Revisiting Fractured Globalization in Year 2 of COVID

June 2, 2021

President Biden, Vice President Harris, & Secretary Blinken during a virtual Quad Summit with Australia, India, & Japan at the White House, March 2021. CREDIT: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz (U.S. Government Works)

Last year, at the start of the global pandemic, we asked if we were entering into a condition of "fractured globalization." This would be characterized by,

"A pulling back and consolidation of ties to more 'defensible' or 'compact' linkages. We may speak less of a single 'global community' and more in terms of a series of global/regional communities. It may also lead to a diminishing of the cosmopolitan/humanitarian ethos that has found an echo in the national security establishment's focus over the past three decades on fixing failed states and priorities for humanitarian intervention and disaster relief in favor of prioritizing internal defense and regional cohesion."

We thought that disruptions caused by COVID-19, as well as concerns about a developing U.S.-China competition, as well as the emergence of "great power populism" and the concurrent erosion of international solidarity, might change the dynamics of globalization. Would we end up seeing a world, and particularly the United States,

"Stepping back to more compact partnerships, reducing the length and vulnerability of supply chains, and creating alternate sources of supply for everything from energy to electronics that do not require dependence on the revisionist powers will become the defining motif of the 2020s."

We are now entering what Dr. Maha Hosain Aziz describes as "year 2 of the pandemic" (which she will develop for a forthcoming issue of Orbis). As we adjust to the realities of COVID, how does the concept of "fractured globalization" hold up against post-pandemic developments?

1) Globalization has by no means ended, nor has the international community been sundered into its component parts. The United States (and the West more broadly) is not decoupling from China. Trade and travel is picking up again as the immediate crisis ebbs.

2) But the pandemic has caused a re-appreciation for some uses of borders and some degree of reorientation of supply chains and trading networks. Physical borders and frontiers and "vaccination" borders are placing limits on the flows of people around the world, and who may travel and to where, and globalization is, to some extent, now dependent on access to vaccines.

3) What remains unclear is the extent to which we will see major shifts in how the world is configured and whether the prediction of a series of "regional communities" replacing a global market comes to pass. Polling data from Europe, for instance, suggests that a plurality of Europeans prefer to align across the Atlantic with the United States in terms of developing and strengthening a technological partnership to balance China (with only a fraction inclined to deepen ties with China in the pursuit of greater autonomy from the United States). Yet there remains a high degree of indecision about whether or not a "fracturing" strategy is the right one to pursue. There is some support for reorienting supply chains and transport networks to bypass or avoid China—and this is something that the U.S. and its Asian partners are considering more actively. Yet the emphasis here is less on separating Chinese from Western economic zones, and more on "seeking resilience without decoupling."

There are fracture points within the international system, but it has not fragmented, and some of these fractures may be repaired (or replaced) as the initial pandemic recedes. But resurgences of COVID, or new diseases—or continued concerns about supply chains—might create the political demand for a more deliberate reshaping of the system.

This article by U.S. Global Engagement Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blogThe opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie Council. 

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