By Bensam Solomon
As I write this at my desk, I look down at people strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in the sweltering DC heat, a stone’s throw away from the White House. I feel lucky to be in the political capital of the world. I am here as a Wallenberg International Fellow, an exchange program between the Stockholm School of Economics and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Dr. Tech. Marcus Wallenberg Foundation. The aim of the program is to broaden participants’ horizons, intellectually, culturally and in practical business situations through an interdisciplinary program at the intersection of business and international relations.
During the summer, I am working at Limiar Capital, a newly started hedge fund investing in emerging markets. I believe that private investment, especially social impact investment, can play a pivotal role in the development of emerging economies, something that I am passionate about. At Limiar, I’ve had the opportunity to work with people with diverse backgrounds, who have worked all over the world with finance and development – from the IFC and MIGA (World Bank Group organizations) to development banks, NGOs and hedge funds in Argentina, India, Singapore and the United Kingdom. I’ve learned a lot from them and from the work that we do.
Now, half-way through the summer, half-way through my internship, I have a chance to reflect on my experiences. As I do, my mind keeps being drawn back to the events of June 23 – the day the UK voted to leave the European Union. Brexit, as it is widely known, came as a shock to me, and to my friends, especially the ones from the UK. Even at work, having been a hot topic of discussion, we were taken aback by the unexpected outcome. Incredulity gave way to recriminations (people who voted to leave were “misinformed”), incredulity to anger, and finally reluctant acceptance. Nowhere was this volatility clearer than in the markets – stock markets tumbled, as did currencies from all over the world. Emerging markets took a hit as investors fled to the safe havens of US and Japanese treasuries. It was a moment that reflected the juxtaposition of an interconnected world, and how fraught and fragile it is.
I grew up in Eritrea, a small country in the North-east of Africa, one of the few countries left in the world where citizens need visas to leave the country, and they are rare to come by. For the first 15 years of my life, I had never been outside the boundary delimited by the national border. The first time I was ever on an airplane was when I was 15 on my way to Europe. Sweden would become my new home, and I am always thankful for that. Although not by any means perfect, it’s been an open and welcoming society, and I’ve felt at home there since the first day. In the nine years since, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many different places around the world, to live and study in Singapore and now in the US. I have come to take for granted the privilege of being able to travel all over the world with ease, often with no need for a visa, as if traveling from Stockholm to Malmö (translation: from Washington, D.C. to New York). I have come to take for granted an unbounded, borderless, connected world.
As the dust settles, I keep thinking about the schism the referendum revealed between the winners and losers of an increasingly globalized world. My friends, British and non-British alike, were in disbelief as the results were announced. I didn’t know anyone who voted for Brexit, nor, apparently, did my friends. In many ways this is a consequence of globalization, the detachment from the physically proximate reality as we are more connected and aware of the realities that lie closer to our interests. In fact, looking at my friends and their friends, it’s striking how much we have come to surround ourselves with people who are like us, in educational background, in career aspirations, in visions for the future. With most physical limitations gone, the pool of friends is not limited to the city or country we live in but to the whole world. My friends and I who have been able to pursue higher education, travel the world and have reaped the benefits that a globalized world has to offer. In doing so, we have come to lose touch with those who are physically closer to us, but very far in the opportunities they have had in life.
The victors of the referendum claimed that June 23 would be marked as Britain’s Independence Day. This assertion was met with ridicule by most, due to the irony of it coming from one of history’s most prolific colonizers, having colonized over two thirds of the earth at its peak. This resonated with me as July 4th came around, celebrating the independence day of one of Great Britain’s former colonies. I was impressed by the lavish celebration of the fourth in the United States. Not only in the fireworks displays or the flags draped over the many high rise buildings, or planted at the base of trees that line Main Street, but in what it meant to people.
Sitting on the West Lawn of the capitol building, a historic site where hundreds of thousands of Americans gather every four years to watch the inaugurations of presidents, I watched a concert celebrating the nation’s independence. In a drizzling, humid and grey DC summer evening, I sat there with my fellow Wallenberg Fellows, packed in between the thousands who had come out despite the rain to celebrate this day. As I looked out at the sea of people, standing to sing the national anthem, hands on their chest, facing the flag, the sense of belonging that national identity brings was palpable. Young families with children running around, retired couples, a group of young urbanites, white, black, Hispanic and wherever they were from, they were American.
But not even America, the great melting pot, the pluralist home of the brave, has been spared from the wave of disenchantment that has swept Europe. My coworkers and all the people I have met this summer worry about the election in the fall. Similar to my friends from the UK, no one knows or seems to know anyone who supports Donald Trump. Brexit was a wakeup call for many, the tendency to lump all supporters and view them as either ignorant or racist is dangerous. It’s hard for people to put themselves in their shoes, to understand what is the source of their dissatisfaction, in other words, to empathize.
Proximity is a prerequisite for empathy. The US is as polarized as it has been in recent times, and those who have gained from globalization are in every way but physically remote from those that have lost out from it. Trump promises to build a Wall, the centerpiece of his campaign, to keep everything that is unwanted out, to protect those who have lost much in the past from losing even more. Seldom remarked upon is what the wall will keep in. Disentangling it from the rest of the world will make “America great again”, the rhetoric harkens back to a time that may or may not have existed. It is appealing in its simplicity. It’s not dissimilar from the rhetoric heard all around the world, from those who offer simple solutions to complex problems.
Lifting the focus from the developed world, recent developments also have implications for developing countries. There is a worry that the era of secular liberalization is over, that recent events herald a return to the protectionist and short-sighted policies of the past. This is a grave threat to developing nations, trade has brought millions of people out of poverty in China and the rest of East and South-east Asia. Though far from perfect, trade and globalization have been the harbingers of growth, development and peace in the world. A return to isolationism and antagonism between nations would have disastrous consequences, erasing the many positive developments that have taken place during my lifetime.
Yet, as I think of the time I have ahead of me here in DC, I am filled with anticipation. As decisions are made that will shape the world we live in for years to come, the feeling that what happens next will be historic is overwhelming. In the face of the palpable pessimism that permeates every newscast, political conversation and prediction of a world divided, I find comfort in these words from Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Walls:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”