Sebastian Conrad's What is Global History? has become something of a biblical reference for anyone wanting to get into (or curious about) global history. It is a book that I have personally found myself returning to over the past few months as I completed my Ph.D. dissertation.
There are many reasons that explain why this book has become an academic phenomenon since its publication in 2016. Perhaps the simplest answer is What is Global History? tackles one of the most attractive historiographical fields of our time. But to argue that would be to scratch the surface. Other fantastic books from around the same time and on the same subject (Lynn Hunt's excellent Writing History in the Global Era, 2014, comes to mind) might have received similar acclaim, but perhaps not the same market success. As would be to argue that Conrad's 250-page book reads incredibly smoothly, thanks to the author’s analytical clarity and direct style.
We cannot understand the full value of Conrad's book without looking at the specific moment of its publication. The year 2016 was in many ways the perfect time for a book devoted to the methodology and theory of global history: a time when global history had accumulated enough experience to become a consolidated historiographical phenomenon, and yet a time when global historians were (and for the most part still are) hesitant about some central aspects of their field: what are the lines that separate global history from the history of globalization or transnational history? How can global historians incorporate human action into large-scale narratives without sacrificing individual agency? And what are the minimum requirements for a work of history to be considered “global”?
These are all questions that Conrad does not shy away from. Not only that, but he approaches these (and other) questions in a variety of ways. Some chapters discuss global history around the category of space, while others do so around concepts of time or agency. Also of particular interest is Conrad’s dual conception of global history as both a perspective and a process. So too is the way in which he interweaves global history with competing approaches. This is another aspect where Conrad’s book excels. While he does not hesitate to highlight some of the major limitations of fields such as world-system theory, comparative history, transnational history, or postcolonial studies, he stops far short of downplaying their value. On the contrary, the reader will often find Conrad engaging extensively with the contribution of these approaches to knowledge and even their compatibility with global history.
What is more, What is Global History? has aged relatively well over the past years. This is no easy feat for a piece of global history published in 2016, the year of both Brexit and Donald Trump's presidential victory—not to mention all the chaos and turmoil that has since engulfed the globe. To be sure, global history is probably at a different stage today, one in which global historians are more concerned with positionality, disconnections, and the structures of power behind the production of knowledge in the field. Yet all these new avenues of research hardly catch Conrad off guard. On the contrary, What is Global History? may have been one of the first contributions to this trend, as the last chapter of his book deals extensively with some of today’s hot topics. In fact, Conrad’s final words in his book can be seen as prescient of today's state of the art:
But sometime in the future (…) the notion of the “global” may recede into the background and give way to a renewed emphasis on specificities. Historians will resort to new geographies, no longer a priori the nation-state, but also not necessarily the whole world. They will follow specific interactions and patterns of exchange, rather than taking any one scale as their point of departure. The gradual disappearance of the rhetoric of “global” will then, paradoxically, signal the victory of global history as a paradigm.
Adam Tooze, Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. New York: Viking, 2018.
Adam Tooze's Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World is in many ways a very different work from Conrad's. Focusing on the Global Recession of 2008 and the eurozone crisis of the early 2010s, it could be placed somewhere at the intersection of international economic history and the history of capitalism. Other commentators might be more interested in pointing out that this book marks an interesting turning point in the author's career. Known for his work on interwar Europe, Tooze embarks with this book on a fascinating (if risky) intellectual journey into the troubled waters of contemporary history. It is a trend that has only intensified with the publication of his latest book, 2021: Shutdown. How Covid Shook the World's Economy (Allen Lane).
But there is more to it than meets the eye. Among many other things, Crashed is representative of the zeitgeist in which global history currently finds itself. Its exploration of global finance and international economic governance (or rather, the lack thereof in the decades leading up to 2008) provides an excellent window into an often-ignored side of global interconnectedness: its disruptive (destructive?) capacity. That Crashed is one of the first books of the 2010s to clearly call for a thorough dissection of the destructive power of uncontrolled/neoliberal globalization is evident at the beginning of the book, where he refers to the 2008 recession as “the first crisis of a global age.” Granted, Tooze is not alone in this endeavor. The mid-2010s also saw the publication of other milestones pointing in the same direction, such as Thomas Piketty’s 2013 Le Capital au XXI siècle (Éditions du Seuil) or Branko Milanovic’s 2016 Global inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Harvard University Press). Anti- or post-globalization studies can only be properly defined (if they can indeed be defined) as an intellectual trend that cuts across several academic fields, of which history is one of the branches.
It is in this particular niche that Crashed excels. Tooze’s expert grasp of international economics and global finance allows him to leap across economic issues as diverse as China’s export-led growth, the U.S. mortgage-backed securities market, or Greece’s sovereign debt. Moreover, he does so by analyzing each of these topics from a historical perspective. Some of the chapters in this book begin not in the 1990s or early 2000s, as many economists or political scientists would do, but with the exhaustion of the postwar economic order in the 1970s. His digging into the actions, perceptions, and misperceptions of politicians, policy advisors, and international bankers also adds a much-needed human face to this often large-scale narrative. Add a fast, elegant writing style, enriched by some well-chosen autobiographical references, and the result is a passionate, engaging, if also tragic authoritative monograph. Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World is a must-read for anyone interested in the recent history of capitalism, international finance, America in the world, European (dis)integration—and, of course, global history.
Jeremy Bowen in Jerusalem and Toby Luckhurst in London, "The world is losing its humanity, UNRWA chief says", - BBC News, 20th October 2023,
The commissioner-general of UN relief agency UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, warned about the dire situation for civilians inside Gaza, calling again for humanitarian aid corridors into the territory. Mr. Lazzarini said he fears “the world is now losing its humanity”.
Simone McCarthy, "Putin’s prominence and the shadow of conflict: Key takeaways from China’s Belt and Road Forum", CNN, Updated 5:45 AM EDT, Thu October 19th, 2023,
A two-day global gathering billed as China’s “most important diplomatic event” of the year wrapped up in the Chinese capital on Wednesday, with Beijing touting its outsized role in world development – and its alternative vision to that of the United States. Xi’s show of solidarity with Putin at the Belt and Road Forum also underscored the deepening division between the world’s major powers.