The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump cannot shield America from the forces of globalization

A worker uses a lift to move rolls of sheet metal at LMS International, in Laredo, Tex., on Nov. 21, 2016. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Afshin Molavi is co-director of the emerge85 Lab and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

On the day that Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States, more than 350,000 children will be born worldwide, more than 600,000 people will experience the Internet for the first time, and the world’s cities will add another 220,000 people. Just another ordinary day on our planet.

Rapid urbanization. Growing middle classes. Unprecedented physical and technological connectivity. These are the big issues that ought to be seriously examined in our public debate and in private foreign policy discussions, but they are relegated to consultancy reports, a smattering of think-tank wonkery and investment discussions.

Over the course of President-elect Trump’s first term in office, there will be more than 500 million births around the world, and another 320 million or so new urban dwellers as the great rural-urban migration marches on. And by the time Trump rounds out his first term, another billion people will have access to the Internet, bringing the total to more than 4 billion, or more than half the world’s population. (That’s a lot of potential new followers for the tweeter in chief.)

Most of this growth in demographics, urbanization and connectivity is taking place in three regions: Asia, Africa and Latin America, home to 85 percent of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, while the middle classes in the United States and Europe (the remaining 15 percent of the world) feel the strain from a decade-and-a-half of stagnant median incomes and sluggish growth and seem to have grown weary of globalization, middle classes are growing in size and confidence across the “85 percent world.” This is true especially in Asia, home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s population.

These trends of urbanization, demographics and connectivity are largely geopolitics-proof. It matters not who sits in the Oval Office or the Elysee Palace. Short of a cataclysmic war, these trains have left the station, and there is no looking back. Africa’s population will double in the next 35 years to more than 2 billion, and its urbanization will continue to explode. Asia, too, will add another billion, bringing it to 5 billion.

What’s more, middle classes are growing rapidly. Another billion people will enter the global middle class over the next four years , bringing it to 4 billion, according to Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas. Most of that next billion will come from — you guessed it — Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Trump likes to consider himself a businessman president. If that is the case, he ought to take a cue from the major American and global multinational consumer companies that have been chasing the growth across the 85 percent world for at least three decades. The emerging middle-class consumer is the Great Commercial Prize of the 21st century, cultivated and coveted by companies such as Unilever, Nestle, Starbucks, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, and McDonald’s, whose bottom lines are increasingly driven by emerging markets’ growth.

This global middle class is America’s soft-power secret weapon. The truth is that most people around the world want the same basic things: opportunity, education, decent health care and non-corrupt governments, not to mention regular electricity, clean water and safe infrastructure. An American president who can tap global middle-class hopes will do more to burnish America’s image than billions of dollars spent on public diplomacy.

Thus far, when Trump speaks of foreign policy, however, he generally has reduced it to counterterrorism strategy. He is, however, not alone. This is a peculiar reality of many working in foreign policy and national security: They are so consumed by the fires that need to be contained that they can barely see the budding flowers far beyond. As one former National Security Council official who now works in global private equity investment put it to me: “In government, when I looked at Pakistan, all I saw were problems; in the private equity world, all I see are opportunities.”

While Trump speaks of building walls and anti-immigrant European populist nationalists are on the rise, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that the United States and Europe will each need to absorb about 50 million immigrants each over the next 50 years simply to maintain a 3 percent growth rate. While Trump blasts U.S trade policy, the fact of the matter is that an estimated 11.7 million U.S. jobs were supported by exports in 2014, according to a Commerce Department report.

Americans are also beneficiaries of considerable foreign direct investment, the largest amount in the world by far. This foreign direct investment supports some 8.5 million jobs, according to the Commerce Department. So, if you’re doing the math: That’s more than 20 million American jobs supported by U.S. exports and foreign direct investment.

And guess who broke a record this year in foreign direct investment in the United States? China, with some $46 billion in investment, according to the Rhodium Group.

America’s political class must come to terms with the reality that the United States is more globalized and connected to the world economy than is often realized, and its members must also understand that the growing economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America offer promising soft-power opportunities for diplomacy and even more promising growth opportunities for the U.S economy.