The New Globe
Nation states, borders and cultural differences may prove to be a defense against the mounting threats faced by humanity. Paradoxically, what divides us may save us.
On the assumption that it does not kill us wholesale as a species, the new age of pandemics may well make us stronger.
People are already speculating about a new era of ‘localization’, wherein globalization is steadily rolled back, bringing supply chains closer to home.
Localism had many advocates before the crisis. Politically, it could be advantageous to have more accountability in the hands of local individuals who feel closer to those affected by their decisions.
A fragmented world is not only more robust, but has the potential to benefit from disruption. In a fascinating paper about how to harvest randomness, Nassim Taleb shows that the best way to systematically generate innovation is to run a maximal number of small scale tests, rather than a small number of large ones.
When the probability of success is low, but the payoff very high, running many different experiments increases the probability of a game-changing breakthrough, whose positive effects will repay the collective effort many times over.
As someone pointed out recently on Twitter, the fact that many different countries are working on a cure / treatment of the virus increases our chances of finding one, and so, argues in favor of the nation-state, and against supranational bureaucratization. It is far easier for one entity to fail than for many to do so simultaneously and in the same way.
This idea is, again, not new. In portfolio theory, a group of investments will produce a higher return for less risk, provided the components are diverse and uncorrelated. A re-reification of boundaries between peoples and cultures could well make humanity as a whole more likely to survive.
The connectedness brought about by globalization and technology has brought about many negative ‘winner takes all’ effects — not only in economic but also cultural terms.
To take one example: the effect of television in traditional communities. People who used to enjoy folk singing, and may have enjoyed local celebrity status, stopped singing in front of others, as they felt the comparison would shame them.
It is the barriers — particularly language and culture — which allow local cultures, and the artists and performers which keep them alive, to persist over time.
One of the most successful ‘experiments’ in responding to the Coronavirus has so far been South Korea. Not only is it significantly below other countries in terms of deaths (as a result of rigorous planning by the government and considerable discipline on the part of the population), but it is also home to a population comparable to that of France, Germany, or the UK — unlike Singapore and Taiwan.
Korea was called the Hermit Kingdom — and even today, those attempting to acquaint themselves with the country face an uphill climb (at least in the early stages). I’ve often wondered if Koreans subconsciously make it harder to access their culture. But if so, it could well be that this is a feature and not a bug.
Despite countless invasions over the centuries, and full-scale conquests by the Mongols and the Japanese — not to mention a Cold-war era conflict that divides the country to this day — Koreans have been more successful than Britain in retaining a distinct culture, language and customs. This is perhaps because of — rather than in spite of — having refrained from pursuing imperial power over other countries.
If national identity does turn out, for all of the reasons above, to be a ‘feature’ that benefits humanity and not just the nation itself, Korea shows that it is possible to be both proud of one’s own country and respectful of others’. Not only is compatible with world peace, it may also be turn out to be a fundamental pre-requisite.