Can the forces of globalization hope to survive the coronavirus?

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Suddenly in the middle of a world everyone goes back to the ground. The other day, in Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou, a village in western France, Emmanuel Macron visited the medical supply company Kolmi-Hopen to thank them for speeding up the production of face masks. medical grade.

The French president said he was happy to see companies working hard to import more masks. “But we too – and above all in my eyes – must produce more in France. On our soil. We must produce because this crisis teaches us that for certain goods, certain products, certain materials, their strategic nature requires European sovereignty. We must produce more on European soil to reduce our dependence and prepare for the long term. “

The same day and in an ocean in Ottawa, Canadian Industry Minister Navdeep Bains sang an ode similar to what can be built at home. “I will say that in addition to the immediate purchase of masks, we are finalizing an agreement to support the development of manufacturing capacity in Canada,” said Bains. “This strengthens our domestic offer. That remains an essential objective – to ensure that we have the capacity to build these masks in Canada. “

It is not surprising that, in the midst of a global race to the death or death for medical equipment between longtime trading partners, political leaders are suddenly less attracted to global trading networks. “All the leaders, economic and political, wonder if they have gone too far in optimizing supply chains,” said Bernard Gainnier, PwC president for France and French-speaking Africa. The world.

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In the midst of the worst health crisis of a century, political leaders in Canada and elsewhere are leaving a slip of the tongue as they reverse the course of decades of conventional wisdom. World travel is ingrained, the Canada-US border is closed to most of us, even travel between regions of Canada is strongly discouraged by provincial authorities.

A week after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, Justin Trudeau tweeted what he clearly meant to be the brand distinction that defines Canada. “To those fleeing persecution, terrorism and war, Canadians will welcome you, no matter your faith. Diversity is our strength. Three years later, Canada’s strong message to a barely new generation of migrants is clear: for those fleeing contagion, stay away. Diversity is a variable that we cannot afford to integrate at this time.

But right now, right? Drastic times, drastic measures. And what was wrong – hell, anti-Canadian – when others argued that it is defensible, even necessary, when the red team does it? For the moment?

Perhaps. But you don’t have to push this fortress-building instinct very far before it becomes annoying or worse. And if there is one thing we should have already learned in a young 21st century already full of shocks, it is that every time the world changes, it rarely returns to what it was.

After all, Macron and Bains hoped to simply cut China off the global supply chain for essential medical equipment. It turns out that we have built 21st century manufacturing networks on deeply volatile ground, and the coins per unit thus saved suddenly seem less of a bargain. Of course, their last-minute fascination with a more or less protectionist industrial policy deserves to be noted, but it is difficult to be mistaken about the radical and ramified rejection of the world outside national borders.

We note, however, that all over the world, people who are inclined to reject, reject or fear the world outside their borders see the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity.

“On Capitol Hill,” wrote Matthew Continetti in a decidedly conservative speech Washington Free Beacon“The virus has elevated senators and staff members who have spent the past few years calling for a” realignment “of Republican policy away from the prerogatives and priorities of American businesses and those of unskilled middle and working class families university. ”

Continetti predicts a post-crisis generation of new Republicans who will be “even more wary of uncontrolled flows of labor, capital and goods across borders.” And “they may find they have company,” he adds, “because the number of unemployed and non-participants in the workforce is about to increase. “

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What happens when we push this trend a little further, in places where the authorities are already deeply suspicious of any stranger? Hungary closed its borders on March 1, before a single case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the country, alleging unfounded risks. “We are seeing a certain link between the coronavirus and illegal migrants,” said György Bakondi, national security adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It was a categorical lie of a government that was just starting to take off: less than a month later, Orbán had a Hungarian law passed by the Hungarian Parliament giving him the right to govern by decree indefinitely, without parliamentary control. nor elections.

It is the dictatorship of xenophobia, and to the extent that it strangely resembles the actions of governments which would have sworn that they would have nothing to do with Orbán, well, that is the time, what not? And we have surely already learned that this type of change brought about by the crisis is almost never reversed. That when the world changes for the worse, it stays worse.

Older readers will remember a more optimistic period not long ago between the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and other US targets. At the end of this happy decade, the NAFTA continental trade agreement was in place. The leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico spoke of hemispheric free trade “from the North Pole to Tierra del Fuego”. The European Union is abandoning border controls and national currencies. US military spending has stagnated at its lowest level in generations.

The consensus of the international elite for free trade, open borders, economic integration and a global labor market was almost complete. It was hard to imagine this consensus crumbling. In his farewell speech to the Oval Office on January 18, 2001, President Bill Clinton marveled at his country’s leadership role in a world of interconnected opportunities. “Because the world is more connected every day, in every way, the security and prosperity of the United States means that we must continue to lead the world,” said Clinton.

“At this remarkable time in history, more people are living at large than ever before. Our alliances are stronger than ever. People all over the world see America as a force for peace and prosperity, freedom and security. The global economy gives more people and billions of people around the world the opportunity to work, live and raise their families in dignity. “

Clinton’s speech was not entirely triumphant. He also issued warnings which, looking back, seem strangely prescient. “The integration forces that created these good opportunities also make us more vulnerable to the forces of global destruction – to terrorism. . . the spread of weapons and deadly disease, the degradation of the global environment, “he said.

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In the decades that have passed since then, threats have turned out better than opportunities. September 11 was an attack on the economic and military superiority of the United States that turned the basic tools of the modern world – airplanes and confidence – against its targets. When the attacks ended on this horrible Tuesday, there was no way to make sure it was all over, and the lasting effect was an increase in paranoia and suspicion in North American society.

The 2008 banking crisis wiped out the livelihoods of millions of people who believed that the interconnected world had allowed them to work, live and raise their families in dignity. Home ownership, a cornerstone of American community life, has become a vehicle of community ruin. And when it was over, the banks were protected and the families were not. This fueled a lasting resentment that is still felt today.

And it starts again several times. The 2015 migrant crisis, which saw millions of asylum seekers spread across Europe. The Russian attacks on the 2016 US presidential election, using the most ubiquitous and commonplace weapon imaginable: Facebook. The connected epidemics of deadly opioids, suicide, and alcoholism that Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “the diseases of despair.” It is really difficult to spot prosperity, freedom and dignity in all of this.

This constant attack on the assumptions of pluralism and openness could not fail to have an effect. The effect was global and profound.

On March 4, the same day, Justin Trudeau announced the creation of a high-level ministerial committee to guide Canada’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington-based NGO Freedom House released its annual report ” Freedom in the World ”. And for the 14th year in a row, the report showed a net global decline in political rights and civil liberties. This decline was measurable not only in authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran, but also in long-standing democracies. Of the 41 countries that Freedom House had rated “free” for 20 consecutive years before 2005, 25 have since seen their scores drop.

The airport receptionist wearing a face mask as a protective measure against the corona virus checks a tourist's body temperature at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The current concern that links epidemics and international travel will not go away (Adisorn Chabsungnoen / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images)

All of this suggests that the western world arrived at the coronavirus crisis with comorbidities. Our patience for the modern connected world, our willingness to enter it despite an obvious obvious risk, was already exhausted before the diagnosis of the first case of COVID-19 in Canada. The damage caused by this crisis, the lessons we will learn and apply long after its end, will be complicated by the pre-existing conditions of a tired and fearful world.

With what effect? We hardly know where to start. Maybe here: you take off your shoes and offer your hair gel for inspection at airports for 20 years. Do you really think you will be allowed to fly again if you have a fever? How many decades will immigration skeptics use infectious diseases in their argument?

China’s central role in global supply chains may well be broken. But it is a little early to celebrate, for two reasons. First, the Chinese regime is unlikely to act conscientiously as its influential days are behind it. Second, the regime’s customers in the West have nothing ready to replace it.

Part of the sad pleasure one could feel watching Navdeep Bains at this press conference on hospital masks was the emerging awareness that Canada’s Minister of Industry had no real vocabulary to describe industrial production and no real sense of how to encourage it in a country that, for no one’s fault and for the next two years at least, there will not be much of a functional economy as such . During his first four years as Minister of Industry, Bains did not even have the quaint and old-fashioned word “industry” in his job title, because the Banff Forum consultants and alumni who designed his work did not never stopped to consider that a country might one day need to do things within its borders. But it turns out that everything is on the exam, whether you have studied or not.

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I don’t want to leave the impression that I claim that globalization is the most important victim of the pandemic of 2020. If only we were so lucky. No, the most important victims will be the dead and their loved ones, communities whose hearts and lungs – arts organizations, restaurants, gathering places – will bear scars for years to come. But the damage to trust, openness and a global perspective, although less significant, seems certain to last.

There is a speech that Justin Trudeau made at the 2014 Liberal Party convention in Montreal, a year and a half before he became Prime Minister, which I continue to quote because I think there is a truth . It was the kind of ambitious argument you hardly hear from the Prime Minister, his ministers or even their political opponents. For a great speech at a partisan rally, it was surprisingly disturbing.

Trudeau’s assertion in that speech was essentially that the broad consensus that Bill Clinton had celebrated in his farewell speech was already behind the ball. Does the global economy give billions of people the opportunity to work, live and raise their families with dignity? Not like too many of them have seen it. And very soon, Trudeau warned, this could become a big problem.

“The growth we have seen over the past three decades has been the product of a broadly supported program,” said Trudeau. “Investments in education, fiscal discipline, openness to trade. All of which the middle class voted for several times. “

But “the initial promise of this program was that everyone would share in the prosperity it creates. This does not happen. “And” if we don’t fix it, the middle class will stop supporting a growth agenda. It will make us all poorer. “

The assumptions that once seemed on the verge of fueling a 21st century of growth and opportunity have been defeated over and over again, with increasing ferocity, by the forces of regression and a bit of unhappiness. It was the fate of the hand that touched us. How we play, once we can even come back to play, will determine the rest of our lives.


This article is printed in the May 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “There is no turning back. »Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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