What deglobalization might look like

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Steve Coll writes from Stuttgart that he’s seen what deglobalization looks like—Daimler signs with the Chrysler whited out. Then he reminisces:

Ah, Chrysler. I remember when Daimler took it over, in 1999. Its new German C.E.O., Juregen Schrempp, visited the Washington Post to explain himself. He was tall, confident, and evangelical. He seemed to answer every question with a reference either to the power of “global brands” or the putative efficiency of the “global supply chain.” He seemed the embodiment then of the rising Global Corporation Man; it was as if by just adamantly declaring the inevitability of global integration he could make irrelevant the fact that Chrysler made lousy passenger vehicles, far worse than those of Daimler’s flagship brand, Mercedes Benz. I had not been exposed previously to the emotional relentlessness of this sort of argument, from which Tom Friedman would soon make a great fortune … now Stuttgart has returned to a Daimler that, while still a global corporation, is more purely and proudly German.

I get the feeling there will be a lot of this going on in the next few years. My column for this week is going to be about the end of the love affair between China and corporate America. Its partly a story of U.S. manufacturers discovering that managing global supply chains is a big pain, partly a story of the Chinese government deciding that its job should be championing Chinese corporations and brands, not making life easy for foreign firms.

My initial thought is that this is good: Globalization became a business buzzword in recent years, and like all such buzzwords it ended up getting way overdone. The result was what BusinessWeek‘s Michael Mandel has dubbed the “trade bubble”—an increase in global trade volumes even steeper than the rises in house prices and household indebtedness in the U.S. Something had to give.

But there’s no guarantee that this retreat from overglobalization will be orderly. It sure wasn’t after the first great era of globalization, which ended with World War I.