Five Centuries after Magellan, Globalization Needs to Grow Up—and Fast
from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Five Centuries after Magellan, Globalization Needs to Grow Up—and Fast

On this anniversary of Magellan's first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, we should reflect on the trajectory globalization has taken—and adopt a more cosmopolitan approach to life on our shrinking planet.
Heinrich Scherer’s Magellanic world map entitled "Representatio Geographica Itineris Maritimi Navis Victoriae...," showing the route of Magellan's circumnavigation and the Victoria, the only remaining ship from Magellan's armada.
Heinrich Scherer’s Magellanic world map entitled "Representatio Geographica Itineris Maritimi Navis Victoriae...," showing the route of Magellan's circumnavigation and the Victoria, the only remaining ship from Magellan's armada. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Ferdinand Magellan did not intend to circumnavigate the globe when he departed Spain five hundred years ago, on September 20, 1519, in command of two hundred some-odd men aboard five ships. Nor did he succeed in doing so. The legendary Portuguese explorer, serving King Charles V of Spain, met a violent end in the Philippines, oceans away from his Iberian home. It was left to the Basque captain Juan Sebastian Elcano to lead the expedition to its destination in the Moluccas, and subsequently to steer the sole surviving ship, the carrack Victoria, and its eighteen remaining circumnavigators back to Europe and into the history books.

Although replete with cruelty, privation, and death, this three-year circuit marked a seminal moment in the history of globalization. It was the first human activity conducted on a planetary scale—the beginning of a sprawling “geodrama,” according to Harvard historian Joyce E. Chaplin.

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The first circumnavigation inaugurated the threading of the planet, initially by sailing ships and later by steamers, railroads, telegraph, airplanes, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and more. In the weaving of this global tapestry, distances became far less daunting. Today, people, goods, and information circle a world in constant motion, covering intercontinental distances in the span of hours or even seconds rather than years, encountering few of the obstacles or hazards Magellan faced. The planet, in many practical respects, has shrunk.

What has not changed in equal measure is our collective mindset about the world. Five centuries after Magellan embarked on his voyage, humanity still clings to anachronistic dreams and obsessions of geographic mastery, economic exploitation, and planetary dominance. We have yet to come to terms with the practical realities and ethical obligations of life on an integrated planet. To survive and thrive on a world that has grown both smaller and more interconnected, humanity needs to adopt a more mature approach to globalization. This new, planetary politics should recognize that cosmopolitanism—the conviction that humans belong to a single community, united by a common morality—is not simply an ideal. It is an imperative that must inform how we delineate societies, respond to new technologies, manage the global economy, view and treat each other, interact with the natural world, and countless other aspects of political life.    

A Long Adolescence

Magellan undertook his voyage to fill his purse and in service of Spanish imperial ambitions. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had granted to Portugal, among other things, an effective monopoly on trade with the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. Charles V pledged support for Magellan’s expedition to discover a Western ocean route to the Moluccas in hopes of establishing a viable Spanish spice trade and undermining rival Portugal.

The world of the early sixteenth century was a ruthless and unforgiving one of imperial rivalries, predatory commerce, religious obscurantism and superstition, political oppression, and intergroup violence. Magellan’s discovery of the strait that bears his name, and the confirmation of riches in the East, reinforced a European scramble for overseas empire. The result was a rapacious, proprietary approach to globalization, in which trade routes existed to be monopolized, overseas territories to be carved, and new lands to be “opened” to the world, but at tremendous cost, not only to the conquered but (often) to the conquerors.

Indeed, death was a defining feature of early circumnavigations, with crew mortality frequently exceeding 80 percent. Beyond poor medical knowledge, such attrition reflected the yawning chasm between the planetary scale on which Europeans were suddenly operating and the still-primitive state of their seafaring technologies, logistics networks, geographic knowledge, cultural understanding, and—not least—moral philosophy.

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Over the next several centuries, both the forms and norms of European overseas empire would evolve. Settler colonies, including in the Americas, would emerge. A massive transatlantic slave trade would help colonial powers extract wealth from the New World. Wars among mercantilist empires would occur on a global scale. Finally, in the late nineteenth century, Europeans would carve up a vast continent in the infamous “Scramble for Africa.”  

In principle, the creation of the United Nations system after World War II marked the twilight of the imperial approach to globalization personified in Magellan. Waves of subsequent decolonization dismantled formal empires, giving rise instead to a system of independent states ostensibly equal in sovereign rights, if not power. New principles of collective security promised to temper great power rivalries and the causes and conduct of war. Mercantilism and imperial preferences entered into disfavor, and open multilateral trade based on non-discrimination and reciprocity became a polestar for the international economic system. Universal standards of human rights and humanitarian principles, codified into international law, promised to liberate individuals from arbitrary rule and oppression, as well as the atrocities they had experienced from time immemorial. Finally, a waxing environmental consciousness suggested that nature was not a limitless realm to be dominated and exploited but rather the ecological foundation for human survival and even a valuable entity unto itself.

In fact, a closer look reveals substantial continuity globalization as it took shape some five centuries ago and its more modern variant.

The promise and pitfalls of sovereignty. Magellan’s benefactor, Charles V, was not only king of Spain but also the Holy Roman Emperor, the titular head of a sprawling confederation of overlapping kingdoms, duchies, and city-states. A relic of the feudal age, the empire’s days were numbered. A century after Magellan set off on his voyage, the Thirty Years War began. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended it, represented a milestone in the establishment of state sovereignty as the fundamental principle of political organization within Europe. Three centuries later, as decolonization accelerated, sovereignty became the undisputed requirement for full membership in world politics, entitling its bearer to recognition under international law and entrée into the halls of diplomacy.

This organizing principle is an integral element of the modern international system. What it has struggled to deliver, however, is effective international cooperation on shared global dilemmas. This is apparent in intensifying technology competition, enduring economic injustice, and rampant disregard for humanitarian principles. It is also obvious in the case of climate change, history’s most daunting collective action problem.

Technological Opportunity and Perils: Technological advances, in the form of caravels, muskets, and other innovations, facilitated Europe’s dramatic imperial expansion and its consequences. Similarly, transformative innovation is underway today, and its dizzying pace raises urgent questions of how to divvy up its benefits and manage its risks. Aspirational calls for artificial intelligence (AI) to benefit all humanity, as exemplified in the Asilomar AI Principles, imply that broad gains should be shared irrespective of political boundaries. Political leaders, meanwhile, are determined to pursue national primacy in cutting edge technologies like AI, 5G, and quantum computing. The resultant acrimonious technology competition scarcens opportunities for collaboration in basic research and impedes cross-pollination of talent and ideas, to the detriment of global welfare.

More worrisome, the zero-sum thinking that motivates such competition heightens risks that innovations will be weaponized. Since 1945, the specter of nuclear catastrophe has loomed over humanity, a testament to the mismatch between our scientific ingenuity and our retrograde morality. Our lack of cosmopolitan sensibilities risks crippling multilateral efforts to govern potentially destabilizing technologies in newer fields as well. The world is doing little, for example, to ensure that miraculous advances in genomics do not lead to disaster, in the intentional, inadvertent, or accidental use of pandemic-producing bioweapons. Nor has the world negotiated norms to mitigate novel forms of digital conflict, including grey zone cyber aggression and the weaponization of social media. Meanwhile, a budding arms race in outer space threatens to overwhelm urgently needed agreement on new rules that could (among other benefits) facilitate space situational awareness and traffic management, mitigate debris, defend the planet from collisions with near-Earth objects, and govern the private sector’s development of satellite mega-constellations and other extraterrestrial ventures. Getting a handle on these problems requires first and foremost moving beyond the gridlock and inefficacy that have too often characterized international institutions.

Economic Prosperity and Injustice: With the partial exception of settler colonies, the economic model for European empire was overwhelmingly extractive, with resources from the periphery benefitting the imperial metropole. This model reached its apotheosis after the 1885 Congo Conference in Berlin, where colonial powers carved up the African continent with little reference to local desires, political identities, or economic viability. Today, formal empires may be receding into memory, but exploitative dynamics often persist, particularly in resource-rich fragile states whose often venal regimes are happy to collude with multinational corporations in siphoning off national wealth that could be used to meet basic human needs. Actors in rich countries, including national governments, facilitate this extraction by maintaining an opaque global financial system in which beneficial ownership of assets tends to remain veiled and in which intermediary providers of corporate services are often complicit in illicit transactions.   

The hyperglobalization of recent decades has also distorted the world economy by rewarding capital far more than labor and generating obscene levels of inequality within countries. Its proponents have courted political backlash, protectionism, and discrimination as its shortcomings have become increasingly apparent. The abandonment of the embedded liberalism that was at the heart of the post–World War II economic system in favor of a more unconstrained global capitalism—replete with leverage and liquidity—wreaked havoc during the 2008 financial crisis. Beyond the vagaries of the financial world, movements toward a more equitable globalization, including greater corporate social responsibility, have grown more prominent.  Nevertheless, the obligations of corporations, including to their home and host countries and the citizens therein, remain a matter of fierce debate.

Governments’ commitments to national competitiveness, if taken too far, can be counterproductive at home and calamitous abroad. The Trump administration’s protectionist policies are a misguided effort to resurrect beleaguered industries and force adjustments on trading partners, while undermining the rules-based commercial order centered on the World Trade Organization. But the United States is hardly the only nation to have embraced discriminatory trade barriers or beggar-thy-neighbor policies. Like the post-1945 compromise of embedded liberalism at the heart of Bretton Woods, today’s global economy must be re-founded, on the basis of a new cosmopolitan social bargain, one that balances shared  multilateral rules ensuring equal treatment with sufficient national autonomy for governments to pursue social welfare objectives, including high employment and strong safety nets against global economic vicissitudes.  

Human Rights and Atrocities: Even in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, the barbarities that Magellan inflicted on natives he encountered, as well as his own sailors (in the case of mutinies), shock modern consciences. They were hardly exceptional. Troubled by the gruesome treatment of Amerindians at the hands of the conquistadores, Spanish Catholic theologians Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco di Vitoria argued strenuously against their enslavement on legal and philosophical grounds. The subsequent development of universal human rights standards, albeit at an agonizingly slow pace over ensuing centuries, counts as one of the greatest legacies of the Enlightenment. And yet even here, theological and pseudo-scientific arguments for racial hierarchies have provided grounds for discrimination, persecution, and even genocide into the present-day.

Notwithstanding the post–World War II “rights revolution” within the context of the United Nations, the global march of human rights remains a work in progress. Authoritarian regimes routinely violate human rights, while state and non-state combatants regularly transgress international humanitarian law. Freedom House has documented a 13-year democratic recession, as well as growing assertiveness of authoritarian and populist leaders in challenging fundamental civil and political liberties, constitutional checks and balances, and provisions to protect minorities and other vulnerable populations. These outrages underscore the inherent tension between a global political system founded on sovereignty and non-intervention and growing transnational exposure to the suffering of strangers. The sovereignty principle suggests that our duties to fellow citizens are superior to those obligations we owe humanity as a whole, but global integration complicates this ethical reasoning, by exposing us to human suffering abroad and enhancing our means to correct injustices abroad. As our awareness and our capabilities increase, so does our cosmopolitan obligation to serve as our brothers’ keepers.

Environmental Domination and Stewardship: At the forefront of the European imperial project was a conviction not only of civilizational (and racial) superiority, but of human mastery over the natural world. Nature was a thing to be marveled at and cataloged. But it was also a thing to be brought to heel and transformed for human needs.

And transform it we did. By 2019, humans had altered three-quarters of the Earth’s ice-free surface, and wild spaces had been reduced by half. Humans have cleared forests, devoted rangeland to grazing, mined mountaintops, paved the countryside, built sprawling cities, altered the course of rivers, reclaimed coastlines, deposited waste in landfills, drilled into Earth’s crust, and built 250,000 dams—at a rate of one per day. Biodiversity is cratering, and Earth is facing the sixth major extinction in its 4.5 billion year history—thanks to us. The oceans, meanwhile, are warmer than they have been in more than 100,000 years. By the end of the century, they will be more acidic than they have been in 14 million years. These changes are endangering the survival of marine life, including the phytoplankton that absorbs 50 percent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. And of course in the atmosphere, thanks to still-rising greenhouse gas emissions, current carbon dioxide concentrations are now 35% greater than preindustrial levels and higher than at any time in the last 65 million years. Scientists predict that by 2070, Earth will be hotter than it has been for the last 125,000 years.

Earth’s ecological crises cry out for a cosmopolitan approach. Multilateral negotiations among sovereign governments have proven woefully inadequate, even the much-ballyhooed Paris agreement, which seems unlikely to achieve its fallback position of no more than a 2 degrees Celsius rise from preindustrial levels. Five centuries after Magellan’s voyage affirmed our collective existence on a single round planet, we are increasingly struck by our dependence on a healthy biosphere for survival—and by the need for dramatic action not only by states but from all levels and segments of society—regional, subnational, civil society, the private sector, and individuals.

The Cosmopolitan Imperative

When Magellan embarked from Spain five hundred years ago, philosophers and theologians were aware of humanity’s shared cosmic location on planet Earth. Magellan’s expedition, in the imperial fashion of the time, produced the first circumnavigators, the first to personify the vast processes of globalization.  

Since 1519, of course, the world—and humanity’s understanding of it—have evolved dramatically. Today, a confluence of rapid technological change, gaping economic inequality, widespread human suffering, and unprecedented ecological degradation signal the need for a similar evolution in our conceptualization of the world and of the politics needed to shape its future. Adequate responses to shared global challenges require the cultivation of a new, pragmatic cosmopolitanism.

Political thinkers and leaders have long viewed cosmopolitanism as an ideal. Today, we must remedy our failure to recognize it as the imperative it is, essential for advancing our shared prosperity and safeguarding our collective survival. As the planet that we call home gets ever smaller, its perils are becoming more numerous and complex. We must adapt to this changing reality, recognizing that greater concern for our fellow humans, for Mother Nature, and for the world that we inhabit is no mere aspiration but a practical necessity. We are all in this together.

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