The twilight of globalism

This anti-democratic ideology is unravelling before our eyes.



15 April 2022, Spiked





Until recently, politicians, academics and journalists assumed that globalisation had rendered the nation state redundant. As they saw it, superior transnational institutions had displaced national forms of governance. And superior globalist values had superseded narrow-minded nationalist sentiments.


But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended such assumptions. Globalisation is now fast unravelling before our eyes. Foreign Affairs asked last month if this is ‘the end of globalisation?’. Larry Fink, the head of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment corporations, warns that the war ‘has put an end to the globalisation we have experienced over the past three decades’.

But while the war in Ukraine may have exposed and exacerbated the unravelling of globalisation, it did not cause it. The integration of different parts of the world into global systems has been slowing down for some time. Indeed, global capitalism has still not recovered from the financial crisis, with world trade relative to global GDP falling by five per cent between 2008 and 2019.


During the same period, economic nationalism has been on the rise. As Phil Mullan observed on spiked recently, ‘at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, less than one per cent of merchandise imports were impeded by mechanisms introduced by governments of the world’s top 20 economies. But by 2019, on the eve of the pandemic, this figure had expanded more than tenfold to hit over 10 per cent of trade.’

If the decline of globalisation began with the 2008 financial crisis, it accelerated during the pandemic, as protectionist measures were imposed to regulate the flow of capital and trade. And now, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have seen the rise of autarky and heightened tension between economic blocs. Even within Europe there is growing competition for access to vital raw materials and energy sources.


With the rise of protectionism and autarky, there is always considerable potential for economic conflict to transform into economic war. And we have seen this already in relation to Russia, which has been heavily sanctioned and cut off from global economic institutions. The line separating politics and economics has become thoroughly blurred. As a result, the world economy is starting to come apart, as economic blocs decouple from each other, and nations pursue their own interests.

Of course nations and people will continue to interact. Globalisation in that sense has not come to an end. Protectionism and economic nationalism aside, capitalism continues to transcend national borders and the international division of labour remains relatively intact. But globalisation has lost its expansive dynamic. And the rules and expectations that governed global economic relations have now lost much of their force.


Globalisation as an ideology

Globalisation, as a concept, is not simply a description of the interconnectedness that develops through trade, cultural exchange and the movement of people. It also encompasses an ideology – one that elevates the status of international institutions and devalues the role of national governments.

Its advocates argue that national governments now lack the power to determine the future of their countries. Politics is presented as pointless, national sovereignty as an atavistic throwback, and patriotism as an absurdity. Hence, in 2016 Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and archetypal Davos man, claimed that ‘politics is gradually being reshaped into a contest between advocates of open, globalised societies and defenders of inward-looking tribalism’.


Globalist ideologues like Bildt – ‘I must confess that I am a firm believer in the benefits of globalisation’, he once said – have long championed globalisation as a means to achieve progressive objectives. From their standpoint, global institutions offer a positive alternative to the outdated and parochial practices of the nation state. In recent decades, the standpoint of such ‘enlightened’ cosmopolitanism was most systematically articulated by the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck. He called for a ‘cosmopolitan revolution’ to overcome the ‘lie of the national age’ (1).


Beck argued that the basic concepts of modern society – ‘household, family, class, democracy, domination, state, economy, the public sphere, politics and so on’ – need ‘to be released from the fixations of methodological nationalism and redefined and reconceptualised in the context of methodological cosmopolitanism’ (2). What Beck described as the ‘fixations of methodological nationalism’ refers to the taken-for-granted meanings that guide the behaviour of members of a community. This form of cosmopolitanism even calls into question the status of national citizenship. It suggests that it has become irrelevant because the forces of globalisation have rendered national borders porous, and undermined the power of national institutions. As one advocate of this ideology argues, ‘citizenship is becoming increasingly denationalised’. It is now ‘global’, ‘transnational’ or even ‘postnational’ (3). This is because citizenship is ‘no longer unequivocally anchored in national political collectivities’ (4).


The downgrading of national citizenship goes hand in hand with the devaluation of democratic decision-making. From this perspective, the forces of globalisation are so powerful that they limit and ultimately override sovereign decision-making. As Alan Greenspan, the then chairman of the US Federal Reserve, put it in 2007: ‘It hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces.’ As historian Quinn Slobodian explained in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, this all looked to Greenspan’s critics like a new form of empire, with ‘globalisation substituting for colonialism’ (5).

In hindsight, it is clear that globalisation was not merely about promoting the free flow of trade and capital. It was above all a political project, a project of ‘politics and law’, as Slobodian put it (6). Despite their formal commitment to free markets, globalist neoliberals viewed the world economy as far too important to be left to develop according to the spontaneous forces of the market. It therefore had to be regulated through rules enforced by international institutions.


In the words of John Ikenberry, a globalist political scientist and apologist for US domination, Americans are less interested in ruling the world than in ‘creating a world of rules’. Historian Adam Tooze made a similar point – globalisation, he said, is ‘an institution, an artefact of deliberate political and legal construction’ (7).


Hence, in practice, globalisation has led to international institutions and NGOs assuming decision-making powers that were historically the preserve of national governments. Many Western governments supported this trend as a way of outsourcing responsibility for unpopular measures to the likes of the IMF, the WTO or the EU – and therefore insulating themselves from domestic democratic pressure in the process. These globalist institutions therefore depoliticise decision-making, constrain the influence of national governments and severely limit the workings of democracy. In 2015, when the majority of Greek voters rejected an EU-imposed bailout agreement, the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble summed up the globalist attitude towards the democratic process. ‘Elections change nothing’, he said, ‘there are rules’.

Today, Schäuble’s claim that ‘there are rules’ has lost much of its force. When competition gives way to conflict and potentially an economic war, the rules that have governed international relations since the postwar settlement are no longer beyond question. At the same time, the devaluation of the power of the nation state also becomes unsustainable – especially in an era in which this power has acquired such geopolitical significance. After the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that nation states and borders do matter.

Globalism and the culture wars

The ideology of globalisation is not only opposed to the ideal of sovereignty and self-determination. It is also opposed to the historical legacy of Western culture and the values associated with tradition, family and community. Hence, many advocates of globalisation are also fervent culture warriors, determined to impose an American brand of identity politics and woke values on the rest of the world. This leads them to interpret major geopolitical events through the prism of the culture wars.


Thus, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is viewed by globalists as a distant expression of conflicts closer to home. Some go so far as to associate Russia’s actions with populist movements and anti-woke supporters of national sovereignty. Writing in this vein in the Guardian, Thomas Zimmer warns that ‘America’s culture war is spilling into actual war-war’. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman treats Putin as a proxy for everything he hates about Trump, Brexit and other supposedly populist causes. ‘[The West’s] vulnerability comes not from the decline of traditional family values’, he writes, ‘but from the decline of traditional democratic values, such as a belief in the rule of law and a willingness to accept the results of elections that don’t go your way’.


In another New York Times opinion piece, Michelle Goldberg seeks to recruit Ukraine to the globalist side in the culture wars, claiming that Ukraine is trying to rally the world to an ‘idealised liberal internationalism’. She even turns Zelensky into a hero of globalism, asserting that he ‘speaks to the highest aspirations of Western audiences who’ve been starved for inspiration’.


Taking a more objective stance, David Brooks notes that ‘economic rivalries have now merged with political, moral and other rivalries into one global contest for dominance’. He adds: ‘Globalisation has been replaced by something that looks a lot like global culture war.’

Brooks is right that the current global conflict is ‘not just a political or an economic conflict’ – it is also, as he puts it, a ‘rejection of Western ways of doing things by hundreds of millions of people along a wide array of fronts’. But he’s wrong to assume that the culture war is only being fought by the ‘autocrats who want to expand their power and sow chaos in the democratic world’, and who ‘now routinely weaponise cultural differences, religious tensions and status resentments to mobilise supporters, attract allies and expand their own power’.


After all, his own side has been busy stoking and fighting the same culture war for years. The projection of American soft power may seem benign, but it amounts to an attempt to impose globalist values on the rest of the world.


Brooks, like Goldberg, also positions Ukraine on the side of the progressive and globalist. ‘What we call “the West” is not an ethnic designation or an elitist country club’, Brooks writes. ‘The heroes of Ukraine are showing that at its best, [the West] is a moral accomplishment, and unlike its rivals, it aspires to extend dignity, human rights and self-determination to all.’ It appears that for Brooks, Ukraine’s fight for national survival is little more than an advertisement for American wokeness.


The sovereignty of bad faith


There’s one crucial aspect to the war in Ukraine that supporters of globalisation tend to downplay – namely, that Ukrainians are defending national sovereignty. This shows that globalists’ pledges of solidarity with Ukraine are made in bad faith. They are opposed to the very principle Ukrainians are willing to die for.


After all, the globalist imagination looks down on nationhood. That is why the globalist elite and its institutions have played such a central role in the culture war – because they are waging a battle against national cultures and traditions. Moreover, through fighting the culture war, globalist elites have further separated themselves from the everyday life and political community of their own nations. They are now much closer to their friends in transnational institutions, such as the EU or the IMF, than they are to their fellow citizens, whose values and outlook they view with disdain.


Globalists’ hostility towards national sovereignty is not simply cultural or ideological. It is fuelled by their anxiety about the power of the people. Because it is within and through the nation that the people can find their voice and express their interests. Democratic decision-making is territorially bounded and the power of citizens can only be exercised through national institutions. So when the globalist establishment attacks what it calls the ‘forces of populism’, its real target is democratic decision-making.


The principal issue at stake in Ukraine is national self-determination. In the current messy geopolitical climate it is essential that this principle is upheld consistently. This means defending it whenever it is attacked, be it by Russia, by the federalists of Brussels, or by the ideologues and institutions of globalism.