Economic globalisation – the growing interconnectedness of the economy at a planetary level – has been the most important phenomenon of the last decades. During the 1990s and early 2000s, it looked like an unstoppable phenomenon, bound to integrate even the most remote recesses of the planet into a global market, while condemning the countries, companies and individuals who did not follow its imperatives to irrelevance. The idea was to include any area of the world into a pervasive global market eliminating all forms of state barriers and state controls, but often with nefarious effects. Its idea was a complete openness where countries should renounce their autonomy and states should give away their instruments of protection and control, allowing for flows to run unimpeded. 

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In a world traversed by multiple shocks, it is precisely globalisation that has come into question. Already in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and during the austerity of the 2010s, Western economists had noticed a tendency towards ‘slowbalisation’ – the slowing of globalisation. Global growth slackened, foreign direct investments dipped and even global trade itself – a key indicator of global interconnectedness – receded. The coronavirus crisis has only intensified this tendency, producing a dip in global trade, the upsetting of global supply chains, growing economic protectionism. 

Furthermore, globalisation has become increasingly unpopular in many Western countries where politicians such as Donald Trump have accused globalisation of being responsible for the loss of well-paid and stable jobs. The rise of BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) over the last decades has severely redefined the standing of different regions around the world. In particular, the rise of China which - according to different economic indicators - is either on the verge of, or has already surpassed the US, in terms of GDP, has created jealousy in some Western countries, particularly in the US

Yet, political debates especially in the West are still struggling to grapple with this historical transformation and drawing its implications. In 2018 the then president of the US waged a trade war with China raising tariffs on $500 billion of Chinese goods. While the trade conflict was concluded with the Phase One agreement, protectionist sentiments continue to be strong in the US. Many see Biden’s 'Buy American' policy directing public procurement towards US goods and services as a less antagonistic continuation of the same sentiment. 

In China the dual-circulation policy aims at balancing internal circulation and external circulation, production for internal consumption and production for exports. The idea is to improve the capacity of the economy in strategic sectors such as technology, while ensuring food and energy security. This speaks to a more general awareness that the idea of a unified global market can limit countries' internal development as well as their autonomy and security. 

In Europe similar debates are developing discussions about strategic autonomy, which aims at making the European Union capable of achieving more autonomy in the technological sector, specifically semiconductors, while ensuring more autonomy in terms of energy. 

The big challenge going forward is balancing countries’ autonomy and security and their international interconnectedness. This need is reminiscent of Aristotle’s famous discuss of self-sufficiency as a precondition for the good life of a polity. For Aristotle ‘self-sufficiency means having a supply of everything and lacking nothing’. For him it was important not just in economic terms but in political terms, because without being self-sufficient countries would not really be autonomous. 

British economist John Maynard Keynes had Aristotle’s discussion of self-sufficiency in mind when writing his famous essay on national self-sufficiency. Delivered as a lecture at University College Dublin on 19 April 1933, the text advocated the need to moderate ‘economic entanglement among nations’. For Keynes, there were goods and services, such as ‘[i]deas, knowledge, science, hospitality [and] travel’ that, by their nature, could not be brought under national control, though those that could be definitely should.

‘[L]et goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national’. He further proposed that the ‘policy of an increased national self-sufficiency is to be considered, not as an ideal in itself, but as directed to the creation of an environment in which other ideals can be safely and conveniently pursued’. He considered that if global trade and finance were not controlled they would create chaos and jealousies across nations. 

Self-sufficiency was important for countries’ freedom and autonomy, and ultimately for peace. 

This is similar to the idea of Confucius about the importance of autonomy, personal and collective, and it being the basis for real mutual respect, both individuals and countries can respect one another only if they are to some extent self-sufficient. Because for respect to exist there needs to be equality and equal standing, an internal sphere of self-determination and an external sphere of exchange and collaboration. 

This does not mean that countries should engage in autarchy, in the idea of closure and complete economic autonomy. This is neither the idea of China’s dual-circulation policy not the one of countries in the West, as everyone knows that autarchy only leads to penury. The matter rather is to move beyond the form of pervasive interconnectedness, the idea of globalisation as a force doing away with sovereignty that was pursued by Western neoliberals during the phase of high globalisation. A different idea of international relations in enshrined in the five principles of peaceful coexistence 'mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence'. 

This comes close to what many progressive forces are demanding also in Europe and the US. If we are to build a different globalisation, a globalisation that acknowledges different countries’ sovereignty, autonomy and their international equality, we need to balance their legitimate desire to achieve self-sufficiency in areas that are strategic for their autonomy and security – for example food, energy and technology, while at the same time engaging in forms of exchange that are mutually beneficial, that improve the quality of life of workers and citizens, that protect the environment, and that guarantee peace. 

All countries around the world have an interest in peaceful coexistence. But this will not be achieved either by complete openness predicated by neoliberal globalisation long pursued in the west, and neither by a retreating into autarchy. As ever absolutes are not useful for policy. Rather what is required is a world in the internal and the external, the domestic and the international economy are balanced, and where national sovereignty is reconciled with international exchange and common interests. 

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