A message of optimism for internationally minded professionals- democracy as we know it faces many challenges, but there is still time to rescue the direction of the international community.
Jon Allsop is completing his Masters of Journalism at Columbia University and is a guest writer for UNYP Queensland.
Foretelling the decline of the Western democratic order is in vogue. For those whose political fix comes from scrolling Twitter and stirring tealeaves over breakfast, ‘Brexit’ and Donald Trump are the beginning of the end for liberal internationalism. Marine Le Pen, they scream, is bound to be next. This sort of analysis is fatalistic; a reflexive pessimism ignorant of differing institutional and political conditions. If America had the French electoral system, Trump would have got nowhere near the White House.
And yet this is a decisive moment across the developed West and the hinges of populist nationalism are international in scope. Having thought for months on how best to summarise all this, I found the answer in a paper I wrote back in 2013, when I was a callow undergraduate at the London School of Economics.
The post-war notion of democracy that we cling to, I wrote, relies on a capable nation-state. Most voters still attach primary importance to national-level elections, where they pick a government to affect national policy change on their behalf. But in today’s globalised world, the levers of control lie at a higher level. They are in the hands not of prime ministers and presidents, but of regional and global political institutions, and the big companies that float atop them.
People have always thought politicians to be liars. But since the financial crisis and the dislocation of people, jobs and capital it unleashed, they’ve started to notice when they’re sold flaccid national-level solutions to hard international problems. Many want to respond by pulling up the drawbridge. It’s no accident that the ‘Brexit’ campaign’s simple “Take Back Control” slogan had such a devastating impact.
The backlash against internationalism is either the last furious death howl of scared conservatives, or a more fundamental threat to democracy and multilateralism. Fortunately, we as young internationalists still get to pick which of these turns out to be true. As I’ve written before, the resurgent nationalism gripping Western democracies right now has neither time nor the truth on its side. But its decline is not inevitable–indeed, if we let trust in politics corrode much further, something even more rabid might be waiting in the wings to replace it.
In his 2010 book Beyond the Crash, the former prime minister of the U.K. Gordon Brown wrote that globalisation is not a policy choice, but a fact of 21st century politics. I have always agreed with him; because I am a proud internationalist at heart, but also because tugging angrily at the world’s tightening bonds won’t magically unravel them. It would be a betrayal to give in to the craven populism of Trump and his co-travellers. More than that, it would be a lie.
Yet despite this, we can’t afford to sit back on our hands and preach the inevitability of further global integration when voters are trying desperately to reject it. This is what the heads of big banks do, and it is what the infuriatingly arrogant technocrats who run the EU did when they blindly refused to accept that ‘Brexit’ might be coming. We have to listen, and we have to offer solutions. And I think there are three ways we might do this.
Firstly, while globalisation is a fact, there’s room for grossly divergent policy choices within it. The left and right in most major democracies share an ideological framework of capitalism, but offer quite different takes on how wealth might be regulated and shared. Similarly, globalisation’s cruel consequences can be mitigated without us having to throw out the entire notion of a world with porous borders.
Where local industry has been hollowed out and jobs have been lost, we should offer serious investment in community revitalisation, and the seeds of new industries like climate change technology. Where free trade encourages outsourcing, we should act globally to penalise economic parasites without throwing up retrograde barriers that encourage price wars (and sometimes real ones, too). We should stand as one against the financial behemoths who blackmail regulators by threatening to move to tax havens should their profits be touched. And, most importantly, we should strongly defend open borders without romanticising the exploitation of vulnerable foreign labour, and the refusal to train and pay native workers that often comes with it.
Secondly, we must recognise that power isn’t just moving up from the national to the international level. It’s moving down too. Recent years have seen a marked empowerment of local actors, whose response to citizens’ feelings of powerlessness has been to engage them in meaningful action in their communities.
Perversely, globalisation is facilitating this shift. Bodies like the EU pay out money to regions traditionally neglected by national policymakers. And broader shifts in technology and communications make localities less reliant on resources from national industry and better connected to each other–through supportive networks that transcend borders. Internationalists must embrace this, not fear it. It gives people back control, without them having to take it from international policymakers who need it.
Finally, internationalists should focus on peace. Before moving to the United States to study journalism, I worked on the pro-EU campaign in the UK. Casting the EU as a guarantor of peace resonated with very old voters who remembered World War II, but was decried as hysterical scaremongering by the baby-boomer generation.
The current cannibalisation of the post-Cold War order could, maybe, put an end to this complacency about international peace. With a novice in the White House and profoundly anti-Western actors feeling unprecedentedly emboldened, international organisations have a crucial role to play in guaranteeing global security. This is scary, but it’s also an opportunity to salvage legitimacy.
None of these ideas is easy. But they all strike at a central conceit: that the international order is malleable to the better angels of our nature. The world is shrinking, but we get to decide what the shrinkage looks like. We must decide now. If we don’t, we abandon the field to those who would sell destruction instead.
By Jon Allsop