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What the rise of protectionism means for world order

What the rise of protectionism means for world order

What the rise of protectionism means for world order
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By Harini Calamur  May 10, 2018 4:19:09 PM IST (Updated)

Individual colonies had robust independence movements going, the post-war trend was a world where people were equal.

The Second World War, in many ways, marked a watershed on the international stage. Many of the developments that we see today are an outcome of circumstances that led the world to go to war, and cause unprecedented death, destruction, and devastation. The fallout of the war was manifold.

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The starting point was decolonisation. While individual colonies had robust independence movements going, the post-war trend was a world where people were equal. And equality could not be achieved with colonization. The second major trend was international institutions – such as the United Nations, the IMF, the International Court of Justice – that helped resolve either the issues of sovereign nations, or issues between sovereign nations.
The third cornerstone was globalisation and trade. It was believed that the closed economies that preceded the period of the Second World War, increased the hostility between nations, making war easier.
In 2018, all three seem to be in various degrees of peril, the most impacted being the principal of free trade.
to refer to Taiwan as a part of China and not an independent nation, on their promotional material. While it might be a stretch to call it colonization, it is apparent that the right of the Taiwanese to remain independent is under threat.
Chinese Imperialism
China has a modern version of imperialist ambitions.  China’s claims on lands, be it Arunachal Pradesh, be it the way it has swallowed up Tibet, be it the way it is nudging its way into the South China Sea – paves the way for other nations to flex their muscles vis-à-vis their not so strong neighbours. So, while colonies prima facie no longer exist, it is also because the nature of colonisation has changed. Be it the Middle East, or Afghanistan, African nations or Southern America – there are periodic bouts where outside control on the nation increases, primarily to control the nation's resources, leaving the countries in a perpetual state of economic, social, and political instability. Another aspect contributing to this newer form of colonization is sovereign debt.
Recently China (yes, them again) took charge of the Humbantota port in Sri Lanka, after Sri Lanka could no longer service the debt that was undertaken, for China to build the port. The projected traffic to the port never materialised, and Sri Lanka found it too expensive to continue servicing the loan and run the country.
Unrest Everywhere
The real damage, to the global order, is however, the rise of protectionist tendencies especially in the west. Both the United States, and the United Kingdom were extremely gung ho about international trade when they were the exporters, are now looking at ways to pull up the drawbridge and restrict imports, now that they have become markets that consume rather than produce. In the last quarter of a century, the tide has turned. The Asian giants are the exporters, and the west is importing.
The jobs in the west have moved eastwards. And, this is causing political and social upheavals in the west. The United States has already imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, ostensibly to protect its workers and markets from cheap Chinese imports – but it is impacting the rest of the steel producing world as well. Both India, and the European Union have asked to be exempted from the tariffs, but it is early days yet. India, has also used protectionism to safeguard the Make in India Initiative. Tariffs on smart phones are 20%, to encourage the manufacture of smartphones in this very large market. While tariffs offer a momentary respite, and give the impression that something is being done – the cost of an escalating tit for tat tariff regime will hurt all economies. But, to look at the tariff issue in isolation may provide a temporary solution without any long-term impact.
What the world leaders really need to do is sit down and have a conversation. The international world order is still determined by the outcome of the Second World War. The winners of that event still call the shots. The problem is that that world doesn’t exist anymore — it has moved on. The new world order is a lot different from what existed in 1945.
The problem is that the institutions and processes built, remain the same. Unless those are fixed, there is going to be greater economic and political chaos.
Harini Calamur works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences.
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