Globalization is in some ways a new idea. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “globalize” made its first appearance in print in 1944; “globalization” followed seven years later. The concept as we understand it was introduced in a 1983 Harvard Business Review article by Theodore Levitt, who defined the term and went on to explain how he saw the world changing. “Gone are accustomed differences in national or regional preferences,” he wrote.
Many see globalization as a product of the technological changes of the 20th century. Rapid advancement in transportation and communication led to booming global business, which in turn has allowed culture and ideas to travel the world as well. Exemplified by the essentially stateless global corporation, it is powerful, far-reaching, and perhaps a little frightening. On the eve of the financial crisis, the Economist devoted an issue to multinationals, celebrating them and imploring readers that rather than fear multinationals, “people would be wise to do all they can to make them feel at home in their country.”
But not everyone puts globalization into such a small box. Understood more broadly as the growth of connections that open one region of the world to another, the process can be traced back much further. Adam Smith wrote that 1492 and 1498, the years of the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, were the two most important dates in human history because they opened up the rest of the world to European powers.
Jeffrey Garten, Yale SOM’s dean emeritus, pushes the date back even farther. In his new book, From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization through Ten Extraordinary Lives, he begins in 1162, the year that Genghis Khan, who created the largest empire in the world before the British Empire, is believed to have been born. In contrast to most historians of globalization, Garten looks at the phenomenon through the lens of individuals, rather than huge historical forces; he begins with Khan and ends with Deng Xiaoping, whom Garten credits with relaunching China as a world economic power.
While Garten is fascinated by the role of individuals, he doesn’t claim that the 10 figures he profiles are essential to the rise of globalization. Rather, he says, all lived in revolutionary times—characterized by political, technological, intellectual, or social changes—that were ripe for people to have an impact.
“In the end, they didn’t bend history; they accelerated it,” he said. “And for one reason or another, these particular people got there first. They might have been smarter; they might have been quicker; they might have been luckier. They did make a difference. But I think that it’s very likely that the historical circumstances which gave them the opportunity would have sooner or later given others the opportunity, too.”
Garten’s main characters—they also include Margaret Thatcher, banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild, and Cyrus Field, who helped build the first transatlantic telegraph—didn’t cause globalization, but they undoubtedly shaped it.
“Each of them did something really amazing,” he said. “Each of them transformed their world in such a way we’re still living with the impact.”
Photo: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speaks at a summit of the European Economic Community in London, June 1984. Bettmann/Getty Images.