World history is at least as old as Herodotus and Thucydides, but self-conscious “global history” is a recent development in the academy. More than a hundred books with those words in the title have been published this century, up from a handful in the prior two decades and zero before that. At their best, such studies are able to see past the limits of national histories, exploring the interconnections and flows of people, goods, ideas, and events across time and space. As the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel has put it, they can illuminate “the relationship between general developments and regional variants,” putting familiar stories in a new perspective.

Kiran Klaus Patel’s impressive new book is a good example of this trend: it considers the social welfare policies adopted in the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration not as sui generis but as one expression of a broader global pattern.

How, Patel asks, did global ideas and networks affect American decisions regarding the reconstruction of democracy and capitalism? And how did these American choices then feed back into developments elsewhere? Looking at things this way reveals a great deal about a well-studied period in the past—and might help illuminate the nature of globalization not just then but now.

IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL

Patel traces with unprecedented detail the intense international exchange and “transnational learning and linking” that shaped the Roosevelt administration’s responses to the global crisis of capitalism and democracy in the 1930s. He explored similar themes in his earlier book Soldiers of Labor, revealing startling similarities between the Reich Labor Service in Nazi Germany and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the United States. (The Nazi version was mandatory, harsher, and actively ethnonationalist, yet both emphasized discipline and symbolism, and neither did much to end mass unemployment.) His new book also focuses on policy initiatives the New Deal shared with other governments’ programs, while widening the scope of inquiry, tackling everything from how Washington adapted fascist corporatism and Soviet planning to how it handled land issues, public works, trade, the gold standard, labor policy, immigration, banking, housing, social insurance, and more.

The Roosevelt administration retooled the ideas of authoritarian regimes so as to secure democracy and eventually reintegrate the United States into the global economy

Many global histories study eras of increasing globalization, such as the decades prior to World War I. In this case, by contrast, globalization was in broad retreat by the winter of 1933, when both Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt came into office. Protectionism had sharply reduced trade, capital flows had slowed, and restrictions on the free exchange of information were rife. Still, policy appropriation was on the upswing. The core of Patel’s book tracks how the New Deal adopted what governments elsewhere were doing to confront the Great Depression. Most of these foreign regimes were authoritarian and embraced protectionism and other antiglobalist stances. In borrowing these regimes’ ideas, the Roosevelt administration retooled them so as to secure democracy and eventually reintegrate the United States into the global economy.

U.S. officials, it turns out, were able to observe examples of industrial planning and regulation from countries as varied as Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Iran, Turkey, and Uruguay. The Resettlement Administration—a federal agency that relocated struggling urban and rural families to new communities—followed rural development currents in Romania and Turkey. Electrification had become a central feature of Soviet planning before it was embraced by the United States. Models for the Wagner Act’s chartering of industrial unions existed in Chile, Colombia, France, and Norway. And as the United States debated geopolitics in the mid-1930s, it could borrow neutrality policies from Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal.

Soon after taking office, for example, the Roosevelt administration advanced major banking reforms, which are usually discussed in the context of the specific financial problems U.S. officials confronted at the time. Patel, in contrast, shows how these policy instruments were “part of a global trend to reform banking systems that included state guarantees for depositors in France [and] preemptive measures in Denmark, particularly in the 1930s banking legislation.” The “shift of financial authority away from Wall Street to Washington” was matched by a move “in Berlin from the financial center Unter den Linden to the political heart on Wilhelmstrasse, and in Brazil from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo.”

U.S. officials were able to observe examples of industrial planning and regulation from countries as varied as Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Iran, Turkey, and Uruguay.

“The various political systems . . . observed each other,” Patel notes, and such mutual awareness sometimes led to convergence. Think of how regimes as different as fascist Italy, Bolshevik Russia, and the New Deal United States “resorted to the same architectural vernacular,” as Patel puts it, making buildings from the era instantly recognizable in all those countries even today. Sometimes the borrowing was direct and deliberate. The economist Rexford Tugwell, a crucial member of Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” traveled across Europe in 1934 to gain insight into various countries’ agricultural policies. And the administration officials Louis Brownlow, Charles Merriam, and Luther Gulick were dispatched to Rome in 1935 to observe how Benito Mussolini had reorganized the Italian government and recommend lessons for a similar reshaping of public administration in the United States. Other studies were undertaken at a distance; as late as 1938, Patel writes, Roosevelt “personally ordered a report on the Nazi Arbeitsdienst [Labor Service],” and “soon afterward, the CCC even adopted certain technical and apolitical aspects of the Nazi agency.”

Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell holding a press conference in the early 1930s.
U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION

ONE OF THESE IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS

As they tumble from page after page, these absorbing anecdotes generate larger questions. How does the chronology of the New Deal fit within the chronology of the broader global movement around it? How did policy borrowing relate to other aspects of globalization? And what does it say that vastly different regimes often adopted similar policies? Patel’s book demonstrates that the New Deal “shared more with processes in other parts of the world than is normally recognized.” Just where one goes from there is less clear.

Consider the relationships among global processes, state development, and regime type. During the Roosevelt years, the U.S. government grew just as it opened itself up to policy ideas from various sources and locations. Patel shows how a sovereign, liberal democratic state was transformed, developing the capacity to regulate the economy and society and to project military and economic power abroad. This increasingly capable state, in turn, gained popular support and legitimacy by seeming to address the era’s most important problems successfully, even as it remained a democracy. By differentiating itself from the authoritarianism running rampant elsewhere, in other words, the United States was able to simultaneously respond to a crisis, reinvigorate its liberal regime, and open itself up to the world. Only a few other states (such as Sweden) could claim to have pulled off the same trifecta.

The question is therefore not whether there will be globalization but how much and what kind, carried out through what means and according to what rules.

Patel does not do enough with this important aspect of the story, which is relevant to the contemporary era. He notes that democracies were collapsing across much of the world while communist and fascist regimes were offering fundamentally different models of political organization and that this gave the democratically approved aspect of the New Deal special significance. He stops short, however, of developing this insight or offering a broader intellectual framework to explain it. His book compellingly describes policy adoption without dwelling sufficiently on the politics behind it, which leaves the narrative not only somewhat bloodless but also less fruitful than it could have been.

Patel’s language is often elusive. He talks of “parallels,” “resemblances,” and “convergence.” Policies are “connected,” “less unique than thought,” “anything but original.” Discussing bureaucratic expansion, he notes that “most other countries resorted to a similarly erratic and variable course of action”; explaining housing policy, he points out that “ironically, Nazi Germany used similar instruments to support homeowners.” Similar policies, he says, emerged against “the backdrop of similar economic and social challenges, and their common point of reference: World War I.” But he rarely explores the precise chronology of policy borrowings, nor does he explicitly address the causal mechanisms that led initiatives undertaken in one country to travel to others. As a result, his story, while strong on concurrence, is analytically underspecified, making it hard to figure out just why events played out as they did or draw out practical lessons.

Men of the reichsarbeitsdienst parade before Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally, Nuremberg, 1937.
BUNDESARCHIV

THE PAST AS PROLOGUE?

Writing in 1917 about “new forms of competition, rivalry, and conflict,” the sociologist Robert Park declared that “the railway, the steamship, and the telegraph are rapidly mobilizing the peoples of the earth. The nations are coming out of their isolation, and distances which separated the different races are rapidly giving way before the extension of communication.” Five years earlier, the historian John Franklin Jameson observed how “the nation is ceasing to be the leading form of the world’s structure; organizations transcending national boundaries are becoming more and more numerous and effective,” and he argued that “we are advancing into a new world which will be marked by cosmopolitan thought and sentiment.” Even earlier, in 1891, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, opined that “ideas, commodities even, refuse the bounds of a nation. All are inextricably connected. . . . This is true especially of our modern world with its complex commerce and means of intellectual connection.”

Patel’s book reminds readers that these portraits and projections were too simple and too confident of irreversible trajectories. Globalization, he shows, is a complicated process that plays out in multiple dimensions simultaneously and is affected by agents as well as structures. Although flows of capital, goods, and people had declined by the early 1930s, Roosevelt embraced and advanced the flow of ideas and policies, and eventually helped secure the emergence of a globalized world that would go on to become more interconnected than ever before.

Many depictions of today’s globalization resemble those of Park, Jameson, and Turner. Carrying different labels—“post-Fordist,” “postmodern,” “late capitalist,” “the networked society,” “transnationalist,” “the information age”—they suggest that history runs in one direction and there is no turning back. That need not be the case, however, as the collapse of earlier forms of globalization shows. Some aspects of interconnection are now hard-wired, such as the technological advances that allow people to communicate instantaneously. Other aspects can be blocked or shut down, and one does not have to look hard to see powerful opposition movements growing that may yet send flows of trade and migration into reverse yet again.

The question is therefore not whether there will be globalization but how much and what kind, carried out through what means and according to what rules. Patel teaches that even in times of economic trouble and political backlash, thoughtful leaders willing to look for new ideas, regardless of their provenance, can find fresh ways to drag capitalism and democracy out of their doldrums, perhaps putting the world back on track to collaborate more effectively.

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