In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement hinged on a recalcitrant India. Prime Minister Modi knew that restricting coal could imperil the promises he’d made to the 300 million Indians still living without electricity. Nonetheless, he assented to the Agreement after a meeting with US President Barack Obama. Modi wasn’t won over with arguments over climate models, green energy, or ethics. Rather, Obama offered Modi a narrative that tied his personal experience to India’s colonial history: “Look, you know, I get it. I’m black, I’m African American. I know what it’s like to be in an unfair system where a bunch of people got rich on your back… but I also have to live in the world that I’m in, and if I just made decisions based on that resentment, then I actually would never catch up.”
Obama knew that his simplistic case glossed over the thousands of compromises and trade-offs inherent to a comprehensive climate agreement. But he also knew that, in the words of Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp in Six Faces of Globalization, “the art of advocacy lies in convincing others to view the world through the lens of your chosen narrative.” Obama achieved his goals by convincing his Indian counterpart that they saw the world in the same way.
Looking at the staggering complexity of over seven billion people producing, consuming, trading, competing, and living together, most of us settle on one story that seems to explain it all. Over time, that story will display inconsistencies, contradictions, and failed predictions, but that rarely causes us to question our chosen worldview in a meaningful way. With their new book Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why It Matters, Roberts and Lamp set out to disrupt our intellectual inertia, first by mapping out the six major Western narratives of globalization, then exploring how those narratives drive policies, for better or worse.
Narratives are informal models that both guide and constrain how we perceive the world. We see ourselves in the chosen protagonist: be it as individuals, as citizens of a country, or members of a class. That identity requires an antagonist: self-serving protectionists, foreigners, or faceless corporate elites. Our choice of actors determines the evidence we emphasize: rising overall wealth, the loss of manufacturing jobs, or stagnant wages. Those implicit choices all but dictate our beliefs and opinions. In chapter after chapter, Roberts and Lamp show that when we see others as ignorant of sound policy or even their own self-interest, we have failed to understand their narrative.
The Establishment narrative offers a forthright defense of economic globalization. Simply put, specialization and trade makes everyone richer in the long-run. Trade is analogous to technology, making jobs lost to foreign competition no different than those sacrificed to rising productivity. Advocates of the Establishment Narrative credit trade, specialization, and openness with the dramatic rise in living standards seen everywhere from England during the Industrial Revolution to China and India today.
Critics of globalization don’t dispute the benefits of trade, rather they question who actually reaps the gains. The Left-Wing Populist narrative concedes that rising productivity increases output, but then asks why has wage growth failed to keep up? The Right-Wing Populists argue that traditional manufacturing towns were not losers, but rather victims of policies that failed to recognize their contribution to communities beyond GDP. The Corporate Power narrative, wary of the potential for a few firms to create and exploit a global oligopoly, points to the ability of large firms to spark a “race to the bottom” for labor and other costs, while simultaneously calling for standardization to protect assets like intellectual property. The Geoeconomic narrative sees the great power rivalry between the US and China as inevitable and dominant over all other concerns. Lastly, Roberts and Lamp outline the Global Threats narrative, an umbrella label for those concerned with the wider risks inherent to globalization, such as environmental damages or the inability of the many countries to ensure domestic production of medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Across all of these narratives, Roberts and Lamp “… try to remove contempt from the discussion.” Their approach rewards readers who keep an open mind. For example, when President Trump included the enforcement of rigorous labor standards in his revision of NAFTA, he achieved Right-wing protectionist goals using policies long sought by the Left. Whatever the merits of Trump’s policies, in that instance his understanding of the opposition’s narrative allowed him to skillfully advance his own agenda.
This respectful approach does not mean adopting each narrative’s ethical and logical blind spots. When Left-Wing populists demand that trade deals include labor and environmental standards, that ostensible solidarity with the working class shields American workers from competition while limiting the available jobs for some of the poorest people in the world. Hence Lamp and Roberts’ observation that
… the protection of no other set of individual rights in developing countries enjoys as much support among politicians in developed countries as the protection of labor rights.
Nor do the authors ignore the trade-offs that ideologues tend to overlook: the central conundrum of US engagement with China is that interdependence lowers the chance of conflict while raising its potential cost.
In the end, Roberts and Lamp don’t answer any big questions. Rather, they show how different weighting of values (tradition vs. progress, opportunity vs. equality, risk vs. reward) leads to the radically different economic agendas seen in the West today. As the Trump years have shown, a supposed “consensus” can crumble when citizens feel that a policy does not reflect their values.
This book offers two lessons to readers concerned with Asian affairs. First, for leaders anxious to coax the United States into the TPP, Lamp and Roberts offer a playbook for assembling the necessary coalition within the US. Second, and more generally, thinking in terms of narratives enables us to empathize, or at least work with others in spite of divergent perspectives. Prime Minister Modi knows this well: his Bharatiya Janata Party maintains a coalition with diverse regional parties, even though few of their narratives overlap with the BJP’s Hindutva nationalism. Without that understanding, mutual respect and opportunities for cooperation will prove elusive, in India and elsewhere.