The New York Times
The Rise of Globalization, a Story of Human Desires
—William Grimes

Globalization has a bad image problem. It is a conceptual tar baby to which every perceived ill in the world attaches: depressed commodity prices, Asian sweat shops, child labor, fast-food imperialism, American cultural hegemony, outsourcing and global warming. A low point for the world's most unstoppable trend came on Sept. 10, 2003, when Lee Kyung-hae, a distraught Korean farmer protesting at the World Trade Organization summit in Cancún, Mexico, plunged a knife into his own heart after shouting "Death to W.T.O."

In "Bound Together" Nayan Chanda, the director of publications for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, offers an alternative description of the term. Rather than a synonym for late capitalism, he argues, globalization is an expression of human desires that date back to the dawn of time, when the first humans left their African homeland and set out in search of a better life.

Globalization, as Mr. Chanda describes it, is not a scheme dreamed up by a few Western finance ministers, corrupt industrialists and the International Monetary Fund. It is an age-old drive as natural as breathing: "Essentially, the basic motivations that propelled humans to connect with others - the urge to profit by trading, the drive to spread religious belief, the desire to exploit new lands and the ambition to dominate others by armed might - all had been assembled by 6000 B.C.E. to start the process we now call globalization."

Mr. Chanda, who in his varied career covered the Vietnam War as a reporter and edited The Far Eastern Economic Review, takes a sweeping view of his subject, covering millenniums of global exploration, conquest, trade and communication in lively fashion, drawing connections between the ancient caravan traders and FedEx, or the ancient trade in obsidian and his own adventure ordering an iPod over the Internet.

Globalization, perceived by its critics as a radical break with the past, looks to Mr. Chanda like a very familiar phenomenon. The traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors who acted as agents of globalization in ages past now wear different clothes and have access to new technologies. The Spanish missionaries of the 16th century find their modern counterparts in idealists spreading a secular gospel of social justice, like Amnesty International, or aid workers bringing relief to third-world countries.

But the game remains the same, as Mr. Chanda constantly points out with telling examples, like the counterfeit Greek wines made by Italians thousands of years ago and exported to India in authentic Greek amphorae, much as Chinese factories turn out knock-off Rolexes today.

Mr. Chanda does not analyze; he describes. His book is a recitation of events, a refresher course in the long march from early agrarian societies to the 21st-century world of telecommunications, silicon chips, international trade agreements and simmering discontent with the poorly understood phenomenon of globalization, whose main outlines, Mr. Chanda seeks to show, should be instantly recognizable to anyone with a basic understanding of history. We are living through a new chapter in a very old story.

Mr. Chanda has a lively mind, and he writes with a bright pen, but his descriptive approach has its drawbacks. Most of his historical journey takes the reader over very familiar terrain. For long stretches the scenery out the window looks pleasant enough, but the passenger occasionally wonders, where is this heading?

Often, nowhere in particular. A long discussion of plagues throughout the ages supports the contention that disease knows no borders. The discovery of the concept of zero as a numeral immensely aided international trade and exploration. Mr. Chanda does not mind belaboring the obvious. His book, in a sense, is an extended exercise in proving a thesis that no one has ever doubted: the world is a small place, and it is getting smaller every day.

The long view, enlivened by savory details and the author's sharp eye for unexpected historical parallels, gives "Bound Together" its value. By unbundling the attributes of modern globalization and linking them to an almost endless chain of historical precedents, Mr. Chanda demystifies a phenomenon invested by its enemies with nearly satanic properties.

"Globalization is not a morality play on a world scale," he writes. Rather, he insists, "it is a never-ending saga in which the striving for a better life and greater security by millions of individuals manifests itself in the search for profit, for a livelihood, for knowledge, for inner peace, for protection for oneself, one's dear ones and one's community."

There have been losers and winners along the way. Mr. Chanda carefully weighs the costs as well as the gains of globalization, coming down with a certain optimism, as well as fatalism, on globalism's side. (He is scathing about the enormous subsidies doled out by developed countries to their farmers.) The plight of Lee Kyung-hae, a rice farmer impoverished when protectionist barriers dropped, is balanced by the new opportunities for poor rice growers in Thailand and Vietnam. Traveling through the Mekong Delta in 2005, Mr. Chanda saw new homes, television antennas and bustling markets.

"Farmers now can afford to send their children to school and enjoy a living that would have been unimaginable a few years ago," he writes.

In any case, globalization is here to stay. It coincides with deep human aspirations and transcends the power of individual governments. Mr. Chanda has a word of advice to the protesters who gather at economic summit meetings. They are missing something important.

"Calls to shut down globalization are pointless," he writes, "because nobody is in charge."

—William Grimes of The New York Times.

<< Back