Forget about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. The globalized world has been shaped by some larger-than-life people who are all but forgotten in modern times.
Jeffrey E. Garten’s new book, From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives, pinpoints the 10 key people who changed the world and ushered in new eras of globalization, starting with a nuanced look at Genghis Khan and hopping to characters including a British prime minister and a Portuguese prince.
Garten is dean emeritus at the Yale School of Management, where he teaches courses on the global economy and crisis management. He previously worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton, and had an earlier career on Wall Street at Lehman Brothers and the Blackstone Group.
Garten recently appeared on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. He described how he chose the characters for his profiles and discussed the goods and ills of globalization.
An edited transcript of his conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: The term “globalization” has become far more common in our language in the last 30 to 40 years. But it’s not just a term for the modern era — it has quite a history going back many centuries. To understand the power of the word in today’s conversation, we need to look back at how globalization has played a key role in shaping our society over the years. You have a unique historical viewpoint on a lot of things in life, correct?
Jeffrey E. Garten: Correct. I think that it is very useful to have a historical context for talking about today or for talking about the future. It gives our understanding more texture and grounding in reality.
Knowledge at Wharton: The term globalization has really taken on a life of its own in the last 30 years or so.
Garten: Yes. When I look back, the early 1970s stands out in my mind due to the OPEC oil embargo. An awful lot of people became conscious that we were living in a smaller, more interconnected world. After that embargo, there were more and more events that really drove that point home.
“The history of the human race is pretty much synonymous with the history of globalization.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What is it today that encourages companies to look to expand their operations and reach across the globe? What is it that has spurred on a lot of these companies to take this viewpoint?
Garten: Looking at the last 30 years or so, all kinds of barriers between sovereign countries have really dissolved. Trade barriers have declined. World tariff rates are very, very low. Other kinds of trade obstacles, regulations and quotas are down more than they had been in many, many years.
It wasn’t so long ago that most countries did not allow their currencies to circulate globally, but that is a thing of the past. In a way, we are dealing with a global market with fewer and fewer barriers.
If you are an American company asking, “Where’s the market?” you’d have to conclude that maybe 80% to 90% is outside of the country. That naturally leads to strategies that force companies to expand to all the corners of the world.
Knowledge at Wharton: Your book profiles 10 individuals who had a great impact on globalization in their own ways. It is interesting that you go all the way back to look at Genghis Khan and take a global perspective on his empire building.
Garten: Here is what I tried to do. I started by thinking about the global setting in which we live and how our world is getting smaller. I wanted to give it a really fresh context. So I looked at globalization from pretty much when it started. I concluded that it was about 60,000 years ago when some families in Africa basically stood up and walked out. They were looking for more food and a more secure situation. I concluded that the history of the human race is pretty much synonymous with the history of globalization.
But I had to start somewhere and I couldn’t go all the way back, so I decided to start with Genghis Khan, who lived in the 13th century. While we all know of Genghis Khan for his brutality, I wanted to show that this guy basically brought all the world – from the Pacific Ocean to what we used to call Eastern Europe – under one political roof. After the brutal conquering, he set up communication systems and transportation systems, and he figured out a way to administer all these different cultures. In many ways, this was the first age of globalization that we can relate to. This is when globalization started in some kind of sophisticated way.
Believe it or not, in the time of his sons, you could travel from what is now Korea all the way to Hungary. There were “Silk Roads,” there were passports, there were places to stay and there were places to change your horses. Of course, it wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now, but it was pretty advanced.
“We are rightfully astounded at what the Internet has been able to do, but in fact, the Internet was a far less dramatic advance [than the telegraph].”
Knowledge at Wharton: Starting with Genghis Khan and going through the other people in your book, you include John D. Rockefeller, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, among others. What is the common ground amongst all of them? What makes them the perfect people to bring into this book?
Garten: I focused on people who met a few criteria. First of all, I wanted to identify people over the last 1,000 years or so who did something spectacular to make the world smaller and more interconnected, which ultimately changed the world they lived in. It had to be such a powerful change that we are still living with that change today. That criteria looked at the magnitude of what they did.
The second criteria is that they couldn’t be just thinkers; they had to actually roll up their sleeves and execute their ideas. That narrowed the field considerably. Over the ages there have been some really smart people who had some ideas that were very futuristic, but I only picked those people who actually turned those ideas into reality.
The third criteria required that the people be early pioneers so that I could legitimately say that they inaugurated a new age. Among my characters, there was a new age of empire, a new age of exploration, a new age of colonization, a new age of global finance, etc. I basically had 10 ages showing that these people started a trend that had an enormous amount of game-changing momentum.
Knowledge at Wharton: Which one or two people were the most entertaining and enthralling for you as you were writing this book?
Garten: One of them is Prince Henry the Navigator. He was a Portuguese prince in the 15th century. He basically put together ships, crews and brought together all of the latest nautical technology in the world and then forced Portuguese explorers to go down the coast of Africa. They discovered India and China. Those very same ships also discovered the New World. This was fascinating because it really was the dark ages. For somebody to have the wherewithal to think about seaborne exploration in this way was amazing.
The second guy is someone named Cyrus Field. Cyrus Field was an American businessman who had no knowledge of technology whatsoever. And yet he built the transatlantic telegraph. To demonstrate how dramatic it was, imagine this: Back in the 1850s, news traveled from Europe to the U.S. no faster than it had 3,000 years before. It was basically dependent on the winds. But in one minute, when that telegraph was connected, we had real-time communications across the oceans. Within a couple of years, the entire world was wired. This is a very interesting story because it is a story of failure after failure after failure, and then finally a success.
This technological advancement also makes us think about the Internet today. We are rightfully astounded at what the Internet has been able to do, but in fact, the Internet was a far less dramatic advance because it came on top of the radio, telephone and TV. We could already watch wars in other countries in real-time. But when the transatlantic telegraph was connected, that was a discontinuity of proportions that I don’t think we can get our heads around.
Knowledge at Wharton: Let’s talk about Robert Clive. His impact on the British Empire is staggering.
“The Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller University … were global organizations and run like businesses, not charities. This was really the beginning of global philanthropy.”
Garten: At the age of 17, Robert Clive went to India as a clerk. Within 15 years, he was the head of what was called the East India Company, which was a big British company in India that had its own army. As the head of the company and the head of the army, he conquered India for the British Empire. This was a major development because the British Empire was a force of massive globalization. You may remember the expression, “The sun never set on the British Empire.” This was the first really big step. This guy with no connections in England, with no money, basically rose in Calcutta and oversaw this company. My story explains how he conquered one part of India after another and how this put the British on the road to become the greatest global power until the U.S. came along.
Knowledge at Wharton: The British were the foremost power in the world for quite some time.
Garten: They basically introduced markets around the world, the rule of law, and the kind of government that we considered to be representative….
Knowledge at Wharton: Was it basically between World War I and World War II that the shift to the U.S. started to happen?
Garten: Yes, after World War I, Britain had kind of exhausted their resources. By World War II, the U.S. really had to take over for them.
Knowledge at Wharton: John D. Rockefeller is interesting. A lot of Americans will know the name. But the fact is, he was a game changer on two fronts – energy and philanthropy.
Garten: That was the really big surprise. He retired at a fairly young age with extraordinary wealth, having created the global oil industry. Then he proceeded to build the Rockefeller Foundation and Rockefeller University. From the beginning, they were global organizations and run like businesses, not charities. This was really the beginning of global philanthropy. Both of those institutions are still around today. They are extremely vibrant and very much at the forefront of this whole industry of global philanthropy, which is key to globalization, both today and in the future.
Knowledge at Wharton: Margaret Thatcher had an enormous an impact not only on her territory, but also all across Europe. Her fingerprints were on the whole globe.
Garten: I think so. I think this may be the most controversial selection because Thatcher was such a controversial character. But since the Russian Revolution, most of the world was moving in a socialist direction and that was accelerated by the Depression. Ultimately, governments became much, much bigger within economies. It was Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and 1980s who basically reversed that tide and put the world on a free market track. She set such a powerful example, that her example spread to other parts of Europe. While I can’t prove a direct causal relation, at this time China began to open up to the world and de-regulate.
What makes Thatcher so significant is that those forces that she unleashed and encouraged are at the heart of all of our controversial issues today. In opening up markets, she created a lot of prosperity but she also created wide inequality. Looking at our U.S. election today, you can see the passion surrounding different aspects of globalization. What has trade done to us? All of that really stems from the decisions that Margaret Thatcher made. Ultimately, globalization is not necessarily an alloyed, good thing. It is just the most powerful force acting on us, and we’ve got to deal with it.
Knowledge at Wharton: I find Andrew Grove [who died March 21 at 79] very interesting. We’re in a digital age and everything we do is connected, but not a lot of people will know the name Andrew Grove. He is really at the base of this entire Internet revolution.
Garten: Yes, that’s my contention. More than Bill Gates and more than Steve Jobs. However, I ended my book at the end of the 20th century, which eliminated the major work that Steve Jobs did. But Andrew Grove figured out how to manufacture the microprocessor in mass global amounts. That microprocessor is in everything that is part of the modern industrial revolution that we are now going through. Microprocessors are in your cell phones, autonomous cars, 3D printers, etc. And it was Grove who figured out a manufacturing method that basically allowed these microprocessors to be manufactured everywhere.
He also had one of the most dramatic biographies of anyone, having escaped the Nazis and then escaped the Soviets. Anyone who finds immigration controversial ought to look at a guy like Andrew Grove, who came over at the age of 20, not speaking English, and basically changed our country.