Storm clouds gather above ships waiting to dock in Singapore. Photo by Edgar Su/Reuters
Historians cheered globalism with work about cosmopolitans and border-crossing, but the power of place never went away
Well, that was a short ride. Not long ago, one of the world’s leading historians, Lynn Hunt, stated with confidence in Writing History in the Global Era (2014) that a more global approach to the past would do for our age what national history did in the heyday of nation-building: it would, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau had said was necessary of the nation-builders, remake people from the inside out. Global history would produce tolerant and cosmopolitan global citizens. It rendered the past a mirror on our future border-crossing selves – not unlike Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, raised in Indonesia and educated in the Ivy League, who became the passing figure of our fading dreams of meritocracy without walls.
The mild-mannered German historian Jürgen Osterhammel might serve as an example of that global turn. When his book The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the 19th Century (2014) came out in English, one reviewer baptised him the new Fernand Braudel. It was already a sensation in Germany. One day, Osterhammel’s office phone at the University of Konstanz rang. On the other end of the line was the country’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. ‘You don’t check your SMSs,’ she scolded lightly. At the time, Merkel was on the mend from a broken pelvis and the political fallout of the Eurocrisis. While recovering, she’d read Osterhammel’s 1,200-page book for therapy. She was calling to invite the author to her 60th-birthday party to lecture her guests about time and global perspectives. Obsessed with the rise of China and the consequences of digitalisation, she had turned to the sage of the moment: the global historian.
It’s hard to imagine Osterhammel getting invited to the party now. In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts? Merkel, daughter of the East, might be the improbable last voice of Atlantic Charter internationalism. Two years after her 60th birthday, the vision of an integrated future and spreading tolerance is beating a hasty retreat.
What is to become of this approach to the past, one that a short time ago promised to re-image a vintage discipline? What would global narratives look like in the age of an anti-global backlash? Does the rise of ‘America First’, ‘China First’, ‘India First’ and ‘Russia First’ mean that the dreams and work of globe-narrating historians were just a bender, a neo-liberal joyride?
Until very recently, the practice of modern history centred on, and was dominated by, the nation state. Most history was the history of the nation. If you wander through the history and biography aisles of either brick-and-mortar or virtual bookstores, the characters and heroes of patriotism dominate. In the United States, authors such as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin have helped to give millions of readers their understanding of the past and the present. Inevitably, they wrote page-turning profiles of heroic nation-builders. Every nation cherishes its national history, and every country has a cadre of flame-keepers.
Then, along came globalisation and the shake-up of old, bordered imaginations. Historians quickly responded to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the crumbling protective ramparts of national capitalism, the boom in container shipping, and the rise of the cosmopolis. New scales and new concepts came to life. Europe’s Schengen Agreement, inked in 1985, the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and the founding of the World Trade Organization in 1995, heralded new levels of international fusion. These now-imperilled treaties promised a borderless world. ‘The world is being flattened,’ Thomas Friedman’s popular manifesto of globalisation, The World Is Flat (2005), concluded. ‘I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it,’ Friedman wrote in an open letter to his daughter, ‘except at great cost to human development and your own future.’…