Deglobalization: What Business Historians Can Teach Managers

26 03 2017


Deglobalization is the current buzzword, as I pointed out in a  blog post I published soon after the WEF meeting in Davos.  Actually economists have been talking talking about deglobalization for a number of years, ever since international trade as a share of world economic output began to decline. Now, however, CEOs and other top executives are really worried about how to respond to the rising levels of protectionist sentiment and the apparent trend in actual government policies towards protectionism.

Stephen D. King, the chief economist of HSBC, discusses deglobalization in a new book on the future of the global economy. King notes that we are in a very different historical epoch than the sunlit uplands of the 1990s, when globalization appeared unstoppable and public intellectuals announced the end of history and great power conflict. King sees a pattern that others have observed, namely that we are going back to an era of protectionism, nationalism, and  ethno-religious tensions similar to that of the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s.  As a senior executive at a corporation that embodies the multicultural, multiracial global financial capitalism that emerged at the end of the twentieth century, King has very good reasons to be worried about deglobalization.  A similar historical analogy was used by Ruchir Sharma, Morgan Stanley’s chief global strategist in December 2016, although Sharma observed that today’s deglobalization  is somewhat different from the deglobalization of the interwar period .


It seems to me that mainstream strategy literature doesn’t appear to offer much guidance to managers seeking to formulate strategies to cope with the new phenomenon. Perhaps that’s because strategy professors haven’t yet had a chance to think about managerial responses to the newly discovered phenomenon.  Similarly, political science doesn’t  seem to offer a lot of practical advice to decision-makers in the private sector.  Michael Witt is a first-class political science/IR professor who teaches at INSEAD business school. If any political scientist could help executives to deal with deglobalization, it would be him.

Late last year,  Dr Witt wrote two pieces in which he pondered what deglobalization means for multinational firms. His first piece did an admirable job of summarizing the political science literature on globalization and deglobalization and tells people how two of the three main schools of thought in IR (Realism and Liberalism) view these phenomena. Somewhat curiously, Witt doesn’t say much as about Constructivism, another interpretative tradition in IR, which is unfortunate since constructivism has a great deal  to offer here. Anyway,  his second piece, which was published a week after the first one, sought to offer concrete advice to business executives interested in this topic. Sadly, the main pieces of managerial advice he provided weren’t that useful to managers.

Let me justify that assessment. Witt says that Liberal IR theory argues that  deglobalization is driven by rising inequality, which caused an upsurge of populist, anti-globalization sentiment from the parts of the electorate that have suffered from globalization.  Witt says that if firms wanted to continue doing business across borders, they need to shore up the political foundations of globalization by accepting a more progressive form of taxation. (Similar sentiments were heard from CEOs the January 2017 gathering in Davos).  Witt also argues recommends that  “longer-term investment plans should probably involve scenario planning”  that takes the re-imposition of tariffs into account.

The second piece of advice is sound and common-sensical, but the suggestion that senior executives do more to combat inequality  isn’t really practical, since a single CEO would be unable to combat rising inequality in their home country, unless that country happened to be very small and their firm was a major employer. There is a sort of free rider problem—if a CEO increases the wages his firm pays and no other firm follows suit, the CEO will have added to his costs without having done much to change the overall level of inequality in the country. A CEO operating in a corporate system dominated by Shareholder Value Ideology has very limited freedom to act.  That’s the problem with the argument that the left-wing venture capital Nick Hanauer made, when he said that CEOs who are worried about Trump’s protectionism should simply have paid their workers more.

It seems to me that Constructivist IR and, especially, my own home discipline of Business History could offer more useful advice to the makers of MNE strategy at this junction. (Business History informed by Constructivist IR could be a very powerful tool indeed).

The Constructivist approach to IR and International Political Economy (IPE) stresses that nations make policy in a cultural context that shapes how contemporaries view their self-interest. In other words, cultural differences such as gender ideologies, racial, religious, and ethno-national identities need to be taken into account. Deglobalization, both historically and in the present, appears to be associated with the rise in ethno-nationalist sentiment and growing hostility to the perceived other. While no single firm can reverse a pronounced trend in the culture towards  greater intolerance towards the Other, a group of firms, working together, can help to limit the spread of ethno-nationalist ideologies. For instance, they could do so by agreeing not to advertise on websites that promote the alt-right mentality that is congruent with tariff protectionism (see here).

Business history provides even more concrete advice. As business and economic historians know, deglobalization has happened before, most famously with the outbreak of the First World War. We can look to see how firms at the time handled deglobalization. Business historians have shown that a classic response to the imposition of tariff barriers is for firms to create local manufacturing subsidiaries within foreign nations.

There are other lessons about how to deal with deglobalization that managers can take from the historical record.    In a paper I published in an international-business journal, I discussed how the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation dealt with the First World War, a crisis that had the potential to destroy the corporation. HSBC, which was founded in 1865 and which had a multinational shareholder base and board of directors on the eve of the First World War, embodied that the open and cosmopolitan capitalism of the late nineteenth century, an era that was marked by falling trade barriers and increasing interconnectedness. HSBC was able to survive the First World War by paying close attention to the state of public opinion in Britain, which became increasingly xenophobic, and by severing ties to its German shareholders, directors and customers and by purging its executive workforce of a prominent individual of German-Jewish ancestry. HSBC was a much less profitable firm at the end of the conflict, but unlike many of the international banks in existence in August 1914, it survived the war. My paper aimed to use the historical experience of HSBC in war to identify lessons for the managers of present-day firms confronted with war and other drivers of deglobalization. One of these  lessons for present day managers is that conserving political capital in periods of heightened tensions between nations or other imagined communities may require the ruthless termination of relationships with people who are associated with the Other, at least insofar as the law of the land permits. (Note that I’m not saying that such a strategy would be morally right, just that it has worked in the past for firms). Another lesson that wartime managers could take from my paper on HSBC in WWI is that preserving legitimacy in the home country requires the head office to exert more control over overseas managers, less they embarrass the MNE in the home country, than would be the case in a time of generally good international relations.

There are important lessons for managers in the edited collection on the impact of the First World War on firm strategy was released by Routledge.  This book brought together the research of a business historians who use corporate archives. It is a common place among economic historians and historians of globalization to say that First World War end a long period of globalization and initiated a long period of deglobalization that that continued until after 1945. The edited collection was intended to help explore how firms confronted with a radical change in their operating environment responded. The papers in the collected documented a range of creative managerial responses to the First World War and its aftermath that included the creation of trans-national interfirm research alliances (see the paper by McGlade),  the adoption of new legal forms for companies (see the paper by Hannah), and the adoption of new management techniques in France and the UK (the chapter by Boyns). Studying how firms responded to sudden and dramatic change in the geopolitical environment in 1914 has the potential to offer lessons to the managers of today’s multinational firms.






Business History: Time for Debate

28 06 2011

The current issue of the Business History Review contains a state-of-the-field type of essay by Walter A. Friedman and Geoffrey Jones called “Business History: Time for Debate” Business History Review 85 (Spring 2011): 1-8. See here.

I was struck by several passages in the piece.

Business historians have been noticeably absent from the current vigorous debates concerning the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence, leaving it to economists and economic historians to propel the research agendas, despite the evident role of entrepreneurs and firms in these events.

This is a very good point. The Great Divergence is increasingly recognized as a key turning point in world history: indeed, the GD is now probably the most important meta-narrative in the historical profession. In the coming academic year, I will be teaching a lecture course called the History of Globalisation. The course will look at the evolution of the international economy over the last 300 or so years and introduce students to the key debates and themes about divergence and convergence. Needless to say, the Great Divergence is a major theme of the course.  The term “Great Divergence” was coined by the late Samuel Huntington and was then adopted by the UC Davis economic historian Ken Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.  In the 11 years since this seminal book was published, the Great Divergence has become a subject of lively scholar debate. The same phenomenon was discussed by Eric Jones in The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, although Jones called it the “European Miracle”.

All of these scholars are interested in the reasons why early-modern Western countries were able to advance ahead of their non-Western peers and become, by the nineteenth century, the most powerful and wealthy world civilization of the time, eclipsing Qing China, Mughal India, and Tokugawa Japan. In the Middle Ages, Europe was relatively backward, not relatively advanced.  Knowing how Europe was able to overtake other regions of the world is a trillion-dollar question.

Anyway, the my goal of my course is to get history students who know little about economics or statistics to understand the scholarly debates on why the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain, rather than in France or coastal China or some part of the Islamic world that had lots of coal.  In writing my lecture notes and preparing the reading list for the weekly seminars, I have been struck by how few works by business historians there are: there are few if any scholarly works that use the experience of specific firms or entrepreneurs to test the generalized theories have about the Great Divergence.

There are lots of wonderful aggregate data about national incomes and per capita wealth. The students will be exposed to all of that in the lectures. In terms of seminar readings that the students can debate and discuss,  there are lots of great journals articles that look at the Great Divergence from a variety of perspectives: environmental, history of science, or political-historical. Here are the works on the great divergence with the students will be reading over the course of the year:

Landes, David S. 2006. “Why Europe and the West? Why Not China?” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 20, no. 2: 3-22; Horesh, Niv. “What Time Is the “Great Divergence”? And Why Economic Historians Think It Matters.” China Review International 16, no. 1 (March 2009): 18-32; Top of Form Vries, P. H. H. “Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial? Kenneth Pomeranz and the Great Divergence(*).” Journal of World History 12, no. 2 (2001): 407; O’Brien, Patrick K. 2009. “The Needham Question Updated: A Historiographical Survey and Elaboration”. History of Technology. 29: 7; Kuran, Timur. 2004. “Why the Middle East Is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation”. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 18, no. 3: 71-90.

The interesting thing is that none of these excellent sources are really works of business history. I’ve searched for business history articles that speak to the Great Divergence and they are rather scarce. Obviously there are lots of great secondary soures on the role of business in the various waves of globalisation. For instance, the students will be reading Ann M. Carlos and Stephen Nicholas, “Giants of an Earlier Capitalism”: The Chartered Trading Companies as Modern Multinationals The Business History Review Vol. 62, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 398-419.  This article was published in 1988, before the debate about the Great Divergence really got started, so it would be unfair to expect it to connect the stories of specific firms to the debates about the GD/European Miracle. However, I have been unable to find more recent articles that do this.

Friedman and Jones also point out that few business historians have engaged with environmental history, which is one of the fastest growing sub-disciplines in history. Friedman and Jones write that: “business historians have largely abnegated the job of framing the field, leaving this task to the specialized subset of environmental historians. It is odd that business historians have not devoted more attention to sustainability, given that, arguably, the actions of companies have been the primary causes of environmental damage and climate change over the last two centuries. The time has come for mainstream business history to incorporate the environmental impact of business in its agenda. The editors welcome and encourage submissions that focus on how firms have impacted the environment worldwide and attempt to develop frameworks for assessing the nature of this impact. It is equally important to identify the entrepreneurs and firms that have been ahead of governments and regulators in championing more sustainable practices and have pursued green strategies as solutions to environmental problems.”

This is a very good point. Friedman and Jones also suggest that business historians need to play a greater role in debates about entrepreneurship and how to encourage it. 

Entrepreneurship is an area in which business historians have made important contributions, but in which most of the recent conceptual work has been done by economists and management scholars. Their theories provide a more powerful set of tools for examining the history of entrepreneurship than any that were available to the pioneering business historians in the 1940s and 1950s. Historians are now seizing the opportunity to engage with and test such theories. Huge areas of uncertainty regarding the causal links between entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth still call for explanation. It remains unclear, for instance, whether William Baumol’s neat distinction between productive and unproductive entrepreneurship is borne out by historical experience.

Personally, I think that Baumol’s distinction is plausible. Tony Soprano and Bill Gates are both pretty entrepreneurial, but in one case the entrepreneurial activity benefits society as a whole. I know, however, that most business historians reject the Baumol’s typology of “good” and “bad” entrepreneurs, perhaps because it seems moralistic rather than social-scientific. I recently sent a co-authored piece about entrepreneurship in Canadian history out for peer review. One of the anonymous peer reviewers objected to our use of Baumol’s distinction, so we were forced to delete it from the paper.

Thomas Paine and the Rights of Hindus

24 09 2009
Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

I would like to draw people’s attention to a piece by historian J. M. Opal in Common-placeCommon Sense and Imperial Atrocity: How Thomas Paine saw South Asia in North America”. Opal argues that Paine understanding of British policy in the Thirteen Colonies was influenced by the ongoing British debate about British misrule and atrocity in India.

If Opal’s interpretation is correct, it means that Paine saw the whites of the Thirteen Colonies and Hindu and Muslim populations of India as co-victims of the British Empire.

I found Opal’s argument interesting in light of a book I have purchased and plan to read this weekend, David Armitage’s The Declaration of Independence: a Global History.

The picture of Paine is from the Library of Congress (see here) and is in the public domain.