May 11, 2020 - World

How humanity went global

The collision of U.S.-China rivalry with a global pandemic seems to vindicate the argument that globalization has peaked — supply chains will shrink, multilateralism will fade, and human connections across oceans and borders will fray.

The big picture: This narrative holds that globalization took root after World War II, accelerated after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is now under threat as nationalism rises in the West and China rises in the East. But that’s just a sliver of the story.

  • In a forthcoming book, Jeffrey Sachs traces globalization back to the very beginning — some 70,000 years ago.

Sachs demonstrates in "The Ages of Globalization" that since the great dispersal from Africa, humanity has been on an unceasing trajectory toward deeper linkages between more people across greater distances.

  • In the 14th century, it took 16 years for the bubonic plague to spread from China to Italy.
  • "In our time, the pathogen arrived within days by nonstop flight from Wuhan to Rome," Sachs writes.

The talk of "peak globalization" is "mostly noise," Sachs tells Axios.

  • As what Sachs considers the seventh age of globalization (the Digital Age) dawns, "we are intensely interconnected and we are going to remain that way."
  • We may bemoan the dangers of globalization, Sachs argues, but we're unwilling to give up its fruits. Over Zoom, he holds up his morning coffee, harvested in Indonesia.

Sachs believes we are at a "hinge moment" geopolitically, however, as the COVID-19 crisis heralds the end of American global leadership.

  • Sachs traces the global balance of power across millennia in his book, and he finds it unsurprising that China — which was for centuries the most advanced civilization on Earth — is once again a leading power.
  • More worryingly, the book demonstrates that both shifts in power and major technological breakthroughs often lead to war.

Zoom out: Sachs divides human history into seven "ages of globalization."

  • The Paleolithic Age (70,000–10,000 BCE) gives way to the Neolithic Age (10,000–3,000 BCE) with the arrival of agriculture and trade between villages.
  • In the Equestrian Age (3,000–1,000 BCE), the domestication of the horse allows for long-distance overland travel. In the Classical Age (1,000 BCE–1,500 CE), vast empires form and compete.
  • The Ocean Age (1,500–1,800) brings genuinely global conquest and commerce, which accelerates as the Industrial Age (1800–2000) ushers in new technologies and the first truly global powers — the U.K. and then the U.S.

The bottom line: Sachs' unstated argument is that the histories of humanity and of globalization are one and the same.

  • Just as knowledge and culture spread through globalization, so too did slavery and disease.
  • "Globalization has always created risks," Sachs says. "The bad spreads very quickly, along with the good."

What to watch: Globalization allowed COVID-19 to spread to every country on Earth. Now humanity must hope an intense international effort will yield a vaccine, and that it will spread globally too.

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