The current phase of deglobalization is a challenge for social sciences. Peter van Bergeijk discusses what we can learn from previous deglobalizations. What do the periods of the Great Depression and Great Recession currently imply for Europe?
Both the “Roaring Twenties” and the “Roaring 2000s” were characterized by ‘globality’, a combination of belief in openness and optimism about our future. With open and global markets, capital freely moved around the globe. The speed and level of global change was unprecedented. New products changed our daily life, new economies emerged, and life expectancy improved, creating hope while strengthening confidence. The pre-crises years were characterized by an increasing share of internationally traded products, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Source: van Bergeijk 2019.
However, this changed dramatically with the Great Depression and the Great Recession. First and foremost, there was the impact of the financial crisis that gave rise to the idea of secular stagnation. Openness as we can see in Figure 1 entered a downward phase for more than a decade. In the international political arena, the erosion of the hegemon’s (in the 1930s the British Empire and nowadays the United States) position associated with the rise of previously peripheral countries in the global trade system was an important element. Countries in the periphery grew faster than the advanced economies and competition from the previous-outs created doubt about the future rules and norms of the world trading and investment system. Figure 2 illustrates how the position of the hegemon is being handed over roughly at the time when deglobalization made its mark. In the 1930s, we see that an eminent change at the top takes place as the United States undercut economic power of the British Empire. Today we witness how the emergence of China challenges the position of the United States.
* UK before 1950 covers the British Empire. Calculations based on Bolt et al. 2018.
On the other hand, significant differences could be noted between the deglobalization of the 1930s and 2010s. Both in a North–South and South–South context, trade in the Interbellum period relied on specialization based on comparative advantage, and not on intra-industry trade organized in international value chains which is an increasingly important characteristic of today’s trade. Protectionism is often seen as an important reason for trade destruction in the period after the breakout of the world trade collapse during the Great Depression, but much less so for the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. Trade-wise, the most important difference is perhaps the fact that our deglobalization experience started from a much higher intensity of globalization and that according to current projections, a fall to the level of the 1930s is not likely.
The very existence of the European Union is a fundamental difference to the 1930s when the European continent was fragmented, confrontational and bellicose. While Europe is missing the military might that is often seen as a necessary condition for world leadership, there could be a possible scenario in which the European Continent has to act as the hegemon of last resort. In this scenario, neither the US nor China may assume the role of the world leader, either by choice or forced by internal and external circumstances. A hot trade war between the United States and China could fit into this scenario, for example, because trade is diverted to Europe. In this scenario, China refocuses its internationalization strategy and reorients from serving export markets to serving domestic markets. The US strengthens its isolationist policies and withdraws from a number of international agreements.
If that happens, European cohesion will increase as the costs of leaving the European Union become very clear to the member states (and their populations) after the dust settles on Brexit. So, while a particular weak spot of Europe currently is the lacklustre support of its basic philosophy amongst the large former communist countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania) and even among increasing parts of the Dutch population, coherence of the European Union may actually increase, especially if the British exit is as disastrous as many predict. With China and the US being unwilling or unable to provide global economic leadership, the world would turn towards Europe.
Indeed, the European Union was built on the idea of the Liberal Peace and can be expected to further democratization and the multilateral trade system. Maintaining good relationships with China, Japan and the United States will be crucial, however, for the extent to which progress can be made with the European external agenda.
Bolt, J., R. Inklaar, H. de Jong and J. Luiten van Zanden, 2018, ‘Rebasing ‘Maddison’: new income comparisons and the shape of long-run economic development’, GDC Research Memorandum 174, Groningen University: Groningen.
Peter A.G. van Bergeijk, Deglobalization 2.0, Edward Elgar, 2019.
This article is a shortened version L’Europe à l’ère de la démondialisation that appeared in French on Telos.
About the author:
Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.