It is not often that the foreign minister of the world’s largest democracy uses the world’s most powerful platform for globalisation, the World Economic Forum (WEF), to talk about the virtue of nationalism.
But this is what Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s minister for external affairs, did at the India Economic Summit of the Forum in New Delhi this week. India’s nationalism, he argued, is directed towards maintaining and consolidating its own sovereignty. It does not make the country any less global-minded.
When I became World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2017, the nomination came as an invitation to embrace a community of perhaps the most important champions of globalisation in the world. Embedded in this promise was access to some of the brightest minds in world coming together to find solutions to intractable problems. Such ideating stands on the bedrock of being able to accommodate new and emerging perspectives. The most potent of these today is not globalising uniformity but the accommodation of individualistic aspirations of different, especially emerging countries.
This re-contextualisation comes at a time when the global economy is stuttering. From the United States to China, the creeping dusk of another slowdown is spreading around the world. The age of copy-pasting solutions from one part of the world to the other, while not entirely dead, is greatly diminished as a potent solution that could be applied across case studies.
It is the age of the national finding its feet in the global but without losing, and indeed reiterating, its nationalism. It is a world which realises more strongly than ever that there is no use borrowing, say, a digital technology, if the more prosaic steady supply of electricity is missing to fuel it. These kinds of ‘the world is flat’ solution-making have had their day.
The focus therefore is on countries finding their own feet in a world, worryingly, growing pessimistic about the future (as WEF chairman Klaus Schwab warned at the Summit).
Therefore the subtle shift of focus has occurred from what I would call the ‘grand global idea’ to local fixes. A time to discuss, as the Summit did, what more needs to be done to rekindle the fires of the Indian economy. Is a major tax cut for companies enough or would an equally large income tax cut be needed?
But would even major monetary or fiscal stimulus be enough to change the mood of the world? This was perhaps the biggest overhanging question of the Summit. There is a silent realisation that a change has occurred in the global mood. Until recently the West and the East was compared in terms of a receding West and a rising East, in one place, people were unsure about the future, but in the other, people were almost always optimistic about the next generation.
These certainties have started to fade. This is different world. A world of rising oceans and falling incomes, a world of a furious Greta Thunberg (the Swedish teen environmental activist) pointing a finger at a future forfeited through the greed of today. A world of the America receding from Afghanistan and the Taliban rising again, a world where the biggest news in London is often that of knife-stabbing.
Civil strife, and military battles, including an attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries, and the threat of the fall of the nuclear weapons of an economically tottering Pakistan into terrorist hands present a picture of the future which is, to say the least, not very encouraging for investors.
As the two greatest economies of our time, America and China, fight a bruising trade war, Britain remains embroiled in the Brexit circus, and growth slows in India, it is hard to know where exactly is our money, and our future, secure. Even in countries that offer the rare ray of hope, for instance Bangladesh (it may soon outstrip India in economic growth) with its growing economy and ever-rising participation of women in the workforce, concerns of societal resignation before religious fundamentalism abound.
The realism of national concerns rather than the euphoria of a globalising world have, therefore, come to define our current conversations. The first talk I was asked to deliver, for instance, at the Summit was on how to make populism less popular.
The work ahead therefore lies in restoring global hope. By pointing to one victory after the other on persistent disease, by showing that technology is not merely destroying our lives and sanity but can also be of great assistance in the alleviation of mental health problems, in showcasing that a data annotating coupled with machine learning can effectively fight terror videos and other illicit content online. As it once was with the first wave of business process outsourcing, a lot of this annotating work might be starting to land up in small town India. Are these the Bengalurus of tomorrow? Time will tell.
For now, it might be fair to suggest that in the celebration of the global we have definitely pivoted to the local.