As corporate globalisation proved catastrophic, we must focus on globalisation of values

D Shyam Babu
Senior Fellow
Centre for Policy Research
New Delhi, India

The world is in the throes of a new Cold War… or the old Cold War, which was thought to have died along with the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, somehow extricated itself from the rubble, regained its vigour and is now set to wreak havoc on the world. The world in 2022 appears similar to the one in 1952: Russia and China are united by an ideology that rejects civil liberties and freedom of the individual, while the United States and its allies swear by basic freedoms and free enterprise.

Historians tell us that nothing in history is inevitable. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or China’s bellicosity around its rim is not inevitable. Globalisation that we were conditioned to praise created the current crisis. To be critical of globalisation, one doesn’t have to ignore the benefits of free trade and its role in reducing global poverty. However, for three decades, globalisation was turned into a Trojan Horse to smuggle in ideas and arguments that almost delegitimised conventional wisdom. The Zeitgeist of the age of corporate globalisation can be summed up in two points.

One, the logic of free trade was stretched to mean the triumph of market over the state. The ‘market forces’ were imputed with foresight and legitimacy; the market works for the good of all just like the way the Sun rises every morning for everyone. Since the corporates are the market forces, they must have the freedom to operate to actualize the promise thus implied. It was a minor detail that overseas operations of big companies might be in conflict with the home country’s core values.

Two, there are no universal values (which is a postmodern sleight). Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay, “The end of history?”, just before the fall of Berlin Wall, with the thesis that ‘liberal democracies’ and ‘free market capitalism’ became global templates: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” Fukuyama wrote, “or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

It could have been a legitimate thesis if it were phrased differently. The fact is – ‘the West’ shunned its local projects like Nazism and Fascism, and adopted universal values; liberal democracy and free markets in the west are not even two centuries’ old. The unfortunate outcome of this cultural appropriation is the argument that these values are alien to the non-west, which is now the mantra of autocrats and their cheerleaders. If liberal democracy is a western patrimony, it would be illogical to ‘impose’ western values on others.

The result? The Germans used the slogan wandel durch handel (change through trade) to justify their dealings with Putin’s Russia, even though there was never any evidence that trade produced positive change in the behaviour of autocrats. From Chechnya to Georgia to Syria and Crimea, Russia tried to disabuse Germany of the idea that trade would change its behaviour and action. The American experience is even worse: having bought into this moral relativism that non-west is alien to liberal democracy, American companies operating especially in China allowed themselves to be only guided by their profits. Companies such as Boeing in fact lobbied for China when their government sought to raise concerns over human right violations.

Therefore, the present angst in world politics is a man-made catastrophe. The sooner the world embraces conventional wisdom the better for all: that nation-states are guided by values and principles enshrined in their laws, and their citizens and corporates ought to follow them at home and abroad. There are two key processes to usher in moral clarity and unity of purpose and of action. Fortunately, both the processes are underway.

One, the process of cultural appropriation of universal values must be reversed. For quite some time, ‘the West’ has been delocalized, i.e., that expression no longer refers to Europe and North America. Historian Stephen Kotkin defines the west as an institutional category, not a geographic one. For him, though Russia is European but not west, and Japan and South Korea are not European but very much a part of the west. Similarly, former British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss talks about the need for a network of liberty to build on shared values and to defend freedom and liberty of individuals and nations.

Two, we must build a comity of nations based on liberal democracy, freedom of the individual and free trade. A good example is QUAD grouping consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom and the US), the recent defence alliance, is yet another example of three nations from three continents coming together to cooperate on shared values. These are unlikely to remain groupings of threes and fours, and would expand as and when like-minded nations joined them. It is time the world had reminded itself that all human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and any argument to the contrary is mediaeval, racist and dangerous. Globalisation of values is the need of the hour.

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