Speaking in Washington in April 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that “we will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” Trump’s supporters on the American far right, such as the pseudonymous “Virgil,” who writes for the Breitbart website, similarly attack the “old globalist vision” as a “gospel,” a “new kind of religious faith” of “murky international enterprises” seeking to abolish national borders and undermine democracy.

These views caricature globalism as a liberal, capitalist, and anti-democratic alternative to nationalism. This understanding, however, is far from the historical meaning of the term. Indeed, as I explain in my book The Emergence of Globalism, the idea that globalism is fundamentally at odds with national sovereignty is a false and misleading narrative.

To understand the meaning of globalism today, we need to look back at the emergence of the idea in the 1940s. After World War II, American, British, and émigré intellectuals suggested that the rise of globalism would define the post-war world order. Thinkers such as Raymond Aron, David Mitrany, Owen Lattimore, Nicholas Spykman, Barbara Wootton, Lionel Curtis, Clarence Streit, Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, Charles E. Merriam, Michael Polanyi, Richard McKeon, Jacques Maritain, and Luigi Sturzo were among those who identified increasing interconnectedness throughout the world, including in technological, cultural, and economic terms. Globalism in the post-war period embodied their commitment to find an international political order to fit this newly interconnected world.

This growing international interconnectedness, however, did not signify a blanket rejection of all national political units and communities. What it meant was that polities of all scales—nations, empires, federal unions, non-state communities, and international organizations—were adjusted to fit the reality of new interdependencies.

An oil tanker near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, February 2014.
An oil tanker near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, February 2014. 
Beck Diefenbach / REUTERS

Globalism, in this post-war definition, meant an awareness of the political implications of the interconnected globe. The recognition of the world’s “oneness” did not mean that political or cultural homogeneity was inevitable or desirable. Very few globalists argued for the abolishing of existing states or the banning of patriotic ideologies. Rather, the most influential globalist thinkers measured the desirability of balancing unity and diversity, according to their understanding of how best to create a stable, prosperous, and peaceful world order.

Three core tenets anchored globalism then and continue to do so now.

First, globalists were concerned with the future of democracy. World War II had laid bare the extent to which totalitarianism and authoritarianism represented an existential threat to democracy as an ideal and a political reality. In response, the ideologues of globalism sought to outline regional, federal, and world institutions that could be guided by democratic principles. This was a crucial extension of democratic norms: while domestic democracy was important, it alone could not guarantee liberty or independence. The devastation of the war had proven that, alone, any democratic state could fall. The globalist world order sought to create a democratic safety net to enhance equality, political inclusion, and participation on an international scale.

The second aspect of mid-century globalism was its repudiation of empire. Globalist thinkers proposed alternatives to the declining European imperial order. Some, such as the British ex-official and author Lionel Curtis, sought to reformulate the imperial legacy in new terms and suggested that the British Empire should be rebranded as a global federal commonwealth that would advance the common good of all its citizens. Others, such as the American journalist Clarence Streit, built on the British imperial experience to imagine a global federation of democracies stretched over vast territories around the world, guided by the American democratic ethos. Similarly, for the geopolitician Nicholas J. Spykman, globalism referred to the American strategy of becoming a leading world power that could replace the British imperial system with a new American world order. 

The idea that globalism is fundamentally at odds with national sovereignty is false.

In repudiating empire as it was traditionally defined, globalism became a strategy to reorganize the world after the war’s devastation of Western Europe. New empires, such as the United States and the Soviet Union, gained prominence: these two forces pursued their goals through varied means, each seeking to establish a dominant global presence. Nonetheless, the post-war period gave rise to a widespread globalist consensus that imperial exploitation and discrimination at least ought not to be repeated. Traditionally structured imperial holdings were broken up and eventually achieved independence. The British sociologist Barbara Wootton and the British economist Lionel Robbins saw globalism as part of the battle for colonial liberation and socio-economic progress. The American scholar Owen Lattimore imagined a global order in which China and India would offer a model of post-colonial freedom. In this framework, there was no space for imperial domination.

The third tenet of the post-war globalist approach was a pluralist conception of world order. The globalist gaze on the world identified both interconnectedness and diversity as the constitutive elements of the post-war era. The existing political and moral pluralism prescribed, for these thinkers, a normative commitment; the new globalist must recognize that states, with a variety of values and political structures, could come together in groups and organizations to interact and advance their common political, social, and economic goals. It is true that this commitment has sometimes been ill at ease with the globalists’ commitment to democracy, which has occasionally turned into a conservative defense of Western political and cultural values. The globalists’ challenge was and remains the need to stretch democracy to fit a world scale, recognizing that its key attributes come in various forms. To this end, they sought to outline a broad ideological base for the global order. For example, the post-war globalists suggested a new conception of modernity that would draw not only on science, technology, and rational thought but also on faith, myth, religion, and morality as the unifying elements of a democratic humanity. In the 1940s as well as today, skeptics of globalism have exploited the unsolved challenge of pluralism, arguing that it risked either hypocritically endowing global validity to one’s own values or accepting any values for the sake of global unity.

Hong Kong, June 2012.
Hong Kong, June 2012.
Bobby Yip / REUTERS

This brief history of globalism in the modern era sheds light on fundamental misperceptions of it in the age of Trump. “I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in April 2017. “I’m both.” Even in this rare show of support for “globalism,” Trump presents it as one of two oppositional forces: nationalism vs. globalism. In truth, globalism has long allowed a place for nationalism and national sovereignty while suggesting that some human needs and practices transcended national borders. In the 1940s, champions of globalism attempted to outline a pluralist, democratic world order as an alternative to empire. Today, the concerns of globalists have evolved, but globalism remains linked to core convictions about the importance of political interconnectedness. Globalism challenges the idea that national, regional, or international political decisions can be detached from global implications and causes. Only a political strategy grounded in a global understanding of political relations can effectively advance national interests.

Of course, no president or administration can disentangle the United States from the rest of the world, however committed it is to repudiating the so-called false song of globalism. Recent American foreign policy decisions reflect the reality–albeit inconsistently–that the United States is inextricably part of the existing global order. The aerial bombardment of Syria suggests that Trump may envisage American interests in terms of militant pro-active globalism. And although Trump’s decision to reject the Paris Accord on climate change affirms his commitment to limiting America’s global obligations, the amount of time and energy his administration had to dedicate to doing so also demonstrates the depth of these connections. The president of the United States operates in a political space where no national boundaries can limit the flow of ideas, comments, and reactions.

By presenting globalism as a purported threat to national sovereignty and prosperity, Trump has invited us to reflect on it as a political project. This reflection begins with a historical analysis of the concept’s diverse meanings and uses; the idea of globalism is much more than a political slogan. It is a complex and multifaceted worldview, developed in the wake of widespread devastation, that has defined twentieth-century politics at both the national and international levels.

A close look at the rise of globalism reveals the competing visions that led to the development of globalism as a modern political concept. The mid-century globalist debate sought to balance the tensions between pluralism on the one hand and an appreciation of global interconnectedness on the other. Today, a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of globalism’s past can highlight its potential limits and benefits in debates that remain crucial to peace and prosperity.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now