The post-Second-World-War liberal economic order has never looked more uncertain. Over the past few months, the long-dormant forces of protectionism, nationalism, populism, and xenophobia have been reawakened. Free trade is under attack, whether from Donald Trump’s protectionist presidential campaign or from the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Extreme nationalism is on the rise, not only in the US and the UK, but also in continental Europe and Asia. Trump climbed the GOP nomination ladder promising to put “America First,” resurrecting the isolationist mantra of the 1940s. The white supremacist, pro-apartheid killer of UK Labour MP Jo Cox was heard shouting “Put Britain First” as he stabbed and shot the 41-year-old anti-Brexit MP to death. Across the globe, foreigners have become the common target of racist hate crimes and extremist violence. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, as are Islamophobic attacks. Nowadays the cosmopolitan ideal – a global citizenry – appears to be more myth than reality.
It’s a difficult time to be an optimist. It doesn’t help that history is very nearly repeating itself. The Brexit referendum has hammered home how historical memory is far shorter and inaccurate than we might have feared. For example, nationalistic pro-Brexit Britons marked the centenary of the bloody Battle of the Somme this past weekend, either unaware or uncaring of the irony that the world war that wrought the same bloody battle arose largely because of extreme European nationalism, economic autarky, and disunity.
Granted, the current global crisis has many aspects that are unique to the 21st century. But there also many striking parallels between the situation today and the struggles that occurred during the global economic depressions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (These periods even had their fair share of international terrorism.) Now more than ever we need to be revisiting these earlier controversies over globalization and international conflict in order to find historical precedents, parallels, and lessons – so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
It would seem that the editors of the Financial Times agree.
The global political and economic forecast is gloomy, to be sure, but I must admit that things got just a little bit brighter over the weekend when a colleague turned my attention to the new Financial Times 2016 Summer reading list. The list includes a variety of timely history books that aim to inform today’s globalization crisis, including, among others, Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things, Tara Zahra’s The Great Departure, and a new edited volume on Joseph Chamberlain. I would be remiss if I did not mention that the list also includes my book, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade.