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Europe Is the West’s Last Defense Against Populism
A sizable bloc of voters across Western democracies sense that they are on the losing end of globalization – and want to defect from it.
Pax Britannica and Pax Americana have together provided the foundation for the modern, globalized world. Yet as Americans and Europeans gather in Munich this weekend for a major conference on security affairs, the West’s two founding members — the United Kingdom and the United States — are backing away from the order they spent considerable blood and treasure to build and maintain. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump make clear that many British and American citizens have had it with the liberal international order that was consolidated after World War II. Struggling to earn a living wage, uncomfortable with the social diversity bred by immigration, and worried about terrorism, a sizable bloc of voters across Western democracies sense that they are on the losing end of globalization – and want to defect from it.
Fair enough. The justifiable anger of these voters makes clear that our post-industrial polities have not done enough to manage globalization and ensure that its benefits are more broadly shared across our societies. Trump’s election and Britain’s impending exit from the European Union are alarming wake-up calls; we ignore the plight of our working classes at the peril of Western democracy. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, his ascent reveals that the social compact that sustains democratic centrism and popular support for a liberal international order desperately needs to be recast.
The problem is that Trump and his fellow populists are not offering a new social compact; they are selling their supporters a false bill of goods. Trump’s policies and rhetoric may play to his base and its anti-establishment fervor, but the course he is pursuing promises, if anything, only to exacerbate the plight of struggling Americans. There is no going back to the industrial economy of the 1950s, when manufacturing jobs powered the U.S. economy. When that reality settles in, Trump may feel the need to resort to even more irresponsible populism, imperiling whatever is left of our fact-based, deliberative democracy.
A new social compact entails better managing globalization, not unplugging from it. If Washington builds a wall on the border with Mexico, slaps sizable tariffs on imports, and blocks or scares off the immigrants that help fuel growth, the main result will be an economic slow-down, higher prices for many consumer goods, and a less competitive and innovative economy. To be sure, Trump may be able to restore some manufacturing jobs to the heartland. But such jobs have been dwindling in number mainly because of automation, not because of foreign trade.
Furthermore, the United States will be “great again” not by building the best washing machines and air conditioners (although that would certainly be welcome), but by remaining the world’s leader in innovation, technology, and education — all of which thrive on newcomers. While many immigrants do work in the service sector, they are also critical contributors to the high-tech sector. A recent study of American start-ups valued at $1 billion or more revealed that half of them were founded by individuals from outside the United States and over 70 percent of them employed immigrants in high-level executive roles.
The United Kingdom is driving into a similar cul de sac. The Brexiteers are pursuing a “global Britain” that rids itself of the political and fiscal obligations of EU membership and is free to pick and choose its trading relationships. The promised result is a resurgent economy. But as Britain breaks away from the world’s largest market and watches manufacturers and financial firms flee to continental Europe, its economy is poised to shrink dramatically. And even if the U.K. remains open to free trade, since it represents less than 20 percent of the EU’s single market, it will hardly be in a position to negotiate better trade pacts on its own.
With both the United States and the United Kingdom opting for the politics of illusion and disruption rather than relying on deliberative discourse and informed policy making, the era of liberal internationalism that opened in 1945 could be closing. To avert that outcome, three urgent tasks are at hand.
First, centrists of all political persuasions must come together to offer a new social compact that is a credible alternative to the false economic promises of the populists. Restoring the faith of workers in the political establishment requires a comprehensive plan – fresh initiatives on education, vocational training, trade policy, tax policy, and wage minimums – to ensure that all enjoy an adequate standard of living and share in globalization’s benefits. Globalization is here to stay. But its unequal distributional effects must be addressed for the sake of democratic politics.
Second, while the United States and other Western democracies are buffeted by populist forces, the moderating effects of institutional checks and balances will be crucially important. Legislatures, courts, the media, public opinion and activism – these constraints on executive authority must be fully exercised.
Finally, if the United States and Great Britain are to be, at least temporarily, missing in action when it comes to defending the liberal international order, then continental Europe will have to hold down the fort. With the internal cohesion of the EU strained by the very populism the bloc needs to face down, it is not good timing for the EU to fill the gap left by Anglo-American dysfunction. But at least for now, European leadership is liberal internationalism’s best hope.
A version of this article is being published in La Stampa and Suddeutsche Zeitung.
Photo credit: DAN KITWOOD/Getty Images