Jul 11

A Rose By Any Other Name: The Future of Globalization in the Age of Complexity

globalizationThe term “globalization” has gained a bad reputation in recent years. However, as Juliet said to Romeo. “tis but thy name that is my enemy.” If we better understood the “what” and the “why” of globalization, we too might find that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, the term globalization has come to mean some scary things at the beginning of the 21st century, but at its core it’s actually a characteristic of a natural progression in human development.

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Globalization in the Age of Trump,” management and strategy professor Pankaj Ghemawat laid out a convincing case for responding to the cries of “protectionism” by being cautiously skeptical of globalization’s present reach and by adapting to local needs. As Ghemawat noted, “The contrast between mixed-to-positive data on actual international flows and the sharply negative swing in the discourse about globalization may be rooted, ironically, in the tendency of even experienced executives to greatly overestimate the intensity of international business flows relative to domestic activity. In other words, they believe the world is a lot more globalized than it actually is.” Is the world less globalized than many believe?

Even though Ghemawat actually champions the potential gains from additional globalization and debunks the overestimation of globalization’s harmful effects on society, he does so through the lens of the antiquated and rapidly disappearing models and environments of the Industrial Era. His claims aren’t entirely off-base – the Industrial Age ideology and practices are still having a substantial impact on our economies and policies – but his definitions, measurements and worldviews cause him to miss an even larger point about the rise of (and backlash against) an increasingly globalized world.

If you think I’m unfairly critiquing this author, I want to make it clear that we are all making the very same mistake. At least Ghemawat understands that globalization can be beneficial – a claim that cannot be made for the politicians and leaders who support the newly-minted protectionist policies in the U.S. and Britain. But globalization is so much more than an attempt to expand business practices and trade across the world. And, it is this bigger understanding of the reasons behind the rise of globalization that also have led to the current nationalist sentiment in some parts of the world. If you want to understand the trajectory of globalization – and the resistance against it – you need to understand a little about the nature and arrow of complexity.

Contrary to the many popular articles over the past decade declaring complexity as the #1 enemy of growth and success, our environment of accelerating complexity is actually a good sign. When organisms or systems move toward greater maturity, they don’t become more simple – they become more complex. This can be seen in everything from civilizations to cosmic architecture. As it turns out, it isn’t complexity that is our problem, but rather it’s our mental models that were formed to help us make sense of the world in a previous era – an era that was at least slightly less complex and interconnected.

This trajectory of complexity – increased technological and social connectivity, transformational discoveries, and accelerating convergence of previously siloed domains – is the foundational driver behind the multi-layered movement that has been reduced to the now popularized concept known as “globalization.” Just as the genie of ever-increasing complexity is out of the bottle, so too is the evolution toward a “global brain” that redefines how humanity operates. This movement goes far beyond international business practices; this is a transition in global perspectives that encompasses society, technology, economics, politics, health, cities, values – you name it. There’s a lot more going on than simply opening the door to trade or expansion across borders, and taking steps to roll back complexity’s effects will prove much more difficult than any politician or economist could possibly imagine.

However, that’s not to say that certain people aren’t trying to roll back globalization. In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “How Nationalism Can Solve the Crisis of Islam,” French Philosopher Pierre Manent shared his belief that globalization tears at the fabric of community and identity, facets of individual and collective life that he notes as being necessary to overcome worldwide resentment, anxiety, and conflict.

“Mr. Manent is optimistic that the combination of political liberty and nationalism is more resilient than most people suppose. Then again, the 19th-century marriage of liberalism and nationalism ended in a very ugly divorce in the first half of the 20th century. What about the dangers of reviving nationalism today? “There is no a priori guarantee that it could not devolve into something nasty,” Mr. Manent says. “But if we don’t propose a reasonable idea of the nation, we will end up with an unreasonable idea of the nation. Because simply: However weakened the idea of the nation, nations do not want to die.”

Is Manent’s idea that “nations do not want to die” based upon a fundamental aspect of our humanity, or is it based upon the pushback from a mental model created to serve a previous era? (For the record, I am not espousing the dissolution of nations in this article.) In other words, is the nationalism or protectionism that is being touted by individuals such as Manent, Trump, Farage, or Le Pen a way to restore what we would recognize as stability, or simply the death throes of an old system as we transition into the next stage of complexity’s transformational march? (By the way, terrorism basically espouses the same “closed” or backward-looking view of protectionism, and in this sense is only the other end of the same yardstick. Think about that idea for a minute.)

If complexity is the natural order of the universe, then so is the move toward greater holistic connectivity and convergence. In this sense, the larger definition of globalization is the inevitable outcome of the long arm of history. Just because we are seeing a resistance to this transition  through a variety of protectionist actions, that does not mean that globalization didn’t work or has already reached its full potential. And, ultimately, we cannot deter complexity’s desire to grow and expand.


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