A History Of Globalization

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”

So proclaimed Donald Trump in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President. Both Trump’s triumph in November’s election and the earlier Brexit vote marked victories for right-wing movements explicitly targeting globalism and its adherents. Globalization’s discontents, to crib a title from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, carried 2016.

Despite its common usage, globalization is a slippery term. The Harvard economist Michael Weinstein roughly defined it as “a process - an evolution of closer economic integration by way of increased trade, foreign investment, and immigration.” This is as close to a consensus understanding of the term as exists; past this, the implications and meaning are up for debate.


In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman defined it as a historic era that followed the Cold War, a “new, very greased, interconnected system,” and an unstoppable force that would bring about peace through the proliferation of western consumer culture—his much- (and justifiably) pilloried “Golden Arches Theory” that finds the positive side of globalization in a McDonald’s on every corner from New York to Bangkok or in a superficial conversation with a cab driver in Kuala Lumpur or Islamabad.

Globalization is something today that sits awkwardly within our current politics. Trump, in many ways, represents a right-wing critique, acknowledging its negative effects if not offering much in the way of solutions beyond vague promises to keep the factories here.


Many other Republicans, though, have consistently expressed support for free-trade deals like the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to revisit NAFTA, but quickly reversed that position and spent the waning months of his presidency campaigning for TPP against members of his own party. In short, globalization doesn’t fit neatly into left/right, establishment/populist, Dem/GOP categories.

This is true everywhere, not just in the United States. Globalization and its consequences are some of the major driving themes within politics in Europe as well, from immigration to manufacturing to trade to culture and beyond.

“Globalization” is not a single, agreed-upon concept, and recognizing this goes a long way towards explaining the wide range of responses. There are debates not only about whether trade, migration, international environmental and labor regulations, and transnational structures of governance and justice should exist, but also about how they should work.

Simplistically dividing people into pro- and anti-globalization camps misses these complexities. Lumping together right-wing, anti-immigration nationalist like Geert Wilders and participants in the Global Justice movement is convenient rhetoric for the U.S. political center, which has largely embraced Friedmanesque globalization, but it’s neither an accurate nor a helpful designation.


Now, more than ever, we need to have an honest conversation about the nature of our connections into wider networks of movement and exchange and our vision for the future.

In these episodes of “History Matters,” historians Keith Pluymers and Patrick Wyman take on globalization both as a historical phenomenon, and as an analytic lens to investigate the past. We believe that history can open the door to a better discussion about connection and integration, but only if historians critically assess our own methods as well. In these episodes we’ll talk about how globalization has influenced historians’ topics an questions, and when we might say globalization began. We’ll also discuss the benefits and limitations of these approaches.


Today we tend to bind globalization up with capitalism and liberalism (small “L,” in the sense of democratic forms of governance, secure individual property rights and personal liberties, the rule-of-law, and reliability of contracts). Thinking about the past shows that we can have global flows with different forms of economic and political organization.

Historians studying those flows showed us how to think beyond borders, and to see how networks of movement and exchange shaped individual lives, politics, and the environment. At the same time, we cannot forget that many people and places were disconnected from or only loosely linked to these worlds. For others, like African peoples sold into the transatlantic slave trade, integration into these networks was brutal and destructive.


Many factors are forcing people around the world to think about globalization. We hope that those conversations will recognize that we can define what it means, not simply choose to support or oppose it.

If that sounds interesting, give us a listen.


You can also listen on iTunes and Stitcher.