DAVOS, Switzerland – It’s been impossible to escape the shadow of Donald Trump at this year’s gathering of the business elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Uncertainty over whether Trump’s presidency will mark the end of globalization dominated discussions all week at an event synonymous with international business.
Sure, lofty ambitions were discussed, from fighting epidemics to dealing with inequalities across the world. But inevitably all talk turned to Trump, who has promised to rewrite free trade deals and even slap tariffs on China, the world’s second-largest economy.
“Do I really think we’re gonna go back to protectionism? I don’t really know yet and I can promise you I’m paying a lot of attention to it because trade matters to us,” said David Cote, chairman and CEO of industrial conglomerate Honeywell. “It’s a little too early to press the panic button; we ought to see what ends up happening here.”
Roberto Azevedo, director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the body that oversees trading rules, reminded delegates of the 1930s, when governments raised tariffs and wiped out two-thirds of global trade in three years.
“You don’t want to see that now. That would be a catastrophe of untold proportions,” he said.
“I think we should try not to talk ourselves into a trade war and I think we’re seeing a lot of that.”
THE CASE AGAINST GLOBALIZATION
Whether or not world trade goes into reverse, it’s evident that globalization — the commitment to trade internationally and to lower barriers to doing business around the world — is under threat like no other time in decades.
The main allegations are that it has increased inequalities in wealth, eroded job security for middle and lower-income families in developed countries, and kept a lid on wages as businesses seek low-cost workers in poorer countries. The breakneck pace of technological innovation has made many jobs redundant, particularly in industries like manufacturing.
Anti-poverty charity Oxfam illustrated the issue of inequality starkly in a report this week in which it said that eight billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population, or 3.6 billion people.
There’s a perception among many middle- and lower-income households in developed economies like the U.S. and Europe that globalization hasn’t worked for them. And it’s that unease that many say was behind Trump’s victory and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
THE CASE FOR IT
Globalization has helped lift hundreds of millions to escape poverty over the past few decades. Populous countries like China and India have enjoyed phenomenal growth, improved standards of living, life expectancy, literacy and employment rates.
As though to underscore that point, China’s leader visited the Davos forum this year for the first time.
Chinese President Xi Jinping cast his country as a champion of free trade and stability. Though China does in fact put big limits on foreign companies in the country, Xi’s message was clear: that China wants to take a bigger role on the global stage and keeping business flowing.
“We must remain committed to promoting free trade and investment through opening up, and say no to protectionism,” Xi said, without directly referencing Trump. “Pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, so are light and air … No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
The key will be what policies Trump actually puts in motion, and whether other countries follow the temptation to throw up bigger barriers to business.
Britain will this year renegotiate its trade relations with the rest of the EU, the region it does most business with. And populist political movements have risen in countries like the Philippines and are increasingly prominent in rich nations like France, the Netherlands and Italy.
“We may be at a point where globalization is ending,” said Ray Dalio, founder of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates.
German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, however, expressed doubt that the West would leave the defense of free trade to Chinese leadership.
Beyond Trump, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said the broader international system must change to deal with the growing inequalities evident in the Oxfam report.
Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, sought to convince the Davos elite that Britain was not retreating from the global scene. But she did concede that policymakers have to support those for whom globalization is not working.
“The forces of liberalism, free trade and globalization that have had, and continue to have, such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world … are somehow at risk of being undermined,” she said.