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Most Read of 2020: COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Anti-Globalisation Sentiments

08 Jan 2021
By Roman Darius
Construction crews continue work on the new border wall on the boundary between the United States and Mexico near the Calexico Port of Entry. Source: Mani Albrecht

Narratives of isolation and self-sufficiency have arisen in attempt to curb the spread of disease. Like the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015/2016, the Coronavirus pandemic is likely to feature as a catalyst in the shift towards deglobalisation.

This article was one of the most read in Australian Outlook in 2020.

As the contagion of COVID-19 worsens, the likelihood of the pandemic propelling anti-globalist political forces throughout the world increases. At a particular historical juncture of heightened disenchantment with globalisation and its political proponents, the outbreak of the Coronavirus and its ensuing magnitude is perhaps the single greatest catalyst, after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, in the shift towards the era of deglobalisation.

The reason is twofold. First the pandemic itself easily adheres to the central narrative that has instigated anti-globalist political movements and policies throughout the world – namely, the vulnerability of the domestic populace to nefarious foreign elements. Whether it manifests in the form of anxiety over the danger posed to domestic security, cultural cohesion, or the economy through migration, or to the domestic economy through free trade and capital flows, the prevalent concern remains the same: the increased vulnerability and exposure of the domestic population to ominous developments beyond the state’s borders. As greater integration and interdependence exacerbate that vulnerability, the solution posed is the reassertion of state sovereignty and the severing of international ties in order to take back control and protect the state from the exogenous ailments. Thus, what we have witnessed in the past several years: protectionism, the withdrawal of international agreements, the tightening of borders, and of course, Brexit. All of these political positions follow that same policy rationale of protecting the state by taking back the control that was lost by so-called “globalist policies.”

The case of Brexit is particularly telling. As historian Niall Ferguson posits, the key factor that shifted the balance in favour of Brexit was the widespread perception of the EU’s mismanagement of the European Debt Crisis of 2010 (to which Britain was particularly relieved not to have shared the common currency) and the refugee crisis of 2015/2016. On the latter, Ferguson goes as far as to suggest that had the migration crisis been mitigated, it is possible that Britain would still be in the EU.

The Coronavirus pandemic is exactly the kind of calamity that anti-globalist movements invoke as their raison d’etre. What could be a more chilling example of a country being afflicted by ominous foreign forces beyond its control than a virus originating in a marketplace in central China, that forced the four largest economies of the EU into lockdown only three months later? Undoubtedly, there will be lasting political repercussions.

Globalisation, A Phenomenon or a Policy?

The second way in which COVID-19 is likely to shift the political balance in favour of greater deglobalisation relates to the measures that states have taken in response to the global outbreak. For some time now, the prevailing narrative amongst political leaders in relation to globalisation was that it is the phenomenon of our time that both policymakers and the electorate have to contend with in all its forms: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This notion has been contradicted by eminent scholars, most notably Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, whose work demonstrated that globalisation is much more a policy than it is a phenomenon, and that states have the ability to choose the kind of globalisation they want.

Indeed, a consistent debate between populist politicians and their centrist opponents has been over the issue of whether the state can viably reassert sovereignty in the current age. What the reaction to the current pandemic has demonstrated is that even in a time of heightened interdependence, states are still very much in control and do have the ability to take drastic measures. This includes going so far as restricting travel to their largest trading partners and other states with whom they have substantial economic/geopolitical relations with. Thus, the proposition that globalisation is a fact of life beyond the control of the state will no longer be tenable. States have demonstrated their capacity to act with the likely effect that domestic populations will expect more from their political leaders to counter the negative effects of globalisation and will be less inclined to accept the purported powerlessness of government policy.

 Rise of the Populist Political Right?

Unsurprisingly, across Europe, populists of the political right have already incorporated the pandemic into their political rhetoric. This was to be expected, given the ease by which the outbreak coheres with their longstanding narrative of globalisation inviting undesirable elements to the realm. The broader shift towards deglobalisation, however, goes far beyond the electoral standing of far-right political parties.

Populist political movements are not the cause of the sentiments they assert. Rather, they are the beneficiaries of them. Their electoral success hinges upon their ability to exploit the gap in policy direction between political leaders and their constituencies. As the gap widens, so does the electoral standing of these movements.

The Coronavirus outbreak is likely to spur a hankering for the security that strong borders and economic sovereignty provide. Whether or not that will translate to election victories for populist political movements depends on how receptive political leaders are to the wishes of the constituencies. Naturally, much depends on how protracted and severe the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic will be. If the situation worsens, the outbreak of COVID-19 is likely to join the Global Financial Crisis and the migration crisis of 2015 as seminal events in the past two decades that inexorably advanced the rise of anti-globalist sentiment across the world.

Roman Darius is a Juris Doctor candidate based in Melbourne with a background in finance and economics and a Master of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies from the Australian National University, where he was awarded the Khalifa Bakhit Al-Falsi prize for his work and research project titled “Socio-Economic Coalitions and Democratisation: A Causal Analysis of Turkey’s Restricted Democracy.” 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.