The overuse of analogies from the past is the bane of reasonable historians, and perhaps no parallels are more clichéd than ones comparing current events to those of the 1930s. The problem with such analogies, of course, is that history does not repeat itself: not every troubling event should bring to mind the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the path to world war.
Yet the quick succession of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency invites comparison to a phenomenon that defined the early 1930s: deglobalization. Hitler aside, the similarities are worth worrying about, since they suggest that when hegemonic states unilaterally scrap their commitments to an open economic order, the consequences extend far beyond their borders, eroding the economic prospects of the world’s poorest countries and global security.
GLOBALIZATION'S FIRST WAVE
The globalizing trends of the last few decades are far from unprecedented. As the economic historian Harold James has noted, an analogous reprocess took place between the 1880s and the early 1930s, boosting international trade, encouraging the development of emerging markets, and cementing the industrializing United States as one of the world’s key economies.
In spite of the era’s more primitive technology, the first age of globalization was in many ways deeper than the current one. Travelers did not need passports, investments were not constrained by borders, and labor moved far more freely than it does today. A considerably higher proportion of workers moved abroad in search of jobs: New York in the north and Buenos Aires in the south were the preferred destinations for those seeking to escape their poor prospects in Asia and western Europe. The British Empire, with its broad legal system and formidable Royal Navy, underpinned this free trade system. And London’s gold standard acted as the monetary linchpin of a truly global financial architecture, much as the gold-convertible U.S. dollar did during the Bretton era.
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