Picture 123RF/TASHA TUVANGO
Picture 123RF/TASHA TUVANGO

Fewer people live in extreme poverty today than at any other point in history. People are living longer lives, are better educated and have better access to technology than ever before. By many objective measures, life on this planet has never been better than it is right now. The problem is that it just doesn’t feel that way. And given what’s on the horizon, there’s good reason for that.

Over the better part of the past century, the free movement of people, goods, ideas and services across borders — globalisation — has allowed for efficiencies of scale and technological advances that helped improve the daily lives of billions. Most people living today have never known a world in which globalisation wasn’t synonymous with the word “progress”.

No longer. As the last three years of geopolitical chaos and upsurge of populism have made clear, there have been plenty who have been left behind by globalisation — or at least feel like they have, which matters plenty when it comes to democracies.

This has been particularly true of the middle and working classes of the world’s advanced industrial countries, who see the rise of a new global middle-class in Asia and Latin America as coming at the cost of their own well-being.

For the first time in almost a century, the momentum behind globalisation is starting to sputter. And it couldn’t be coming at a worst time.

Global economic growth is softening, and after nearly a decade of uninterrupted economic expansion following the Great Recession, the global economy looks set to head into a downturn. By itself, that’s nothing to be particularly alarmed about — economics tends to move in seven- to eight-year, boom-and-bust cycles, rising and falling in relatively well-predicted patterns.

When geopolitics are in ‘bust’ mode, international co-operation diminishes alongside the efficacy of institutions, and global conflicts increase. We haven’t faced a true geopolitical bust cycle since the Second World War

Over the course of the past century, every time the world has headed into an economic rough patch, globalisation’s momentum has taken a hit. It typically bounces back … but there’s no guarantee it will do so this time. Much of that has to do with the fact that this particular economic downturn is being accompanied by two new developments. 

The first is today’s geopolitics. While people tend to talk about economics moving in cycles, geopolitics move in cycles, too. They just play out over much longer time spans—on average geopolitical cycles last roughly 70-80 years. When geopolitics are in the “boom” phase of the cycle, international institutions and governments are well co-ordinated and effective in addressing global concerns, international conflicts decrease and economic co-operation increases.

When geopolitics are in “bust” mode, international co-operation diminishes alongside the efficacy of institutions, and global conflicts increase. We haven’t faced a true geopolitical bust cycle since the Second World War, which helps explain why so many people today feel so unnerved, even if they can’t necessarily articulate why.

And then there is climate change. It’s been coming for decades, but only recently has it started to become a genuine political issue as extreme climate events have increased in both frequency and severity, pushing the issue from the political fringes ever so slowly to the centre. And as global warming takes centre stage as one of the great existential issues of our time, politicians will have both less political space and resources to devote to the issue as globalisation stalls and both economics and geopolitics head into the downswing of their respective cycles.

Which means that standing on this side of 2019, the modern world finds itself in a situation that it hasn’t been in before — globalisation, geopolitics and economics all turning negative at the same time, while the world’s physical environment becomes increasingly inhospitable, demanding concerted action from the world’s politicians at a time when they have no shortage of other crises to deal with.

Not all hope is lost, however. People can take solace in the fact that more than 75 years of solid globalisation has made the world wealthier and more knowledgeable, which will undoubtedly help its resilience in dealing with coming crises.

They can also take heart from the fact that geopolitics and economics move in cycles, and somewhere down the line they will swing upwards yet again. But that will take time; in the meantime, politicians, markets and voters all need to brace for a difficult few years ahead.

• Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.