In 2020, evidence of countries’ lack of resilience and autonomy are not hard to find.
David Beasley of the UN World Food Programme recently warned that an extra 130 million people could be pushed to the edge of starvation as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In testimony to Congress, Gary Cohn noted that 97% of antibiotics consumed in the United States come from China, while Senator Chuck Grassley has pointed out that 80% of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) come from overseas, primarily from India and China.
Meanwhile, Niyi Akinnaso writing for The Nation bemoans the “fragility of the African economy; the infrastructure shortcomings, especially in the education, health, power, and housing sectors; the high rate of poverty; rampant illiteracy; and inadequate levels of hygiene” all of which are making Subsaharan Africa especially susceptible to pandemics.
He went on to quote Wole Soyinka and other writers who have spoken of the need for rejuvenated African independence:
“THE challenge for Africa is no less than the restoration of its intellectual freedom and a capacity to create … The dearth of political will and the extractive practices of external actors can no longer be used as excuse for inaction. We no longer have a choice: we need a radical change in direction. Now is the time!”
The Crack of Dawn Test
A useful thought experiment in thinking about national autonomy is to ask to what extent your country would be able to provide for itself were it to wake up tomorrow sealed off from the outside world.
Would it have access to sufficient fresh water, and the means and infrastructure to dispose of its waste?
Would it be able to feed itself?
Would it be able to put clothes on backs?
Would have access to the raw materials needed for basic manufactures?
Would it have the intellectual and organisational capacity to make the changes necessary to adapt to this new state of affairs?
The point of this thought experiment is not to advocate for a world where countries seek to be entirely self-sufficient, but rather for national leaderships to have a better understanding of their resilience and productive capacity. It is, however, imperative that every nation-state seeks to become self-sufficient in the essentials for survival – including food, water and energy – so as not to find their population facing death in the event of a major external shock. As it relates to food supplies, trade’s purpose should not be to provide basic sustenance levels of food to a country, but rather to add variety to the foodstuffs produced by a single nation-state.
The ‘Crack of Dawn Test’ goes a long way to explaining why certain countries are such strong proponents of global free trade.
Apart from its close relationship with Malaysia, there would be no Singapore tomorrow. Widely touted as the model of a perfectly-administered state, Singapore is absolutely dependent on free-flowing global trade and uninterrupted access to water and foodstuffs from its neighbours. In the good times, it punches well above its size in global affairs, but its dependencies should be a matter of concern for the country’s leadership.
While the West’s dependence on Western oil is a trope of geopolitics, Gulf Arab states’ dependence on agricultural products from outside the region is a far more acute consideration in any analysis of state resilience. Absent far greater investment in water desalination, the populations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are ballooning beyond the capacity of local agriculture to sustain the local population.
In the case of Subsaharan Africa, the picture looks quite different. Almost every nation-state in the region has the capacity to provide enough food, water and basic manufactures for itself. Dependence upon foreign credit, food, and manufactures is holding many African nations back. Populations in some countries with almost no agricultural base have expanded as a result of this artificial injection of aid and trade. To break out of the massive boom-bust population cycle with all the human suffering that this entails, African nations must pursue greater autonomy and self-reliance. With more localised food supplies and absent inter-ethnic/inter-religious competition, local population levels self-regulate naturally.
The Economic Nationalist/Mercantilist System
The point of the ‘Crack of Dawn Test’ is not that we should abandon international trade with all the benefits that this brings, but that countries should ensure that (i) they have sustainable capacity to generate subsistence levels of the essentials for human survival, (ii) that they have production capacity which can be repurposed in response to a national or global emergency or crisis, (iii) that certain production essential for national security is reserved, and (iv) that countries hold reserves of those raw materials which cannot easily be acquired in a crisis. As these conditions are being met, go trade to your heart’s content.
It will readily be conceded to advocates of global free trade that the ENM system is less efficient and has less capacity to produce peaks of global prosperity (for the few!). At the same time, it has the capacity to make local economies more independent, sustainable and resilient.
In these politically divided times, it also offers the potential to bring together left and right in opposing the sort of unrestrained ‘free’ trade which is laying the groundwork for globalism on the one hand, and full state control of the means of production on the other.
Married with fiscal conservatism and a new moral vision for society, it represents the best hope for political and economic reform.