Jeffrey Garten, author of the remarkable new book From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives, recently met with TIE founder and editor David Smick to discuss innovation, capitalism, and the future of globalization.
Smick: Your book tells an amazing story of the history of globalization. You tell the story through the lives of ten transformative leaders who opened the doors to progress and changed the paradigm of how society was organized. The figures are Genghis Khan, Prince Henry, Robert Clive, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, Cyrus Field, John D. Rockefeller, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Andy Grove, and lastly Deng Xiaoping. All had one thing in common--they made something of global significance happen. Tell us more about how you arrived at these particular individuals. You say your subjects were not just thinkers, but doers.
Garten: I wanted to write a history of globalization. I thought I could do something relatively fresh by looking at people as opposed to abstract trends or just big ideas. I began by reading several tomes about world history, and first, I selected a number of people who impressed me as not just thinkers, but doers. They rolled up their sleeves and they made something very significant happen. They had an idea and they were also able to execute it. These figures were as close to first movers as possible. So great were their accomplishments that they basically ushered in a whole era. Finally, they were people who did something that was of such significance that what they did continues to reverberate today.
I wanted to describe these people not only in terms of their era, but why what they did is a way to look at the world today. The obvious example is Jean Monnet, the founding father of European integration, because you can't really think about what's happening in Europe without knowing how it all started and what Monnet's vision was. There's Andy Grove of Intel, who may have reached his greatest period in the 1990s, but his accomplishments really ushered in what I would call the third industrial revolution. Go way back to Genghis Khan. The links his Mongol empire forged between east and west are exactly the same kinds of links that we are hoping for again against the same kind of odds--the cultural and national differentiation, and the relationship between political domination and economic infrastructure. Listen to what the current Chinese leadership is aspiring to when they create an infrastructure bank or talk about the New Silk Road. The accomplishments of all the people I wrote about have real resonance today.
Smick: You say, in essence, globalization can be defined as a reduction of borders. One of the things I found interesting was your explanation of serendipity as a kind of guiding light for a world of accidental globalists. Can you discuss to what degree your characters stumbled into their roles? Was there any planning going on? There was with Jean Monnet, but others seemed to be in the sway of the forces of serendipity.
Garten: I would put it this way. I wrote the book by describing the life and times of these ten people, and only after I finished did I draw back and ask what they had in common. The answer is that, although they were all responsible for unleashing the forces of globalization, not a single one had that as an objective. Each was basically solving a problem that they faced, one step at the time.
So why were their changes transformational? I came to the conclusion that this was a serendipitous synchronization between historical forces and the right person at the right time. By serendipity, I mean that each was able to take advantage of a very sui generis set of circumstances. Somebody else at the time might have done what they did, except that these people were probably a little smarter and faster, and a little luckier.
In the case of Genghis Khan, he had already conquered a good part of China. When he looked west to the Islamic world, he decided he didn't want to conquer those nations because it would be too complicated and ultimately just too difficult. So he decided to send a trade mission, but the governor of one of the Islamic territories thought the mission was a group of spies and killed them all. This so enraged Genghis Khan that he decided to send another group just to see whether that was an accident, and the governor killed the second group. That was the beginning of Genghis Khan's move westward. What would have happened if that governor had had a different attitude and proposed a trade treaty? The world could have looked enormously different.