Splendid isolation? Most people prefer globalisation

One day in 1956, the Irish civil servant TK Whitaker had a jolt when he saw the cover of Dublin Opinion magazine. An illustration showed an empty Ireland, beside the text “Shortly Available: Undeveloped Country, Unrivalled Opportunities, Magnificent Views, Political and Otherwise, Owners Going Abroad”. Ireland’s model of economic and emotional autarky had failed. Nearly half a million Irish people emigrated in the 1950s. By 1960, fewer than 3mn were left in the republic.

Besides people, Ireland mostly exported cattle, often on the same boats. So thin were trade flows that individual racehorses, travelling back and forth to Britain for races, could move the numbers. Whitaker, in his spare time, began writing a pamphlet that outlined a new Irish model. He advocated “production for export markets” and said “freer trade in Europe must be faced”. In 1958, his so-called Grey Book became government policy.

Ireland had decided to globalise, even if nobody at the time used that word. The plan worked. Today’s rich, open country originated with Whitaker (who died aged 100 in 2017), as Fintan O’Toole explains in We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958.

In the late 1950s, many isolated places were belatedly boarding the ship of globalisation that had resumed its voyage after 1945. Today, a similar drama is playing out, mostly along Russia’s western frontiers: cut-off countries are trying to globalise. The Ukraine war, often described as a battle for democracy, is just as much one for globalisation.

In the late 1950s, globalisation was winning the argument. The new European Economic Community was boosting trade, and in December 1958, 10 western European countries made their currencies convertible. On June 5 1959, Lee Kuan Yew was sworn in as Singapore’s prime minister and set about turning the impoverished new city-state into a global manufacturing exporter. A month later, Spain dumped its Irish-style policy of ruinous autarky and began luring trade, foreign investment and tourists.

The City of London, which had become a sleepy place of endless lunches and children playing on bombsites, as Oliver Bullough describes it in Moneyland, also found a way into globalisation: its deposits of unregulated offshore dollars, the so-called Eurodollars, tripled in 1960, as historian Catherine Schenk showed.

London, Ireland and Singapore have ended up among the world’s most globalised places. More recently, China and Vietnam have made similar journeys. It’s largely thanks to globalisation that, as Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College notes, between 1980 and 2019 almost all countries got richer, global inequality fell and extreme poverty plummeted. Trumpian isolationism denies this reality.

No wonder today’s isolated countries yearn to globalise. After communism fell, Ukraine watched its globalising neighbour Poland run away from it. In 1990, both countries had about the same income per capita. Polish incomes have since approximately tripled, whereas Ukraine is poorer than 30 years ago.

It’s one of several such failures: Tajikistan, Moldova, the Kyrgyz Republic, Georgia, Bosnia and Serbia could take “some 50 or 60 years — longer than they were under Communism! — to get back to the income levels they had at the fall of communism”, wrote economist Branko Milanovic in 2014. Some of these countries are emptying as 1950s Ireland did. Moldova estimated last year that perhaps a third of its citizens lived abroad. If a country doesn’t globalise, its people will, if they can.

For European countries, joining the world tends to start with joining the EU. That’s why Ukraine’s MPs stood and clapped in unison on July 1 when soldiers carried the European flag into the chamber. The EU this summer granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status and started accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

But Russia wants its neighbours to follow its retreat from all forms of globalisation except commodity exports. When it first invaded Ukraine in 2014, it hoped to stop the country signing an association agreement with the EU. Belarus, too, is in a battle between a regime that wants to lock it into the Putinsphere and a population that prefers the world.

Globalisation is never just about trade. It also involves travel, foreign music, and openness to other ways of life, religion and sex. Some people, especially older ones, fear these novelties but most crave them. Hence the discontent when a country cuts itself off, as the UK is doing, partly accidentally, through Brexit. The anger over traffic jams at Dover expresses the widespread British desire for continued globalisation.

As the Irish knew and Ukrainians know, there’s only one thing worse than being globalised, and that’s not being globalised.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at

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