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Michael A. Witt

Supply Chain

The End of Globalization? Part 1

Political science suggests that a reversal, or even collapse, of globalization is a distinct possibility

Published: Monday, December 12, 2016 - 11:54

For most of the past 25 years, globalization was seen as an unstoppable force, as sure to advance as the sun rises in the east. But increasingly, it looks more vulnerable than inexorable. Causes for concern are easy to find. For instance, the last set of World Trade Organization negotiations over further trade liberalization, the Doha Round, was a failure; Donald J. Trump has disavowed free-trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Brexit will reduce economic integration between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and possibly between the United Kingdom and the world; and regional opposition almost scuppered the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Is the age of globalization coming to an end?

A brief history of globalization

While globalization seems like a product of our times, the current wave is at least the second in the past 200 years. The first wave began in the first half of the 19th century, as the United Kingdom embraced the Ricardian logic of comparative advantage and free trade and then opened up its markets. After some ups and downs, the first wave collapsed as countries responded to the Great Depression beginning in 1929 by closing off their economies. The current wave began after World War II and accelerated after the end of the Cold War. How long it will last is unclear, but given recent events, it is fair to ask whether its halcyon days may be over.

Drivers of globalization

Social scientists have long argued over the causes of booms and busts in globalization.  Simply put, they see two forces at work. 

One is innovation. Globalization has greatly benefitted from faster and cheaper communications and transportation. These, in turn, have depended on technological progress such as the internet and larger ships. Unless levels of innovation drop markedly, technology is likely to continue to provide a basis for further globalization.

The second force is politics. In essence, while technology makes further globalization possible, politics determines whether this potential will be captured. It was politics that enabled the beginning of the two waves. The key turning point in the 1840s was a political decision—the repeal of the Corn Laws, which protected British agriculture from imports— one of the most consequential and least known events in modern history. After World War II, the United States took the lead in opening markets and creating an infrastructure for the international economy, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, predecessor of the World Trade Organization.

Likewise, it was politics that ended the first wave. After 1929, governments closed down their economies through protectionist measures such as the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.

Political science has evolved a range of theories to account for these political decisions. For the sake of simplicity, I focus on the two arguably most dominant approaches: liberalism and realism.


Liberalism in this article refers to the political science theory by that name, not the philosophical school of thought by the same name or any specific outcome. Liberalism as theory allows for very illiberal outcomes.

The essence of liberalism is that globalization will survive as long as political actors, such as voters, associations, and firms in favor of globalization, retain more power than those opposing it. For this to happen, a preponderance of actors needs to be convinced that they are winners of globalization (it is fairly irrelevant whether this is actually true; politics is rarely based on “truth”).

The problem is, while globalization tends to increase overall wealth— the pie gets bigger—not everyone gains equally, and some actually lose. The angry U.S. blue-collar workers plumping for Trump and the rural anti-EU voters in Britain, for instance, see globalization as a project that benefits the elites at their expense. There is some truth to this.  In the United Kingdom, this contributed to the Brexit vote, and in the United States, this helped bring Trump to the presidency. While Brexit has not yet happened, and while there is no telling what Trump will do when actually in office, the political debate has clearly shifted against economic openness.

The good news is that to the extent liberalism identifies the core of the issue, there is a remedy: redistribution of part of the spoils of globalization to turn the losers into winners. In 1982, political scientist John Ruggie coined the term “embedded liberalism” for this approach: enable globalization, but contain its adverse effects though social security systems and active labor market policies such as retraining. Similar instincts are visible in recent commentaries, such as those by The Economist and by bcg.perspectives.

But as Ruggie pointed out, such embedding of the economy in society may not be possible if markets are completely free, as investors would seek to avoid economies trying to implement costly social and labor policies. For this recipe to work, then, it may be necessary to put a limit on the freedom of markets—not to destroy them, but to save them.


Realism, on the other hand, posits that waves of globalization essentially mirror the rise and decline of global hegemons, that is, overwhelmingly powerful states. In the 19th century, globalization was enabled by Britain. By the Great Depression, the United Kingdom had been eclipsed by the United States. The United States, however, was unwilling to take the leadership role, and so the first wave ended. After World War II, the United States stepped up to support globalization, first in the Western camp of the Cold War, then globally after 1990.

To the extent realism is correct, that a hegemon is needed for globalization to happen, the outlook seems bleak. The United States is still very powerful, with the world’s mightiest military and second-largest economy. But it is clearly a hegemon in decline, relative to other nations (and relative power is what matters to realism). The closest rival to American hegemony is China, which has surpassed the United States in terms of gross domestic product at purchasing power parity and is rapidly building up its military. Already we can see China challenging the American world order, whether in the South China Sea or through the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Bank to rival the Asian Development Bank. If the United States indeed abandons the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it seems likely that China will step in with a scheme of its own.

Under realism, three broad scenarios are possible. First, a new global hegemon emerges and takes over from a declining United States to maintain the system. Globalization, as we know it, survives.

Second, a new global hegemon takes over but reshapes the system according to its preferences. Globalization may then survive as a high-level phenomenon, though the rules of the game may change considerably. In particular, a new hegemon may leave considerably less space for other states to benefit from trade and investment—think of the economic relationship between the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Third, no new global hegemon emerges. Rather, different parts of the world come under different regional hegemons—say, the United States in the West and China in the East. Globalization would then make room for regionalization, that is, the coexistence of different rules of the game for trade, investment, and the movement of people in different parts of the world. In the extreme, little exchange may occur between the regions. The Cold War era comes to mind as an example.

Which of these is the most likely? Given that China would need to democratize if it wanted to get truly rich, and given that democratization seems highly unlikely for now, the third scenario seems the most probable: China will not be strong enough to displace the United States completely, and the United States will not be strong enough to prevent China from taking control of its sphere of influence. A Trumpian retreat from the world economic order would accelerate this process, and the U.S. sphere of influence may become smaller than it could have been otherwise. Obviously, this scenario contains an assumption that the interests of China and the United States are not aligned with respect to the world economic order. This is not a strong assumption. On balance, political science theory predicts that globalization as we have known it in the past two decades is likely to be in trouble.

Editor’s note: Read part two of this series here.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD. © INSEAD 2016


About The Author

Michael A. Witt’s picture

Michael A. Witt

Michael A. Witt, Ph.D., teaches and researches international business at INSEAD, one of the world’s largest graduate business schools. Witt also directs the senior executive program on doing business successfully in Asia. Witt’s research explores how business and management vary by society and how firms handle these differences. Accordingly, this teaching focuses on how companies can go international successfully. A published author of four books and research papers, Witt serves as general editor of the academic journal, Asian Business & Management, and as senior editor of the Management and Organization Review.



So far your view seems correct

I grew up in 1930s and 40s and became high tech engineer in late 50s until age 80 in 2016. Your article is needed and so far right on target. Thanks. As a "Migrant Worker" my grandfather came from Germany to US in 1880s and I worked in 7 countries in past 55 years.

High tech globalization requires going where the work pays best to keep learning as technology evolves. Of course a tiny number of CEOs do very well. But migrant engineers can make 6 figures every year. And they can see the world with all expenses paid.
Meanwhile the same can be said of many non-degree technician willing to move every few years.
But unskilled labor has been lost since Reagan and "right to work" laws smothered unions. Looking next at part 2.

Part 2

If possible, Can you please send me Part 2?  I try using "here" to get access but it was denied.

Part 2

Part 2 will be published on 12/19. Sorry, we should have said that. Thanks

Free trade not free to America

Yes well writtten commentary, thank you, but these Free Trade agreements are neither free nor beneficial to America as all they have done is destroy our job base and award large corporations with huge tax breaks for offshoring American manufacturing jobs.

The entire time HRC was Sec of State, both her and BC were hard at work shaking down foreign governments to fill the coffers of the Foundation while making back room deals to send US jobs to other countries at the cost of US jobs. 

Another great example that the Liberal presstitute media completely ignores - Apple Computer.  Apple has made billions on the backs of children, manufacturing the i-phone and other i-gadgets in China where there are no child labor laws.

So please tell us all again Mike, what exactly is so good about globalization besides the "End" that you refer to ?