(This translation needs improvement to better bring out the import of the article, beyond a literal translation. Any assistance anyone can provide will be gratefully acknowledged.)
The U.S. government will undergo a transition of power in a week’s time. Discussions and expectations about the Biden administration’s future internal and external policies will gradually come to be known. Among these discussions, one school suggests that Biden will “zero in” on many of the Trump administration’s initiatives and even “restore” U.S. domestic and foreign policy to the state before Trump took office, which to a large extent means a return to the globalism and multilateralism of the past.
Whether the United States will “resume” globalization has attracted much attention
Many people are disappointed with the Trump administration’s “anti-globalization” operations, , believing that it not only worsened international relations and aggravated political tensions world-wide, but also further tore apart American society and aggravated political differences. Now the possibility of Biden reverting to globalization and multilateralism has rekindled their hopes.
Will the next US government really return to the multilateralism and the high “tide of globalization” it used to lead? This may be a delusion. No matter how much Biden may have once agreed with the domestic and foreign policies of the United States under Obama, today he is facing a new reality after the past four years. Although Trump is about to step down, “Trumpism” is still widespread in American society and will continue to play a role in American politics. This is not something Biden can avoid even if he wants to, because “Trumpism” reflects the United States as it is today. There are many real problems and challenges that need to be faced.
The actions of the Trump Administration during the past four years have objectively brought out a key issue in the American discourse, that is, whether globalization and multilateralism have done more good than harm for the United States. This requires a new understanding of what “globalization” is.
Globalization has its political limits
Globalization used to be considered neutral, and primarily an economic process. However, in recent years, a large part of the dissatisfaction with globalization has unexpectedly come from developed countries. This reminds people that some grandiose imaginations about globalization in the past may have been due to lack of sufficient understanding of the nature of globalization, and that it is mainly due to a lack of understanding of where globalization started and what it is.
Where did globalization begin and its lack of identity.
According to the American political scientist Robert Gilpin, for most of the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War and its alliance structure provided the framework within which the world economy operated, that is, the international market (economy) was backed by international power (politics), and that globalization was not “spontaneous” but the result of power construction. The starting condition of this round of globalization was “Peace under America” (Pax Americana). Globalization, which started during the Cold War and served the goal of hegemonic competition, was also shaped by powerful political forces in the process of unfolding, and built an organic interaction and feedback between capital and the state, that is, the hegemonic state provided political support for the cross-border flow of capital. While capital drove the diffusion of technology and reaped profits, it also created better material and technical conditions for the hegemonic countries to consolidate their dominant position and resolve domestic problems.
After the end of World War II, the United States took the initiative to help the former colonial powers in Europe to rebuild their industrial foundations, unilaterally opened its markets to allies in strategic locations at the forefront of the Cold War faultlines, and later accepted China’s participation in the globalization process. These are similar interpretations of the same logic in different periods. This is the origin of the phrase “integrating China into the U.S.-led international system” in the past few years, and the essence of globalization, multilateralism, and the post-war international order.
Globalization began as a largely hegemonic investment, and its “origin” already included political selectivity, which determined two basic political limits to its expansion. One was the limits to equality in international politics in terms of the relationship between the dominant and the following countries, or between the developed and the developing countries; the other is the limits to mutual advancement of capital and politics in terms of political and business relations in the broader sense.
In the former case, this means that the so-called equality in interstate relations since the postwar period was only formal or partial, but in essence they were premised on self-evident inequality., and that the domination of international affairs by the powerful countries is seen as one of the fruits of victory in World War II, which cannot be allowed to be taken away by others.
In the case of the latter, the establishment of certain constraints on capital was a response to the failure of international and domestic politics from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, and the freedom of capital had to be predicated on the capacity to promote the common welfare within the state.
Previous trajectory of globalization not sustainable
But with the end of the Cold War, and the deepening of globalization and weakening of the political and ideological dynamics behind it, the relationship between capital and the state has evolved in the late 20th century, and some new realities that are quite different from the past have appeared. They have begun to break through the political regulation of capital that once existed, so that both of these limits have been broken.
The reciprocal relationship between capital and politics was broken, so that the capital movement was no longer as beneficial to the resolution of America’s internal problems as it had been in the past. The breaking of the limits of equality in international politics is, to a large extent, the result of globalization breaking the limits of capital-politics reciprocal nexus operative with protection of an unequal international power structure, i.e., after breaking through the regulatory barriers of politics and gaining an unprecedented freedom of action, capital in turn dismantles the power advantage of the countries that had dominant power in the international system, a process that can be described as a backlash. Globalization, which was supposed to be an arm of political power, became a machete to break its arm. This was not expected by the power providers of globalization.
The collaborative relationship between capital and politics in the United States during the postwar period was eroded in the course of the globalization process of the past few years. Simply returning to the globalization of the past and multilateralism means that politics would be further controlled by capital. This is quite unbearable for the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States. Globalization has its costs. In the eyes of many Americans, during the initial and unfolding of this round of globalization, the United States took the initiative to sell markets and loosen control of capital in order to achieve the political goals of the Cold War and to “regulate” China. But the loss is the decline of America’s own physical industry and the weakening of competitiveness. Is this a cost that the United States is willing or able to bear today?
Globalization is no longer likely to continue along its original trajectory. Much of the Biden administration’s limits in making policy choices come from the limits of globalization. He may return to the concepts of “globalization” and “multilateralism,” but it is very likely that new connotations will be added to these old terms or they will be “genetically rewritten. Compared to four years ago, the America that Biden sees today and the future that he envisions for the United States have changed quite a bit, which determines that he will partially inherit the policies of the Obama administration, but will have to change in response to the new situation.
(The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University)
(N.B. For a non-ideological articulation that is likely shared by official China in toto, see here.)