Listening to Dan Hill’s greatest hit Sometimes When We Touch still sends a chill up our spine. The key to enjoying music deeply is by relaxing ourselves and wonders will happen. Now, try to do that when consuming materials on trade policies, and you will wonder what has just happened. So many explanations from so many sources. It is as if the world never needs a grand unified theory. 

In the last five years alone, several provocative thoughts have emerged, each claiming to stand out in a contested field. In their recent book entitled Six Faces of Globalization, Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp have laid bare six distinct narratives about globalisation depending on who you ask. Thus, the first one belongs to the group of people who consider the phenomenon as a happy win-win trade policy by which everyone gains. 

The next four narratives explain away globalisation in win-lose terms (workers in developing countries win, those in developed countries lose; China wins, the US loses; the top 1% rich people win, the rest of us lose; corporations win, governments lose). The last narrative says that we would all lose in the end due to the unsustainable economic model (lose-lose). The authors contend that there could be overlaps and trade-offs among different narratives whereas interest groups wouldn’t mind switching narratives whenever they fit them better.

Perhaps there are more faces of globalisation that we have yet to discover if we continue inquiring into the smallest details. But I imagine that there is no way to tell whether such inquiry would yield a unified understanding. Why? Because nobody really knows the origin of trade conflicts, for instance. To some, the commonly held view about the origin of trade wars (that trade wars are between states) already seems to have been wrongly conceived. 

According to Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis, Trade Wars Are Class Wars. They, of course, mean economic classes that operate inside every country. In this award-winning book, they have demonstrated how inequality among different classes within countries has distorted the global economy and threatened international peace. Thus, unlike what the mainstream news outlets are reporting, trade wars are not happening among states. Rather, they tend to be the outcome of domestic policies enforced by governments for the benefits of the very rich at the expense of the rest. Let us hope that Klein and Pettis are truly right.

And we all know that hoping for the truth to come out can be quite stressful. Just when we think we have heard enough of conflicting views, Shannon K O’Neil has gone on public record to announce that globalisation has actually been a myth, a false trade promise. A strong assertion indeed from someone who sits as vice-president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. I have published a review of her book, The Globalization Myth. For her, what has truly been happening may be best categorised as regionalisation rather than globalisation per se. For the most part, the data has shown that trade transactions have been operating within regionally integrated blocs. Regionalism sticks like glue. Framing globalisation as a myth, O’Neil has since advocating for a much deeper regional integration, at least as far as North America is concerned.

If you feel like you want a nice cup of espresso now, you would not be alone. For there is more to come. This time, from lawyers. Often hailed as a leading voice in works that seek to conceptualise international trade law, Frank Garcia has pointedly warned us that a lot of the so-called free trade agreements have not been freely negotiated. If left unchallenged, the conventional international trade negotiations will continue to lack fairness, justice and overall moral foundation. 

In his book called Consent and Trade, Garcia has shown how strong states have become accustomed to using, among others, coercive tactics in order to extract advantages over their weaker trade partners. His book aims to bring consensual exchange onto the negotiation table to help states trade freely in a global market. Who wouldn’t that? But, again, right there lies another problem. Let us go back to the most foundational question: What is global? For starters, not everything that has “international” in it is truly international. 

This is why Anthea Roberts’ work on Is International Law International? has received so much attention. Roberts does not believe that universality and neutrality can truly describe the nature of international law. Instead, she pushes us to always seek understanding of how scholars and practitioners from different educational and professional settings conceive international law. As a consequence, international law may only be comparatively and relatively so. Her eye-opening argument implies that the world cannot rest on a single version of anything, dominant as this may be.

We can now accept that nothing is really what it seems. We can’t tell what is international. Free trade agreements were arguably not freely negotiated. Who knows whether globalisation ever occurs when there are just too many faces of it. Perhaps trade wars are actually much closer to home than we ever noticed. I’m being honest. By now another cup of coffee is warranted. The honesty may be too much but, unlike Dan Hill, we don’t have to close our eyes and hide. I suspect that the path to understanding must be one that necessarily accommodates different views, however strange they might seem.

Virak Prum teaches law at CamEd Business School. 

The views expressed are solely his own.