January 4th, 2014
08:02 PM ET

Have we reached the end of globalization?

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By Global Public Square staff

At the start of 2014, let's take a look at one of the great trends of the last century. You could be sitting in Chicago, Illinois right now, but your TV was probably made in Japan, your sneakers were likely manufactured in China and your coffee might be from Kenya. Globalization impacts every single thing around us. So here’s the big question: have we reached the end of globalization?

For much of the last thirty years there has been a steady trend in commerce: global trade has expanded at about twice the pace of the global economy. For example, between 1988 and 2007, global trade grew on average by 6.2 percent a year according to the World Trade Organization. During the same period, the world’s GDP was growing at nearly half that pace: 3.7 percent.

But a strange thing has taken place in the last two years. Growth in global trade has dropped dramatically, to even less than GDP growth. The change leaves one wondering: has the incredible transfer of goods around the world reached some sort of pinnacle? Have we exhausted the drive toward ever-more-globalization?

It's a fascinating thesis. The world has seen historic developments in the last few decades: the internet, China's opening up, the rise of emerging markets, fast and cheap travel…all of these trends led to a massive acceleration in global trade.

But have those trends peaked? Could the next big invention, say, 3-D printers, end the need for more and more trade? Imagine a world where you need a new faucet in your restroom. Instead of going to the local store that sells faucets made in China (which contributes to global trade) now you just print out your own faucet, sitting at home or at a local store. Are people also getting more interested in local products compared to global brands.

Joshua Cooper Ramo points out in an essay in Fortune that localism is on the rise – local banking, local manufacturing, and even local sourcing for food and restaurants. Is this simply a pause or could it be more than that? The answer will depend on politics.

The last time the world saw a consistent period where the growth of global trade lagged behind global growth was in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. One factor was the rise in protectionist policies - as a response in many cases to the Great Depression and the disruption of the gold standard. At one point, under what was known as the Smoot-Hawley tariff, the United States government began imposing import duties of around 60 percent. The move was aimed at protecting domestic farmers, but instead, it exacerbated the depression. It led to a steep drop in trade, and a wave of counter protectionist measures by other countries.

The world has learned its lessons from the Great Depression. But perhaps not as well as it should have.

According to the independent think tank Global Trade Alert, we’re in the midst of a great rise in protectionism. In the 12 months preceding May 2013, governments around the world imposed three times as many protectionist measures than moves to open up. Anti-trade policies are at their highest point since the 2008 financial crisis. According to the Petersen Institute, the rise of these measures cost global trade 93 billion dollars in 2010.

There might be some good news on this front. Last month, the World Trade Organization passed a deal to cut red tape in customs. It’s a small start, and there is a lot more to accomplish. Globalization and trade have produced huge benefits for people, especially the poor, who have been able to make their way out of poverty in a faster growing and more connected global economy. But globalization won’t continue by accident or stealth – politicians will have to help make it happen.

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Topics: Economy • Global • What in the World?

soundoff (178 Responses)
  1. David

    It's the over consumption by the people in the first world, rather than an over populated world

    April 18, 2014 at 11:14 am |
  2. Travis B

    I don't think that trade will ever completely stop. In America we look for the cheapest goods,so that why we wouldn't stop trading.Also when you are in business you look for the cheapest way to make your good,so if you let the Chinese make your good and get it for 50 cent a piece it's better than if you stay local and pay the American works 75 cent to a dollar piece.one thing that concerned me is when it said "the last time the world saw consistent period were the 1920,30,and 40s." I don't know a lot about globalization but I know a lot about history and in history those years were the years of the Great Depression.

    May 4, 2014 at 11:03 am |
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