The Missing Narratives

Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp have come out with perhaps the best account of the popular narratives woven around the ever-evolving phenomenon of economic globalization. The reference in their book to an old Indian tale of six blind men trying to describe an elephant exemplifies the complexity of the problem. There could be many more faces to globalization than the six faces that the Rubik’s cube has. Roberts and Lamp have looked at the six faces mainly from a western standpoint, which are undoubtedly the most dominant narratives around this theme. This review will focus on some of the missing value judgments which could have formed equally plausible narratives in the globalization debate.

The overwhelming focus of the book is economic globalization, fostered by the agencies of liberal world order. International institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and a panoply of preferential trade agreements play a key role in pushing the liberal economic order. Each of the narratives in the book explain how the various constituents especially in the western democracies look at this phenomenon and have reacted in their own ways. In particular, the narratives examine how the political establishment, corporations, think tanks, communities and workers have contributed to the development of these narratives.

Narratives are powerful, but could represent the views of only those who are strong and forceful enough to tell their stories or how they understand the stories. Roberts and Lamp are correct in stating that the narratives are a useful way of organizing the debate around a topic, which in this case is globalization. However, the problem is that the narratives are woven by special interests especially in the west, mostly to establish identities, demand special favors or privileges, shield their traditionally protected domains, or create economic or political opportunities. The larger question is whether it is fair to identify the narratives about globalization only through the lens of trade and investment to which the book has spent a bulk of its discussion and focus. In other words, when we speak about globalization, is it not necessary to spend an equal amount of attention at other dimensions such as cultural, social, ecological or political globalization.

The rise of China is the single most factor that could explain all the possible narratives identified in the book. In other words, the clear premise of the book is growing political and economic rivalry between the United States and China, where a number of countries play the role of supporting actors. The economic rise of China is clearly strong evidence of the merits of the establishment narrative; at the same time, the “China risk” has impacted even the establishment narrative. China’s rise was also central to the geo-economics narrative. Importantly, the left wing and right-wing narratives have a China element to it. Finally, the fact that COVID- 19 originated in China and spread to other parts of the globe also fueled and cemented the geo-security or the global threat narrative.

In other words, but for the “China factor” most of these narratives about globalization identified in this book might not have existed or would have limited purchase. Economic globalization might have remained a romantic concept, which to the globalization cheerleaders was good enough to lift all boats. It appears that most of the narratives about globalization emerged given the rise of China as an economic power established on a system remarkably different from the western liberal order. Central to almost all narratives is that fact that China is a manufacturing powerhouse run by an authoritarian strongman state that apparently supports unsustainable production practices, disregards individual freedoms and singlehandedly contributes to the lion’s share of global carbon emissions. However, globalization as a concept is deeper and multifaceted. It has impacted at least in some way the lives of people who may live in the remotest corners of the world in recognizable and unrecognizable ways. The textile worker in Bangladesh or the migrant laborer in the seafood industry in Thailand or Vietnam may have a different story to tell. While the sustainability agenda is rooted in strong moral and conservation reasons, does it truly and genuinely reflect a concern to improve the labor or environment conditions in the Global South? In other words, are the sustainable concerns a mere façade to preserve the competitive advantage of the domestic industry? In developing narratives around globalization, these voices need a reflection as well. Roberts and Lamp indeed touch upon the sustainability narrative, but the focus is clearly inadequate.

While the right-wing narrative attacks liberal immigration policies, there is also a strong counternarrative that the rules of the current neoliberal trade order do not do enough justice to foster temporary movement of semi-skilled and skilled workers from the Global South. These narratives need to be represented stronger at least as a counter to the right-wing populist narrative.

In the chapter titled “Blind Spots and Biases”, Roberts and Lamp attempt to integrate certain other narratives including the neo-colonial narratives. However, some of the narratives might have undergone a transformation over the last few decades. There is a greater realization that economic globalization is not merely a western agenda is a remarkable change in itself. The neo-colonial opposition to globalization has lost most of it appeal in recent times and needs a rethink among the list of contemporary narratives.

Although the narratives broadly capture the theme of this book, globalization will sustain and flourish despite the narratives indicate that there is a world outside these narratives. Most of the recent efforts to decouple businesses and investments from certain locations have not succeeded or are unlikely to succeed. This is a clear indication that new narratives will develop and some of the present narratives will disappear.

On the whole, few books on globalization have provided such a colorful kaleidoscope of views, debates and perspectives. In that sense, this book stands out head and shoulders above other books in capturing the popular narratives about globalization. However, given the substantial focus of the book on trade and investment treaties, it would have been appropriate to have some discussion of the collapse of the WTO Appellate Body, a key element of a rule-based liberal trade order represented by the WTO. How the Appellate Body became an unfortunate victim to the purveyors of some of these narratives would have provided interesting insights to this impressive book.

Given the current world population grew from 1 billion in 1800 to 8 billion in 2022, no country would have been resourceful enough to sustain itself without movement of commodities, resources, and labor. Current concerns such as food security and energy security have already given risen to new narratives about globalization. As the authors point out, the pieces will shift and the kaleidoscope will indeed reflect new patterns and realities about globalization.

The book is a compelling reading for anyone interested in the debate on economic globalization, especially for politicians, policy makers, international lawyers and researchers interested in the field of international trade and economic diplomacy.

See Roberts and Lamp’s reaction

  • James J. Nedumpara is Professor and Head at the Centre for Trade and Investment Law, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi, India. The views are personal. Email:


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