14 Apr 2023

How to Stem the Tide of Destabilization and Attempt to Save Globalization? The Answer May Lie in the World’s Cities.


by Mark Cautela

Photo courtesy Stu Rosner.

The late 1920s and early 1930s saw a rise of nationalism and populism. Populism, defined broadly, refers to a narrative that the system is rigged, the establishment doesn’t care about its people, and is anti-elitist by nature. This led to the fall of globalization, most famously in the United States with the Great Depression, and the run-up to World War II.

“We are as vulnerable now to a similar rupture in stabilization than we have been at any time since the early 20th century,” said Rawi Abdelal, the Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management and the Emma Bloomberg Co-Chair, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which equips mayors and senior city officials with leadership skills and management tools to tackle their cities’ complex challenges and improve people’s quality of life.

Abdelal thinks that we are now in the second great era of globalization. The first era, according to his research, circa 1870–1914, was destroyed by the geopolitics of a great power transition, armed conflict, and a populist backlash against free trade and multinational business. Abdelal sees similar themes playing out now.

“Today, we've seen huge transitions of power, there's an ever-increasing risk of war, and once again we're facing populist backlash against capitalism,” he commented. “Income equality continues to grow, and with it a sense of unfairness.”

The current state has contributed to recent election results. Former President Donald Trump, while a member of the Republican party and considered by many to be a staunch conservative, had a strong voter base amongst the working class, who feel disenfranchised with the government, a group that previously was more aligned with the Democratic party’s ethos.

In 2022, France’s Marine Le Pen, a member of the National Rally, a group which supports anti-immigration and state intervention, received nearly 42 percent of the popular vote. This was 30 years after France introduced state intervention in an attempt to redistribute the country’s wealth. While that has been somewhat successful, Abdelal notes that “French citizens are still upset with their government, even though they redistributed wealth so thoroughly that they are now better off than before.”

What is the reason for the rise of Trump or the anti-establishment sentiment in France and in many countries around the world? Abdelal, whose research explores the causes of our increasingly fragile global system and examines potential measures to save globalization from itself, thinks it’s perhaps because we are identifying the underlying factors incorrectly.

“This isn’t a material crisis,” Abdelal explains. “If it was just about the distribution of wealth, then France wouldn’t be in the situation it’s in. Rather it’s about people’s sense of self. There’s still an issue with under and unemployment in these countries. That leads to the population lacking a purpose, feeling a loss of their dignity, and searching for meaning in their lives.”

The result is something that Abdelal calls “politics of frustration,” with a discontented working class connecting with political candidates that seem to empathize with their plight. What can be done to stem the tide of destabilization, and try and save globalization? The answer may lie in the world’s cities.

“The system is not broken at the city level,” Abdelal says. “This is because of our country’s mayors and other municipal leaders like them across the globe. While they may be affiliated with a political party, there is no groundswell of leftist or rightist mayors and politics, as they are instead much more focused on the day-to-day challenges of their constituents. In general, they are deeply people of practice.”

In Abdelal’s opinion, the pending crisis won’t be averted by trying to create national solutions to national problems. Rather it will be from the ground up, not top down.

“If our system will be preserved, it will be by city hall,” Abdelal continued. “Mayors are more concerned with improving the lives of their citizens than they are global politics. And they are in a better position to make sustainable changes when it comes to employment.”

One way is through rethinking education. Abdelal advocates for more a skill-based, vocational, and cooperative education system, one where the government engages local schools and businesses to work together to upskill the next generation through a cross-sector collaboration. “Too much of an emphasis is placed on a four-year degree being the only way to succeed in this country,” he said.

Instead, businesses can work with schools to develop curriculum that will create a workforce that’s employable immediately, with businesses taking part in the process through internships, co-ops, mentoring, and onsite learning. This can create social mobility and help restore the sense of dignity missing for many people today. Mayors are in the unique position of being able to enact change by connecting these two important groups, but they need support.

Abdelal thinks we need to invest in lifelong learning for mayors, which is core to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative’s mission. “Why don’t we invest in these public servants, who are crucial to the success of our communities, the way we do in corporate leaders?” he asked in conclusion. “None of the work I have done in my career is as important as the work I’ve done with mayors. They, and their collection of communities, are the key to the whole system. We need to do a better job of helping them think through these important issues.”

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