A CONVERSATION WITH
Jeffrey E. Garten
FROM SILK TO SILICON:
The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives
Q: Why did you write the book?
A: I have long been fascinated by globalization. Starting from when I was just a few months old, I lived, went to school, and worked in many parts of the world. I gravitated toward international affairs in school, earning my PhD in that subject. And I have previously written four books and published many articles on the subject. My entire professional life has focused on global affairs. Beyond that, I have had a long-time interest in historical biographies: I love books by Barbara Tuchman, Ron Chernow, Robert Caro, and Walter Isaacson, for example. So I felt the time had come to try my hand at what has interested me for so long.
Q: What kind of audience was the book designed to reach?
A: At the outset of the book, I discuss my view that globalization is the most powerful force acting on our world. When you think about it, trade, global financial crises, movement of people across borders, the Internet, terrorism, cybercrime, and of course climate change—these are massive pressures on whole societies. Nevertheless, most people find globalization a hard concept to really understand. So I wanted to make it much easier. In order to do that, I wrote about globalization through the lives and times of people, and I tried to make these individuals come alive in a way that was accurate, engaging and entertaining. After you read a few of these mini historical biographies, you can’t help understanding what globalization is, how it unfolded, and why it is so important.
So, to answer the question: my intended audience has a good general education and some curiosity. But I have to say, as well, my audience is not historians or other academic experts. I used and benefited enormously from their work—as you can see from the nearly 100 pages of footnotes and attributions in the book—and I am most grateful to them for the specialized and in-depth research they did that I tried to assimilate and present in a very accessible form.
Q: What did you hope to achieve with this book?
A: First and foremost, I wanted to tell the stories of people who did something spectacular to unleash the potent forces of globalization. I wanted to explain who they were, what they did, how they did it, and why their accomplishments were so important. Second, I wanted to see whether there was something the ten had in common. And third, I wanted to see how the ten could give us a clearer understanding of globalization now and in the future. I came across a great quote early on that gave me inspiration. It was from Winston Churchill. “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.”
I also wanted to write about globalization in a fresh way. Books about the subject tend to be focused on impersonal trends, like the evolution of trade, for example, or they focus on policy. I don’t think anyone has written the story of globalization from the flesh-and-blood perspective as I have. I had hoped to do for globalization what Robert Heilbroner did for economics when he wrote The Worldly Philosophers, a very widely read book, which gives readers a much clearer look at what economics is all about, why it is so relevant, and how it reaches broadly into all aspects of our society. That’s what I hoped to achieve for the subject of globalization.
Q: What is the central theme?
A: I would say that the central theme is that human beings can achieve fantastic things. They can move very big mountains, even under unimaginably difficult and complex circumstances, and that should give us great optimism when we think of the awesome challenges we face today, whether it be climate change, humanitarian problems, terrorism, financial insecurity, and so forth. In the book, I discuss the historical circumstances surrounding what my protagonists did, and it should become obvious that their challenges were at least as daunting as ours.
For example, Prince Henry was the father of European exploration. He can be credited with opening the age of European exploration: overseeing the building of ships, the recruitment of crews, and the routes to be explored. The voyages he commissioned eventually led to the European discovery of Asia via sea routes, and to the discovery of the Americas. But when he started out, he had few resources: poor maps, primitive navigational tools, and most of all, superstition that monsters lurked in the deep seas and you couldn’t go too far without passing a point from which you would never return.
Another example: Jean Monnet brought together the key six countries in continental Europe to form the basis of the European Common Market. It was the single biggest leap in dissolving sovereign borders in history. Look at what he faced in bringing together countries such as France and Germany that had been fighting one another for over a century! They were exhausted from the war, they were financially decimated, humanitarian conditions were dire, and communism was rearing its head. If anyone would have thought this was the time to negotiate such a far reaching treaty, they would have been branded a lunatic. But he did it.
That’s why my theme is so hopeful.
Q: What does this book have to say about globalization today?
A: The book makes clear that globalization goes way back—at least 60,000 years I say—and that it has been subjected to many, many setbacks. But always it ultimately advances. Today, for example, trade has slowed down, foreign investment has slowed, we are familiar with the problems of immigration, and even global banking is in retreat. At the same time governments are worried about terrorism and cybercrime; many are trying to wall off the Internet in their own countries. Big challenges to universal values are being posed by China, Russia and radical Islam. On the basis of what I have written, covering some eight centuries, my conclusion is that we are in a lull, or a trough, and while it may get worse in this decade, that’s just a temporary setback in the long, inexorable road to wider and deeper globalization.
Another thing this book implies is that as big and complex as globalization is, individuals do make an enormous difference. It is easy to say that today’s issues are simply too difficult to deal with, and that everything is out of control. “Runaway globalization” is an expression I have heard. I deal with this accusation in the book, and hopefully debunk it. But what this book shows is that people can do extraordinary things. And I end the book with a discussion of why that will be even more so in the future.
Q: What did you, yourself, bring to this kind of project?
A: Aside from my background and interests, I have had a lot of hands-on experience in the global arena: four presidential administrations dealing with foreign policy and international economics, a long stint on Wall Street doing international deals, and twenty years at Yale studying, teaching, and writing about globalization. In all these positions, I have dealt with men and women doing some amazing things at high levels. So I feel I had a warm base to work from. Besides that, my biggest strength in my professional life has been the ability to assimilate a lot of information and discern patterns, make connections between seemingly disparate things. In the end, that’s what I brought to FROM SILK TO SILICON. As I said before, I don’t want to represent myself as a trained historian. I read the work of great historians. I digested what they wrote, what they agreed on, what they didn’t, and I filtered this information through my own personal lens so that laymen could understand the people I wrote about, the context for their lives and their achievements, and why it all matters today.
Q: How did you select the characters?
A: I began by reading some tomes on world history, including the Daniel Boorstin books such as The Explorers and The Discoverers. I read some volumes of The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. As I made my way through these books, and others like them, I noted particular people who I felt met certain criteria that were important and especially interesting to me. For example, they had to have done something so significant that they not only changed their world, but the effects of their actions still have powerful resonance for us today. They had to have been influential in inaugurating an Age of something: The Age of Empire, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Global Finance, the Age of Global Communication. They had to be “doers”—that is, they couldn’t just be intellectuals. Further, they couldn’t just have an idea, they had to execute the idea.
I started with the 12th century, because I thought Genghis Khan was a turning point in globalization, maybe the first great age of globalization, and I wanted to end it with the end of the 20th century, because anything later was too recent for real historical perspective. I started with a list of thirteen and ultimately whittled it down to ten in the interest of time and readers’ attention spans. Of course, I am not asserting I have the absolute definitive ten, but I’d like to think all ten are indisputably worthy of meeting my criteria.
Q: What do your characters have in common?
A: First, they are what Isaiah Berlin called “hedgehogs,” meaning they focused on one and only one big thing their entire lives. They had just one obsession, and they pursued that with relentless intensity. For example, Robert Clive wanted to subdue and conquer India for the riches it afforded him and the benefit of the young British Empire. Margaret Thatcher wanted to shrink the power of the state and unleash free market forces. Deng Xiaoping wanted to make China a great nation again after the ravages caused by Mao.
Second, they did not bend the river of history, they accelerated it. By that I mean none of my characters did something that was contrary to what might have been expected of their times. They rode the waves of history. They saw the opportunities. They moved faster than others to seize it. For example, Mayer Amschel Rothschild established a global bank as the world’s need for international financing soared. John D. Rockefeller built the global oil industry as the world was industrializing.
Third, they were accidental globalists. None of these people—maybe with the slight exception of Jean Monnet—were idealists or visionaries. They were roll-up-the-sleeves pragmatists who were trying to solve a problem in front of them. They didn’t think about anything approaching the idea of globalization, of making the world smaller and more interconnected. They were pursuing other aims—personal aggrandizement, glory for their monarch. They were putting one foot in front of the other.
Fourth, they were not saints. No surprise here, but some left significant damage in their wake. Genghis Khan created an empire united by roads and communications links, and based on a surprising amount of tolerance for local religion and local culture, but as we all know he used unimaginable brutality to build that empire in the first place. Margaret Thatcher may have pushed globalization to new heights with her free trade policies, but she also left in her wake decimated communities, income inequality and a lot of human misery. Deng Xiaoping lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but he also presided over the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Q: If you had to pick three accomplishments of the people you wrote about as being the most important, which would you select and why?
A: I think all ten are praiseworthy, but if forced to pick three, I’d say:
- Genghis Khan, who came from nothing to bring East and West under one roof, something that may happen again.
- Cyrus Field and the transatlantic telegraph he built, and its significance for everything that came after—the telephone, radio, TV, the Internet.
- Deng Xiaoping, who came back from banishment, house arrest and other humiliations to reverse the Mao communist revolution and open China to the world.
Q: If you were writing about “game changing” people today, who would you select?
A: I ask myself this question all the time, and all I can say is what Zhou Enlai said when asked about the French revolution: “It’s too soon to tell.” I think that Bill Gates might be a candidate, not for his work at Microsoft but for what he is doing with the Gates Foundation (where his wife also deserves enormous recognition.) Elon Musk may have a chance, although he doesn’t fit the definition of hedgehog, so I wonder if his many activities will ultimately undermine his work. It’s really hard to pick people in real time because it can take decades or centuries for their accomplishments—and the reverberation of those accomplishments—to be understood.
Q: This book is much different than the ones you have written before. Can you explain?
A: I see the others as kind of a warm up. In A COLD PEACE I wrestled with a century of history among America, Japan and Germany. In THE BIG TEN I delved deep into the way emerging market nations would change globalization. In THE MIND OF THE CEO I interviewed fifty of the world’s most prominent business leaders and for the first time wrote about real people. FROM SILK TO SILICON is a combination of all that.