Some thoughts about COVID-19 and globalization

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 globalization has become buzzword again. Many argue COVID-19 brought about de-globalization. While others claim de-globalization has already started even before COVID-19. A closer look at these arguments reveals that by de-globalization they mean the end of neoliberal globalization to a large extent. Yet the alternative interpretation of globalization suggests a different conclusion. 

Although many agree that globalization had already been happening for centuries, the discursive explosion of the term globalization in social sciences coincides with the end of the Cold War. (James & Steger, 2014) The end that was followed by the third wave of democratization, neo-liberal restructuring of so-called third world countries, integration of China in the WTO framework, and further elimination of the barriers to trade in different parts of the world had a great impact on globalization research. (Huntington 1991; Fukuyama 1992; Harvey 2005; Friedman 2006;) Suddenly in 1990s globalization becomes a buzz word in social sciences. (James & Steger, 2014) 

In the early 1990s, the US, its allies, and international organizations designed primarily by them such as IMF, World Bank, WTO played a greater role than any other actor in engineering mechanisms to articulate the global flows of services, goods, labor, capital, entrepreneurship, and knowledge. Thus, there was substantial agreement among scholars on interpretation of globalization as Westernization, Americanization, new imperialism, or modernization under a different in the early 1990s. (Sen 2002) As social scientists reflect the main patterns of the developments of their times, it seems a short period of the primacy of the US and its allies in world affairs influenced the terminology used by researchers in their inquiry of globalization. Since globalization largely interpreted as western orchestrated phenomenon terms pertaining to unilateral flows, forced convergences and economic restructuration (assimilation, clash of civilizations, diffusion, erosion, etc.) also became buzzwords of globalization studies. (Huntington 1993) 

Others conceptualized globalization as a singular natural process or as “the end of history.” (Fukuyama, 1992) The best-selling books of the period “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century” by Huntington and later in the early 2000s “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” by Friedman are the products of the same understanding of globalization. The rationality or common belief standing behind this conceptualization was the victory of liberal democracy over monarchism, fascism and communism was the final synthesis of the Hegelian dialectic. (Macintosh, 2015) As a result, further spread of liberal democracy and neo-liberal reforming of the world economy became modus operandi(Harvey, 2005) Since neo-liberal globalization was interpreted as something inevitable, structural adjustment programs turned out to be the only way to appropriate it. Consequently, countries in Latin America and Africa became subjects of the painful structural adjustment programs, which were unsuccessful to a great extent. (Harvey, 2005) 

The rapid “rise of the rest” (India, China, Brazil, and South Africa), the enlargement and further consolidation of the EU as a global actor, and the rebound of Russia in the 2000s made the scholars rethink about globalization. (Zakaria 2009; Amsden and Alvin 2002) “Allegedly” sponsor of the globalization- the US turned out to be a loser of it, while others such as China emerged as a beneficiary and a real challenge to the US hegemony. Multipolarity disabled the interpretation of globalization as an irresistible transformative force emanating from a single-center since no country possessed (possesses) means to articulate the ends of globalization. The “rise of the rest” also brought about changes in global formats to tame globalization. As a result, G7 was restored to G8, G8 became G20 and G20 turned into G77. (Gordon 2011) Academia also reacted to these tectonic changes. Reflecting on the transformations on the ground, the terms associating with interactive and cooperative production of globalization and integrating the peculiarities of current multipolarity (interaction, cultural exchange, multiculturalism, and knowledge transfers) began to be employed to study globalization. 

The contemporary globalization research tends to deviate from the previous normative statements about the nature of globalization. In this vein, it avoids answering the question such as whether globalization is a bad or good thing. Now globalization is not treated as an evil force that is orchestrated from a single center to erode national boundaries, to devastate economies, to flatten cultural and social norms. Nor it is depicted as a virtuous man providing welfare whoever is connected to its network. It is rather interpreted as a phenomenon presenting opportunities and threats at the same time. According to current understanding, globalization is not somewhere above us, beyond human control, it is rather a complex matrix of interactions and web of flows which are manageable. Nobel winning American economist Stieglitz says: 

The countries that managed globalization on their own such as those in East Asia have by and large ensured that they have reaped huge benefits and that those benefits were equitably shared; they were able substantially to control terms on which they engaged with the global economy.” (Stiglitz 2017, p. 12) 

Raphael Kaplinsky also recognizes the agencies of different actors in production globalization by saying: “Globalization is the purposeful pursuit of objectives –– be they personal, economic, social or political –– which leads individuals, institutions, and nations to widen their activities across national boundaries.” (Raphael Kaplinsky 2005, p.32). In a similar context, Van de Graaf and Zelli challenge the idea of the global energy problem: 

The existence of different energy frames and worldviews is a reminder that there is no such thing as ‘the’ global energy challenge; instead, there are many different energy problems and the prioritization and trade-offs involved reflect different worldviews and values. (Van de Graaf and Zelli, 2016, p.50) 

What is happening around the globe at the time of COVID-19 pandemic is more about to find a better way to manage globalization rather than de-globalization. In this vein, proclamations such as “America First”, “multilateralism”, “multiculturalism” “principled pragmatism”, and projects such as “Belt and Road,” BRICS and many others are competing, and relational strategies to tame globalization. Eventually, the shape of globalization in the coming decades is hugely dependent on these policies put forward today. COVID-19 just made us focus on processes that have been happening since the last decades.

Globalization never had one shape and the emerging format is not going to the final one.