As COVID-19 spreads and stresses healthcare infrastructure around the world, governments and civil society are racing to slow the pandemic by distancing people from one another. Meanwhile, in the United States and in other developed countries, there is a rising chorus of voices who argue that we must deglobalize, dismantle international supply chains, reduce international trade and travel, and close our borders to the world.
This is a tempting conclusion, and it is by now obvious that reducing travel and other forms of contact is key to blunting the immediate impact of the ongoing pandemic. But what was true before coronavirus will still be true afterward: Wealth comes from communication, collaboration and competition. Security comes from cooperation that limits the scope for conflict.
The approach to globalization promoted by the United States over the past 70 years operationalized this insight by freeing markets for goods and services from government interference, opening greater scope for individuals to decide for themselves what to buy and where to travel and even, within tighter limits, where to live and work. This flowering of human freedom led to the greatest reduction in poverty and the greatest decline in interstate conflict in human history.
The danger of a pandemic did not arise because of globalization. Pandemics have appeared periodically throughout history. Deglobalizing will not protect us from pandemics in the future. On the contrary, we will ultimately come to see that global cooperation is key to responding successfully to pandemics.
First, because globalization is the source of the wealth that enables us to ensure the availability of healthcare, temporary lodging, emergency response, quarantine facilities, and all the other myriad tools required.
Second, because international cooperation, when properly used, can enable us to see a pandemic emerge, study its causes and its course, and slow its spread and treat its victims. The case of coronavirus is a good example of poor cooperation leading to a more acute crisis.
Third, because the innovation that globalization promotes enables us to produce the vaccines that will inoculate against the virus.
Finally, because the networks of globalization -- industrial supply chains, social media, transportation and communication systems that create numerous alternative pathways between any two points -- are more resilient than any less densely woven system. They can bounce back from shocks more flexibly.
Of course, there is a sense in which globalization shares responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic. The wealth created by globalization, which has lifted billions out of poverty and into the middle class, also enables more people to travel more widely, and they contract and carry infections with them. International cooperation doesn’t always work, and national governments don’t always heed advice from international experts. Innovation has also accelerated in biological terms, such that “novel” viruses appear more frequently. And those resilient networks also multiply the pathways by which disease can spread.
These are among the downsides of globalization, which also include climate change and structural changes to our economy. All of these have been gathering pace in the past 10 years, dislocating industries and jobs so rapidly that people and communities can’t adapt. Too many people feel not just left behind, but betrayed. The result has been a political backlash that increasingly threatens the prosperity and security that globalization has brought. The current crisis appears to be strengthening this backlash, as more and more leaders in the United States and Europe call to bring manufacturing back home and put the brakes on immigration, whatever the cost.
These are potentially dangerous developments. “Make it here at home” has a nice ring to it, but we must have no illusions: Restricting trade and using taxes, tariffs and subsidies to manipulate the market can only be done by dramatically reducing freedom. That path leads to poverty.
Obviously, in the ongoing crisis, our top priority must be the health and safety of our families, our neighbors, and our national community. We must be prepared to do what it takes to “flatten the curve” of infection, and to spend what it takes to prevent economic collapse. But when the crisis is over, and we have defeated the virus and people are back at work and we are all able to go out for dinner again, we must be ready to come together around a new strategy for globalization that secures its benefits and cures its ills. It will take American leadership and political will, but we know what needs to be done and have successfully met greater challenges in the past.
Matthew Rooney is Managing Director of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. The views expressed are the author's own.