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Globalization: The Good, The Bad and the Uncertain

Will a failure to manage globalization lead to a backlash of protectionism, xenophobia and nationalism?

February 1, 2012

Credit: Hasloo Group/

Globalization remains at the center of today’s debates. Yet, despite much research and commentary, vital dimensions remain poorly understood. Recent decades of globalization have created a more interconnected, interdependent and complex world than ever witnessed before.

While global policy has focused on facilitating integration, the implications of growing interdependence have been largely ignored. The acceleration in global integration has brought many benefits, but it also has created fragility through increased vulnerability and exposure to global shocks, such as today’s financial crisis.

The biggest challenge for politicians and policy makers is the need to balance the enormous benefits that global openness and connectivity brings with national politics and priorities. It also is a major concern for citizens, who are torn between the benefits of imported goods and services, and their worries about local jobs, the dangers associated with illicit flows, and other implications of more open borders. These concerns are universal and effect all societies.

The benefits of global integration have been associated with unprecedented leaps in human development indicators. Technological innovation has accelerated integration both virtually, through the development of fiber optics, the internet and mobile telephony, as well as physically with vast improvements in transport and infrastructure. The spread of people, ideas, trade and the inspiring education revolution has and will continue to offer enormous potential for poverty alleviation and economic opportunity.

Yet the downside to globalization is that of increased inequality between and within countries. And the second “side effect” is that the likelihood of increasing numbers of global shocks and crises is growing, as is our vulnerability to them. Little is understood about the risks associated with large-scale system interdependencies. Well beyond purely the financial arena, new systemic risks loom large in areas such as climate change, water and food insecurity, pandemics, resource scarcity, antibiotic resistance, bioterrorism, cybersecurity and supply chain vulnerability.

The fragility of the system as a result of these new vulnerabilities now challenges the very core of the benefits that globalization has produced and is a fundamental challenge to national governments, business leaders and global institutions. Unless we can find an appropriate balance, there is a significant risk that the failure to manage globalization will lead to a backlash of protectionism, xenophobia and nationalism.

This crisis requires an extraordinarily deep level of reflection by global leaders — and by society at large. To turn our backs on globalization would severely undermine economic growth, poverty reduction and global cooperation.

If the benefits of globalization are to continue to outweigh the risks that rapid integration exacerbates, understanding systemic interconnections and building multi-stakeholder responses are vital. Redesigning global risk governance mechanisms to take these interconnections into account and to enable cooperation is a major but necessary undertaking.

The bad news is that the tidal wave of globalization has brought unprecedented and new systemic risks. The good news is that this phase of globalization has brought the means to meet the downsides — by raising levels of wealth and opportunity, and vitally increasing our collective knowledge and connectivity. The opportunities for cooperative solutions have never been greater, particularly if we are to address the major challenges of the 21st century.

Yet to harness these opportunities, we need an intellectual revolution. We need a citizens’ mobilization, and we certainly need a fundamental leadership and institutional shift. Politicians and policymakers are right to worry about today’s significant economic woes. But if we ignore the bigger crisis emerging at the core of globalization, and jump from one crisis management to the next, we do so at our peril.

Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from the author’s presentation at the 2011 Salzburg Trilogue. Hosted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany, the Salzburg Trilogue facilitates international cultural dialogue by bringing together recognized public figures to consider matters of global importance.


There is a significant risk that the failure to manage globalization will lead to a backlash of protectionism, xenophobia and nationalism.

The good news is that globalization has brought the means to meet the downsides — by raising levels of wealth and increasing our knowledge.