From Globalization to Populism

Posted on Oct 26, 2020 in Geopolitics, Nationalism, Populism

In a recent keynote address I gave to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica (ICAJ) business webinar, on 8 October 2020, on the topic, “From Globalization to Populism”, I discussed factors driving this change, as well as the implications of the shift taking place in several countries from a global to a nationalist perspective.


From Globalization to Populism

Ambassador Curtis A Ward

State of the global community

What is the state of the global community? How did we get to the point we are today in our history?

Getting to where we are today was, at times, a rocky and sometimes treacherous course. At other times, it has been an exciting and extraordinary journey. Small countries like Jamaica, on occasions, existed in an ocean of uncertainty, adrift like a rudder-less ship in uncharted waters. Less developed countries were forced to paddle against the current, while being buffeted by the winds from the West and North, and winds from the East. Yet, Jamaica has made it this far, which in itself is a testament to national resilience. As any keen observer of Jamaican history will know, Jamaicans, from the early years, have survived against great odds and the people have transcended to a higher plane where struggle for survival had become a part of their DNA. The indomitable Jamaican spirit has heightened Jamaican nationalism and fervor to find ways to overcome adversities.

Today, in a globalized world with all of its complexities and contending dynamics, struggle and survival are the new norms.

Jamaica’s short journey since independence in 1962 began at the height of the Cold War when our choices were limited in a bi-polar world. In a world in which the United States of America and the former Soviet Union competed for global superiority by virtue of their military might, grounded on the nuclear threat they posed to each other, and to the international community. Often referred to as the ‘balance of power’ and ‘great-power rivalry’, there was nothing great about two countries subjecting humanity to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

That threat, though still existing today, has moderated over time, as both super powers came to realize the folly of their ways, and acceptance of the realization that world dominance is not dependent solely on military might, but also on global economic power, moral leadership, and diplomatic statecraft.

Post-Cold War dynamics

Collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, set in motion new paradigms for global hegemony. The contrast between the limited economic reach of the weakened Russian-led former Soviet states, and the superior economic power of the American-led Western democracies left us with what was essentially a unipolar world. Adaptation and embrace by nascent democracies of liberal democratic forms of governance and economies changed global alignment of states, thus reshaping global geopolitical dynamics. Western-controlled post-World War II institutions grew in influence, and new multilateral institutions were created to further global control by Western economies and liberal democracies.

The first decade of the post-Cold War period saw the emergence of the United States as the sole super power – both in terms of its far superior military forces and having the world’s largest and most powerful economy.

You may rightly ask what is the standing of Russia in this new global environment? The short answer is Russia has been reduced to a country that is struggling to survive from years of economic mismanagement, exacerbated by low global oil prices, and an out of control coronavirus pandemic. The Russian economy, which is highly dependent on oil and natural gas exports, teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. In reality, the Russian military can compete effectively only within the narrow confines of the border regions of Russia. It now seems that Russia’s main export is disinformation, and its principal external activity is interference in the democratic processes of liberal democracies. Russia promotes chaos in otherwise stable countries by meddling in their democratic processes.

This period was also the technology decade and the development of information technology took place at a very rapid rate. Globalization of every aspect of human existence followed, and the spread of information technology and growth in global travel made it possible for human interaction across national borders at a pace unimaginable less than a generation ago.

The reality is that Globalization, though promoted as serving all of humanity, was not meant for countries that lacked modern technology and lack of easy access to information technology on a broad scale. Expectations outweighed the benefits. As a matter of fact, some will even argue, that countries that were denied a level technological playing field struggled to keep pace with modern technology and many lacked the expertise and capacity, and perhaps the foresight, to take advantage of globalization in the context of a ‘new world order’.

At the same time, global economic power began to shift to Southeast Asia with China overtaking Japan as economic leader of the region, thus placing China in head-to-head competition with the United States. Ideology aside, observing the rapid decline of the former Soviet Union to that of a second tier power with very little prospect of countering American global economic power, the Chinese government seized the opportunity to grow its own economy by adapting western modes of production while maintaining its socialist/communist form of government.

Rise of China’s economic and military power

While representing Jamaica at the United Nations Security Council at the turn of the Century, there was a buzz about an article in the New York Times which detailed what was characterized as excessive military spending by the Chinese government. The truth of the matter is the Chinese military expenditure, which seemed to have alarmed them, was a mere fraction of America’s military budget. On further analysis it was obvious that if the Chinese were to spend at this so-called “excessive” rate, it would take the Chinese perhaps another fifty years to catch up to where the US was in the year 2000. Only through significantly reduced US military spending over several decades would the Chinese have a chance of achieving military parity with the United States.

Seeking the Chinese perspective on military spending and other issues, I took the opportunity to ask the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations about the alarm raised in the article. The ambassador told me then that the Chinese government was under no illusion of being on par with American military strength. He said that was not his government’s intent. He shared with me that China’s intention for the increased military expenditure was to build a force for defense purposes that would serve as a deterrent to future US governments harboring any intent to attack China militarily; and, as I understood it, to deter any attempt by the United States to seek a military solution to the status of Taiwan.

Most importantly, the Chinese ambassador stressed that China’s primary focus was to develop its economy, in order to compete globally with the United States. I remind you, this conversation occurred some 20 years ago. Let’s fast forward to the present.

China now boasts the world’s second largest economy, second only to the United States. During that short period, from 2000 to the present, we have moved from a unipolar world in the immediate decade after the post-Cold War period when the US was the only dominant military and economic power, to a bi-polar world within which China’s economy is in direct competition with that of the United States, and China’s military deterrence provides a stand-off with the United States. We live in a world in which China has become the dominant economic and military force in the Asian sub-continent.

China’s emergence during this period coincided with the extraordinary growth of globalization and the interdependence and interconnectedness of the international supply chain. However, globalization isn’t only about economic growth, trade, and development.

Globalization provided new threats from, and new opportunities for transnational criminal enterprises, including international terrorism and cybercrimes networks. Money laundering and terrorist financing, drug trafficking, illicit arms trafficking, human trafficking and human smuggling are all facilitated by the ease of travel and the ease of money transfer across national borders. Globalization and the technological revolution, while allowing countries like Jamaica to promote the services  they offer on a global scale, also exposes the dependencies and vulnerabilities to service industries, in Jamaica’s case its tourism product. The effects of the 2007 to 2009 recession, and the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic, have brought the reality of globalization to every country’s doorstep.

The speed of information technology development – connecting practically every corner of the globe in real time; the speed of international travel and international commerce has fueled the global reach of China’s economic power. With China’s economic footprints growing throughout this hemisphere, and countries like Jamaica deriving certain benefits from this extraordinary expansion, let me be very clear, China, as well as the US, the UK and others always prioritize their own interests over the interests of all other countries.

The “America First” agenda

In the meantime, the rise in nationalism in many countries has created new dynamics in domestic and international relationships. On the domestic front, nationalism has contributed to the rise in populism. In the case of the United States, the rise in nationalism and populism in America resulted in the election of a president whose major domestic and foreign policy imperatives rest on the notion of “America First.” America’s role on the global stage has become less relationship-building and more transactional in nature.

Emerging from this “America First” shambolic policy, is intense geopolitical competition between the United States and China; fueled by US induced trade tension between the world’s two major economic powers; the incoherent antagonistic trade policies of the Trump administration towards traditional American allies, also highlights the vulnerability of small economies like Jamaica’s.  In this scenario, Jamaica and other developing and under-developed countries become economic and geopolitical pawns on the global stage with further implications for global economic realignments.

As an African proverb aptly states, “When two elephants make love the grass gets trampled, and when they fight the grass is trampled even further.” In this globalized environment, there is hardly any winning position for countries like Jamaica with small, weak economies.

Jamaica – a history of integrity and principles

In a globalized and interconnected world, Jamaica’s vulnerable economy can be easily shaken by the dynamics in major, and between, competing capitals. In the past, Jamaican political leaders have managed to walk between the rails of old and new bilateral partners, mindful of competing geopolitical interests, while maintaining the country’s reputation for integrity in its bilateral and multilateral relations.

Since independence in 1962, Jamaica has gained significant respect and has benefited from its reputation as a country of global integrity and principles; a country which was not afraid to take principled positions regionally and globally, even when Jamaica’s positions were not in sync with the super power to the north or with other traditional European partners. At the same time, small countries like Jamaica cannot afford to make enemies of any country.

However, sitting astride the fence when faced with opportunities to defend principled positions, only because they are difficult, or because it might gain the displeasure of a powerful country, has and never will serve Jamaica well in the long-term. A country’s consistency and integrity create confidence for relationships with long-term gains. A coherent and principled foreign policy is not transactional. And, in a globalized environment, with the speed at which information flows, the lack of transparency and integrity is easily discernible across the globe by all interested parties. This is the new reality with which countries like Jamaica must cope.

The terrorism phenomenon and the rise of populism

The globalization agenda was jolted into a new reality in 2001. The most heinous of terrorist attacks in modern history against the United States on September 11, 2001 (9/11) sparked an unprecedented security threat on a global scale posed by international terrorism. The international terrorism threat caused significant adjustments to the globalized space affecting all aspects of interdependence and interrelationships.

In response, new modalities and counter-terrorism norms and capacities were developed, and continued to evolve, in order to create new security capacities within the globalized space.  The safety of civil aviation; the protection of the international supply chain; maintaining the integrity of the international financial system; and guaranteeing the safety and protection of services, such as tourism, have been prioritized. The result has been implementation of travel restrictions, stringent financial regulations, significantly increased border security, and the growth of nationalism in many countries, including closing the doors to foreign nationals.

Populists seized the opportunity to blame the nationals of other countries for their own difficulties. Populist leaders appealed to ethnic, racial, and religious differences; they blamed immigrants and non-nationals for their own failings; and they appealed to the base instincts of segments of the population to gain traction in societies fearful for their safety and well-being, and impatient for change. Populist leaders generally take advantage of the impatience of their populations to turn against non-nationals within their midst as the source of what ails them – as the source of their own marginalization and short-comings. The growth of populism, thus, goes hand in hand with promotion of nationalism.

Populists effectively promote racist anti-immigrant fears, islamophobia, and xenophobia and take advantage of these innate fears in sizable segments of the country’s population to promote nationalism and populism rooted in racist and xenophobic beliefs and policies.

In the past few years, both with respect to the United Kingdom and in the United States populism and nationalism have emerged as emotional simplistic solutions to the many problems plaguing their societies and the global community in which they exist.

We see the UK making a populism-driven nationalist choice to sever its decades-old relationship with the rest of Western Europe and is now struggling to find a soft landing in the country’s exit from the European Union.  In the end, Brexit is not expected to be smooth and there are clear signs of a backlash against Britain’s populist leaders.

Almost four years ago, a populist offering himself for president has since brought the United States to a historical high level of global opprobrium. The lack of American leadership has created an unstable world with growing threats from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.  There are seething conflicts across all continents and the lack of morality in current US global leadership, and deliberate actions to weaken multilateral organizations have deepened the chasm between chaos and order.

Since the beginning of 2017, we have seen an increase in the economic competition between the US and China, and the lack of diplomatic statecraft in the US State Department has created global uncertainties on many fronts. The relationship between the two economic powers was deteriorating rapidly, long before COVID-19.  US-China economic competition, some may even say economic war, if continued unabated, will reverberate globally and have grave implications for Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

As globalization makes outbreaks of deadly communicable diseases spread rapidly across borders with ease, and the economic fallout with likewise devastating effects across all continents, the global economic impact is further exacerbated by the dysfunctional relationship between Washington and Beijing. The means of global economic recovery will be determined in Washington and Beijing, not in Jamaica, or elsewhere in the Caribbean. We are living in a period of failure of global leadership.

Globalized leadership in response to crises

Globalization requires global leadership in times of crises.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the response to international terrorism required bold leadership, and the United States provided it.  International terrorism and the global response to terrorism defined the ensuing decade. Even though the terrorist threat remains across all regions, the US led the international community by resolute actions and made financial and technical resources available to countries around the world to build national and international capacities to suppress and counter the terrorist threat.

Globalization also means that international financial meltdowns in any major economy, especially in the United States, spread rapidly across borders. As we are aware, the global financial system is linked through New York. The US led the response to the recession of 2007 to 2009 in bringing global economic activity back to normal and set economic growth on an upward trajectory for several years.

We can also recall the leadership of the United States in stopping the spread of the dreaded Ebola disease and confining it to the borders of a few countries in West Africa. The world was saved from a disease pandemic.

The US leadership, of which we have grown accustomed, is lacking now, as the international community is wracked by a deadly coronavirus pandemic and reeling from global economic disruptions of epic proportions. This lack of US leadership in dealing with the global pandemic has made the problems far worse than they should have been. This lack of US leadership is rooted in the Trump administration’s “America First” approach to US global responsibility.

As a part of this “America First” agenda, international norms are being destroyed, and international institutions are being marginalized and starved of financial resources.

There is no doubt that with moral, robust and timely US leadership, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been spared during this pandemic, including lives in Jamaica. Global economic recovery will require US leadership working with China in a constructive and supporting, but very important role.

Cyberspace challenges and globalization

I will touch briefly on one of the major challenges of globalization facing governments and private sectors alike in very profound ways – globalization of the internet and cyberspace. Cyberspace and cyber security have become a major challenge for all countries, no matter their level of technological sophistication with access to the best security technology available. The irony is the greater the use of the internet, and reliance on information technology and artificial intelligence, the greater the vulnerability and the greater the risks.

The malicious use of cyberspace and the nefarious abuse of information technology can create havoc in the public and private sectors. The financial sector is particularly vulnerable to abuse by international criminal networks. The global reach of the internet is the epitome of globalization. The internet does not respect borders and sovereignty, and even with the most sophisticated cyber security, criminal enterprises and malicious actors are constantly seeking and developing new ways to breach cyber security walls to carry out their nefarious activities.

The private sector and governments everywhere have no choice but to increase dependence on information technology in order to remain competitive in the case of the private sector, and for governments to efficiently deliver services to their respective populations in highly technology-driven environments. Professional services providers, in including members of the accounting profession, have a duty to protect clients’ data, a task which becomes more difficult with the emergence of new technology, which is required, in order to remain competitive and to provide the level of services expected of both domestic and international clients.

Finally, on a more positive note, relief may be in sight from this chaotic environment. Early indications are that the people of the United States are rejecting populism. In particular the younger generation is showing the way forward.  The American people are rejecting xenophobia and racism; they are embracing diversity; they are stepping forward in defense of the environment; and they will have an opportunity to decide on November 3rd whether to extend the tenure of its current populist leader or give populism the boot.

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

08 October 2020