Globalization and the Lessons of History

08/10/2012 04:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2012

As the U.S. economy struggles to recover from the worst recession in 70 years, we face a new, much more challenging world. Economic globalization means that more countries are exporting their goods, generating first-rate research, and attracting investments: besides China, we compete with Brazil, India, South Korea, and Turkey. Although terrorism, elections, and natural disasters dominate headlines, globalization has been the most powerful trend over the last thirty years. Despite the recession, it shows no sign of abating. Dealing with globalization may tempt us to see other countries as simply our competitors -- or worse, as our enemies. If we are to deal with globalization more wisely, the lessons of history are crucial to understand.

Globalization is not completely new. A century ago, the world economy went through a similar dramatic expansion. "For economic purposes all mankind is fast becoming one people," wrote James Bryce in 1903. For the first time, a world wide web of telegraph lines, centered on London, sent news and prices around the globe. The United States became an industrialized country because of millions of immigrants and a mountain of European investment. Tragically, the first era of globalization ended badly -- in two world wars, Communism, fascism, the Great Depression, and the Cold War.

Why? Those who suffered from rapid economic change were often recruits for violent solutions; war could undo decades of economic progress. In short, those who gained from economic globalization became complacent about the need to maintain it and cavalier about the costs it generated. Old industries declining, migration, social problems in rapidly expanding cities -- all of these occur almost inevitably with economic growth. If social policies do not cushion the costs and help people adjust to the changes set off by economic growth, the entire system supporting economic growth can be undermined. At the same time, international peace and cooperation have been crucial to economic globalization. Prosperity in the long run depends on peace. The first era of globalization occurred in the late nineteenth century because Europe experienced the longest period of peace in its history. Only one, brief war -- the Crimean War -- occurred among more than two of the Great Powers. World War One broke out in part because leaders in Germany thought they could use violence to strengthen their country's position in the world economy. Instead, they nearly destroyed the entire world economy, and brought on more war. By the time Europe stabilized again, after a second, more awful war, the world economy was no bigger than it had been 35 years earlier, with a much larger population to feed.

History also teaches us that we can do better. Nothing illustrates that nations can learn from the past as much as the difference between what the United States did in 1919, at the end of the First World War, and what we did in 1945-48, after the Second. In 1919, we turned our back on Europe and its problems. The world economy limped along and eventually collapsed into the Depression, while the unsolved problems of the War led to dictatorships and more war. After 1945, we did better. The United States created a range of international institutions in the late 1940s -- the UN, IMF, World Bank, NATO, the alliance with Japan, and the GATT, the forerunner of today's World Trade Organization. We also helped Europe set up what eventually became the European Union. With all their imperfections, these institutions and the cooperative agreements they support still provide a framework for worldwide economic growth. Because of them, we can travel, send money, buy and sell goods, and communicate among the nations of the world in a way that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

In tough times, it may be tempting to turn our backs on the rest of the world or to think that economic growth, once begun, runs on its own. But we depend on our global economic ties for future growth. By investing in our greatest resource -- people -- and improving our transportation and communications infrastructure, we can compete much more effectively than by tariffs or trade disputes. The history of the last century teaches us that dealing with the inevitable costs of globalization and working to maintain a peaceful world order are essential to all of us. Our generation has an opportunity to make great gains from a return to worldwide economic growth -- but we must distribute the gains more fairly and work to build a cooperative international order. Our competitors are also our customers and our potential partners in a better world.

Carl Strikwerda is president of Elizabethtown College at work on a book: The World at the Crossroads: The Great War and the 21st Century.