economic policy governance

World needs to defy Trump on free trade and globalisation

With hindsight, it is obvious that the Democrats fielded the wrong candidate for the US presidential race. Before getting into the main subject of this column, let me make a brief case for Kanye West, who I believe would have been the perfect opponent for Donald Trump.

West raps regularly about his arrogance (“steam to power my dreams”) and his lofty place in the universe (“I am a god”) and as Mr Kim Kardashian, he understands the reality television playbook.

Trump approached the presidential race like it was a rap battle, dissing the “establishment” and dropping hyperbolic one-liners on Twitter and elsewhere, but a lyricist like West would have shown him flames. The only snag to my time-travel fantasy is that last Thursday, West said that he would have voted for the ginger one.

On a serious note (though not completely dismissing the idea of a Kanye West-Shawn Carter ticket someday), there is very little that would have prepared a mainstream candidate such as Hillary Clinton for the Trump machine. The man poses a challenge especially to those who believe in the linear march of history towards a certain idea of progress. That is progress defined by international trade, tolerance, gender equality, nonracialism and similar ideals associated with modern, liberal free market democracy.

Despite Trump’s relentless boasting about his wealth, he has emerged as a champion for the disenchanted in the US.

Trump also poses a challenge to those who have identified “antiglobalist” sentiments with the developing world. The international development industry is replete with analysts and advisers who have invested much effort in explaining to the developing world the virtues of the free movement of goods, services and people within and across borders. Yet protectionism has always been present in the industrialised economies, as can be seen in the struggles of poor countries to export even agricultural produce to western markets, not speaking of value-added products.

Protectionism has been painted as the instinct of the less developed. They have been lectured that globalisation has its losers, and they should bear the sacrifice for the greater good. But what about the losers in the US Midwest or the British midlands, who were made invisible by a narrative dripping with the strong suggestion of western infallibility?

The Washington consensus used to define the world-view that infused global governance as led by the US. Those developing countries that did not subscribe to free trade and unbridled markets were ridiculed for being backward and economically illiterate.

Now Washington is about to be taken over by a protectionist nationalist. It looks like the purveyors of open markets and globalisation failed to evangelise in their own backyard. The Washington consensus, or what little remains of it, has met its end in the land of its birth.

But what is the Trump doctrine on international economic relations, especially towards the developing world? The idea that Trump will surround himself with good advisers is already proving overly optimistic given his early appointments. In the next four years, will we see Trump the pragmatist or the Trump who sees us all as American job thieves or potential illegal immigrants?

Now it is up to the developing world to sell the idea of open markets and global co-operation to a US president.

This piece was first published in Business Day (22 November 2016)

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