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Book Review: Globalization Is a Story of Breaking Down and Rebuilding

In this compendium of ten historical and business figures, Jeffrey Garten outlines global development’s push-pull dynamic.

  • Craig Mellow

You can’t make the omelet of globalization without breaking a good many eggs. That’s the implication of From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives, Jeffrey Garten’s new study of the amorphous yet pervasive phenomenon.

Garten, a former managing director at Blackstone Group, dean emeritus of the Yale School of Management and undersecretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton, presents minibiographies of ten outstanding figures who decisively tipped the globalization needle over the past eight centuries. He includes two straightforward TED Talk–esque tech heroes: Intel Corp. co-founding chief executive Andy Grove, who midwifed the age of the silicon microchip, and Cyrus Field, a New York entrepreneur who laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. But most of the book’s subjects made more ambiguous contributions to humanity. Consider Deng Xiaoping, who modernized China and massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square; John D. Rockefeller, who was John D. Rockefeller; Robert Clive, who cemented the dominance of the British East India Co. in the mid–18th century; or, the first of Garten’s great globalizers, Genghis Khan.

The 13th century Mongol conqueror may have butchered every male Tatar who stood higher than a cart axle (“One way of making sure to abolish the existing power structure,” Garten wryly notes). But on the ruins he founded a cosmopolitan court drawing the finest minds of China and Persia. Genghis Khan guaranteed religious freedom and left behind him the Pax Mongolica, a century of peace and prosperity from the Pacific to the Black Sea.

Clive, more warrior than merchant, brought India to heel with a private armed force of 100,000 and set the stage for European dominance of Asia and Africa. But he also transformed London’s colonial administration from an anarchic clan of rent-seekers into a conscientious bureaucracy that spread rule of law across the planet. Prince Henry of Portugal brought the slave trade to West Africa in the 1440s and let his own brother die in Muslim captivity rather than yield his North African bridgehead of Ceuta. He also laid the groundwork for the Age of Exploration, which propelled Columbus half a century later. Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the one financier to make Garten’s globalizing short list, financed all sides in the Napoleonic Wars that rent Europe in the early 19th century. But he and his sons created the first reliable international banking system and bond markets. And so on.

Garten is pro-globalization at heart. But his warts-and-all approach to the subject is what makes his book interesting, and timely. (For an academic and policymaker, he also writes darned well.) A simple paean to our shrinking world would jar at a moment when electorates across the West are virulently questioning most of globalization’s key tenets: freer trade and investment, increasing immigration and cultural blending, erosion of national boundaries and strengthening of supranational institutions. Garten’s nuanced approach appreciates that global integration has its victims, and does so without losing sight of the broad, long-term benefits. His subjects were no angels, but most of us are better off for their achievements, he argues.

Garten is not a historian, and his pre–20th century portraits have a certain cut-and-paste, textbook-plus quality. He hits his stride as he moves into the modern era. His take on Rockefeller is revisionist in a positive sense. The robber baron’s famous pricing conspiracy with the railroads was not the key factor ensuring Standard Oil’s monopoly over a critical industry, Garten says. “Most of his tactics were not illegal or even that unusual in late 19th century America,” he writes.

What was unusual was Rockefeller’s pioneering management, which combined obsessive cost control, a meritocratic corporate hierarchy that cultivated and empowered talented lieutenants, and global ambitions from the get-go. In 1866, with America struggling to reunite after the Civil War and Cyrus Field risking his life at sea to lay telegraph cable, Rockefeller sent his brother William from Cleveland to New York to start an international arm that would soon be selling oil from Liverpool to Yokohama.

Garten also lauds Rockefeller as the founding father of global philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation, launched in 1913, was the first charity “with an explicit mission of helping humanity ‘throughout the world,’” he notes. It has done just that for a century since, funding Green Revolution agronomists in the Philippines and building medical schools in Uganda, among many other good works.

Garten steers us toward the present day with portraits of two European catalysts: Jean Monnet, the French diplomat who laid the groundwork for the European Union in the 1950s, and Margaret Thatcher. The author misses an opportunity by just laying these profiles in succeeding chapters without contrast and comparison. For they illustrate both the undreamed-of achievements and mounting contradictions of globalization since World War II. Whereas Monnet died in 1979, the year Thatcher took over 10 Downing Street, there’s little question that the two would have clashed bitterly had he lived on.

Monnet’s chosen globalization instrument was technocratic international bodies, which could neutralize the national chauvinism that had ruined his Continent through two world wars. “Each man begins the world afresh. Only institutions grow wiser,” Garten quotes him as saying.

One can all but hear Thatcher and her American alter ego, Ronald Reagan, sneering at such sentiment. The barriers the Iron Lady crusaded against were those that kept individuals from reaping the rewards of their labor and talent. She demolished or profoundly altered institutions of many kinds, from Arthur Scargill’s miners’ union to the City of London’s Old Boys’ club. That forced the U.K., and the rest of the West to varying degrees, open to the free economic oxygen that represents another cornerstone of the globalization creed. It also set Thatcher’s Conservative successors on a collision course with Monnet’s ideological descendants in Brussels, one whose culmination is upon us today.

Garten makes little attempt to connect the fascinating dots he has laid out, beyond a cursory epilogue assuring a nervous reader that “the best is yet to come.” He does leave one comforting thought. The world is “no more frightening today than it was in the late 12th and early 13th centuries,” when Genghis Khan launched his great global consolidation. It’s no more frightening today than it was in post–World War II Europe, post–Cultural Revolution China or the U.K. of the late 1970s. Yet each of Garten’s subjects seized those challenging moments and “achieved results that would have seemed impossible when they began.” If only we knew where to go next.