“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by John Donne
Since the 2016 American presidential election, it has become quite usual to hear dire warnings about the waning of American leadership and its retreat from the global stage. The bells of alarm have been rung frequently about the coming wave of protectionism, isolationism and nationalism that will threaten global peace and lead to the destruction of the world order. Purportedly, these fears have crystallized since the moment Donald Trump came down from the escalator of Trump Tower and announced his intention to run for President of the United States.
The Left’s False Panic Over the Rise of National Populism
These concerns are voiced in Europe any time Matteo Salvini, Giorgia Meloni, Santiago Abascal, or Viktor Orban speak, campaign or win elections. If one were to wake up from a decades old slumber and hear the mainstream media’s and left-wing parties’ warnings on them, one would think they are the heralds of the Apocalypse. This is dishonest at best, and perversely ill-intentioned at worst, independently on whether one agrees with these conservative and right-wing parties. The left often treats its opponents as an enemy to be destroyed at all costs, which ironically empowers their opponents in many cases.
According to many mainstream public voices, the current coronavirus emergency has emphasized once again the risk the world faces in going back to isolationism, this time due to the current crisis, which will give more public space and ensure electoral victory to sovereigntist forces. A prominent figure in the financial and political world, the former US Treasury Secretary during the George W. Bush administration, Henry Paulson, recently urged leaders and policymakers to “save globalization to secure the future” in on op-ed for the Financial Times.
Standing Up to Skewed Worldviews
I believe it is important to analyze and discuss this point of view not as a personal reply to Paulson, but as a refutation of an untrue assumption that respected members of different communities make when they contribute to the public discourse. In the name of fairness, it is important to provide to the public analysis based on facts, while respectfully opining about the issues that affect our lives.
As someone who holds a certain amount of respect for Paulson’s efforts in the 2008 financial crisis, and believing he did his best to save the American economy at the time, I was curious to read of his thoughts on the post-COVID19 world. I was not shocked at discovering he is a defender of globalization. However, I was taken aback that underlying his analysis is the same mistake made by the majority of the global media, a considerable part of the center right groups and all the left of center parties. They all perceive the future as an either-or situation between only two paths. Either we totally isolate our countries by voting for leaders such as Trump, Salvini, Abascal or Orban, who will supposedly close their economies, leading to more inequality, unemployment and economic misery and leading the world to nationalism, which in turn will result in on-going conflicts and lack of cooperation. Or, we can continue down the path of globalization, open borders and economic bliss. This is the black and white world the media and the left present to the public, purposefully omitting that there is a middle way of implementing the best of both worlds. Leaders such as Trump are doing exactly that.
Why Paulson is Wrong
Similar to the left and most of the media, the former US Treasury makes an erroneous assumption, which at this point has been proven more a myth than reality. He takes for granted the belief that the US President and similar European leaders want to “close trade, capital flows, innovation and global institutions”. However, neither of these leaders has advocated a return to closed economies. It is a pure lie to say they are isolationists. It would be absurd even to think it possible in market-based economies. Trump has championed free and fair trade and bilateral deals instead of multilateral ones with the reasoning that the former provide more transparency and less ways to cheat. All these right-wing leaders warn about the dangers of open borders and unchecked illegal migration and rightly so.
Paulson and His Ilk Need to Stop Tilting at Windmills
However, this does not mean these countries are closed for business. Their right-wing leaders want fairness in dealing with other countries and they put the interests of their citizens first. They encourage innovation and technological breakthroughs. It should be the duty of a country to ensure the well-being of their citizens. A fact that many forget is that politicians are under the employment of their own citizens, not those of other countries. It is simply common sense. However, no one has said that taking care of your people, and making sure that your house is in order excludes cooperation with others.
It is actually quite the contrary. If the leaders of a country implement the right economic policies, they will lead to more well-being, prosperity and social harmony. This country, afterwards, would be in a better position to help its neighbors, trade partners and political allies. If a country’s leaders are inefficient or unable to lead their nations to prosperity, it is easier for their citizens to hold them to account. With unelected bureaucrats in supranational institutions, accountability does not exist, and the possibility for abuse is much bigger.
The Isolationism Scare Tactic Doesn’t Work Anymore
A return to the national governments, local communities, families, the individual, cultural roots, diversified supply chains, renegotiated bilateral trade deals do not exclude being a good neighbor, collaborating on issues of economic, political, cyber-security or medical nature. It simply means that to be a good neighbor, and a good citizen of the world, first you need to be a good citizen of your own country. Thus, all this alarm about falling down the path of isolationism seems more a scare campaign tactic than a possible scenario. It is unfortunate that esteemed members of the public sphere take it as a given reality when making their analysis.
The main proof of this will always be the Presidency of Donald Trump. He ran on a platform of putting his own citizens first. He cut their taxes, made them less reliant on government, encouraged their spirit of entrepreneurship by deregulating, thus extending an already long bull run and making his country more prosperous and independent in many aspects. He renegotiated trade deals with major partners and put an emphasis on reforming decaying international institutions such as NATO and the UN.
In the Post-COVID-19 Nations Need to Put Citizens First
In this regard, Paulson has more in common with Mr. Trump than he cares to admit. While defending the phenomenon of globalization, Henry Paulson admits that the US should lead the restructuring of such institutions. President Trump is doing exactly that. His opponents warned that he would retreat from the global stage. He has actually continued the policies of his predecessors, in their essence, adding his own style of diplomacy and actually making them more effective. America is stronger today in the global stage both economically and with regards to its foreign policy. In Europe, conservative and right-wing leaders are aiming to do the same.
In the post-COVID-19 world, countries should prioritize focusing on their citizens, on technological and medical innovations, diversifying supply chains, producing more within their own countries and being less dependent from ill-intentioned trade partners, strengthening alliances with reliable associates through cooperation on matters of cyber and national security, medicine, economy, technology and so on.
As protectionism, mercantilism and isolationism have failed individuals and nations in the past, so has the unchecked and extreme globalization, together with corrupt supranational institutions. The individual and his entrepreneurial spirit must take precedence. Reliance on government must be greatly reduced. A community of nations that defend free markets, meritocracy, cooperation, entrepreneurship, free and fair-trade deals and freedom of thought and expression should be the path forward for Europe, the US and all other nations.