Letter: The Unkept Promise of Globalisation Does Not Mean Localism Will Alone Solve This Crisis

In the midst of a global pandemic, most countries are opting for national and local solutions, mostly discarding any global or international approaches. Though this path may lead to increased system resiliency and environmental sustainability, sole localism will not be sufficient to solve this crisis or address the other challenges of the 21st century such as climate change and global inequality. We propose a way to strike a new balance between Local and Global while avoiding the mistakes committed over the past 50 years.

Etymologically, the word pandemic means “pertaining to all people”, and that has assuredly been true of the Covid-19 crisis. Arguably, it is the first time in history we have had to share – and been able to share through online media – so extensively a communal reality. It may then be quite surprising that instead of bringing us together in these challenging times, the answers to the crisis seem to have mostly been national and local, to the point even of sometimes pitting countries against one another when securing vital resources. However, to avoid any resurgence of the virus, all countries will need to collaborate and local or national solutions will not be sufficient. To avoid current exceptional measures becoming the norm, we need to find a balance between local and global decision making.

Like on so many topics, this crisis has merely highlighted existing tensions and challenges our society was facing beforehand. This letter questions the balance we wish to strike between local and global solutions, in coming out of this health and economic crisis, but even more so, in rebuilding a 21st century-compatible society.

Getting back to local

Generalised shortages in masks, respirators and reactive agents – but also in some more drastic cases food and other basic medicines – have highlighted our generalised dependency on global supply chains. This was even more visible when ironically, Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicentre, revealed itself to be a key manufacturing location for several of those strategic goods. This situation can be in part explained by the fact that global value and supply chains are mostly governed and have been built by private multinationals, which function on a strategy of flow and not of stock. This approach has the benefit of being economically very efficient but fragile to any major disruption along the chain. Redundancies, security stocks and buffers cost money to create and maintain, and thus are kept at a minimum.

Furthermore, in recent decades, many governments have struggled to keep abreast of the private sector in key technical competencies. This has centralised some critical capabilities in the hands of few global private players. The dependency of all governments on Google and Apple when contemplating and implementing contact tracing apps is illustrative of these contemporary power dynamics.

Predictably, we are thus currently witnessing an increased desire of many nations to re-localise and decentralise manufacturing and agricultural production. This trend is particularly apparent in strategic sectors such as food and medicine, but conversations are also taking place on key communication technologies, energy production and armament. This reshaping or key value chains aims to increase systemic resiliency and national independence, but the opportunity should be taken to make sure environmental considerations and social equality are also part of the redesign (See Letter: The Three Horizons of Economic Stimulus).

Re-localisation may help our society be more resilient in the future and could bring many other social and environmental benefits, but the true solution to the pandemic – and ironically also its cause – is to be found in globalisation, either through a vaccine or through global cooperation making sure no place on earth allows a resurgence. The mumps vaccine – which took four years to develop – is commonly considered the fastest vaccine ever approved. Yet the globalised research and health community seems confident that a Covid-19 vaccine could be developed in a third of that time thanks to integrated global efforts. However, if a vaccine is not found, the changes to our everyday lives – factory plans, public transport, logistics, building codes, tracing and individual rights, air travel – will even more so require international cooperation. With such problem-solving importance, it is worth exploring why supra-nationality appears so absent from current discussions.

Globalisation’s absence of the global pandemic

The global governance or supra-national institutions we have today are inherited from other global crises, most importantly both World Wars. However, whereas the Second World War was seen as the result of nationalism, and globalisation a promising solution to avoid yet a third world conflict (which it successfully did), we find ourselves in the reversed trend today. Lack of trust in  institutions has led to the nationalistic and populist movements of the 2010s and the world’s apparent reluctance to turn toward increased globalisation in solving this crisis. Yet, our civilisation is faced with an intractable Prisoner’s Dilemma between Nation-states when it comes to vital issues such as climate change, which can only be solved with an overarching goal governing their decisions. The problem with supra-nationality may not be the concept itself but how it was implemented in the second half of the 20th century.

One aspect mostly absent from globalisation is cultural infrastructure. Europe understood this when adopting a flag, an anthem and implementing exchange programs such as Erasmus to help youth meet and create a shared culture. However, these initiatives have been limited in the European Union’s recent past and altogether absent in the construction of global governance infrastructure. In times of crisis, one sees where one’s loyalties lie. European nations mostly addressed the Covid-19 crisis at their level with limited solidarity between countries and in the United States, the political polarisation of recent years have resulted in pushing mostly democratic States to form re-opening coalitions and giving the Trump administration the shortest “rally round the flag” period in American history. Americans today may feel first Democrat or Republican more so than American. Building new administrative entities can only succeed if culture and solidarity is fostered in parallel and at the same perimeter.

Not only does our global society lack a sense of shared identity, globalisation has also failed in giving it a common purpose. In recent years, as Yuval Harari explains in his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, we have been left without any common positive narrative for the future. The 20th century began with three such narratives: capitalism, communism and fascism. By 1989, only capitalism remained and today faced with its own limitations, we have no unifying story at all. Without purpose, we revert to what exists and is familiar, in this case, the Nation-State. To enable local or global solutions, there will be a need for positive and new narratives governing the construction of new administrations and social dynamics. (For more on this topic see The Imaginary Crisis (and how we may quicken social and public imagination) by Geoff Mulgan)

The Global vs Local problem is usually framed as finding an optimal solution to layering decision-making across various administrative levels. Though that is obviously part of the question, recent decades have suggested that the issue may not only be a purely administrative and procedural one. However, maybe the solution to this debate altogether resides in reframing it completely.

Reframing the debate

The traditional framing of this important debate is to oppose the notions of “Global” and “Local”, to try to find where any one decision should be taken, where power and authority finally resides, to avoid as much as possible authority overlap. This static perception of these challenges limits us in solving these issues and does not realistically represent the world we live in. Below are three ways to reshape this debate to enable the various layers of our society to successfully address the challenges of our century.

1. Transformation over stability

This zero-sum game approach of an ideal balance is in large part based on the value of “stability”, which bolsters confidence and trust of citizens in the governing body by fostering a sense of immutability. This can currently be seen, in the addresses of many heads of State assuring control of the Covid-19 situation, when objectively full command of such an unpredictable and complex issue is impossible.

Though the clarity and stability of this perfect layer cake may seem appealing in the complex and unpredictable world we live in, these notions unfortunately too often lead to system paralysis. This is quite apparent with the lack of ability most of our institutions have in reshaping their own structures; think of the intractable reshaping of the EU or the UN’s Security Council. We should stop pursuing ideal stability in favour of transformative ability, enabling the various layers to adapt themselves in accordance to the situation. We need systems at different levels which dialogue comfortably with uncertainty and not ones that are weighed down by the unrealistic expectations of immutability through crisis.

 2. Connections over categories

There is another way in which global and local are unnecessarily pitted against each other and it is most apparent through the lens of culture. One of the fears surrounding globalisation – or any creation of a higher social strata over existing smaller ones – is the loss of the lower social strata’s cultural identity to the benefit of the higher. This fear is as old as human history, but has more to do with our difficulty to handle change and the unknown than a genuine reality, since even if we may not perceive it, culture is ever-evolving and the only cultures that stand still are ones that are no longer. Furthermore, the era of globalisation we have lived through in recent decades has skewed our perception of this somewhat, since the process was mainly derived from the ambitions of superpowers utilising soft power to unify the world around their cultural values.

If we actually wish our system – local or global – to be resilient, we actually need to encourage plurality of cultures and values. However perfectly genetically engineered and protected by pesticides, a monoculture field is inherently more fragile than a carefully diversified and balanced ecosystem. So, it is also true for society. The age of Nation-states has made us think unidimensionally about our culture, but we are not just a nationality but the result of a careful and unique layering of strata from our families to our species, with everything in between.

In terms of institutions, this means that we should focus less on creating one common system and categories of power structures and administrations, and more on connections and translations between diversified decision structures. A concrete example of this is the legal rights given to the Whanganui river in New Zealand: the institutional translation of two ontological and decision-making processes between Maori tradition and a European-based legal system, that can now work together, strengthening both.

3. Agency over authority

Finally, we need to rethink the ways we build decision structures within society, at any level. We mainly think of legal and institutional structures such as locally elected bodies, administrative regions, governments, or international institutions. However, our world is in effect also governed by many other organisational forms: multinationals, city alliances, online media and social platforms, even cross-border citizen groups, the more novel and radical initiatives being virtual states such as Asgardia or Bitnation. Moving forward we need to encourage these structures to realise their impact and societal responsibility, and to give them agency. Some like the C40 coalition of cities have started to realise this possibility, but we still need to help these various structures to realise and measure their impact, define a societal vision for their actions and explicit and make deliberate their agendas. Checks and balances are also important to put in place, and again not only through legal means, but utilising cross-national consumer groups, global investors and banks, and media.

The possibilities offered to us in reshaping our decision-making structures, to address both the current crisis and the many other challenges of the 21st century, are really much more plentiful than we traditionally consider. In the following months, when our society is unable to return fully to what is known and familiar, let us use this time to imagine and launch the structures and connections we wish to live by.

by Vincent Lassalle

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