Peak globalisation?

"Peak oil" was always a myth.  The notion that the world might eventually run out of it ignored how markets work.  When demand of a commodity exceeds supply prices tend to rise, leading people to use less of it and to develop substitutes.  Barely had the printer's ink dried on "peak oil" stories when hydraulic fracturing unleashed vast quantities of shale oil and more importantly, the less polluting shale gas.  Developments in photovoltaic solar power and battery technology make it more likely that oil will be left in the ground by mid-century, rather than disappearing altogether.

The notion of a "peak" is a useful one, however, if it is used like the phrase "high water mark" to denote that something which was once advancing is now diminishing from its highest advance.  Globalization has been advancing across the world for decades.  It has brought millions of people in poorer countries into the world economy, and has created wealth on a scale never before seen in human history.  It has benefitted poor people most, advancing global GDP per head nearly as much in 25 years as was achieved in the previous 25,000 years.  During that time global poverty was reduced from 37% of humanity to less than 10%, and world under-nourishment has been halved.

Yet there are signs that the advance of globalization might not continue as it has done.  There seems to be increasing resistance at political and popular levels to free trade deals negotiated between groups of countries.  The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada took seven years of painstaking negotiation, and was even then nearly forestalled by the Belgian Wallonia Parliament.  It took days of frantic dealing to finally clinch the deal.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of 12 Pacific Rim Countries was signed in February 2016, but will not come into effect until it is ratified.  As time passes it looks less likely that it will be. 

Negotiations to secure the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to secure freer trade between the US and the EU seem to have run into the ground, with several European ministers describing the deal as dead.  It seems unlikely that it will go ahead.  If President-elect Trump meant what he said, even the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be up for renegotiation, and is likely to become less free.

Where once the prospect was of more and more countries committing themselves to free trade with each other, the agreements that would enable this are proving more elusive than expected, and resistance is mounting.

A similar effect can be seen with respect to the free movement of labour.  Countries which once signed up to the practice of allowing foreigners entry to live and work within them are showing increasing reluctance to the idea.  Some are limiting numbers, some are raising barriers.  In many countries resistance among the domestic population has forced politicians to withdraw support for free movement and to advocate stricter border controls.

The vision of a world in which goods and peoples can move freely cross borders is looking very much less likely than it once did to come about.  It may well be that the globalization of the world's economy, a factor that has multiplied wealth in so many places, has reached its peak and is starting to recede.  If true, this will present tough challenges for the UK as it leaves the protectionist bloc of the EU and moves to negotiate wider free trade for itself with non-EU countries.  It may well find itself moving against a tide flowing the other way, but even if this is true, it should not weaken our resolve.  We can become richer through free trade even if parts of the world retreat into a nationalistic protectionism.