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Salvaging Globalization

Like other recent systemic crises, the coronavirus pandemic has confronted us with an inconvenient truth: the risks associated with international openness might very well outweigh the gains. If today's multilateral frameworks are to have a future, they must be brought back into the service of national sovereignty.

BERLIN – As Winston Churchill once observed, too many people who “stumble over the truth” will “pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” But in the case of COVID-19, the world has been confronted with uncomfortable facts that are impossible to ignore. Like the 2008 financial crash and the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, the pandemic has fully exposed a deep vulnerability to systemic threats.

The ultimate role of the state – the very meaning of sovereignty – is to provide its citizens with adequate protection from existential risk. Yet globalization appears to have undermined the modern state’s ability to cope with low-probability, high impact scenarios. Just as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States forced people to rethink security, the COVID-19 crisis compels us to take a fresh look at how we manage interdependence.

It is tempting to ask whether this crisis will be resolved more effectively by nationalism or through international coordination. But that is the wrong question. The real issue is whether interdependence can be compatible with and complement the continued existence of nation-states. In today’s political environment, lectures about the need to maintain open markets and borders simply will not cut it. As soon as the coronavirus was recognized as a global threat, most national leaders’ first instinct was to close their borders. Calls for international coordination through the G20 were an afterthought.