Davos was once the place where countries clamored to demonstrate their commitment to opening up their economies and societies. After all, these forces were producing global growth and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Every year, a different nation would become the star of the forum, usually with a celebrated finance minister who was seen as the architect of a boom. The United States was the most energetic promoter of these twin ideas of economic openness and political freedom.
Today, Davos feels very different. Despite the fact that, throughout the world, growth remains solid and countries are moving ahead, the tenor of the times has changed. Where globalization was once the main topic, today it is the populist backlash to it. Where once there was a firm conviction about the way of the future, today there is uncertainty and unease.
This is not simply atmospherics and rhetoric. Ruchir Sharma of Morgan Stanley Investment Management points out that since 2008, we have entered a phase of “deglobalization.” Global trade, which rose almost uninterruptedly since the 1970s, has stagnated, while capital flows have fallen. Net migration flows from poor countries to rich ones have also dropped. In 2018, net migration to the United States hit its lowest point in a decade.
The shift in approach can best be seen in the case of India. In 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Davos to decry the fact that “many countries are becoming inward focused and globalization is shrinking.” Since then, his government has increased tariffs on hundreds of items and taken steps to shield India’s farmers, shopkeepers, digital companies and many others from the dangers of international competition. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative recently called out India for having the highest tariffs of any major economy in the world.
Indian officials used to aggressively court foreign investment, which was much needed to spur growth. Last week, with India’s economy slowing badly, Jeff Bezos announced a $1 billion investment in the country. (Bezos owns The Post.) But the minister of commerce and industry scoffed at the move, saying Amazon wasn’t “doing a great favor to India” and besides was probably engaging in anti-competitive, “predatory” practices. Often, protectionist policies help favored local producers. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently criticized some of Modi’s policies toward Muslims. The Indian government effectively cut off imports of Malaysian palm oil. In a familiar pattern, one of the chief beneficiaries was a local billionaire long associated with Modi.
The Economist notes that Europe, once one of the chief motors for openness in economics and politics, is also rediscovering state intervention to prop up domestic industries. And if you think the Internet is exempt from these tendencies, think again. The European Center for International Political Economy tracks the number of protectionist measures put in place to “localize” the digital economy in 64 countries. It has been surging for years, especially since 2008.
It’s important not to exaggerate the backlash to globalization. As a 2019 report by DHL demonstrates, globalization is still strong and, by some measures, continues to expand. People still want to trade, travel and transact across the world. But in government policy, where economic logic once trumped politics, today it is often the reverse. Economist Nouriel Roubini argues that the cumulative result of all these measures — protecting local industries, subsidizing national champions, restricting immigration — is to sap growth. “It means slower growth, fewer jobs, less efficient economies,” he told me recently. We’ve seen it happen many times in the past, not least in India, which suffered decades of stagnation as a result of protectionist policies, and we will see the impact in years to come. Nevertheless, today, nationalism and protectionism prevail.
This phase of deglobalization is being steered from the top. The world’s leading nations are, as always, the agenda setters. The example of China, which has shielded some of its markets and still grown rapidly, has made a deep impression on much of the world. Probably deeper still is the example of the planet’s greatest champion of liberty and openness, the United States, which now has a president who calls for managed trade, more limited immigration and protectionist measures. At Davos, Trump invited every nation to follow his example. More and more are complying.