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Book Review: Six Faces of Globalization

14 Feb 2023
Reviewed by Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA

This important book returns the rich and contextually valuable perspectives of different peoples to the policy forefront. The broad divisiveness witnessed globally, but with specific emphasis on democratic nations, could be better managed if we were all willing to be a little foxier. 

Six Faces of Globalization is a book working at two levels. At the one, it discusses the phenomenon of globalisation, including international trade, the role of transnational corporations, great power competition, inequality and environmental issues. On the other, it focuses on how to do policymaking in polarised times, where the proponents of different views appear to inhabit different worlds and where genuine dialogue seems impossible.

At both levels, it’s a triumph. First, looking at globalisation, it convincingly articulates six distinct narratives – which it presents as the sides of a cube – and gives each of them a human face. The establishment face – think of any treasury secretary– sees global trade producing a more efficient economy, lower prices, and abundant consumer choice. The left-wing populist face – in the United States, think Elizabeth Warren – sees the gains from globalisation channelled to the privileged few, with growing inequality and a hollowing out of the middle class.

The right-wing populist face sees foreign workers taking jobs and local communities destroyed by declining work prospects, with lower-cost goods and no compensation for lost community, dignity, self-worth, and way of life. The transnational corporate power narrative – think unionist – sees the real winners from globalisation as multinational corporations that can manipulate domestic and international rules to maximise profit and minimise responsibility, including for paying tax.

The geoeconomics narrative – think national security advisor – focuses on economic and technology competition between great power rivals China and the US and sees trade and investment interdependence as creating security vulnerabilities. The threats narrative – think Greta Thunberg – focuses on planetary crisis and extinction as well as pandemics, and counts the costs of connectivity and trade without limits.

And conscious of biases and blind spots in Western debates, the book also looks at additional narratives from the “majority world” that focuses on neocolonial domination of trade, Western hypocrisy, and the failure of globalisation to reach the “bottom billion.” The result is a comprehensive yet coherent outline of current debates on globalisation.

At a different level, the book is about what to do when there are strongly-held competing views in any policy area. It is a brilliant demonstration of the potential of narratives as a method to see an issue from multiple perspectives.

Narratives help frame problems, define units of analysis, and tell stories about winners and losers. Who is defined as the villains – whether elites, kleptocratic transnational corporations or those who fail to compensate globalisation’s losers – is crucial to how a problem is defined and which potential solutions are examined.

The art of advocacy lies in convincing others to see the world through your narrative. Understanding other narratives enables you to either switch, undermine or form alliances with people coming from other perspectives.

As someone who uses narratives strongly in my work, it’s great to see the book’s demonstration of the importance of narrative for good policymaking.

As I read the book and found each of the narratives convincing to some degree, I started wondering whether I am an inveterate fence-sitter. But the authors say this is what they were intending – to put each narrative as sympathetically as possible to give the best version of that argument and take seriously the kernel of truth that each contains. This, in itself, promotes good faith debate.

The final chapter of the book argues that we should think about global problems in an integrative way. Instead of having the view of the hedgehog – which knows one big thing, relating everything to a single organising principle – we need to be foxes, which know many small things, are sceptical of simple answers, and can accept contradictions.

The authors argue for the “synthesising mind” which takes in and evaluates information from disparate sources and puts that information together in ways that make sense: “a quintessentially foxy approach.” This involves holding contradictory ideas in one’s head and instead of choosing one, producing a synthesis that is superior: “stitching together different perspectives and diverse insights rather than focusing on one and ignoring or refuting the others.”

At a time when we can be dismissive of others’ arguments and inclined to fracture into tribes divided by contempt, we need approaches that help us try to understand each other rather than ones that obliterate any basis for dialogue. This book offers an illustration of the patient listening, empathetic understanding, and integrative thinking required for the hard job of contemporary policymaking.

This is a review of Anthea Roberts and Nicholas Lamp, Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why it Matters (Harvard University Press, 2021). ISBN: 0674245954

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA  is executive director at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). She was National Executive Director of the AIIA for 13 years and was recognised as a Fellow of the AIIA in 2019.

This review article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.