The defining epithet of the Age of Trump is “globalist.” This is the all-purpose term of abuse that the president and his most fervent supporters hurl at anyone who dissents from their populist agenda. During last year’s campaign, Donald Trump tweeted that the choice was “between Americanism” and Hillary Clinton’s “corrupt globalism.” His former strategist Steve Bannon, who thinks that “the globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” was said to call economic advisor Gary Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, “Globalist Gary.” An National Security Council aide was fired by national security advisor H.R. McMaster after circulating a memo claiming that Trump is threatened by an unholy coalition of “globalists” along with “‘deep state’s actors,” “bankers,” “Islamists,” and “establishment Republicans.” (It would be fun to imagine a meeting of all these Trump enemies.)
It’s about time that someone spoke up for “globalism,” a term that is only insulting if you don’t ponder the alternatives. Sure, globalism has its downsides. But what, one wonders, is the opposite of globalism? Provincialism? Tribalism? Nationalism? None is appealing.
Provincialism, the dictionary tells us, is “the way of life or mode of thought characteristic of the regions outside the capital city of a country, especially when regarded as unsophisticated or narrow-minded.” That’s a pretty good description of Trump and his followers but presumably not one that they would embrace — no doubt they see this definition as emblematic of the disdain in which they are held by cosmopolitan elites.
Tribalism? That’s what gave us the genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and what is today responsible for the slaughter in Syria and Yemen and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar. It is even leading to violence in Spain, where the national police cracked heads to stop a Catalan independence referendum. And, as Andrew Sullivan notes in a brilliant essay for New York magazine, tribalism is poisoning the political climate in America.
Nationalism? That’s the ideology championed in the past by German and Japanese militarists and today by dictators in, among other places, Moscow, Beijing, Caracas, Harare, Ankara, and Pyongyang. A diluted form of nationalism can be benign, but the 200-proof variety has been responsible for at least as many atrocities as tribalism, an ideology from which it is often indistinguishable.
What horrors, by contrast, has globalism given us? If you listen to the ravings of Trump’s crazier backers, you might imagine that the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission have unleashed hordes of stormtroopers in black helicopters to squelch our liberties, while George Soros, the Rothschilds, and other “international bankers,” who just happen to be Jewish, are ravaging our economy. There is a long tradition of such conspiracy-mongering on the far-right fringe, dating back to 19th-century paranoia about the Freemasons, the Catholic Church, the queen of England, and — a consistent theme — Jewish bankers. (Sadly, anti-Semitism never goes out of style.)
Needless to say, these conspiracy theories are nuts. I’ve worked at the Council on Foreign Relations for 15 years and have yet to see a single black helicopter landing on the rooftop. I’ve never even witnessed a discussion of how to destroy American sovereignty. People who believe such things are likely also to believe that aliens are communicating with them through their tooth fillings. Reasoning with them is impossible. But there are also milder forms of anti-globalist prejudice, and for those who hold such views, it is worth pointing out how benign the actual record of globalization has been.
In centuries past, it is true, globalization was often achieved at sword’s point or gunpoint: empires such as those of the Mongols, Ottomans, Spanish, British, and French brought disparate peoples and cultures into close contact by spreading their own imperial rule. But since the 19th century, the dominant means of globalization has been free trade and free migration — the voluntary movement of goods and peoples.
There was a great wave of globalization prior to 1914 when millions of people emigrated from the Old World to the New, and goods and investments flowed across the globe. By one estimate, foreign assets in 1914 accounted for a greater percentage of world GDP than at any point until 1985. The result was a vast improvement in the lifestyle enjoyed by ordinary men and women in the Western world. Sounding very much like a forerunner of Jeff Bezos, John Maynard Keynes wrote that in 1914, “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole Earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep.”
This was also the era when the ancestors of many of today’s Americans — including Donald Trump and Steve Bannon — arrived on our shores: Trump’s family came from Germany and Bannon’s from Ireland. In those days, borders were so porous that no passports, visas, or background checks were required. If borders had been as tightly policed then as they are today, the “wretched refuse” of Europe would never have washed up on our “teeming shore,” and we would not be the nation that we are today.
The heyday of globalism looks all the better compared to what came next. World War I, followed by the isolationism, protectionism, and illiberalism of the interwar period, destroyed that fin de siècle golden age and ushered in a world of unimaginable horrors. Only after the deaths of more than 100 million people (the combined death tolls of two world wars) did a new age of globalism grow out of the rubble. The United States took the lead in bringing this about by creating institutions such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organization) to reduce trade barriers and institutions such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to keep the collective peace. With American encouragement, Europeans decided for a change to cooperate rather than to fight, leading to the creation, successively, of the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community, and then, in 1993, the European Union. Major Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China more jealously guarded their sovereignty, but they also integrated into the world economy rather than pursue autarchic policies as they had in the past.
The result of these trends has been an unprecedented decrease in wars and an increase in wealth creation. Steven Pinker of Harvard and Joshua Goldstein of American University report that between 1950 and 2011, the global death rate from wars fell from 22 per 100,000 people to 0.3, before rising to 1.4 in 2014 as a result of the Syrian civil war, the spread of the Islamic State, and other conflicts. But even that elevated rate is far below what humanity has had to endure throughout most of its bloody history prior to the post-1945 era, when wars of aggression have been checked by international law backed up by Western military might.
Meanwhile, Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina of Oxford calculate that the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty has declined from 84 percent in 1820 to 16 percent in 2010 — and it’s still falling. (They estimated it would have fallen below 10 percent by 2015.) This isn’t all or even mainly the doing of globalization — technological developments such as the Industrial Revolution and the Green Revolution deserve the lion’s share of the credit — but globalization has played an important role in spreading innovations to those who need them. The world would be even richer today were it not for the dark period between 1914 and 1945 when globalization went into reverse.
Granted, globalism can have negative side effects — it can be exploited by terrorists and criminals, and it can be disruptive to traditional communities, whether villages in Africa or industrial towns in Appalachia. It is legitimate to create social welfare and education programs to ameliorate the impact of these changes on workers who risk being left behind.
But globalism is not a nefarious plot to destroy sovereignty, as Trumpkins seem to imagine. University of London professor Or Rosenboim, who has written a book on the subject, notes that “globalism has long allowed a place for nationalism and national sovereignty while suggesting that some human needs and practices transcended national borders.” Transnational issues include the promotion of trade and the battle against human-rights violations, disease, poverty, terrorism, and criminal cartels. That there is more international cooperation than there used to be in all these areas is not, as Trump imagines, a plot against America but rather a plot by America to enhance its own well-being — and that of its allies and trade partners.
While globalism can be disruptive and difficult to deal with in the short term — it destroys some jobs and creates others — its long-run effects are hugely beneficial. The foremost threat we face today is that globalism may once again go into reverse as it did in 1914, because the United States — for so many decades its foremost champion — may now, under Trump, become a hindrance rather than a help to transnational trade and cooperation.