Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide

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By Mark McGeoghegan

According to apocryphal anecdote, King Cnut the Great – who presided for a time over the North Sea Empire – once rebuked his courtiers for their unreasonable faith in his power over the world by setting his throne by the sea and commanding the incoming tides to halt. The tides came in nonetheless, demonstrating for Cnut’s courtiers the limited power even of kings. Yet no matter how often we have the limits of political power impressed upon us, we somehow manage to attribute to our leaders and their extraordinary power to reshape the world as they see fit. Enabled by our collective cognitive dissonance, politicians who promise us the world are unavoidable. The greatest sin a citizen can commit is to lend credence to their arrogance.

We seem to live in a historical moment infested by such politics. The Trump Administration; Brexit, and the emergence of strongmen and aspiring strongmen within the European Union, from Victor Orbán in Hungary to Marine Le Pen in France, are the prime – if not the only – examples. They are enabled by a common narrative: that we are witnessing the rise of a new brand of populism sweeping the Western world. Anti-establishmentarian and nativist, this wave of popular sentiment is being cast as a reaction to the globalism of modern political élites. Encompassing both the anti-free trade Left, and the anti-immigration Right, the new populism is sweeping away the old politics and creating a new order, one in which the key distinction is between those who want to advance globalisation, and those who want its reversal.

It is a powerful narrative which has become the dominant explanation for the changes we are seeing across the West. Yet it begs more questions than it answers.

In the United Kingdom the Conservative Party, whilst taking Britain out of the EU, continue to harbour ambitions of rapidly re-integrating the UK into the global economy through trade deals with everyone from China to New Zealand to the United States. In Scotland, anti-establishmentarian and nationalist sentiment are aligned in favour of remaining a part of the European Single Market, and the Scottish National Party campaigned in favour of remaining in the EU.

In France, the Presidency has fallen not to Le Pen but to the centrist and self-styled pro-European Emanuel Macron; his party, La République En Marche!, is on track to win as many as 300 of France’s 577 seats in the upcoming elections to the National Assembly. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, faces a challenge in the 2017 federal elections not from the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland, but from the Social Democrats and their Europhile leader, former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. In North America, in contrast to President Trump stands Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: in October 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals gained 150 seats to win 184 of the Canadian Parliament’s 330 ridings – Trudeau has advocated for more open refugee policies and the better management of globalisation, rather than its reversal.

If there is an irresistible populist wave against the political élite over globalisation, then Western political trends have a funny way of showing it. I am not arguing here that there is no anger over job losses, wage stagnation, or immigration in the West, nor that this anger is not connected to the way that globalisation has been managed, but there certainly is no overwhelming tide of popular resentment carrying anti-globalists to power. This is telling.

The fact is that globalisation is not a policy choice. As much as there are those who hark for a completely borderless world, these relatively fringe figures are not driving globalisation. It is a social process, one which has been in train for over a century. It is driven not by the conscious policy preferences of states or politicians, but by the broadening and deepening of social bonds across borders, accelerated in the past few decades through advances in communications technologies and an associated transition from international to global society.

Reducing globalisation to the trade and immigration policies of states is to utterly misunderstand what globalisation is, and to pretend to the power to undo the tangled web of social and economic ties which make up global society is to pretend to a greater power than that which King Cnut repudiated.

This is why one need not be a Farage or a Le Pen to win in the West. There is no evidence that Western publics are fundamentally opposed to the essence of globalisation: freedom of exchange, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. Between the ultra-cosmopolitan and the isolationist fundamentalist, there is a middle-ground which recognises that globalisation comes with risks as well as opportunities. The future of Western foreign and macroeconomic policy lies not in a misguided argument between more or less globalisation, but over how to manage it.

Western governments face a choice between engaging in globalisation, shaping it, and managing it, or withdrawing from that process, letting others set the rules and dictate the terms. As many in the United States sought to use the Unipolar Moment to justify withdrawing from the world, British Prime Minister Tony Blair – speaking at the Economic Club of Chicago – noted that:

“We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist […] many of our domestic problems are caused on the other side of the world. Financial instability in Asia destroys jobs in Chicago and in my own constituency in County Durham. Poverty in the Caribbean means more drugs on the streets in Washington and London. Conflict in the Balkans causes more refugees in Germany and here in the US. These problems can only be addressed by international co-operation.”

It seems that we are coming full circle. We live in a world of exponentially growing interdependence. No longer just between states, but between individuals and firms existing physically on the other side of the world. The issues we face cannot be solved by pulling up the draw-bridge. Two decades ago, we could say that a bomb built in Iraq could be detonated in New York. Today we can say that instructions for building a home-made explosive can be written and shared online in Chechnya, and the bomb built and detonated in London by a young Englishman radicalised over social media.

Two decades ago also, in his 1999 Reith Lectures, Mr Blair’s ‘favourite guru’ and eminent sociologist Anthony Giddens made a similar argument to the one I am making here: that globalisation would come with opportunities and it would come with negative externalities. The promise of globalisation would have to be achieved by maximising the former, and by managing the latter. Arguably, we have failed on both counts.

The ongoing challenge we face is how to manage globalisation towards the public good. Generating growth and trade whilst minimising jobs losses and stagnating wages. Encouraging the free exchange of ideas whilst mitigating against the spread of vile and poisonous ideologies. Allowing global society the space and freedom needed for it to grow and strengthen, whilst preventing some from abusing that freedom to harm or subjugate others. Giddens titled his lectures ‘Runaway World’. The implication is that globalisation is beyond our control (not a notion he necessarily endorsed). In a sense it is, but as the idealist would say: there is no philosophical gap between what is and what can be. Globalisation is not a choice, but its consequences are ours’ to shape.

The Trumps of this world will try to turn back the tide – they will fail. Yet the damage they can do whilst in office could be immeasurable and take years to reverse. It is time for Western politicians to grab the issue of globalisation by the collar, and initiate a new discourse which recognises what can be and charts a course to that new destination, with a pragmatic radicalism as their creed.

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