Think Piece

The End of Globalization? A Historical Perspective

by guest contributor Martin Deuerlein

By Martin Deuerlein

It is in exceptional situations that the contours of a social order become most visible. This observation also applies to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has challenged many assumptions previously taken for granted. It has particularly undermined the expectation, firmly established since the 1990s, that globalization would only continue to intensify as time moves on. For the global proliferation of the virus and the possibility to observe its spread almost in real-time have, on the one hand, clearly demonstrated the close interconnectedness of the world. On the other hand, however, the pandemic led to widespread disruptions in mobility and has exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains. In the case of vital goods such as protective masks, there have even been calls for active disentanglement from the globalized economy. While many observers believe that globalization is undergoing a transformation, shifting its focus from trade in goods to digital services, others construed the disruptions caused by SARS-CoV-2 as the the “last nail in the coffin” of global interconnectedness as we knew it and proclaimed the end of globalization.

In addition to disruptions in global trade and mobility, many analysts were particularly unsettled by the new “force of the national.” After nationalism and the nation-state itself seemed to fade more and more into the background in recent decades, current developments appear to point in the opposite direction: Export controls on medical goods and the closing of borders have made clear to what extend nation-state governments still frame the conditions for the mobility of goods and people. Vaccine procurement follows the mode of national competition even within the EU, which has provoked warnings of a new “vaccine nationalism.” Nationalist groups are strongly involved in protests against state measures, while surveys show that the consequences of globalization are viewed more negatively since the beginning of the pandemic.

But does Covid-19 really herald the end of globalization? This question is, above all, phrased incorrectly, since it is based on an image of globalization as a singular, coherent, and linear process with a relatively clear beginning in the 1990s. In contrast, a historical perspective shows, firstly, that various phases of increasing and decreasing interdependence between economies and societies can be observed as far back as the 19th century. Second, it highlights that “globalization” is an artificial catch-all term that combines various, partly contradictory phenomena. Third, it illustrates how the impression that globalization had just begun in the 1990s shaped a particular interpretation of this process and expectations for the future. When reality did not correspond to these predictions in subsequent years, the end of globalization has been proclaimed on several occasions. Fourth, the continuing importance of nationalism and nation-states appears to be the most significant of these unexpected developments. However, “the nation” and “globalization” are not competing antagonists but rather closely interrelated concepts ‒ a constellation that has been prominently revealed by the Covid-19 crisis.

Against the background of their own globalized present, historians today emphasize that trade relations or migratory movements over great distances, which we today summarize as “globalization”, can be observed long before the 1990s. They include trade along the Silk Road, but also the colonial expansion of Europe since the 16th century; phenomena so diverse that the definition and the beginning of “globalization” continue to be debated. However, such connections did not continuously intensify, but could also diminish or cease: globalization never proceeded in a linear fashion, but in cycles.

This has been particularly evident over the last two centuries: For example, global interaction received a decisive boost around the middle of the 19th century, when industrialization inspired new global networks while, at the same time, anchoring them in Europe. As early as 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed that the “need of a constantly expanding market for its products” chased the bourgeoisie “over the entire surface of the globe.” In the decades before World War I, global trade and migration had increased to such an extent that the years between 1870 and 1914 are now described as the first “golden age” of globalization. The Great War, however, severed many of these links and heralded a new phase of deglobalization that was exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Actively promoted by the institutions of the Bretton Woods system and the GATT, world trade picked up speed again from the 1950s onward. The beginning of our current phase of globalization can then be placed in the 1970s, when the end of fixed exchange rates, technological innovations, and political deregulation led to new forms of “digital financial market capitalism.” In subsequent decades, the rise of the internet or the integration of the People’s Republic of China into the global economy have induced profound changes in the character of “globalization”—a collective term for a myriad of developments that add up to anything but a linear or coherent process.

However, this particular narrative about the history of globalization has only emerged within the last two decades. In the early 1990s, many contemporaries still had a very different impression: for them, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of state socialism had ushered in an age in which goods, capital, and people could move ever more boundlessly. This new era seemed to be characterized by the enormous dynamism of “globalization”—a process that, as contemporaries believed, was still in its infancy. The term spread quickly because it was, on the one hand, precise enough to facilitate a coherent debate about the large-scale changes of the present, but at the same time sufficiently capacious to allow for a wide range of topics and developments, from world trade and financial transactions to migration and everyday culture, to be grasped as components of a larger, overarching process.

As buzzword, however, “globalization” did not neutrally describe such developments, but rather provided interpretations and fueled expectations of a comprehensive development toward ever increasing globality. While it can be construed in many different ways, its 1983 definition by Harvard economist Theodore Levitt is still central to today’s discourse: for him, globalization was the “globalization of markets,” turning the world into a borderless field of activity for global corporations. According to a widely circulated idea of the 1990s, this meant that a “farewell to the nation-state” was imminent. States appeared less and less able to control economic interrelationships and simultaneously on the verge of losing their sovereignty to supranational organizations. They would hardly be missed, as the increasingly “cosmopolitan lifestyle” of people in the West seemed to be undermining national affiliations. According to one influential reading, by the end of the 1990s globalization had become a self-sustaining, almost “natural” process, impossible to control and irresistible in its demand for adaptation.

It did not take long, however, for such predictions to appear unfounded or excessive: The financial crisis of 2007/08 clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of the global financial economy to systemic collapse. Since those years, it has been repeatedly stated that globalization had lost momentum, turned into “slowbalization” and entered into a crisis. At the same time, the bailout of major banks with taxpayers’ money and measures to stimulate the economy made it clear that states still had considerable leverage and that their intervention was central to the stability of the global economy.

Since the 1990s, the social effects of globalization, which were initially expected to be predominantly positive, have also been viewed in a more critical light: While the strongest skepticism had initially come from the political left whose proponents resisted a “neoliberal” interpretation of globalization as deregulation and privatization, right-wing critics of globalization have come into focus in recent years. Since 2015/2016, the rise of populist parties in the wake of the European “migration crisis”, the Brexit-referendum in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States have shocked many observers. Contrary to established expectations, the increase in global interdependence had not led to the gradual disappearance of nationalism, but on the contrary to a “nationalist revival” and to a veritable “revolt against globalization.” In Europe and North America, according to sociologists, this rebellion is being carried out above all by members of the “old middle class” and a non-migrant “new underclass.” These groups feel the negative consequences of globalization particularly strongly, which, among other things, fuels economic fears of job loss and cultural resentment against migration. Their common enemy images therefore include “globalist elites” and an urban, cosmopolitan “new middle class.”

Growing support for nativist, nationalist and protectionist positions in North America and Europe, but also in countries such as India or Russia, the policies of Donald Trump, who has railed against immigration and free trade, as well as the slowing dynamics of economic exchange have led observers to proclaim the death of globalization several times between 2016 and 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, did neither cause nor trigger a sudden break in the dynamics or direction of globalization, but rather reinforced, accelerated, and made clearly visible developments that had already been underway for some time: The dynamic growth that global trade had experienced since the 1990s had already slowed down by the late 2000s. Around that time, the financial crisis not only revealed that reports of the death of the nation-state had been greatly exaggerated, but also that it still performed essential functions for the stability of the global economy.

Nationalism had never really disappeared either: That protesters who reject restrictions on individual freedom or doubt the threat posed by the coronavirus have aligned with right-wing groups has increased the nationalistic menace — but the renewed significance of nationalism and the nation-state do not mean that globalization has come to an end: The “nation” and “globalization” are not antithetical concepts and do not belong to different historical eras. Rather, nation-states emerged in the 19th century in response to growing interdependencies during that period, while globalization today continues to be based on preconditions guaranteed by nation-states.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has initiated profound changes in many areas, it will not lead to the end of globalization. Considering the wide variety of phenomena that are subsumed under this collective term, it can hardly come as a surprise that the end of globalization is proclaimed every time one aspect of the broader constellation changes. Such predictions are usually short-lived: With Trump voted out of office and declining numbers of Covid-cases in many countries, some commentators already predict that globalization will come roaring back and enter into a new “golden age”. In the end, observers usually settle on the observation that globalization is ‒ once again and constantly ‒ changing its character.

Instead of describing these transformations with other highly aggregated terms such as the “digitization of globalization”, the Covid-19 crisis provides a good occasion to scrutinze established assumptions like the image of globalization as a singular, uniform, and linear process. Historians like Jürgen Osterhammel therefore propose to use “globalizations” in the plural. But perhaps it would be even better to disentangle the catch-all term and to look at its various aspects separately. We could then grasp more clearly that on diverse fields as migration, trade in goods, financial markets or tourism, highly different logics and interests are at work. Moreover, globalization is not a “natural” process but the consequence of tangible human decisions. Such a view of globalization is certainly more complex and less suited to enable bold predictions. But it also enables us to argue against positions that want to use “globalization” or “globalists” as universal scapegoats for more complex problems like unemployment or political alienation.


This article was originally published on Geschichte der Gegenwart.
Translated from German by Jonas Knatz.

Martin Deuerlein is a historian based at the Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Germany. In 2020, he published The Age of Interdependence, a historical account of global thought and international politics in the 1970s.

Featured Image: The Unisphere located in Flushing Meadow Park, 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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