The Emergence of Globalism

by Or Rosenboim

In current political debates, globalist theories are attracting a great deal of interest. The presumably omnipresent processes of ‘globalization’ invite politicians, commentators and pundits to declare themselves in favour or against ‘global’ politics and ‘globalist’ ideologies. Yet taking sides is not always easy. Just over a year ago, the right-wing US website Breitbart denounced the “old globalist vision” as a “gospel”, a “new kind of religious faith” seeking to abolish all states and religions. In April, however, Donald Trump announced that he was in fact both a globalist and a nationalist. Trump was thus able to make a remarkable U-turn on his previous campaign declarations that depicted globalism and nationalism as incompatible antinomies.

Trump’s apparent change of heart flags the lack of clarity surrounding the term ‘globalism’ today. In my book, The Emergence of Globalism, I outline the historical and intellectual foundations of the contemporary global order by exploring how public intellectuals in the 1940s envisaged the post-war world. Mid-century thinkers reflected on the meaning of globalism as a political concept from a wide range of interdisciplinary vantage points, including international relations, philosophy of science, law, geopolitics and economics. There were many competing definitions of globalism, yet all shared the idea that the growing technological interconnectedness of the world required an effective political response that transcended – but did not abolish – the state.

The global world order of today is different from the one in which mid-20th century globalists lived. In the 1940s, a world war devastated the globe, and the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large. The European empires were evidently struggling to survive, while the rise of American power was still a promise rather than a fact. The new technologies of transport and communication, such as the airplane and the telephone, announced a new form of modernity shaped by an ever-growing interconnectedness.

Mid-century thinkers perceived these innovations as world-making novelties, capable of transforming global political, economic and cultural relations. Today, such technologies seem very limited indeed compared with the much higher degree of interconnectedness granted by the Internet, low-cost commercial flights and even the cartographic revolution of Google Earth. Interconnectedness may be an ongoing process, which did not begin or end in the 1940s, but mid-century thinkers highlighted the need to find a distinctly political response to it, which they discussed under the banner of ‘globalism’. 

What, then, are the connections between mid-century globalism and its meaning today?  Are the Trumpists targeting ‘globalism’ in vain, and seeing nefarious forces which are not there? Or has globalism changed into something different since the 1940s? The answers to these questions depend largely on what we mean by the concept. In my book, I discuss three common – through not universal – trends in mid-century globalism.

First, globalism was a response to a declining imperial system. Some, like Nicholas J. Spykman, Lionel Curtis and Clarence Streit, reacted to the collapse of the European empires by imagining a new post-imperial global order that would preserve the dominance of the West or transform the United States into a new world hegemon. Yet other globalists, like Barbara Wootton, Lionel Robbins and Owen Lattimore, criticized such proposals as ideologically reactionary and demanded a more decisive turn away from empire and toward democracy and autonomy. Globalism offered them a multi-layered non-hierarchical principle of world order, based on diverse units: states, federations, regional unions, transnational communities, and international organizations.

The second key element of globalism was democracy. During and after the war, domestic and international threats to democracy loomed large. Mid-century commentators thought domestic democracy was not enough, and demanded a more ambitious, global democratic order guided by equality, inclusion, and participation. The conceptual toolbox of modern global democracy included not only rationality and scientific progress but also morality, myth, and religion.

Finally, mid-century globalism embraced a pluralistic approach. The existing political and moral diversity required, for these globalists, a normative expression. States could not claim sole authority over individuals: other associations, groups, and organizations were important platforms for humans to interact and advance political, social, economic and cultural interests. Pluralism did not mean political and social chaos, but an organised global diversity. The tensions between the embrace of pluralism and the support for democracy, however, led some globalists to champion an exclusionist defense of Western political traditions.

The 1940s globalist discourse suggests that there could be (at least) two strategies for thinking politically about global order: openness and closure. For mid-century thinkers the adequate political response to global interconnectedness was enhanced openness, based on non-hierarchical pluralism and democratic rejection of empire. Globalism did not necessarily mean the end of all wars or the abolition of states (only a few theorised one ‘world state’), but rather the acceptance of an ‘open’ and flexible post-war system constructed in a democratic and inclusive way.

Today, commentators often describe the world as ‘global’, but suggest that the political response should be defined by closure. Thus, they outline a world order which responds to technological and communication interconnectedness by adopting a new politics of aggressive militarism, exclusive nationalism and cultural anti-pluralism. For 1940s globalists, a strategy of political closure could lead to war and strife. It is yet to be seen how the tensions between globalist openness and closure will unfold in the future.

In the book, I suggest that the idea of globalism lost much of its political purchase after the Korean War (1950-1953), and was replaced with the binary mind set of the Cold War.  It was not until the rise of 'globalization' in the 1990s that ‘globalism’ started to regain the attention of politicians and commentators around the world.

We should look at 1940s thinkers to understand both the political implications and the limits of a political vision that aims at pluralism and unity at the same time. The history of global thinking in the twentieth century embodies an ambitious and potentially inspiring attempt to re-order the world, but my book shows that many theorists of globalism also ended up succumbing to universalising monism or to imperial patterns of domination. This historical account thus offers a warning about the contradictions of the globalist approach to politics, which should be remembered by those who invoke ‘globalism’ as a political category to analyse the present. 

The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and The United States, 1939-1950 is out now, published by Princeton University Press.


About the Author

Or Rosenboim

Dr Or Rosenboim is a Research Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and the author of 'The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and The United States, 1939-1950' (Princeton University Press, 2017)