The world over, the topic of globalism rarely fails to elicit a strongly held opinion. At its extreme in Europe, the march of globalization is accepted as a near-inevitability: In that view, it is no longer merely a path that should be taken, but the inexorable destination of humanity. As such, there is little room for assessing, much less understanding, alternative perceptions about the structure of the world, either internationally or domestically. Whether talking with a German economist, a British investor or an expatriate businessman in Spain, there is a near-bewilderment as to why anyone would want to pursue nationalism over globalism. As such, the bump in popularity for the Alternative for Germany party, the independence referendum in Catalonia and the Brexit are all seen as anti-historical trends. To them, the European Union remains the moral and political compass for the world, the guiding principle upon which the nation-state will be subsumed and a new global society will emerge.
In Asia, globalization is seen as a potential path, but not an inevitable one, and is viewed more often in economic than political terms. The nation-state firmly remains the unit of political and social organization, and while there are numerous initiatives to enhance cooperation among national entities, there is little movement toward the creation of a pan-national umbrella along the lines of the European Union. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), one of the most aggressive Asian attempts at pan-national cooperation, explicitly promotes a policy of noninterference in national politics, recognizing the very different systems in each member country, rather than seeking to replace them with a regionwide political and economic structure.
Over the past 12 months, I have engaged with business leaders, government officials, researchers and members of the media in London, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Barcelona and The Hague, and in Auckland, Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore. Over the course of those discussions, a distinct difference in worldview between the "elites" of Europe and those of Asia became apparent. I use the word elite loosely here to describe the thin layer of society with the economic and social freedom to observe and assess the world in a manner disconnected from daily life. These are the economists, political scientists and bankers, the pundits, heads of major corporations, politicians and journalists. Their views shape much of the popular narrative, but one that often misses the underlying realities and beliefs held by a large portion of the societies in which they reside.
Now, all such broad-brush assessments are, by their nature, simplistic and superficial. There are certainly those in Asia who subscribe to the ideals of extreme globalism, and some among the European elite who recognize clearly that the Continental vision is just that — a vision and not an inevitability. But nonetheless, I noted the striking difference in tone between those I met in Europe and those in Asia. In part, the geopolitical developments in each region over the past several decades could explain this dichotomy.
Whereas Europe views the United States in ideological terms, Asia sees it in transactional terms.
Following the end of the Cold War, with the exception of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Europe has experienced perhaps its most stable multidecadal period in centuries. The European experiment appeared to be working. The peace and prosperity that spread across the continent allowed for the European Union to spread in kind, absorbing elements of the former Soviet bloc and even parts of the former Soviet Union itself. In guiding the economic and political directions of individual European nations, the European Union sought to erase the underlying nationalism that had riven Europe for millennia. But that noble goal failed to take into account the realities that remained below the surface. These were exposed dramatically with the global financial crisis in 2008, which forced the differences between the economic, social and political predilections underlying its systems to the surface once again, leaving the Europeans struggling with the growing gap between the globalized ideal and the national realities.
In Asia, no substantial periods of post-Cold War peace and cooperation ever really materialized. Even as it emerged as the region's dominant economic regional power, China's attention focused inward as it sought to manage internal social upheaval. Japan fell into economic malaise. The two Koreas (despite a brief moment of sunshine) continued to spar. Extra-constitutional political change swept across Southeast Asia. The financial contagion that spread throughout the Asia-Pacific in 1997 sharpened many of these trends, leaving simply no long space of regional economic prosperity and political integration. Moves toward regional economic cooperation never went so far as seeking a common currency or centralized economic authority, and they certainly avoided linkage of economics and domestic politics.
Those differences in fortune play into the way each region views and reacts to both the perceived changes in U.S. policy direction and to rising nationalist sentiment around the world. In Europe, U.S. President Donald Trump is seen as globalization's greatest threat, caricatured as the dangerous buffoon — a mirror image of the U.S. perception of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. European nations have found it difficult to manage relations with the United States because they cannot accept that it may be sliding away from the extreme vision of globalization. In Asia, there are concerns about the direction of U.S. policy, but less in regards to globalization and more in terms of its direct economic and security effects. Whereas Europe views the United States in ideological terms, Asia sees it in transactional terms. Thus Asian leaders like Japan's Shinzo Abe and even China's Xi Jinping have been more adept at interpreting and engaging with Trump.
The geopolitical currents that have brought the continental neighbors to these dichotomous viewpoints will continue to shape the perceptions of their thought leaders, who in turn influence the political, economic and social directions of their societies. It's clear that globalism will continue to evolve, both as an ideal and as a reality. Where it ends up may be a matter of perspective.