‘Globalization” used to be a magic word, better at changing the world for good than an expecto patronum, Harry Potter’s most powerful charm. In his 2001 farewell address, President Bill Clinton reassured the world that “the global economy is giving more of our own people, and billions around the world, the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity.” A year later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was even feistier: “What the poor world needs is not less globalization but more. Their injustice is not globalization but being excluded from it.”
The magic fizzled out fast after the 2008 financial crisis. Now Donald Trump concocts a neo-protectionist brew, 15 percent tax for outsourcing jobs, 20 percent tax on imported goods, no more international trade deals, “they are killing American jobs!” And Sen. Bernie Sanders boasts: “I voted against NAFTA, CAFTA and PNTR with China . . . a disaster for the American worker. . . . We have lost millions of decent-paying jobs.” The anti-globalization specter is haunting the world, bridging left and right: French nationalist Marine Le Pen hates “Islamic fundamentalism [and] globalization, which is another kind of totalitarianism,” while British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn harrumphs against “greedy bankers and multinationals.”
Jeffrey E. Garten’s book “From Silk to Silicon” appears when the populist winds seem unstoppable, stirred by economists such as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, French best-selling author Thomas Piketty and Academy Award winner Michael Moore. Garten is aware of how “expanding trade can lead to more economic growth . . . but also how it undermines existing jobs.” Yet his enthusiasm is unabashed, because “the story of globalization is no less than the story of human history.” To prove his point Garten, a former dean at the Yale School of Management, sketches the lives of 10 champions of globalization, from the marauding Genghis Khan in the 12th century to Intel chief executive Andrew Grove, from the Portuguese explorer Prince Henry (born 1394) to Cyrus Field, the heroic financier obsessed with connecting America to Europe by submarine telegraph cables in the 19th century. What links a ferocious Mongol, a Holocaust survivor entrepreneur, a slave-trading prince and a communication pioneer? According to Garten, they are all heroes in “the story of globalization,” a unique process “carried on foot, horse (Genghis Khan), ship (Prince Henry), telegraph (Cyrus Field)” until modern globalization is spurred by Grove’s “information technology.”
The book is filled with brilliant vignettes, describing how trade changed the medieval world, when “the trading cities of Genoa, Baghdad, and Samarkand produced an adventurous merchant class . . . spreading achievements in technology and the arts, from the pottery of Song China to the gold and silver inlaid furniture of Persia.” The entertaining anecdotes are sometimes mixed with fortune-cookie wisdom. Jean Monnet, father of the European Union, starts his career in the family cognac business and maintains that “patience” is a cardinal virtue for diplomats “to which cognac, itself the fruit of time, is a good preparation.” Grove scolds a colleague, overwhelmed by deadlines, growling: “There are no bigger problems. There are just problems.”
The problem with “From Silk to Silicon” is Garten’s assumption that globalization is a synonym for history, not just the tumultuous process preceding the end of the Cold War. Prince Henry’s men, Garten writes, “not only bartered linens for humans. . . . They hunted down men, women, and children . . . and shipped them in inhuman conditions.” Genghis Khan “boiled enemies alive and turned the skulls of his adversaries into silver-coated drinking cups,” while Maj. Gen. Robert Clive, a British soldier of fortune with the East India Company in the 18th century, was accused of “bombing a civilian French camp . . . or firing on French troops who had raised the white flag.” They were characters of ambition and ruthlessness with agendas of raw power, unaware of the lofty ideals and concrete interests of the international movement we call globalization, with its slow consensus-building of political goodwill, never-ending Doha-style trade negotiations, multinationals angling for dubious profits and nongovernmental organizations preaching about rampant inequality. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, poverty rates have fallen 80 percent and global welfare has increased between 128 perent and 145 percent in less than 50 years thanks to globalization, despite the protectionist yells ricocheting in the presidential campaign.
However, in his enthusiasm, Garten seems to equate imperialism and globalization, though the latter never planned to stir massive growth in colonies by brutal exploitation and harsh political power. His list is interesting but random; for example, Alexander the Great and Napoleon, true exporters of culture, laws and traditions, not just troops or commodities, deserved to be in these pages. Garten is right to parade Margaret Thatcher but excludes Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, true-blue champions of globalization with their historic mission to China.
The main argument is stretched at the end of every chapter, when Garten tries to trace a direct family tree from Genghis Khan to the iPhone, sushi and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Monnet’s vision to jump-start a peaceful common market in Europe after World War II is — somewhat comically — compared to exploits of bloodthirsty warriors because, according to Garten, “the essence of globalization is the reduction of borders — precisely what Monnet did . . . what Genghis Khan and Robert Clive did, too, via the creation of empires.” Globalization is indeed the “reduction of borders,” but its logo is, at least until Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, the absence of global war. Free trade increased, without threatening gunboats. This new scenario was made possible only by the absence of a dominant superpower, when growth spurred China, India and Latin America out of centuries of foreign domination and inaugurated the present, uneasy season Moises Naim labels “The End of Power” and Ian Bremmer decries as the leaderless age of G-Zero, orphaned of any G-7, G-8 or G-20 summit, long on photo ops, short on real solutions.
The contradiction catches up with the author by the end of the book, when Garten wryly notes: “When I started out to write this book, my assumption was that the ten people I selected were visionaries. . . . Having delved into their lives more deeply . . . I came to a different conclusion: they did not have grand strategies in mind. . . . Accelerating the interconnectedness of nations was never their motivation; instead, they were propelled by the urge to acquire power, or fortune, or fame.” Indeed so, and this glitch erases any direct link from Genghis Khan to Deng Xiaoping, the last portrait in Garten’s gallery. Transnational adventures are as old as history; Alexander went to India, Caesar to Egypt, Marco Polo to China, but warlords and explorers never meant to enhance welfare and growth abroad.
Globalization and the post-industrial economy destroyed millions of jobs in the developed world, while lifting hundreds of millions of poor from hunger to a decent life in the emerging countries. This was a unique phenomenon, both wonderful and awful, rife with contradictions. Its consequences are still shaping our world, from Trump’s TV tantrums to anarchists’ bonfires in Athens. Garten seems to miss how radical the revolution was and how powerfully it is still influencing what Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, calls “the new normal.”
“From Silk to Silicon” is well written and maintains a brisk pace, though here and there it is marred by platitudes and a few typos in the maps, such as “Portugese Empire” and “Magaret Thatcher’s Wars.” Only Field, the American financier who, against terrible odds, laid the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1858, stands out as a real hero of contemporary globalization. Without underwater cables, “in 1830 a message from London to New York or Bombay took almost as long to reach its destination as it had in the days of Vasco da Gama,” while “thanks to oceanic cable, by the time of Field’s death in 1892, communication between the United States and Europe was just about instantaneous.” Garten can extol, tongue in cheek, the marvel of Queen Victoria celebrating the newly laid cable with a telegram to President James Buchanan, a 99-word text crawling for 16 1/2 hours under the ocean. Think about it when you feel like complaining about slow email.
FROM SILK TO SILICON
The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives
By Jeffrey E. Garten