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The Coronavirus Will Not Stop Globalization

Raphael S. Cohen
Sunday, April 12, 2020, 10:00 AM

The international system is more resilient than it appears.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a meeting of the G7 by videoconference on March 16, 2020. Photo credit: Alvin Lum/Twitter

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Editor’s Note: Defenders of globalization were on the defensive even before the coronavirus swept the world. Indeed, some observers believe that the free movement of peoples and goods across borders will suffer a permanent blow from this crisis. RAND's Raphael Cohen takes on this claim, dissecting its logic and arguing that globalization is here to stay despite the coronavirus and other challenges.

Daniel Byman


As country after country closed its borders amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic, a flurry of commentators from across the political spectrum predicted that the outbreak would upend how we think about the flow of people and goods across borders and leave a markedly different world in its wake. Publications ranging from the right-leaning PJ Media to the left-leaning Nation have run pieces predicting that the coronavirus will spell the imminent end of globalization. While globalization may be down, however, it is still too early to count it out. The coronavirus pandemic is certainly a serious blow to the international system. That said, the logic for why the virus will destroy globalization rests on three sets of arguments, none of which stands up to scrutiny. And so, while the pandemic will change the mechanics of globalization, it will likely not spell globalization’s death knell.

The first argument for globalization’s impending demise is that the system is already strained to the breaking point. Even prior to the pandemic, globalization was challenged by a rising wave of populism spurred on by economic discontent in Europe, the United States, Latin America and elsewhere. Moreover, the pandemic came during a period of heightened interstate strategic competition and trade wars, eroding the trust that serves as the bedrock for globalization. In this sense, the pandemic is just the latest and, as the argument goes, final blow.

Globalization, however, always has had its discontents and has weathered other serious crises before. The trend persisted despite two world wars, one Cold War and, more recently, a global war on terrorism. It survived epidemics and pandemics, too—the Spanish flu in 1918, SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009 and 2010, and most recently Ebola. The recent backlash against globalization is not a new phenomenon, either. Globalization has sparked mass protests for decades, yet still it has persisted. Even recent setbacks to globalization—like Britain’s tortured three-and-a-half-year exit from the European Union that cost two prime ministers their jobs before it was accomplished—arguably underscore the system’s entrenchment, as much as its fragility.

The second, more direct argument for why the coronavirus will prompt a rollback of globalization is that globalization is at least partially to blame for the pandemic. The fact that a virus could start in China and then spread relatively quickly around the world is thanks to the ease of international travel and, on a deeper level, globalization. Indeed, imposing barriers to movement and severing the global connective tissue have become cornerstones of the international response to the crisis.

Viruses, though, are a part of the natural world. Pandemics existed long before the current era of globalization and likely will endure long afterward. Just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced an overhaul in airport security almost two decades ago, one can readily imagine how the coronavirus crisis will prompt the United States and others to rethink health screenings at ports of entry. Such measures, however, would need to be viewed in perspective. A century ago, the United States screened immigrants arriving at Ellis Island for health concerns, and even before the current pandemic visitors flying through parts of Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere could expect to have their temperature taken before entering some countries. In neither case did such measures spell the end of international travel; they just added a layer of screening.

The third and perhaps most salient argument for globalization’s demise is the spectacular initial failure of internationalism in the face of the crisis. The United States, China, Russia and others quickly descended into mutual recriminations about who is to blame for the crisis. Medical aid—even within supranational entities like the European Union—faltered as each country focused on providing for its own population. Some states even tried to restrict repatriation flights.

These failings are real and will no doubt prompt changes. In the aftermath of the pandemic, states may more actively manage the health care industry to ensure a national ability to produce critical items like masks, ventilators and prescription drugs in the event of crises. However, many countries, including the United States, already take a similar hands-on approach to overseeing their defense industrial bases, so such a shift in the health care sector—if it occurred—would hardly be a novel approach or a fatal blow to globalization at large.

Above all, the primary reason why globalization will persist—perhaps in a modified form—is that the underlying drivers of the trend remain intact. Countries still need goods and services from one another, just as they have for thousands of years. Some states will still need natural resources; others will need access to cheap labor; still others access certain talents, skills and capital not resident within their own borders. They will need to trade, just as they have done for much of recorded history.

Moreover, personal interconnections between different parts of the world formed over the past several decades of globalization cannot be easily broken. People will have friends and family living abroad. They still will want to experience the sights and sounds of countries other than their own. The advances in telecommunications that spread information around the world at ever faster rates remain unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, the move to an ever more networked world may even accelerate with the recent surge in teleworking.

Finally, international cooperation will persist—because it must. If the world ever hopes to defeat a disease that does not recognize borders, countries will eventually need to cooperate with one another on the response. If not, then the virus may be defeated in one location only to reemerge in another and undo whatever victory a state achieved.

Especially as large swaths of the world’s population sit at home in semi-isolation, predictions of globalization’s demise have a certain intuitive appeal. If we look beyond our present circumstances, however, they fall short. How we trade and travel across borders may change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but the world is simply too interconnected and too interdependent to be unraveled. Moreover, we will be grateful for its resilience.

Raphael S. Cohen is a senior political scientist and the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, Project AIR FORCE at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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