IN his farewell speech earlier this week, outgoing US President Barack Obama offered his country and the world a poignant reassur-ance: “We’ll be okay.”
It was an appropriate reminder, even if on the surface the future looks bleak. The world is less of a global community than it was eight years or even a few months ago. With the installation of Donald Trump as President in America—an event many have already marked as the beginning of the End Times—the growing determination of Great Britain to leave the European Union, rising tensions between East and West, the apparent collapse of the grand Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other indicators of slowing trade, the nations of the world seem to be on the defensive, withdrawing into themselves.
Margaret MacMillan’s analytical history of the World War I era, “The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War,” makes some observations that seem prescient, even though they are about trends and events that happened more than a century ago.
Prior to World War I, the world underwent a rapid upgrade in technology and social and economic interconnection, globalization by any definition, and the war was ultimately a result of society—politically, socially, and economically—being unable to evolve at the same speed as its technical and intellectual capabilities.
“History never repeats itself, but it rhymes,” Mark Twain said (hence the title of MacMillan’s book), and the similarities between the era prior to the outbreak of the world’s first truly global conflict and now are remarkable, and a little unnerving. The first decade of the 20th century was characterized by massive migration, the rapid spread of communications technology, advances in physical transportation that greatly reduced travel time for people and goods, and growth of radical ideologies in reaction to sweeping changes in the world. All these things are happening now, in the second decade of the 21st century.
Those who believe themselves to be foes of globalization see signs of hope that the reactionary policies of President Trump, the isolationism that the “Brexit” represents, and even China’s shift to a more domestic economic focus will slow or even reverse globalization, as though “globalization” were a discrete concept and practice.
Globalization, however, is hard-wired into our human species, and has been an inescapable fact of life for as long as civilized societies of any kind have existed. Donald Trump is not going to be able to put the brakes on it any more than King Canute could command the tide. China, which is pursuing a thinly-disguised form of imperialism in building its economic ties with other places—in particular, traditional colonial realms in Asia, Africa, and even Latin America—is going to find itself changed more by the effort to Sinofy large parts of the world than it changes the places and lives it touches.
Not that the next few years of our collective future will be easy or peaceful; the rhyming nature of history suggests we are on the brink of a widespread conflict. It probably won’t be of the same nature as the World War (which realistically was not two separate wars, but one long period of violent metamorphosis that lasted from about 1905 until the end of World War II), but for those on the losing side—the protectionists, populists, nationalists, and maybe a few other kinds of -ists—the results could be just as catastrophic.
That makes the developing world in general and economically robust countries like the Philippines in particular an interesting and likely very productive place to be. Global conflict tends to diminish old powers; World War I put an end to the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, and World War II put an end to European oligarchies (guys like Hitler and Mussolini only prospered because of their support), as well as the British Empire.
Provided, of course, the Philippines or the collective Asean, which this country will now lead for the next year, doesn’t make the ill-advised choice to subordinate itself to an ultimate loser. Southeast Asia has a very good chance to become one of the world’s new poles, and benefit from globalization on our own terms. It is a chance that will be lost if the region’s leaders simply choose to ape the shortsighted nationalism and empty populist rhetoric of the leadership of has-beens like the US or Russia.