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Countries should resist the protectionist urge after COVID-19

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Authors: Nicholas Ross Smith andZbigniew Dumienski*

One of the most worrying trends in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the retreat of countries from participating in the so-called “international community”. Certainly, the threat of COVID-19 has resulted in extreme measures like the closing of borders and increasing centralization of politics at the country-level. However, these measures have also been accompanied by enveloping anxiety and paranoia, both of which significantly inhibit a truly cooperative international response to the crisis.

Troublingly, isolation, it seems, is not just a strategy for defeating COVID-19 but also the default mode countries are adopting with regards to international relations at this moment. 

This ‘protectionist turn’ is hardly surprising. Dissatisfaction with globalization has been rising exponentially in over the last two decades, most notably stoked by the global financial crisis. Even in the United States, a country which benefited tremendously from the deepening of global trade and finance, protectionist tones were arguably a key element of Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016. And Trump, to an extent, followed through with this protectionist bent in his policymaking since, notably the trade war the United States has been engaging in against China.

At first glance, it may seem odd that globalization, or trade liberalisation more broadly, has been attracting so much criticism because this era of globalization – often referred to as the third wave of globalization – has brought with it incredible material benefits to developed and developing countries. For instance, the percentage of people worldwide living in absolute poverty has dropped from 37% in 1990 to under 10% in 2020, while at the same time, the global population has increased by roughly 2.4 billion in the same period. 

But, simply evaluating globalization in broad metrics ignores the more important question of power, both domestically and internationally. While it is true that free trade in goods and services between willing parties can be beneficial to everyone, this recent era of globalization arguably has relatively little to do with such genuinely free exchanges.

Far from simply allowing all people to trade freely, the current set of international regimes and treaties, which govern international trade, is of primary benefit to those entities that are large enough to be able to afford to adhere to them. Likewise, domestic rules and regulations create conditions in which large companies are preoccupied more with cutting the cost of labour (heavily taxed in the West), than with reducing the pollution that is the inevitable cost of transporting goods across the world.

Furthermore, this era of globalization has not just resulted in a proliferation of free trade in goods and services globally but, more insidiously, the acquisition of all sorts of monopoly privileges by the most powerful entities and individuals, with land ownership arguably being the most significant and glaring example.

Labour products wean out, but privileges are forever. The idea that free trade enriches people in both countries do not consider trade that turns one country into tenants of another country, person or corporation.

We must, therefore, remember that globalization is not a natural phenomenon, but a phenomenon that is influenced by both domestic and international power struggles. Not surprisingly, a crisis of this magnitude is bound to affect the power dynamics that have shaped how our world has become globalized.

With regards to COVID-19, globalization has been cited as a major contributing factor to the difficulty countries have had in initially fighting the pandemic. One glaring example of this has been the global reliance on China for the key medical supplies needed to reduce the contagiousness of COVID-19, such as masks and sanitizer chemicals. Once COVID-19 forced China into lockdown, global supply chains were halted, leaving numerous countries unable to access the supplies needed in combatting the outbreaks they were experiencing.

Even after China managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 by late February which enabled them to significantly increase the production of the medical supplies needed in the frontline fight against the pandemic, issues have remained. Although China’s humanitarianism in places like Italy and Spain deserves praise, some issues have arisen such as some Chinese producers have been accused of auctioning off supplies to the highest bidder. Furthermore, the quality of the products China is providing has come under the microscope, with numerous examples of faulty medical supplies being returned.  

Globalization is painted as the underlying problem in all of this, but the reality is that much of the problem stems from a mutated version of globalization – examined above – that has come to dominate the international community, not globalization itself. But, the two are so intertwined in dominant discourses that protectionist responses to the crisis become attractive, especially to those that have suffered the most from globalization over the years. 

If globalization is bad, then what is good? Well, protectionism seems to be a popular answer being touted now. Protectionism has always been appealing to populations because, on the surface, it seems like a positive case of a government using its power to “protect” the most vulnerable within a country. But, as Henry George stated: “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war”.

The surging protectionist sentiment after COVID-19 is spiralling out of control in some areas. And while, in the short-term, countries will certainly be forced to fend for themselves by becoming somewhat insular, they cannot be sucked into to thinking this is a viable model for the long-term.

One only has to look at Albania during the Cold War to see the folly out of control protectionism can breed. Partly due to the anxiety and paranoia of the Cold War, the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha took the desire to be “self-sufficient” to the extreme, attempting to completely disengage Albania from the international community and pursue a policy tantamount to autarky. This was not simply symbolic posturing as by the mid-1980s, foreign trade accounted for merely 6% of GDP and Albania received zero foreign assistance (Albania had been previously heavily dependent on the Soviet Union and then the People’s Republic of China).

Despite nearly implanting a complete autarky, this policy was disastrous for Albania. One of the big problems was that Albania was a largely agricultural society and had not experienced significant industrialization. Albania barely produced any machinery and the capital goods they had were mostly Soviet-made from the 1950s. As a result, Albania was left to wallow for decades in poverty without any improvement of economy or life, representing, by far, Europe’s poorest country at that time. 

Communist Albania is an extreme example, but it is still a useful warning to countries which are facing increased pressure from within due to COVID-19 to become more “self-sufficient”. And while it is understandable that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates a temporary restriction on the movement of people, it does not also have to result in the restriction of the global trade of goods and services.

Unlike in the case of past epidemics, there is now the technological capabilities to purchase goods and services directly from suppliers across the globe from within the comfort of our home. The fact that we still buy so many goods in brick and mortar shops is mostly a matter of habit than necessity. And the fact we still require countries to facilitate trade is also not a necessity.

In this context, COVID-19 could represent a critical juncture where newer, more appropriate and efficient forms of trade are established. Given the potential economic fallout that might occur due to the pandemic, radical ideas are surely needed to kickstart economic exchange. For that to occur, however, we need responsible leadership that sees trade as being an activity between people and companies, rather than perpetuate this dated idea of trade being some that should be predominately managed country-to-country.

COVID-19 also shows us that we need far more meaningful global cooperation and burden-sharing. Even the wealthiest countries with the best healthcare suffer if one country cannot contain an illness (because of poverty or incompetence). We are used to this argument in military terms. A failed state is a threat to all neighbours due to refugees, violence etc. But now maybe this thinking can extend to other areas. The real challenge is though how to boost global collaboration in a democratic and accountable way?

Protectionism is not the answer.

However, giving the growing centralization of countries and the growing protectionist sentiment in many populations, it is likely that the opportunity to reinvigorate globalization will be lost, and an era of growing protectionism and mercantilism will be upon us in no short time.  This will only compound the pain of COVID-19 in the short-term while further muddying the long-term forecasts of international relations, most notably the looming US-China great power competition.

*Zbigniew Dumienski, PhD graduate in International Political Economy from the University of Auckland, New Zealand

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Economy

Synchronicity in Economic Policy amid the Pandemic

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Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.Carl Jung

The Covid pandemic has elicited a number of deficiencies in the current global governance framework, most notably its weaknesses in mustering a coordinated response to the global economic downturn. A global economy is not fully “global” if it is devoid of the capability to conduct coordinated and effective responses to a global economic crisis. What may be needed is a more flexible governance structure in the world economy that is capable of exhibiting greater synchronicity in economic policies across countries and regions. Such a governance structure should accord greater weight to regional integration arrangements and their development institutions at the level of key G20 decisions concerning international economic policy coordination.

The need for greater synchronicity in the global economy arises across several trajectories:

· Greater synchronicity in the anti-crisis response across countries and regions – according to the IMF it is a coordinated response that renders economic stimulus more efficacious in countering the global downturn

· Synchronicity in the withdrawal of stimulus across the largest economies – absent such coordination the timing of policy normalization could be postponed with negative implications for macroeconomic stability

· Greater synchronicity in opening borders, lifting lockdowns and other policy measures related to responding to the pandemic: such synchronicity provides more scope for cross-country and cross-regional value-added chains to boost production

· Greater synchronicity in ensuring a recovery in migration and the movement of people across borders.

Of course such greater synchronicity in economic policy should not undermine the autonomy of national economic policy – it is rather about the capability of national and regional economies to exhibit greater coordination during downturns rather than a progression towards a uniform pattern of economic policy across countries. Synchronicity is not only about policy coordination per se, but also about creating the infrastructure that facilitates such joint actions. This includes the conclusion of digital accords/agreements that raise significantly the potential for economic policy coordination. Another area is the development of physical infrastructure, most notably in the transportation sphere. Such measures serve to improve regional and inter-regional connectivity and provide a firmer foundation for regional economic integration.

The paradox in which the world economy finds itself is that even as the current crisis is leading to fragmentation and isolationism there is a greater need for more policy coordination and synchronicity to overcome the economic downturn. This need for synchronicity may well increase in the future given the widening array of global risks such as risks to cyber-security as well as energy security and climate change. There is also the risk of the depletion of reserves to counter the Covid crisis that has been accompanied by a rise in debt levels across developed and developing economies. Also, the speed of the propagation of crisis impulses (that effectively increases with technological advances and globalization) is not matched by the capability of economic policy coordination and efficiency of anti-crisis policies.

There may be several modes of advancing greater synchronicity across borders in international relations. One possible option is a major superpower using its clout in a largely unipolar setting to facilitate greater policy coordination. Another possibility is for such coordination to be supported by global international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, Bretton Woods institutions, etc. Other options include coordination across the multiplicity of all countries of the global economy as well as across regional integration arrangements and institutions.

Attaining greater synchronicity across countries will necessitate changes in the global governance framework, which currently is characterized by weak multilateral institutions at the top level and a fragmented framework of governance at the level of countries. What may be needed is a greater scope accorded to regional integration arrangements that may facilitate greater coordination of synchronicity at the regional level as well as across regions. The advantage of providing greater weight to the regional institutions in dealing with global economic downturns emanates from their greater efficiency in coordinating an anti-crisis response at the regional level via investment/infrastructure projects as well as macroeconomic policy coordination. Regional development institutions also have a comparative advantage in leveraging regional interdependencies to promote economic recovery.

In conclusion, the global economy has arguably become more fragmented as a result of the Covid pandemic. The multiplicity of country models of dealing with the pandemic, the “vaccine competition”, the breaking up of global value chains and their nationalization and regionalization all point in the direction of greater localization and self-sufficiency. At the same time there is a need from greater synchronicity across countries particularly in the context of the current pandemic crisis. Regional integration arrangements and institutions could serve to facilitate such coordination in economic policy within and across the major regions of the world economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Economy

A New Strategy for Ukraine

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Authors: Anna Bjerde and Novoye Vremia

Four years ago, the World Bank prepared a multi-year strategy to support Ukraine’s development goals. This was a period of recovery from the economic crisis of 2014-2015, when GDP declined by a cumulative 16 percentage points, the banking sector collapsed, and poverty and other measures of insecurity spiked. Indeed, we noted at the time that Ukraine was at a turning point.

Four years later, despite daunting internal and external challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, Ukraine is a stronger country. It has proved more resilient to unpredictable challenges and is better positioned to achieve its long-term development vision. This increased capacity is first and foremost the result of the determination of the Ukrainian people.

The World Bank is proud to have joined the international community in supporting Ukraine during this period. I am here in Kyiv this week to launch a new program of assistance. In doing this, we look back to what worked and how to apply those lessons going forward. In Ukraine—as in many countries—the chief lesson is that development assistance is most effective when it supports policies and projects which the government and citizens really want.

This doesn’t mean only easy or even non-controversial measures; rather, it means we engage closely with government authorities, business, local leaders, and civil society to understand where policy reforms may be most effective in removing obstacles to growth and human development and where specific projects can be most successful in delivering social services, particularly to the poorest.

Looking back over the past four years in Ukraine, a few examples stand out. First, agricultural land reform. For the past two decades, Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world where farmers were not free to sell their land.

The prohibition on allowing farmers to leverage their most valuable asset contributed to underinvestment in one of Ukraine’s most important sources of growth, hurt individual landowners, led to high levels of rural unemployment and poverty, and undermined the country’s long-term competitiveness.

The determination by the President and the actions by the government to open the market on July 1 required courage. This was not an easy decision. Powerful and well-connected interests benefited from the status quo; but it was the right one for Ukrainian citizens.

A second area where we have been closely involved is governance, both with respect to public institutions and the rule of law, as well as the corporate governance of state-owned banks and enterprises. Poll after poll in Ukraine going back more than a decade revealed that strengthening public institutions and creating a level playing field for business was a top priority.

World Bank technical assistance and policy financing have supported measures to restore liability for illicit enrichment of public officials, to strengthen existing anticorruption agencies such as NABU and NACP, and to create new institutions, including the independent High-Anticorruption Court.

We are also working with government to ensure the integrity of state-owned enterprises. Our support to the government’s unbundling of Naftogaz is a good example; assistance in establishing supervisory boards in state-owned banks is another. We hope our early dialogue on modernizing the operations of Ukrzaliznytsia will be equally beneficial.

As we begin preparation of a new strategy, the issues which have guided our ongoing work—strengthening markets, stabilizing Ukraine’s fiscal and financial accounts; and providing inclusive social services more efficiently—remain as pressing today as they were in 2017. Indeed, the progress which has been achieved needs to continue to be supported as they frequently come under assault from powerful interests.

At the same time, recent years have highlighted emerging challenges where we hope to deepen and expand our engagement. First, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of our long partnership in health reform and strengthening social protection programs.

The changes to the provision of health care in Ukraine over recent years has helped mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to make Ukrainians healthier. Government efforts to better target social spending to the poor has also made a difference. We look forward to continuing our support in both areas, including over the near term through further support to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking ahead, the challenge confronting us all is climate change. Here again, our dialogue with the government has positioned us to help, including to achieve Ukraine’s ambitious commitment to reduce carbon emissions. During President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington in early September we discussed operations to strengthen the electricity sector; a program to transition from coal power to renewables; municipal energy efficiency investments; and how to tap into Ukraine’s unique capacity to produce and store hydrogen energy. This is a bold agenda, but one that can be realized.

I have been gratified by my visit to Kyiv to see first-hand what has been achieved in recent years. I look forward to our partnership with Ukraine to help realize this courageous vision of the future.

Originally published in Ukrainian language in Novoye Vremia, via World Bank

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Russia, China and EU are pushing towards de-dollarization: Will India follow?

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Authors: Divyanshu Jindal and Mahek Bhanu Marwaha*

The USD (United States Dollar) has been the world’s dominant currency since the conclusion of the second world war. Dollar has also been the most sought reserve currency for decades, which means it is held by central banks across the globe in significant quantities. Dollar is also primarily used in cross-border transactions by nations and businesses. Without a doubt, US dollar’s dominance is a major reason for the US’ influence over public and private entities operating around the world. This unique position not only makes US the leader in the financial and monetary system, but also provides incomparable leverage when it comes to coercive ability to shape decisions taken by governments, businesses, and institutions.

However, this dynamic is undergoing gradual and visible changes with the emergence of China, slowdown in the US economy, European Union’s independent policy assertion, Russia-US detachment, and increasing voices from across the world to create a polycentric world and financial system in which hegemonic capacities can be muted. The world is witnessing de-dollarisation attempts and ambitions, as well as the rise of digital or cryptocurrencies at an increasing pace today.

With Russia, China and EU leading the way in the process of de-dollarisation, it needs to be argued whether India, currently among the most dollarized countries (in invoicing), will take cue from the global trends and push towards de-dollarisation as well.

Why de-dollarisation?

The dominant role of dollar in the global economy provides US disproportionate amount of influence over other economies. As international trade needs a payment and financial system to take place, any nation in position to dictate the terms and policies over these systems can create disturbances in trade between other players in the system. This is how imposition of sanctions work in theory.  

The US has for long used imposition of sanctions as a tool to achieve foreign policy and goals, which entails restricting access to US-led services in payment and financial transaction processing domains.

In recent years, several nations have started opposing the unilateral decisions taken by the US, a trend which accelerated under the former president Donald Trump’s tenure. He withdrew US from the JCPOA deal between Iran and US, aimed at Iran’s compliance with nuclear discipline and non-proliferation. Albeit US withdrawal, other signatories like EU, Russia, and China expressed discontent towards the unilateral stance by the US and stayed committed towards the deal and have desired for continued engagements with Iran in trade and aid.

Similarly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict in 2014 did not find the reverberations among allies to the extent that US had wanted. While EU members had switched to INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) which acts as a special-purpose vehicle to facilitate non-USD trade with Iran to avoid US sanctions, EU nations like Germany continue to have deep trade ties with Russia, and  EU remains the largest investor as well the biggest trade partner for Russia, with trade taking place in euros, instead of dollars.

Further, despite the close US-EU relations, EU has started its own de-dollarization push. This became more explicit when earlier this year, EU announced plans to prioritize the euro as an international and reserved currency, in direct competition with dollar.

Trajectories of Russia, China, and EU’s de-dollarisation push

Russia has emerged as the nation with the most vigorous policies oriented towards de-dollarization. In 2019, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had invited Russia’s partners to cooperate towards a mechanism for switching to use of national currencies when it comes to transactions between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It must be noted that in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which functions as a Russian-led trade bloc, more than 70 percent of the settlements are happening in national currencies. Further, in recent years, Russia has also switched to settlements in national currencies with India (for arms contracts) and the two traditionally strong defence partners are aiming at exploring technology as means for payment in national currencies.

Russia’s push to detach itself from the US currency can also be seen in the transforming nature of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves where Russia for the first time had more gold reserves than dollars according to the 2018 data (22 percent dollars, 23 percent gold, 33 percent Euros, 12 percent Yuan). As per the statement by Russian Finance Minister in 2021, Russia aims to hold 40 percent euro, 30 percent yuan, 20 percent gold and 5 percent each of Japanese yen and British pound. In comparison, China holds a significant amount of dollar denominated assets as forex reserves (50 to 60 percent) and has the US as its top export market with which trade takes place mostly in US dollars. Moreover, Russia has also led the push by creating its own financial messaging system- SPFS (The System for Transfer of Financial Messages) and a new national electronic payment system – Mir, which has witnessed an exponential rise in its use.

While China-Russia trade significantly depends on euros instead of  their own national currencies (even though use of national currencies is slowly rising), instead of pushing the Chinese national currency Renminbi (RMB), Beijing is aiming towards establishing itself as the first nation to issue a sovereign digital currency, which would help China to engage in cross border payments without depending on the US financial systems. Thus, for China, digital currency seems to be the route towards countering the dollar dominance as well as to increase its own clout by leading the way for an alternate global financial system operating in digital currencies. It needs to be noted here that EU has succeeded in internationalizing the euro and this can be seen in the fact that EU-Russia trade as well as Russia-China trade occurs predominately in euros now.

Will India follow suit?

Indian economy’s dynamic with dollar is different than other major economies in the world today. Unlike China or Russia (or EU and Japan), which hold dollars in significant amounts, India’s reserve is not resulted by an export surplus. While others accumulate dollars from their earnings of trade surplus, India maintains a large forex reserve even though India imports less than it exports. In India’s case, the dollar reserves come through infusion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI), which reflects the confidence of foreign investors in India’s growth prospects. However, accumulation of dollar reserves through this route (which helps in offsetting the current deficit faced in trade), India remains vulnerable to policy changes by other nations’ monetary policies which are beyond India’s own control. For instance, it has been often highlighted that a tightening of the US monetary policy leads to capital outflows (capital flight) from India, thus impacting India adversely.

New Dehi has resisted a de-dollarization push for long. Back in 2009, when Russia and China had started the push via BRIC mechanism (Brazil, Russia, India, China grouping), it was argued that New Delhi would not like to upset Washington, especially after the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement was signed just a year before in 2008 -for full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.

Further, currency convertibility is an important part of global commerce as it opens trade with other countries and allows a government to pay for goods and services in a currency that may not be the buyer’s own. Non-convertible currency creates difficulties for participating in international market as the transactions take longer routes for processing (which in case of dollar transactions, is controlled by US systems).

 Just like Chinese renminbi, Indian rupee is also not yet fully convertible at the exchange markets. While this means that India can control its burden of foreign debt, and inflow of capital for investment purposes in its economy, it also means an uneasy access to capital, less liquidity in financial market, and less business opportunities.

It can be argued that just like the case of China and Russia, India can also look towards having a digital currency in the near future, and some signs for this are already visible. India can also look towards having an increased share of euros and gold in its foreign exchange reserves, a method currently being used by both China and Russia.  

Conclusion

An increasing number of voices are today pointing towards the arrival of the Asian age (or century). With China now being the leading economic power in the world, US economy on a slowdown, and emergence of an increasing polycentric structure in world economy, the dominance of dollar is bound to witness a shake-up. In order for global systems to remain in sync with the transforming economic order, structural changes like control over leading economic organisations (like IMF and World Bank) will become increasingly desirable.

With an increasing number of nations now looking towards digital currencies and considering a change in the mix of their foreign exchange reserves, a general trend is now visible even if it would not mean an end to dollar’s dominance in the immediate future. As the oil and gas trade in international markets also start shifting from dollar, geopolitical balance of power is expected to witness a shift after decades of US dominance.

Major geopolitical players like China, Russia and EU have already started their journey to counter the dominance of dollar, and the strings of US influence on political decisions that come with it. According to Chinese media, Afghanistan’s reconstruction after US-withdrawal can also accelerate the global de-dollarization push as nations like Saudi Arabia might look for establishing funds for assisting Afghanistan in non-dollar currencies. So, conflict areas highlight another avenue where de-dollarization push will find a testing arena in coming times.

India has several options for initiating its de-dollarization process. Starting from Russia-India transactions, trade with Iran, EAEU, BRICS and SCO members in national or digital currencies can also become a reality in near future. Considering India’s present dollar dependence, whether US sees India’s move towards de-dollarisation as a direct challenge to US-India relations, or accepts it as a shift in the global realities, has to be seen.  

*Mahek Bhanu Marwaha is a master’s student in Diplomacy, Law and Business program at the OP Jindal Global University, India. Her research interests revolve around Indian and Chinese foreign policies and trade relations.

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