The Tao of Globalization

We seem to be in a time of contradictory trends in international economic relations—or is it just yin and yang?

Global advancements in business, sciences and technology, and culture do not take place in a vacuum; rather, the success of any human endeavor occurs in a complex ecosystem of varying geographies, cultures, politics, histories, and philosophies. As the world becomes increasingly globalized and interconnected, there are inevitable conflicts and compromises at the intersection of these forces.

For the purposes of this article, and the lens through which we see this complex world of competing and complementary global forces, we are borrowing from the Chinese religious and philosophical concept of Tao. In Eastern philosophy, Tao is that spiritual force that imbues all things, including—we believe—global trade and mobility. Tao is largely unknowable, only experienced—it is present in all things individually, but more truly present in all things collectively. It exists in the substance of things, but also in the nothingness between them. Tao is the inherent nature of the universe to balance itself: a concept often represented by the famous “yin and yang” symbol.

But I thought this was about global mobility, you say? Bear with us for just a few more lines.

The Classical Theory: International Trade

In economics, the classical model of globalization says that international trade increases the standard of living for participating nations by allowing them to use their relative advantages to trade and obtain goods in which they have less relative advantage. Our business school texts taught us that where Country A has an advantage in raising cattle and Country B has an advantage in fishing, the two countries trade beef and seafood—and their people can eat more steak-and-lobster dinners.

The same exchange takes place in culture and the movement of people. Country A has made great advancements in music, and Country B in literature. If they exchange culture and people, quality of life is enhanced for both countries, as they each now have musical theater.

If these tenets are true, albeit admittedly simplistic, then how do we explain the current trend of certain countries globalizing (becoming increasingly open to trade and exchange) and others nationalizing (seemingly closing their borders to trade and exchange)? Although a myriad of other factors come into play, including politics, international relations, legal and tax structures, religious and ethnic divides, geography and environment, and plain and simple parochial self-interests, these two trends have become more pronounced in recent years.

To some, globalization represents the positive march of progress and nationalism the negative retreat to the past. To others, globalization is the decline of a glorious past and nationalism their last hope. In reality, the relationship is far more complex. Both globalization and nationalism seem to come with their own positives and negatives. Globalization can lead to economic growth and decreased poverty for many; but some are seemingly left behind, exploited, or harmed as the economy evolves. Nationalism can foster obvious abuses from the “us versus them” mentality; but without a strong national identity, rich cultures and traditions may be lost.

In light of these complexities, we have set off in search of a theory that might take into account these various forces. One that can take in the good and bad inherent in both globalization and nationalism. One that attempts to explain what we see on a daily basis as we examine the complex, often challenging, rapidly evolving and devolving, simultaneously globalizing and nationalizing world of international business and global mobility.

Our Theory: The Tao of Globalization

As the knowledge management team of a global corporate immigration firm, we are constantly scouring the world for the latest changes and trends in international business and global mobility that impact our clients. While doing so, we have come to know, or rather experience, a powerful principle at work in the world of international business and immigration. After first not knowing what to call it, we have coined the concept of “the Tao of globalization.”

By this we mean that we see a yin of globalization and a yang of nationalism—separate but interdependent, opposite yet complementary. As one expands, the other contracts—but neither exists without the other.

In some nations, we observe the yin and yang taking place internally—a nation that is simultaneously globalizing and nationalizing in an effort to strike that “right balance,” or Tao. While cultural traditions and nationalistic self-preservation drive some policies to preserve the status quo, economic and demographic realities often dictate an opposing drive to globalize, and so Tao is reached internally. In other areas, the yin and yang are international—one nation in a seemingly singular pursuit of the yang of protectionist policies, but another nation (often in the same region) responding with its own yin of globalization, eagerly welcoming the foreign commerce and talent that was barred next door.

Using our Tao of globalization lens, we are sure you will begin to see many illustrations of this force at work. We offer this survey of what we believe to be the most interesting current examples.

Canada and the U.S.

Canadais perhaps the clearest model of a country proactively globalizing. Through its current “Global Skills Strategy,” inbound immigration is viewed as a means to strengthen communities and boost both local and national economies. This philosophy is seen at the very head of government with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offering such sentiments as:

Our future success is largely driven by attracting talented people from around the world. Our diversity not only brings its own economic and social rewards, but with Canada’s aging population, having a robust, effective, and efficient immigration system is critical to our long-term economic growth.

When it comes to employment-based corporate immigration, Canada boasts several new programs offering fast-track temporary and permanent residence options for highly skilled foreign nationals. Chief among those are the Global Talent Stream and the Express Entry system, which aim to attract and support innovative Canadian companies and highly skilled foreign talent.

Ranked 10th in Forbes’ 2017 “Best Countries for Business,” Canada is currently viewed as the consistent bright spot for international business in North America. The country’s proactive and strategic globalization policies position it not only to become the Americas’ premier destination for rapidly growing tech industries, but also to continue strengthening manufacturing and other “blue-collar” sectors.

As yangto Canada’s yin, the currently experiencing resurgent nationalism that is driving increasingly protectionist immigration policies. Fueled by President Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric, the U.S. government appears intent on tightening immigration. In a series of presidential addresses and executive orders, Trump has promised to significantly curb overall immigration to the U.S. over the next decade through tougher points-based criteria and increased screening measures.

Although much of the heated public debate on immigration in the U.S. focuses on family-based and illegal immigration, corporate immigration is also feeling the effects of an impending harder border. The primary target of this protectionist reform is the highly utilized H-1B program. Intended for highly skilled migrants and governed by a strict annual quota, the program is often criticized as allowing U.S. companies to hire lower-paid foreign nationals over their higher-earning American competition.

Often touted as a “nation created by immigrants” and home to the highest number of expatriates in the world, the U.S. has already dropped to No. 7—five places behind second-ranked Canada—on U.S. News & World Report’s “2017 Best Countries for Immigrants” review. And companies are taking note, especially in the highly mobile and competitive tech industry. Although U.S. tech hubs such as Silicon Valley will remain worldwide leaders, there is a palpable shift to other more immigrant-friendly countries—such as Canada.

While the U.S. must contemplate its internal yin of globalization and yang of nationalism, it appears that the Tao in North America will be achieved through a balance of Canada’s yin and the U.S.’s yang for at least the next several years.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia and New Zealand each appear to be engaged in an internal struggle to find their respective Tao. Both have traditionally been countries of significant immigration driven by demographic and economic factors, but both are currently experiencing a surge in nationalism, driven by concerns over slowing economic, job, and wage growth. In the last year, both have responded to the groundswell among the electorate by somewhat slowing or reversing their globalization. However, economic realities have caused both of them to stop just short of true protectionism and isolationism.

Australiais in the midst of an extensive yearlong plan to revise its skills-based and employment-based immigration streams to purportedly put “Australia first.” Starting in April, the country significantly reduced the number of eligible occupations for foreign employees, shortened the visa validity period for others, and ratcheted up application standards on virtually all visas. In addition, much political mileage has been made of the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull administration’s March 2018 elimination of Australia’s hugely popular—and widely maligned—457 visa program.

However, the yang of nationalism and labor protectionism was tempered by the yin of the global economic reality that Australian business needs skilled foreign workers. Thus, just as the 457 visa meets its intended demise in March, a new, uncannily similar Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa will be born, continuing to provide companies access to necessary foreign labor. Even a set of controversial proposals to raise the bar on Australian citizenship for immigrants is losing support in Parliament and now seems destined to fail or at least be greatly scaled back.

In New Zealand, “Australia first” was replaced by “Kiwis first,” but the forces at play are similar. Local labor groups, seeing record immigration levels and stagnating local wages, temporarily swayed politicians to believe that reliance on foreign labor was to blame for less-than-stellar economic performance. As a result, in March the government proposed new elevated minimum salary requirements and shorter visa validity periods to discourage companies from hiring foreign workers; however, when business groups pointed out that there were already skills and labor shortages in many industries, the proposals were scaled back in an attempt to achieve a better balance.

The U.K. and Europe

As arguably the world’s strongest and most influential supranational union, the European Union has long struggled with its Tao in immigration policies. Although the yin of the EU “Freedom of Movement” tenet partially removes borders to EU nationals, and many nations have enjoyed corresponding economic and talent gains, nationalistic yang still pushes back against these loosened borders. While whole textbooks have been dedicated to the various immigration and mobility considerations of the Union, the struggle to achieve an EU-wide mobility Tao is apparent in recent immigration policy developments in the U.K. and in Europe’s search for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) talent.

Perhaps even more than the U.S., the U.K. is undergoing a strong nationalistic and protectionist revision of its immigration policies. In addition to the Brexit vote to leave the EU and its significant intra-EU immigration implications, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has also implemented several major changes aimed at curbing employment-based immigration from non-European nationals.

Many of these changes seek to limit the popular Tier 2immigration route by making it more expensive for companies to sponsor foreign nationals. Despite outcry from major U.K. businesses, May’s party recently increased minimum salary thresholds and expanded the Immigration Skills Charge, pledging to reduce U.K. immigration levels by “tens of thousands.”

With the U.K.’s shift to the yang of nationalism, other European countries are upping their yin to capitalize on foreign investment and talent that may now flow away from the U.K. This is perhaps most apparent in the global competition for STEM talent. EU member states, both large and small, are seizing the opportunity to attract foreign STEM talent and business startups. France recently rolled out a new Talent Passport (including a new fast-track French Tech Visa). The Netherlands announced a new program this year aimed at retaining Dutch-educated foreign nationals to start their own businesses or continue their research in the country. Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, and Slovakia have all recently announced or implemented similar streamlined immigration procedures for foreign nationals in these sectors.

While the EU member nations will continue in their own internal yin and yang struggles between globalization and nationalism, the Tao of globalization will most certainly be realized on a regional level as industries, talent, and governmental policies continue their natural ebb and flow as the U.K. exits the EU.

The Middle East

Diplomatic, trade, and immigration policies within the Middle East are complex on a good day, but recent diplomatic conflicts and paradigm shifts in global energy markets are only making the environment more difficult to navigate. In this region especially, there are deep conflicts between the globalizing yin of economic forces and the nationalistic yang of preserving the traditional culture of Islam against outside influences.

Lower global oil prices and the movement toward alternative energy sources are creating the yin toward globalization as the region attempts to diversify economies away from oil dependence. Previously a delicate Tao had been maintained between the region’s huge foreign labor forces and traditional Muslim society through strict local conduct laws and authoritarian labor laws, including the kafala system imposed on foreign workers. However, the demand for higher-skilled foreign workers is now slowly shifting the landscape in favor of globalization and more progressive policies in foreign worker treatment, women’s rights, education, and tolerance for differing religious and political views. Examples range from the dramatic growth of the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to Qatar’s recent reforms of its kafala system and loosening of visa and permanent residency rules.


The birthplace of Taophilosophy, China is likewise a study in the internal search for balance, but with some fascinating differences. Usually concerned with preserving its traditional society and communist power structures in the face of Western cultural and democratic influences, China is now proactively using its increasing economic power to instead become a global influencer. Making major investments in the infrastructure of nations throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America through its extensive international trade and ambitious “belt and road” initiative, it is rapidly replacing the U.S. as the chief economic, political, and cultural influence in many nations around the globe.

As such, China’s yin of globalization differs from other nations’ in that the experience is more outward- than inward-directed—although an inward globalization can be seen in its efforts to attract highly skilled foreign talent and overseas Chinese, especially in the technology fields, through recent changes to its work permits system and permanent residency policies. Cities such as Shanghai are now quickly becoming some of the world’s most cosmopolitan communities and attracting increasing numbers of foreign expats.

However, China still maintains a strong nationalistic yang, with strict Communist Party control of media, free speech, and access to power. It appears that the growing outward-focused yin has yet to produce a correspondingly significant decrease in nationalistic yang. It will be interesting to test our Tao theory and watch whether this form of outward globalization turns inward at some point to produce a corresponding reduction in nationalism.

The Search for Optimum Tao

There are countless other interesting examples of the world in search of Tao: Africa’s striving for freer intracontinental trade and mobility, Latin America’s progression from socialist dictatorships to democratic free markets, Japan’s need to embrace immigration to address its stagnant economy and shrinking demographics, to name a few. The dream of a perfect Tao of globalization would be a balance between globalization and nationalism—both within each nation and globally. A harmony with the gains of international trade and exchange while minimizing the losses that inevitably come as economies and societies evolve. A harmony between celebrating national identity and welcoming the new ideas and people that enrich and enliven local culture.

Are we being overly idealistic? Maybe a little corny? We certainly hope so. In an industry that celebrates successes in terms of each individual or family that crosses an international border to establish a new home—and each company that succeeds in taking its mission to the larger world—we can’t afford not to be idealists. Global mobility professionals are the “spirit guides” of the Tao of globalization.While our role may be slight in the grand scheme of governments, economies, and cultures, it is nevertheless vital—especially to our clients navigating this elusive Tao.

Tao by its very nature is inevitable. Nations will globalize, nations will nationalize, and nations will often find themselves doing both. The yin of globalization and the yang of nationalism will ultimately balance through the shifting global forces. However, our job in the global mobility industry is to do all we can to facilitate and assist our clients and the world in this great search for the global Tao.

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