The period from the end of World War I to 1950 also experienced some elements of globalization as new technology joined expansion in finance, trade, investment, and culture throughout the world. Yet in a major sense this was an era of deglobalization: first, the international economic system malfunctioned or broke down; then, during the Cold War, the world divided along ideological fissures.
World War I accelerated the expansion of U.S. business overseas. American firms were especially successful in replacing dominant British firms in Western Hemisphere and Asian markets. In addition, war requirements created a soaring U.S. demand for raw materials, especially copper, iron, and other key mineral products. Soon American firms, with the help of their government, began scouring the world for essential raw materials. Rubber companies acquired plantations in Sumatra, sugar producers expanded operations in Cuba, and meat packers enlarged their operations in South America. Paper companies opened pulp and papers mills in Canada, while mining companies purchased nitrate, iron, and copper mines in Chile. Oil companies explored China, the Dutch Indies, and other remote regions and invested heavily in unstable Mexico. War needs drove much of this overseas expansion, but American business leaders were not oblivious to long-term opportunities.
President Woodrow Wilson left an enduring mark on U.S. foreign relations, especially in providing American leadership for the postwar economic and financial system. But if he was the father of internationalism, then he also presided over the disruption of globalization. The defeat of the Treaty of Versailles demonstrated the variations in thinking about globalization. Prevailing sentiment was not prepared to abandon nationalism even as the expansive course of global commerce and investment and America's role in the world maintained their momentum. Americans would not fully adopt Wilsonian ideals until after the Cold War. In addition, globalization took a backseat to revolution. Mexico's new constitution under the Carranza government of Venustiano Carranza provided for restrictions on foreign ownership of land and subsoil resources. This meant that American investors would be limited to oil reserves; at the broader level, the clash was between nationalism and international legalism, with the former winning out. In Russia, the Bolshevik government survived a shaky start, including a civil war in which Americans participated, to create a decidedly anti-capitalist regime. At first the Soviet Union promoted globalization of the masses but not capital, lashing out at the imperialist nature of capitalist globalization. Moscow then retreated to building a socialist state under Communist Party control at home. Thus, the world started to split ideologically and politically even as Wilson's vision reached its expressive high point.
Yet many bankers and administration officials still sought outward, long-term solutions to promote peace and prosperity. Because Europe had bought three-fifths of American exports before the war, freer trade was a national interest after World War I. More generally, policymakers embraced internationalism. Understanding that the Great War had caused an explosion in U.S. exports and imports, that suffering farmers could be aided by overseas expansion, and that America held a key role in global finance, Republican administrations of the 1920s did not separate the international from the domestic. They pushed for globalism, albeit a less political brand than Wilson's. Global disarmament indicated one side of Republican engagement in the world. This effort energized citizens, diplomats, and businessmen into even more cooperative, internationalist endeavors during this era than before the war.
Cultural internationalism grew stronger as nations created numerous associations designed to facilitate global ties. An International Office of Museums, and International Congress on Popular Arts, and an International Society for Contemporary Music fostered linkages and understanding. In the United States, political scientists began studying the causes of war and universities offered new courses in various national histories and languages, all a reflection of the need to understand the global context in which America operated. Americans organized hundreds of scholarly discussion groups, such as the Institute of Pacific Relations, a multinational association of journalists, academics, and businessmen based in New York City. The new Guggenheim Foundation funded artistic projects and scholarly research, focusing on Latin American intellectuals. The Institute of International Education funded and directed foreign students to universities throughout the United States. Asians were the main beneficiaries, but increasingly, Latin American and European youth traveled to America to study. In this globalized ethos, Americans believed in peace and prosperity wrought by international contact. The influence of such private activity on foreign policy was extensive, demonstrating that globalization continued to some degree. Disarmament was one arena, regional stabilization and multilateralism another, and arbitration yet another.
Business made global connections in the 1920s. Air transport and travel became a reality under the machinations of Pan American World Airways under the leadership of Juan Trippe. American trade and investment multiplied. Along with the spread of radio, cinema was not only an American phenomenon but a global one as well; people around the world listened and watched the new media and thus developed some common cultural markers. Hollywood stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were known worldwide, for example.
Nonetheless, the onset of the Great Depression and World War II dealt a setback to further globalization. The globalizers of the 1920s—the Republican presidents and bureaucrats, the business and banking establishments—were ultimately limited by their own ideology and by the powerful concentration of forces that elevated the domestic economy over the international order. The effort at privatizing decisions and policy ultimately grounded itself on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and imperial trade preferences of the 1930s, which reserved British Empire markets for member states and excluded or discriminated against outsiders such as America. And politics could not be taken out of the economy; businessmen could not be trusted with, nor were they capable of, running the global system of trade and finance. The Republican governments promoted the ideology of technoglobalization but often refused to take responsibility through policies of running the world economy. They were unwilling to make the tough moves that involved political haggling at home—on matters like reducing war debts and tariffs, for instance—that were requisites to continuing their brand of internationalism. This proved especially so when economic times spiraled from prosperity to misfortune during the Great Depression.
Paradoxically, however, as governments turned away from efforts to harmonize and integrate the international economy to cope with domestic distresses, advances in technology continued to erode the barriers of time, distance, and ignorance that separated nations and people. Some of the most significant improvements in air travel and mass communications, particularly the movies and short-wave radio, took place during the 1930s. At a time when dire economic circumstances compelled most government leaders to think local, a few leaders in government and business dared to speak up for closer international economic cooperation. Thus, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., the head of International Business Machines (IBM) and the International Chamber of Commerce, mimicked Secretary of State Cordell Hull in proclaiming that freer international economic relations meant world peace, and that if goods did not cross borders, he feared that armies would.