One of the most striking and potentially worrying political trends seen in the years since the 2008 economic downturn has been the steady erosion of the previously strong global consensus on the benefits of free trade.
In recent decades, leaders from the majority of developed nations around the world have maintained a dedicated commitment to globalization and trade liberalization, regardless of their other political views; however, this is no longer necessarily the case, with the election of Donald Trump as US president ushering in a new wave of protectionist rhetoric and legislation designed to curb imports, rather than encouraging them.
These developments are driven by underlying concerns that globalization may be having unintended negative consequences on the competitiveness of local businesses, resulting in jobs being lost to other countries in a border-free marketplace - a fear that may also have played a role in the UK's decision to leave the European Union. While many in the international community have criticized the disruption that Brexit and Trumpism may cause, these concerns are certainly real - and may need to be addressed if the international consensus on the benefits of globalization is to be restored.
Potential problems with the current globalization model
The public's view on the pros and cons of globalization, free trade and protectionism was recently highlighted by a survey from Bertelsmann Stiftung and YouGov, which polled more than 14,000 people in 12 emerging and developed economies to gauge their opinions on the matter.
While there was broad agreement on the advantages that free trade can deliver in terms of growth and living standards, it was revealed that most people feel that globalization increases social inequalities. In developed economies, a majority of those polled said they did not believe globalization contributes to wage increases, with only 18 per cent of US respondents seeing foreign takeovers of domestic companies as beneficial, compared to 55 per cent whose attitude was the opposite.
Although freer international trade is widely seen as good for businesses, general living standards and job creation, 39 per cent of those in the US believe it is bad for job security - a percentage close to the average for developed economies. These ideas may be having a negative impact on support for free trade deals in some areas: indeed, 36 per cent of those polled in the US now believe scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement would be beneficial, compared to only 30 per cent who believe it would not be. By contrast, in Canada and Mexico, 63 per cent and 58 per cent respectively believe abolishing the deal would not be beneficial.
Making positive changes to secure the future of free trade
Despite these findings, the Bertelsmann Stiftung report noted that a majority of respondents in all countries surveyed still see trade as a good thing. Even in Donald Trump's America, 65 per cent believe trade has positive effects, compared to only 14 per cent who see it as negative. This is lower than two years ago, when a similar survey found 82 per cent in favor of trade, but shows that the principle of free trade has not yet become irrevocably tarnished.
In order to keep it this way, policymakers may do well to consider introducing greater protection for local workers and businesses in future trade legislation. At present, 42 per cent of those in the US feel the government is not doing enough to protect them against negative side effects of globalization - a typical proportion for the developed countries surveyed - while 40 per cent of those from emerging economies are also seeking better protection.
Aart De Geus, chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann Stiftung, said: "People want globalization with a safety belt. Politics and the economy should not react to this demand by protectionist measures; well-managed, globalization can bring progress for all."