Carl Ritter has a valuable discussion of globalism in Quillette magazine, called “The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism”. To clarify terms, globalism or cosmopolitanism is not the same as globalization. Globalization is the growth in flows of trade, investment, people, and ideas across national borders, while globalism or cosmopolitanism refers to ideas and arguments for globalization.
Ritter thinks that some dominant present-day globalist ideas are a form of historicism, referring to the philosopher of science Karl Popper’s discussion of this concept in “The Poverty of Historicism” and “The Open Society and its Enemies”. By historicism, Popper meant a type of social theory that claims to scientifically establish laws of historical development, prophecy the inevitable next stages of human history, and guide actions to hasten the arrival of the new society. Popper subjected historicist doctrines to stern criticism, as logically unsound, factually unsupported, and liable to encourage large utopian schemes that sometimes had devastating results for the people on whom they were imposed.
The most influential historicist doctrines in Popper’s day were fascism and communism. Ironically, it was with the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism that Western elites themselves succumbed to a type of historicism – “cosmopolitan historicism”, whose key assumption, says Ritter, is that “world history follows a cosmopolitan trajectory, toward ever-greater cultural and political uniformity. It dreams of a cosmopolitan end of history, a utopian borderless world where goods, ideas, and people move effortlessly past what used to be national borders, and where we’re all supposed to be primarily citizens of the world rather than of particular countries.”
Four American presidents in succession adopted cosmopolitan historicism as the philosophical underpinning for American global strategy. “A year after the Berlin Wall fell, George H.W. Bush declared to the United Nations that he envisioned “a world of open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds”. His successor Bill Clinton was in thrall to similar ideas, arguing that globalization “is the economic equivalent of a force of nature”. George W. Bush went on to celebrate this force of nature as a “triumph of human liberty stretching across national borders”, and Barack Obama later solemnly declared that “given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”
Ritter could have added President Obama’s ability to discern and find himself always “on the right side of history”.
Western leaders have pushed a three point political agenda linked to cosmopolitan historicism on a grandiose, imprudent, even reckless scale. “The first policy is political and economic integration through international clubs such as the European Union and the World Trade Organization”, says Ritter. “The second is mass immigration, beginning to replace the nations of old with a global hybrid culture. The third is Westernization of non-Western countries. Whereas mass immigration made the West more like the Rest, liberal-democratic nation-building aimed to make the Rest more like the West.”
But since there are no laws of historical development, nor any inevitable next stages of history, it’s perhaps no surprise that the political agenda of cosmopolitan historicism has run aground. “Today, wherever one’s eyes are turned, the results are visible: the West is engulfed by a populist revolt” – epitomized by the unimaginable, indescribable Donald Trump, elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” – while “the Rest, instead of emulating the Western experience, are increasingly pursuing indigenous paths to modernity”. Unexpected, don't you think?
It’s not that Mr. Ritter is against cosmopolitanism or globalization as such. “The main tenets of cosmopolitan thought are sound, and immigration and globalization have in many cases been success stories”, he says, pointing to globalization’s part in cutting poverty in many developing countries, and in reducing global inequality. It’s just that, lacking any grand laws of history, these approaches need to be explored in a more cautious, tentative and patient way, leaving countries more room to experiment with distinctive national institutions and policies, with greater respect for people’s desire to preserve their cultures and ways of life.