Kenichi Ohmae’s book The Borderless World was published in 1990, the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It became one of the classic texts of the globalisation era. But borders are now returning with a vengeance — driven by coronavirus.
When the pandemic passes, the most extreme barriers to travel will be lifted. But it is unlikely that there will be a full restoration of the globalised world, as it existed before Covid-19. The nation-state is making a comeback, fuelled by this extraordinary crisis.
There are three main reasons for this. First, the pandemic is demonstrating that in times of emergency people fall back on the nation-state — which has financial, organisational and emotional strengths that global institutions lack. Second, the disease is revealing the fragility of global supply chains. It is hard to believe that large, developed countries will continue to accept a situation in which they have to import most of their vital medical supplies.
Finally, the pandemic is reinforcing political trends that were already potent before the crisis broke — in particular the demand for more protectionism, localisation of production and tougher frontier controls.
In the current situation, tightening border controls for a while makes sense. And if this reversion to the nation-state is kept within bounds, it need not be a bad thing. It would simply be the kind of political course correction that takes place in democracies, in response to events and to changes in the public mood. But the danger is that the revival of the nation-state will slide into uncontrolled nationalism, leading to slumps in global trade and the near abandonment of international co-operation. The worst-case scenarios include the collapse of the EU and a breakdown in relations between the US and China that could conceivably culminate in war.