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Globalization: A Short History

Author(s):Osterhammel, Jürgen O
Petersson, Niels P.
Reviewer(s):O'Rourke, Kevin H.

Published by EH.NET (May 2006)

J?rgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Petersson, Globalization: A Short History. (Translated from the German by Dona Geyer.) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. xi + 182 pp. $23 (hardcover), ISBN: 0 691 12165 6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kevin H. O’Rourke, Department of Economics, Trinity College Dublin.

This is a short book on a big topic, and as such is sure to appeal to a fairly wide readership. Its aim is to provide a brief introduction to the history of globalization, stretching back into the Middle Ages, in around 150 pages. Given that aim, it seems a shame that the first two chapters are devoted to terminological and methodological issues, but this is a book evidently aimed at social theorists who worry about such things, rather than at economic historians who are content to examine the more tangible dimensions of economic globalization — trade, labor migration and capital flows — one at a time.

Once they get onto the history, the judgment of the authors seems for the most part fairly sound. Thus, they emphasize the important roles played by the Muslim, Mongol and Iberian empires in creating links between different regions of the world, as well as the break-through role of the Industrial Revolution. On one or two occasions, their perspective does seem to be a little Eurocentric. Thus, they characterize the period 1846-80 as an “age of free trade,” although the republics and dominions of the New World were protectionist during this period, and Asia and Africa were free-trading afterwards. They also spend a lot of time on the Bretton Woods institutions in discussing the 1945-1970s period, thus giving the impression of a world increasingly influenced by international institutions, when they might just as well have emphasized the dramatic inward turn of large swathes of the planet associated with communism or the collapse of European empires. Another example comes on p. 117, when the authors state that “economic and political cooperation within a framework of European structures may even have been necessary for the survival of the nation-state model.” European inter-state political cooperation has indeed been a great success, but even a cursory look at the non-European evidence suggests that nation states can indeed survive without such structures. On the other hand, whenever this reviewer started to sharpen his quill in anticipation of highlighting such egregious errors of judgment, he would inevitably find that the text implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the contradictory nature of the evidence a few paragraphs or pages later.

The main flaw of the book, it seems to me, is the fact that its narrative ends some time in the mid-1970s. To most economists this will seem like Hamlet without the prince, for it is only since the 1980s that China, India, and many other developing countries have started embarking on radical reform programs leading to their reinsertion into the international economy after decades of self-imposed isolation. To be fair, this is briefly mentioned in the concluding chapter, but more emphasis on the phenomenon would have been helpful. However, it is probably no harm for economists to have their preconceptions challenged in this way from time to time. To us, the Cold War obviously led to de-globalization, but it probably did also lead to “a new kind of globalization … as people slowly perceive the world as a … community of fate threatened by nuclear annihilation.”

The book is a useful reminder, to those who need reminding, that globalization is not new. I liked the authors’ emphasis that it is a process, not an end-state, and that it is the outcome of a complex range of individual and state decisions, as well as a large random error component. There is little new here for practicing academics, but it might be a useful introduction to the subject for students and non-specialists. A final word of warning, however, especially to my more faint-hearted American colleagues: if you are the sort of person whose blood pressure is likely to rise on reading assertions such as the one on p. 144 that “quite a few trends in … theory that enjoy worldwide popularity are created in Italy or France,” then this book is probably not for you.

Kevin O’Rourke is Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin, a co-organizer of the CEPR Economic History Initiative, a Research Associate at the NBER, and an Editor of the European Review of Economic History. He is the co-author of Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth Century Atlantic Economy (MIT Press, 1999, with Jeffrey G. Williamson), and is currently working on a history of international trade in the very long run (with Ronald Findlay) which will be published in 2007.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII