Fears about a reaction against globalisation found a powerful voice in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg this week when he said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that there were increasing demands to “withdraw from the connected world”.
Citing fake news, polarised views and “filter bubbles” for damaging what he called common understanding, Zuckerberg said the globalisation movement had underestimated the challenges it held for some people.
He urged Governments and private enterprise to “build the infrastructure to empower people” so that globalisation worked for everyone, not just for some.
Economic historian Harold James went further, saying the election of United States President Donald Trump and the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union suggested the international appetite for globalisation was collapsing and that this could plunge the world into war.
"We're swinging back again from an era when everyone thought globalisation was inevitable, to a period when people think there's really a big problem with globalisation," James said.
The Princetown professor said this era was becoming very like that which existed in the first decade of the 20th century when there was a nationalist reaction against globalisation that led to World War I.
Zuckerberg and James are wrong to believe that globalisation can be permanently derailed. We are living through a period of profound change — the main thrust of which is a movement away from the Westphalian system of nation states to an increasingly globalised world order.
This movement has been going on for some time, probably since the advent of transnational railway systems in the 19th century. Its progress was interrupted by two world wars, but has been continuing apace since, with the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and a host of other bodies existing for the extension of international cooperation.
By the 1970s financial markets were fully globalised and not long after new technology brought instant communication to anyone with a smartphone.
There can be no retreat from this whatever populist politicians promise and however many demonstrators take to the streets. History does not have a reverse gear.
But Zuckerberg is right to point out that more must be done to help people through this inevitable period of change. Not to do so will produce more Trumps and Brexits as the old order thrashes around in its death throes – and yes, the very real possibility of Professor James’ war. It has happened before.
When former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, flushed with his Brexit victory, said he looked forward to the day when the entire European Union was dismantled and it was back to sovereign nations trading amongst themselves, he was harking after a time that never really existed in the modern era, except briefly and in a wasteful and highly unstable way.
The present system, in transition and in need of moderation, certainly has to be made fairer, but is far more preferable to Farage’s utopia which brought the Great Depression and two world wars.