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OPINION

Not all global problems result from globalization

For those problems that do — including pandemics like COVID-19 — globalization itself can help ameliorate them.

Red Cross workers disinfected to try to avoid spreading the coronavirus, in Pradalunga, Italy. The coronavirus crisis, terrible as it is, should be used as an opportunity to strengthen our international public health capabilities rather than to reduce globalization.
Red Cross workers disinfected to try to avoid spreading the coronavirus, in Pradalunga, Italy. The coronavirus crisis, terrible as it is, should be used as an opportunity to strengthen our international public health capabilities rather than to reduce globalization.FABIO BUCCIARELLI/NYT

Reports of globalization’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Globalization won’t die until we decide to make ourselves worse off by eschewing the great benefits of commerce: specialization and economies of scale that make goods and services better and cheaper, thereby improving the welfare of all. But some commentators have advanced the “end of globalization” thesis on the basis of its adverse effects, including the coronavirus pandemic, as well as cybersecurity threats, global warming, financial crises, “geoeconomic” security competition (such as trying to impede China’s development of artificial intelligence or robotics), and income inequality.

First, a pandemic can occur with or without globalization, and globalization may indeed help in mitigating it. Few of us would propose an end to domestic commerce because of the risk of epidemic — instead, we would recognize that commerce may increase risks of epidemic, and install legal or other institutional mechanisms to manage it.

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These types of mechanisms aren’t only available at the national level. There is no reason why the World Health Organization cannot operate as a worldwide public health regulator, with the appropriate resources and power to respond effectively to pandemics. WHO has not been sufficiently empowered to do this, but it should be, so that it has the capacity to require countries to report outbreaks, share information, and take effective steps to prevent and mitigate epidemics.

Similar mechanisms could be considered for other adverse effects of globalization, including cybersecurity threats, climate change, and income inequality. Will the great benefits of globalization exceed the remaining adverse effects? The likelihood is that they will, but each government must evaluate and decide for itself. Every decision has costs and benefits, and these are not distributed evenly around the world or among any one country’s citizens. Informed negotiations, based on real facts, sophisticated analysis, and deep understanding of the situations of other countries, can empower us to negotiate legal and institutional mechanisms that can minimize the adverse consequences of globalization and maximize our overall welfare.

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Not all global problems result from globalization. For those that do, globalization itself can ameliorate them to some extent. Furthermore, we can establish international laws and institutions to minimize those problems that do arise from globalization: globalized governance to respond to globalization-induced problems. This is smart globalization, and once we do it this way, it is likely that globalization should be retained because, on net, it will make us better off.

The coronavirus crisis, terrible as it is, should be used as an opportunity to strengthen our international public health capabilities rather than to reduce globalization. We can also benefit from strengthened international regulatory capabilities in other areas of concern, including cybersecurity, environmental protection, and financial crises.

The cost of strengthening our international regulatory capabilities sufficiently is likely to be a fraction of the benefits from maintaining globalization. We need leaders with the vision to see this, and to lead us in smart globalization that embraces its benefits while taking appropriate measures to reduce its adverse consequences.

Joel P. Trachtman is a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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