Report from the 166th mBank-CASE seminar: Will the pandemic reshape globalisation?

At the 166th mBank-CASE Seminar, Dr. Dalibor Rohac, of the American Enterprise Institute and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels, and Professor Roman Kuźniar of the University of Warsaw attempted to answer the question of whether the pandemic will reshape globalization, and if so, how. The starting point for the discussion was Dr. Rohac’s book In Defense of Globalism; while it was published before the COVID-19 pandemic, the theses it contains are well suited to an analysis of the current international situation – because the pandemic has become a factor that may influence the growth of isolationism and lead to a slowdown in international cooperation.

In his introduction, Dr Rohac said that contrary to the apocalyptic scenarios presented in the media, the COVID-19 epidemic isn’t a turning point in history; it hasn’t fundamentally reshaped the way international trade works, nor does it mean “things will never be the same again.” However, it is true that the pandemic sped up certain processes and phenomena which have been with us for some time, including by intensifying questions about the future of the European Union, and in fact the shape of globalization.

To add a historical dimension to the discussion, at the beginning Dr. Rohac pointed to the processes that took place around the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the 1990s and 2000s in Europe, we saw the progress of democratization, a reduction in extreme poverty, a successful fight against terrorism etc. These trends were also visible in other parts of the world. After World War II, the number of democratic states rose, as did global GDP, while the number of authoritarian states and armed conflicts fell. Research shows that democracy, the free market and social security improve quality of life, and restrict corruption and politicians’ authoritarian instincts. Similar democratic systems were introduced after World War II on the basis of international institutions.

The various crises that have been mounting for more than a decade, including the crisis of voters’ confidence in the reigning political and economic order, affect the perception of globalization and ensure increasing airtime for politicians who question it. Against these isolationist and nationalist trends, in his presentation Dr. Rohac tried to respond to the question of why international cooperation and globalization are good things.

He started from the question of the complexity of the globalized world in the economic dimension. Many companies purchase components of their products around the globe, and sell their final goods on global markets. Here it’s not only about exchange of goods, but digital exchange. Today it’s even difficult to map these economic relations, because they have no borders. So defining nationalism today is completely different than what we were facing in the period before globalization. Dr. Rohac also addressed the current role and function of international institutions in the context of growing populism, and the nationalist sentiment that’s growing worldwide. For example, many politicians, not only on the extreme right and left, openly voice fears that international institutions artificially impose solutions on states’ internal policies.

According to Dr. Rohac, there exists an alternative both to utopian progressivism, or the idea of the end of nation states, and to isolationism. He stressed that the international system created after World War II was effective, and in attempting to reform it we must be careful not to break it, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Professor Kuźniar commented on Dr. Rohac’s presentation. By way of introduction he pointed out that globalization is a long-term process, which has created international institutions. He stressed that we must defend these institutions against the siren song of authoritarian leaders who see them as a threat to their governments. Prof. Kuźniar noted that the states of the West haven’t always used international institutions properly, pointing to the use of the UN to organize military action in Libya. The crisis of international institutions also arises from how international corporations, not states, have an ever stronger voice today. International institutions often don’t have the proper tools and financing to manage international affairs. As a result, they can only put out fires – i.e. help in fighting economic crises, such as the ones in 2007, 2011 and today.

In the final part of the seminar, the experts answered audience questions. Asked about a repeat of the 2007 crises and a potential collapse of the EU, Dr. Rohac said government lockdowns were the right response to the pandemic, but the problem appears in relation to financing support for entrepreneurs, which is very costly and over the long term will be unsustainable. Dr. Rohac admitted that the EU mishandled the initial stage of the pandemic, and said the true test for the bloc will be aid from the northern countries to their southern fellow members that have suffered more as a result of the pandemic, with Italy as the prime example.

Responding to a question about the future of international institutions, the experts agreed that the WHO behaved improperly at the start of the pandemic. It disregarded signals coming from China, and unthinkingly accepted data provided by the government there. But it must be borne in mind that international institutions are still a place for discussions between states. When representatives of the U.S. leave the WHO, international dialog may be significantly harmed, which could disrupt the international order.


Author: Paweł Galiński


Watch the seminar