Brexit and other fixes in globalization

The Conservative victory in Britain is just the latest course correction for several trade deals, or a necessary reform to heal those hurt by the flow of goods, people, money, and information across borders.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement after winning the Dec. 12 general election.

In just one week in December, the world trading system saw three big course corrections. China and the United States reached an initial deal to end a tariff war and set new rules on trade. Washington signed up for a revised North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. And in a Dec. 12 election, Britain firmly chose to leave the European Union with an overwhelming victory for the Conservative Party.

The theme in all three? Globalization, or the flow of goods, people, money, and information across borders, is not fading away. It is being fixed to help those who feel “left behind” and unable to adjust.

“Let the healing begin,” declared British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his victory speech Friday. His government will now be finishing Brexit after a three-year, exhausting debate. Yet it also seeks new trade deals with the EU and the U.S. while giving Britain more control over its economy and immigration. Mr. Johnson promised citizens who wanted to stay in the EU that he “will never ignore your good and positive feelings of warmth and sympathy towards the other nations of Europe.” 

His promise, like the other trade events this week, reflects a new type of globalization. Instead of turning toward isolation, countries such as Britain want the international system to better respect the interests of local communities and each nation’s identity. Economic integration will go on but at a pace and in directions that cause less pain to workers and neighborhoods as well as the environment.

Old trade rules are being ripped up for new ones. Yet cross-border interactions keep rising. “The world remains more connected than at almost any other point in history, with no signs of a broad reversal of globalization so far,” according to the latest survey of global connectedness from New York University.

Much of the rage against globalization has been in the West, bringing with it a rise in populist politicians. Yet the West represents only about 1 billion of the world’s 7 billion people. And the proportion of people living outside the countries where they were born – about 3.4% – has barely risen in the past century. Migration may need better management in its flow and legality. But it is hardly a new danger to world order.

The latest course corrections on trade show that the fears and damages of globalization can be addressed. Rather than deglobalization, the world needs reglobalization, or the rethreading of the bonds between nations. The breaks in trade, like Brexit, can be merely a pause to end any suffering from trade.

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