For some time, the populists across the world have been celebrating the “highly-exaggerated” news of the demise of globalisation, with some on the left treating it synonymously with the death of capitalism and many on the right deeming it as a precursor of the latter’s pristine rebirth.
But the drumbeats of war in various theatres – from Syria to Korea and Yemen to the South China Sea – are telling a contrary story, as the military and industrial machines across the globe, especially in the country which boasts that it considers its interests first and humanity’s last, churn out ever-higher profits and push the stock markets to ever-new peaks.
The dropping of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb – the mother of all bombs or the MOAB, which is capable of obliterating everything within a radius of a mile around its target of a remote cave – on the Pak-Afghan border and the movement of the armed armada of US ships heading towards the Korean Peninsula in anticipation of Pyongyang’s flexing its nuclear muscles are among the more belligerent optics around the planet that could soon metamorphose the rhetoric into an apocalyptic conflict.
The situation in the Korean Peninsula seems most dire, with Trump’s declaration to “go it alone” and abandon its “strategic silence” in that explosive region. One shudders to imagine the not-too-improbable sight of Trump ensconced in his Mar-a-Lago golf hide-out, watching the nuclear mushroom cloud rising over Pyongyang and tweeting: “It’s beautiful”. However, the global merchants of death and destruction are savvy enough to not push the world over the cliff and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs in the shape of even deadlier weapons of war that fuel the capitalist economy.
Ever since national boundaries became enforceable through state power, globalisation has undergone continual change in its scope, strength, the driving forces underlying it and the winners and losers emerging in its wake – both within and outside national boundaries. However, it needs to be emphasised that the real problem facing globalisation today is essentially managerial, not existential or a matter of it being relevant to the well-being of humankind. The anti-globalisation backlash – which had propelled the populist movements in the West to cloak its anti-immigrant and racist agenda – is beginning to unravel in Europe where some key elections are beginning to show some silver linings. Trump’s own team is in disarray and is poised to take a u-turn on his America First (or America Alone) anti-globalisation rhetoric.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, if not a quarter-century earlier, it has been becoming manifest that the management mechanisms for globalisation, which have been crafted at the end of the Second World War – notably the Bretton Woods institutions – had become decrepit, dysfunctional and ineffective, if not irrelevant to both developed and developing countries. A new architecture to equitably manage the global economy – and, more generally, the global commons – was becoming an inevitable necessity. The need was felt due to the tectonic changes in the global power structure, the continuing rise of China and other developing countries and the commensurate decline of the US and other developed countries.
Having lost its clout as the major source of finance for world development in the post-WWII period, the US has had to increasingly rely on its pre-eminent role as a military hegemon – a position it acquired after ending its isolation from Europe and joining the Allies – during the cold war period to exercise its influence around the globe. That military expenditures are a major driver of the global economy is hardly a well-kept secret. General Eisenhower popularised the concept of an industrial-military complex in his farewell address to the nation from the White House in 1961 – although his focus was on domestic politics (originally, he wanted to include the Congress in the unholy nexus).
That war was an existential imperative for the US military-industrial complex became evident during the Vietnam War. George F Kennan famously wrote in 1987: “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military–industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy”.
His prophetic prescience was validated by the emergence of the falling dominoes theory in South East Asia and the discovery of the non-existent WMD threat in Iraq – even as Mr Trump and his generals are itching to destroy the yet-unborn Iranian and North Korean nuclear bombs (while being in denial or amnesic about the existence of an Israeli nuclear bomb) and find some excuse to provoke China and Russia to engage them in an armed conflict.
The world has been waiting for the elusive peace dividend since the end of the cold war. Instead of using such a dividend to launch global infrastructure, social development and poverty reduction programmes, the tepid SDGs are under threat. The fruits of globalisation are being picked by the rich in the shape of the massive and grotesque increase in income inequality, of which no statistic is more telling than the fact that half a dozen of the richest individuals own more wealth than half the world’s population.
According to the SIPRI, the total world spending on military expenses in 2009 was $1.531 trillion, out of which, about $1 trillion was accounted for by the US government’s spending annually on defence-related purposes. The massive increase in US defence expenditures may salvage the sagging project of globalisation at an enormous risk to global peace and human welfare. But the globalisation baby need not be thrown away with the bathwater polluted by war expenditures, ecological degradation, religious and racial bigotry. What needs to be done is to refresh the tub with ingredients that will nurture a healthy baby in a nontoxic and caring environment.
The increase in global defence spending must be severely resisted by all developing countries, including Pakistan, who suffer the most from the squeeze on development and non-defence expenditure. In this regard, Pakistan joining a new military alliance, the Islamic Forces Alliance (IFA) – presumably patterned on Nato – under Saudi sponsorship and allowing its recently-retired army chief to assume its command by relaxing normal procedures, is a problematic development and is likely to exacerbate globalisation’s discontent.
Pakistan needs to collaborate with China and other developing countries to shape a new architecture of global governance. As the Bretton Woods twins unravelled, the fast-growing emerging markets tried to put into place alternative institutions, such as the Chiang Mai initiative in East Asia, the New Development Bank, the AIIB and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement of the Brics. But these institutions have encountered serious resistance from the US and other Western countries, who are wary of China stealing the show.
China has, however, played a remarkably cool role and has avoided being provoked by attempts to alienate itself from its neighbours and trading partners, or getting involved in trivial disputes. It has deployed its cache of foreign exchange reserves to promote infrastructural development around the world more sensibly and less avariciously than any other exporter of capital in the past century.
The author is a former professor
of economics at the QAU and a former member of the Board of Governors of Aurat Foundation