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Chained to Globalization

Why It’s Too Late to Decouple

The sum of its parts: a Nissan factory in Sunderland, England, October 2019 AP Images

In 1999, the columnist Thomas Friedman pronounced the Cold War geopolitical system dead. The world, he wrote, had “gone from a system built around walls to a system increasingly built around networks.” As businesses chased efficiency and profits, maneuvering among great powers was falling away. An era of harmony was at hand, in which states’ main worries would be how to manage market forces rather than one another.

Friedman was right that a globalized world had arrived but wrong about what that world would look like. Instead of liberating governments and businesses, globalization entangled them. As digital networks, financial flows, and supply chains stretched across the globe, states—especially the United States—started treating them as webs in which to trap one another. Today, the U.S. National Security Agency lurks at the heart of the Internet, listening in on all kinds of communications. The U.S. Department of the Treasury uses the international financial system to punish rogue states and errant financial institutions. In service of its trade war with China, Washington has tied down massive firms and entire national economies by targeting vulnerable points in global supply chains. Other countries are in on the game, too: Japan has used its control over key industrial chemicals to hold South Korea’s electronics industry for ransom, and Beijing might eventually be able to infiltrate the world’s 5G communications system through its access to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Globalization, in short, has proved to be not a force for liberation but a new source of vulnerability, competition, and control; networks have proved to be less paths to freedom than new sets of chains. Governments and societies, however, have come to understand this reality far too late to reverse it. In the past few years, Beijing and Washington have been just the most visible examples of governments recognizing how many dangers come with interdependence and frantically trying to do something about it. But the economies of countries such as China and the

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