There is a big debate on currently about whether the relentless march of globalisation has done more harm than good. In several countries, the backlash against globalisation has seen the rise of leaders who advocate protectionism. In the middle of this debate comes the book From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalisation Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey E. Garten.
This is the most unusual book on the topic because it completely side-steps the contentious debate. (Though, in the introduction, Garten says clearly that globalisation is among the most powerful forces in the world and will become even more important in the coming decades.)
Garten tells the story of nine men and one woman who played an enormous role in integrating the world in some way or the other, even if none of them saw themselves as advocates of globalisation or even started out with globalisation as their goal. Instead, each of these 10 people were focused on achieving something very specific, and in the pursuit of their goals, they ended up as people who played an integral role in connecting the world.
The 10 subjects of Garten's book are Genghis Khan, Prince Henry, Robert Clive, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, Cyrus Field, John D. Rockfeller, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Andrew Grove and Deng Xiaoping.
Gartner recounts their stories, and gives his reasons for choosing them as accidental globalists. Most of these people are completely logical choices; though if one were to nitpick, the inevitable question would arise as to whether all of them could be considered as having helped the process of globalisation, and whether there were some other people who, perhaps, played a greater role. But that would be quibbling over what is in essence a fascinating book with 10 mini-biographies of extraordinary individuals, all of whom were intensely ambitious. The binding factor among them was the tenacity they exhibited in the pursuit of their goals. Equally, most of them were survivors who battled great adversity and powerful enemies and rivals.
For me, personally, the most fascinating stories were those of Field, Rothschild, Rockfeller, Monnet and Deng. That is not to say the other stories are not interesting.
Genghis Khan's, of course, is a riveting story not only because he managed to conquer vast swathes of territory and had the biggest geographical empire, but also because he rethought the organisation of his army and created a system that allowed him to become a world conqueror. He invented new tactics and strategies that helped him defeat enemies with bigger armies and superior weapons.
Field's is perhaps the most intriguing and unusual story because he was a paper tycoon who suddenly got enamoured with the idea of connecting Europe with America through an undersea telegraph cable. That he failed four times in his effort and the technological challenges were almost impossible to surmount did not deter him.
Rothschild created the most amazing global bank at a time when such an entity was completely unknown. His greatest achievement was that he created a global bank while keeping the management strictly within the family. I would consider Field and Rothschild as true agents of globalisation.
While I have been a great fan of John D. Rockfeller and Andrew Grove, and their stories are exceptional, I found them as less easy fits in the list. Rockfeller created Standard Oil which was a colossus in the oil field. And yes, he did bring in the concept of global philanthropy. But in my opinion, Roberto Goizueta of Coca-Cola was an even bigger agent of globalisation in some ways. Similarly, Grove was an exceptional manager and his achievements in Intel are the stuff of legends. But, equally, in terms of the impact of globalisation, I would think the telecom revolution was worth featuring in the book. (To be fair, Gartner points out he was not considering only inventions or inventors, but focusing on practical doers. He also considered Johannes Gutenberg for the invention of the printing press, but left him out.)
I would heartily recommend this book, not perhaps as a study of the phenomenon of globalisation, but for the insights and details that Gartner has put in while recounting these 10 stories. And, of course, because of the way he holds every tale together and connects them to the role each played in making the world a slightly smaller place than before. ~