Globalization and Transformation

Bruce Mazlish
Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick
ISBN: 978-4128-5605-8
A Review by Susan Froetschel

By explosive force or steadfast pressure, globalization transforms whatever it touches. Historians struggle to escape the snags of national perspectives in studying the most dramatic encounters, the massive revisions in values or political processes.

Globalization and Transformation delivers a survey of the great thinkers who encouraged a global context, including Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Geoffrey Barraclough, Martin Luther, Abraham Ortelious, Charles Darwin and many more – the 183 pages on the immense topic may dash along too briskly for many readers.

Bear in mind, the book is no mere list. Bruce Mazlish relays how each individual might have convinced others in their day to revise relationships with one another and their place in the world. Passages are eloquent as when he asks the reader to consider the strange and lonely realization for Nicolas Copernicus in the mid-16th century in determining that the Earth circled the sun rather than the other way around. “The effect on man’s self-image can hardly be overestimated,” Mazlish writes. “The notion of the globe, as represented in models, became ubiquitous…. and thus [could] be taken possession of both mentally and physically.”

Scientific discoveries, political and philosophical developments, and economic expansion or contractions – alter our sense of self and capability, pitting reason against faith and traditions. It’s why the big ideas on climate change, human rights or war are not readily accepted. As Mazlish notes, “A new kind of humanity does not arise overnight.” Progress is tested by the ability to resolve problems, and humans now confront problems global in scale.

Perhaps it’s no longer enough to create, invent, identify or think. We must cooperate in pinpointing the best ideas and convince others to aspire for the greatest of ideas, too. He assures readers that they are capable of shaping the pace and scope of globalization. “Humans are agents who seek to play a role in the unfolding of our destiny, while realizing that we are only bit players,” he writes. “We have a moral duty to behave as if we can shape our present and future.”

The book’s ideas, particularly in the chapter on “Humanity and globalization,” are thoughtful and immense though briskly presented: that Nuremberg invited people to disobey orders, obey conscience for the greater good of humanity and to recognize the existence of crimes against humanity; that equality is the cornerstone of the conception of humanity; that humans strive for a wider community and that no person can take complete control over another and certain privileges should be held by all. This brief intellectual and social history is weighted toward ideas associated with the West, and Mazlish agrees that integrating developing nations and their values is a challenge for this century.

Mazlish is pessimistic about the notion of world government, suggesting the United Nations is inadequate and bureaucratic: “Faced as we are with massive challenges in the form of climate change and resource depletion (especially of water), we lack the global institutions to deal with them.” He offers a possible substitute, NGOs, although their directors and activities are not subject to review unless funders balk. In a globalized world, he explains in an earlier section, money is used to express cross-border approval or disapproval. NGOs, lacking in political representation and subject to little regulation, would inevitably reflect the world’s inequalities. Still, such passages may prompt readers to wonder exactly what kind of services or protections might the global community ever agree to fund someday – and just how long the community might let the global commons go into decline while waiting for others to take action.

Citizens struggle with global analysis, and new understandings of globalization have transformed routines over the centuries. Mazlish calls for historians to end their resistance to global topics and explore the phenomenon’s identity, value and effects. “In its fight against more traditional, national approaches, world history has generally seen global history – that is, the study of globalization – as a dilution of its challenge to the establishment.” World history, global history, new global history, the studies of world systems and globalization are relatively new developments. The World History Association was born only in 1982. For most readers, some of the book’s definitions – the world has more layers of meaning, including the imaginary, while the globe is more specific – may seem like nit picking. This reader remains unconvinced that the words “world” and “globe” can’t serve as synonyms.

In the end, Mazlish urges assessing humanity as a whole: “By that I mean that all innovations and achievements anywhere must be viewed as resulting from interactions, interdependencies, and interconnections everywhere.” His book models a rapid-fire method for examining history, global relations and our role as global citizens whether the responsibility is wanted or not. Historians must strive “to identify strong currents that are coursing through society” and then toss their own “twigs of thoughts into the current, aware that they may get caught in a mud bank or go floating on further and then disappear.” Mazlish counters those who suggest that a course in world history is too challenging – and rightly so, because his compact book offers just that. He admires the education of earlier centuries that did not include “the sharp differences among the disciplines to which we are now accustomed” and instead encouraged endless curiosity and expansive interests that in turn led to connections and discoveries. Fair warning for readers: Those not well versed on contemporary history should care enough to explore beyond the quick mentions the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the genocide of Rwanda, the dislocation of Sudanese and many more events. 

Globalization is transforming humanity, and Mazlish finds “a growing global consciousness shows signs of becoming a global identity” though humans have yet to adjust to their global community or celebrate its heroes with monuments. While only a few treaties and common human values oversee the countless connections, he credits globalization for an increased reflectivity, awareness of the fragility of life and a sense of common humanity. He views such self-consciousness, reflectivity and self-control as optimistic trends, especially as globalization processes continue at different rates, in different places, with different results.

Societies and certainly its educators cannot afford to neglect global connections and a common humanity, and Mazlish concludes by arguing that all history is global history. “Now, we must all embrace an identity with humanity, not eliminating, but transcending our more local ties and seek to write history from that point of view.” 

Susan Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal Online and author of five mystery books. The most recent, Allure of Deceit, examines the influence of NGOs in Afghanistan.

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