Globalization has transformed our planet, again and again. It touches every part of our lives: the food we eat, the entertainment we enjoy, the ways we communicate, the products we buy. For many of us, it shapes the way we earn a living in an increasingly connected and interdependent world.
The constant flow of people, goods, information, and ideas across national borders – even from one side of the globe to another – is a basic fact of modern life. Globalization makes our lives richer, but it also raises challenges for governments and policymakers.
We tend to think of globalization first as an economic phenomenon tied to world trade, the exchange of goods and services. There’s also cultural globalization: Music, art, films, and TV span the globe. With the internet and satellite communications, information crosses borders instantaneously.
The globalization of trade has been generally positive. It improves efficiency and expands markets, giving consumers more choices and businesses more opportunity. It has raised the standard of living for many poor countries. But the globalized economy unquestionably creates winners and losers. In the United States, manufacturing jobs have been displaced in recent years, while skilled workers have made gains.
Some aspects of globalization are negative. Terrorists strike targets around the world. Criminals transport weapons and drugs from one country to another. Cyber criminals target businesses and organizations wherever they are vulnerable. Viruses spread worldwide.
Nuclear proliferation is probably the most threatening manifestation of globalization. Despite efforts to curb it, nine countries now possess nuclear weapons, including Pakistan and North Korea. The U.S. and its allies worry that Iran could join the nuclear club. The possibility that these devastating weapons could be used, intentionally or by accident, is terrifying, even if we rarely discuss it.
Perhaps surprisingly, the term globalization didn’t come into general usage until the 1980s, but the phenomenon goes back centuries, often driven by breakthroughs in technology. Some scholars trace the rise of globalization to the so-called Age of Discovery, when advances in ship design enabled European adventurers to circle the globe and explore the Americas. In the 1800s, railroads, steamships and factories facilitated trade, and the telegraph connected distant regions.
With globalization came global conflict. After World War II, the United States took the lead in building a world order to promote peace and prosperity. Nations joined together to resolve disputes under the banner of free trade and the rule of law. The institutions we helped create – the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund – are hallmarks of globalization.
Globalization seemed to gain favor in the 1990s and early 2000s, when Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the tech boom supercharged the economy. There was bipartisan sentiment that global trade and other aspects of globalization were beneficial. Thomas Friedman’s bestseller “The World Is Flat” celebrated the leveling of the economic playing field and the growing worldwide influence of technology and entrepreneurship.
Attitudes toward globalization can fluctuate, however. President Donald Trump proclaimed, “America first,” feuded with allies, rejected trade deals, and imposed tariffs. But Joe Biden, on his first international trip as president, met with G-7 leaders and declared “the United States is back” as a global partner.
In the long run, the forces that draw the world together may be stronger than the ones that drive us apart. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that a virus that starts in one country will quickly spread to others, and it will take international cooperation to stop it. Threats like climate change, nuclear proliferation and the plight of refugees can’t be solved by nations acting alone. Globalization will continue to advance, and the challenge is to adapt and make it work better for everyone.
By Lee H. Hamilton