Fighting Fire with Fire: Globalisation Debate at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 1 November 2019
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

“This House Believes Globalisation is Essential for Global Safety and Security.”

Herein lies a paradox: while the heightened interconnectivity has allowed for the movement of ideas, capital and people, and with it, the ease of spreading nefarious forms of insecurity, including cyber attacks and terrorism, this very interconnectivity has bred a global interdependence, where countries are intricately linked through the global economy, socio-political institutions and beyond. No one country can truly stand alone nor evade the ineluctable pull of globalising processes.

At the same time, transborder security concerns are thought to be better managed through international coordination and cooperation. But perhaps this is really just confirmation bias, a reassurance that we are making the best out of a situation that we can no longer quite control. While any radical alternative to globalisation seems rather quixotic today, there is always room for elucidating the role and future of globalisation from normative, theoretical and practical perspectives and I believe this was what the debate set out to achieve.

There is no straightforward resolution to this debate and both the Proposition and Opposition recognised and acknowledged the merits and limitations of globalisation, to the extent that several points of information were raised just to clarify the speakers’ stances! On the whole, the debate was a slight let-down for me as it frequently strayed from the key topics of safety and security, and lacked sufficient engagement with the nature of globalisation as a historical, differentiated and diffuse process.

Kicking off the debate was Charles Clarke, a Labour Member of Parliament between 1997 and 2010, who served as Secretary of State for Education and Home Secretary under Tony Blair.

Charles championed the role of international institutions, including the United Nations and European Union working together across the world to solve global challenges, and pointed out the fall of dictatorships and totalitarian regimes in countries like Greece, South Africa and Spain, creating a more stable world. Yet, he admitted that the “destabilising” forces of globalisation cannot be ignored — industrial decline in certain parts of the world due to global competition, such as the Rust Belt in the United States, the 2008 financial crash due to insufficient regulation of the global financial market and the transfer of risk through the credit economy, and a host of other issues including immigration, desolate communities and climate change.

“Seeing the state of affairs, we have 3 choices: first, hope that the downsides don’t happen; second, that the nation can solve these downsides; or third, build internationalised solutions to challenge the inadequacies.” Rejecting the illusions that people can “somehow get off the boat” and that countries can “somehow be impervious to economic factors”, Charles asserted that the “long-lasting way to create security and safety is to bring international governments into play.”

Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Elizabeth Nwarueze, Candidate of the Nigerian Bar and Membership Coordinator at the StreetLaw Advocacy Network, followed up with Charles’ ideas, maintaining that “the effects of globalisation have been positive regardless of how we look at it”.

She cited several examples of how globalisation has been essential in bolstering security and safety — including the transfer of medical knowledge like vaccinations to save lives, the pooling of resources to tackle climate change like the Paris Agreement, and the sharing of intelligence and technology to deter and co-manage crime and terrorism on a regional or international level.

“Globalisation was not meant to take humanity to heaven but to prevent humanity from going to hell.” Granted, globalisation has contributed to widening inequality due to uneven relationships and facilitated new forms of insecurities like cybercrime. However, Elizabeth optimistically maintained that globalisation will solve its own problems and that in a world that is not only globalised but also already vastly benefited from globalisation, we should not consider anything radical or transformative to the globalising processes. 

“Globalisation was not meant to take humanity to heaven but to prevent humanity from going to hell.”

Tom Matthew, a UK Youth Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, concludes that there is a pertinent need to explore “what alternatives to globalisation has done and could do”. For one, he points out the tension between market freedom and state regulation, suggesting that “the state is the ultimate arbiter” and is able to autonomously make decisions to defend the interests of the country and its people. Though nationalism has been on the rise, particularly in the West, “isolation when taken too far breaks the economy”. Globalisation must continue for progress but one means to keep globalisation in check is through the state’s “reactionary and counterintuitive role” in redistribution to counter inequality.

On the Opposition side, Jan Zygmuntowski, an economist focussing on innovation, sustainability and the digital economy, argued that globalisation ushered in a new economic system, through components like the International Monetary Fund and the Washington Consensus, which has disrupted economic stability through “unrestrained free trade, austerity policies and the treatment of property rights as sanctity”.

He acutely identified important questions for engagement: “What is it about globalisation that is essential? What do we consider safety and security? Who is the safety and security for?”

Jan refused to accept that globalisation is “the only game in town, the only model we can have for international development” and raised the possibility of transitioning towards “alter-globalisation”, which seeks greater “economic justice, labour protection, preservation of indigenous cultures and environmental conservation” — a middle ground that “gets people together” without the “effect of homogenisation”.

Kajri Babbar, an Indian filmmaker who uses short films and documentaries to effect change, reminded the audience of the colonial and the historical nature of globalisation that development had been hindered by European imperialism, and the paradox of globalisation in “promoting the integration of societies but also the loss of local cultures and identity” at the same time. Referring to the refugee crisis that swept Europe several years back, she lamented about the inherently selfish nature of humanity — and therefore, the state — as globalisation is only embraced when it benefits people. Moreover, neocolonialism arguably still exists today in uneven power geometries between countries, and she condemns the United Nations for failing to serve effectively as a peacekeeping force due to the persistence of strife and war. Globalisation thus cannot be relied upon to provide personal and national security and safety.

Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Lastly, the Union’s very own Ents Officer Dan Mackinnon shared that the impacts of globalisation tend to be highly visible, such as “seeing other people who do not speak their language or look like them” and “jobs moving abroad”. He claimed that the weakening of the social fabric manifest in a spike in hate crimes against the “other” and cited the use of nets in Foxconn factories in China to prevent suicides as another example of loss of personal safety. The transfer of technology and knowledge has also led to the potential of nuclear bombs and weapons ending up in the wrong hands, endangering lives on a global scale.

The crux of this issue lies in the difficulty with reconciling globalisation as both a problem and the perceived solution to itself — fighting fire with fire.

However, globalisation is dynamic, continuous, uneven and place-specific. As a floor speaker rightfully argued, its roots were present in the world thousands of years ago and as local, regional and global networks began to form and expand, we see different intensities of globalisation in different places over time; it is a phenomenon that ebbs and flows — faster in the 20th century, slower today due to a certain degree of national resistance. Globalisation is not all-engulfing, nor is it ever-expanding.

“It is a phenomenon that ebbs and flows — faster in the 20th century, slower today due to a certain degree of national resistance. Globalisation is not all-engulfing, nor is it ever-expanding…”

In fact, at our present stage in human history, growing global consciousness is reframing our perspectives and repositioning ourselves as global citizens in the international community. A more pertinent question to ask ourselves is: how best can we defend individual, national and global security and safety against the backdrop of globalisation? Certainly, the level of globalisation we witness today is hardly reversible. Interestingly, without fully pitting their arguments against one another, Proposition and Opposition seemed to have reached a general consensus — the need for more responsive governance that strives to limit the destabilising effects of globalisation. Ultimately, nations can either keenly capitalise on the opportunities engendered by globalisation to fuel its economy and society or have little choice but to accommodate globalisation and the range of its effects.

What do you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject line ‘Letter to the Editor’!