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Pros and cons of a US Biden-Harris administration that seeks greater bureaucratic control of shipping and trade

If one was to look at US maritime policy in a Biden-Harris administration, one can see an increasingly regulated industry with greater control exerted by United Nations bodies and other multilateral organisations.

That is what one gleans from reading "Future Globalisation" in Washington's Foreign Policy Magazine, owned by the pro-Democrat Washington Post, which insists that "social justice" be prioritised in decisions shipping companies make on behalf of their shareholders.

The article is the work of Henry Farrell, professor of international studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Abraham Newman, professor of government at Washington's Georgetown University.

At the core of  their "New Globalisation" is more centralised control of world trade, in which bureaucrats would cast the deciding vote, allocating who gets what and when in times of shortages. The more one looks at the world according Farrell and Newman, the more one deduces an economy where most everything is free but unavailable as in other socialist dystopias we have known.

Much of its reasoning rests on blunders in Covid-19 scare, seeing government action as needed, but failing to have sufficient powers to do all it could, being thwarted by individual rights that must be superseded in the name of the greater public good.

"To move forward from our current crisis to globalisation, we need to build something better - a system that mitigates the risks of economic and political dependency and supports a new vision of global society," wrote Profs Farrell and Newman.

"We would remake globalisation so that it focused on different problems than economic efficiency and global markets. Now that the pandemic has dramatically underscored what's wrong with the system, we can think more clearly about what an alternative would look like," they said.

"Globalisation - the vast increase in flows of money, goods, information, and people over the last 30 years - was supposed to make the world less vulnerable to disruptive economic shocks. How did we get it so badly wrong?

"In part, we were blinded by the mythology that pundits like Thomas Friedman wrapped around the real workings of globalisation. These arguments depicted globalisation as the triumph of market efficiency over retrograde national politics.

"Businesses and consumers could search the globe for better and cheaper suppliers. If one supplier proved unreliable, greedy, or recalcitrant, they could be easily substituted or replaced. The geopolitics of the Cold War would fade away as states too were subjected to the ruthless discipline of a world market that had escaped their control and become their master," they said.

But was this so? Was the "ruthless discipline of the world market" ever in anyone's control? When it nearly was, as in 18th century mercantilism, such controls brought on the American Revolution. One might add that the faults Farrell and Neman found, they blamed on the market when the real culprit was government. They also made much of an earlier fuss in the Covid scare. That surfaced in the New England Journal of Medicine in a story describing a Massachusetts hospital's "desperate efforts" to secure a shipment of medical masks.

The US had intercepted masks being shipped from Thailand to Germany and redirected them for its own purposes, in a move German officials called piracy. Germany itself blocked the export of masks and other medical equipment to Italy, which was begging for help.

"Newspaper reports describe a chaotic global marketplace where governments and health care officials consort with dubious middlemen for medical supplies, acting on rumours and personal connections, fighting to outbid and undercut each other. And this behavior has spread to other sectors like auto manufacturing; experts worry that the next battles may be over food," the Foreign Policy authors reported in rising apocalyptic tones.

But these acts were not acts of the free market, but of national governments protecting their constituents. Certainly not the private sector that would have been content to sell the masks to the highest bidder. It was also the result of extraordinary international lockdowns in the midst of politicking in a trade war. And not a description of a "chaotic global marketplace where governments and health care officials consort with dubious middlemen for medical supplies."

Some pundits and politicians assume that free markets and economic globalisation could support a self-sustaining international order, they said.

"Instead, it has undermined itself. The corporate world's quest for efficiency has made the global economy more fragile, and its desire to control markets has provided states with the means to turn that space into a battlefield.

"The current model of globalisation is unsustainable. It is creating unacceptable levels of risk both for citizens and states. The future of globalisation will depend on the decisions of political leaders as well as businesses.

"If Donald Trump succeeds in setting the agenda, America's future direction is clear. The fragility of the global system will give economic nationalists more reason to do what they want to do anyway, which is to shift from global free trade to harnessing the power of the nation-state. The globalised economy would shrink, as more production takes place inside national borders, reducing reliance on foreign components."

A more thoughtful globalisation, they say, will require a "new approach" to trade, which from the first sounds little different from the Trump approach they had just criticised, to wit: "States will sometimes have legitimate reason to limit their exposure to the world economy so as to minimise vulnerabilities. Instead of the crude reshoring and high national tariffs proposed by economic nationalists, we must map the intricacies of the system, identify key vulnerabilities and mitigate them, they said.

Now if that isn't a call to hire more bureaucrats and analysts with no skin in the game, one can hardly imagine what is. This is followed by declarations of a policy of protectionism if necessary but not necessarily protectionism. Which is not so very different from President Trump's approach.

"Rather than decoupling," they say, "states would have to recouple. Sometimes that might lead to reshoring within national borders, but more often it would involve identifying bottlenecks and creating more robust global supply relationships, on the basis of active agreement among allies and tacit accommodations among adversaries not to exploit vulnerabilities."

And now for the crunch: "Individual state action will be insufficient. Some of those bureaucracies will have to be international. For example, resuming travel in a world where new viruses can instantly circle the globe will require extensive - and sometimes intrusive - information sharing. This new model of globalisation would give institutions such as the World Health Organisation extensive new powers to gather information and to investigate when states are being deceptive.

"International organisations could also administer shared rewards to scientists and companies that develop vaccines, on the condition that the vaccines and associated patents and rights be made universally available. Of course, the Trump administration wants to defund the world health apparatus - but US allies in Europe and elsewhere are betting that this decision will be reversed if Trump loses in November.

If nothing else, the Farrell-Newman "Future Globalisation" article in Foreign Policy, gives a good idea of what US maritime policy is likely to be if a Biden-Harris were to win the US presidential election in November.

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