Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why it Mattersby Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp (Harvard University Press, 2021)

People use mental shortcuts to organise their thinking about complex issues, but because the same situation can be presented in different ways, complications often arise. Take economic globalisation as an example. The acrimonious debates about globalisation represent different ways of framing the issue. Those frames matter – they lead to different storylines about who wins, who loses, and why it’s important.

As the recently published book Framers explains, people rely on mental frames to interpret the world and operate within it. Yet these templates typically exist in the background, without us being aware of how they influence our thinking. To understand globalisation debates, we first need to differentiate the main frames shaping these discussions so that we can see what each reveals and obscures, and how different frames might combine to provide more nuanced understandings of reality and pathways forward.

The dominant, decades-old framing that presents globalisation as a positive force is under siege, and the incursion is coming from multiple directions. Some critics focus on manufacturing communities that socially disintegrate after factories shut down. Others chronicle the explosive growth of Chinese technology companies and their potential digital reach into Western countries through 5G networks. Some stress the perils of unsustainable consumption and brittle supply chains, while others highlight the glaring disparities between multinational CEOs and casually employed fast food workers. 

Like frames, narratives influence what people see and don’t see. But they also identify the central characters, provide compelling plotlines, and suggest moral takeaways.

In Six Faces of Globalization, we explore these framing effects by examining the six main narratives driving Western debates about economic globalisation. We focus on narratives because, during periods of political and social flux, they offer ways for actors to situate the problem, tell a story about its cause, cast it as good or bad, and advocate for a response. Like frames, narratives influence what people see and don’t see. But they also identify the central characters, provide compelling plotlines, and suggest moral takeaways.

The establishment narrative

The dominant paradigm for understanding economic globalisation in the West for the last three decades, holds that free trade produces a rising tide that lifts all boats or a way to grow the pie so everyone can have a larger slice. This narrative views economic integration as an unstoppable and beneficial force.

The left-wing populist narrative

Focuses on the ways in which national economies are rigged to channel the gains from globalisation to the rich. It sees economic globalisation as a tide that has lifted only the yachts and has created a hollowed-out middle class. The pie may have grown, but the slices have become increasingly uneven, resulting in glaring inequality.

The right-wing populist narrative

Focuses on the losses that blue-collar workers in developed countries have suffered both economically and culturally as a result of economic globalisation. It laments the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, the on-shoring of immigrants, and the decline of traditional working-class communities and values.

The corporate power narrative

Argues that the real winners from globalisation are multinational corporations that can take advantage of a global marketplace to produce cheaply, sell everywhere, and pay as little in taxes as possible – at the expense of workers and citizens everywhere – creating a victory for transnational capital over a transnational working class.

After decades of trying to keep Australia’s trading and security narratives separate, the government is now seeking to integrate both perspectives into policies on everything from supply chain diversification to foreign investment screening (Timelab Pro/Unsplash)

The geoeconomic narrative

Emphasises the growing strategic and economic rivalry between the United States and China, with significant impacts for countries around the world. It argues that Western economic and digital interdependence with China is a dangerous gamble, creating prospects for weaponised interdependence and a loss of technological supremacy.

The global threats narrative

Calls for a radical rethinking of our economies and societies in order to meet common global threats like pandemics and climate change. This narrative requires a shift in emphasis from economic efficiency to greater resilience and sustainability so that we may all survive and thrive within the limits of our planet.

All of these narratives are partial. All of them reveal and obscure. In an era of growing polarisation, many assume that people need to converge on a single perspective in order to meet our society’s and our world’s most difficult challenges. Yet, our ability to devise multiple frames is also a strength: it lets us see complex and contested issues from many angles, paving the way for more nuanced understandings of reality and more calibrated policy responses.

The Australian government will increasingly need to pursue resilience and sustainability – perspectives that argue for cooperation with China, not just competition and confrontation.  

In this vein, it is striking that governments in Washington, Brussels, Beijing and beyond are recrafting their trade and foreign policies to combine insights from different narratives. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Australia.

After decades of trying to keep Australia’s trading relationship with China (establishment narrative) separate from its security relationship with the United States (geoeconomic narrative), the government is now seeking to integrate both perspectives into policies on everything from supply chain diversification to foreign investment screening. Faced with shocks like pandemics and climate change, the Australian government will increasingly need to pursue resilience and sustainability (global threats narrative) – perspectives that argue for cooperation with China, not just competition and confrontation.  

In a complex and contested world, how we frame globalisation matters. How we learn to integrate insights from across different frames matters even more.

Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp’s new book Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why it Matters (Harvard University Press, 2021) will be launched online at the ANU on Tuesday 16 November from 6-7.30 pm, with speakers including Chancellor Julie Bishop, Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, Dean Helen Sullivan, Judge Hilary Charlesworth, Richard Maude, Heather Smith and Jason Yatsen Li. Registration is free.