Globalisation versus nationalism

Anti-capitalist demonstration © iStock
A populist resurgence sees globalisation going into reverse

Cover of Grave New World by Stephen KingGrave New World: The End of Globalisation, the Return of History
by Stephen King
Published by Yale University Press, £20
(Buy at Amazon)

As recently as ten years ago most commentators took it as given that globalisation would progress to the point where it would render the nation state irrelevant. But the populist resurgence has prompted concerns that not only has the process stopped, but that it is also now going into reverse. Grave New World by Stephen King, former chief economist of HSBC, is a topical example of a book that is very pessimistic about the future of global economic integration.

King points out that there is nothing new about attempts to remove national barriers. From the Chinese Silk Road to the British Empire, people have always tried to create zones where people, goods and capital can move freely. However, eventually all these frameworks ended up fragmenting. While the reasons for this were varied, the restoration of protectionism always had big negative effects in the form of lower living standards, strained relations between countries, and in some cases war.

Hence he worries that history is about to repeat itself as tensions rise. America is no longer willing to play its role of global referee, China is trying to create a global empire, Africa’s booming population is set to lead to a migration crisis, and the eurozone is still wrestling with the need for a system of transfer payments under which the winners in a currency union can compensate the losers.

King’s book is well written, with effective use of historical evidence. However, like many writers on globalisation he tends to see his subject in black and white. In his view, you’re either a raving protectionist who only wants to build economic and political walls, or you’re going to have to accept further power moving away from the nation state. This is a pity because many people do understand that trade brings benefits, but at the same time also want nation states and regional blocs (like the European Union) to have a role.

What the press said

Grave New World is at its most interesting “when, rather than compressing a disparate set of events into a single narrative”, it looks “at the nuances and detail”, says Alan Beattie in the Financial Times. The book is “not packed with groundbreaking insight” adds Philip Aldrick in The Times. But King “is a clear, confident guide, weaving his way through history and joining the dots with panache”.