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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Why the liberal world order is worth saving

We too easily forget that there is nothing inevitable about peace or the march of democracy

Berlin 1989: It was no accident that, once the Berlin Wall had come down, the freedoms available in the west of the continent were grabbed with both hands by the formerly communist nations in the east. Photograph: Lionel Cironneau/AP.

Sometimes a landscape’s contours dissolve into the detail. This is happening now amid the fracturing of the west’s liberal order. Brexit, Donald Trump, angry nationalism and populist politics - all are closely reported and rudely debated. Lost to the cacophony is clear sight of just how much is at stake.
For all its blemishes, the post-1945 settlement ushered in a remarkable period of relative peace and prosperity. We can all list the mistakes - whether hubris in Washington, corrupt politicians in Europe or greedy bankers everywhere. But for the most part, the story has been one of rising living standards and a spreading politics of generosity.
Freedom has advanced in step with the absence of war between the great powers. We too easily forget that there is nothing inevitable about peace or the march of democracy.
We might have noticed also the synergy between a rules-based world order and flourishing open societies. What unites peace abroad with democracy at home is the rule of law. Substitute arbitrary power and states fall to war and societies slide towards authoritarianism. That is why we should shiver when Mr Trump, the president of the world’s most powerful democracy, casually challenges the right of US judges to uphold basic freedoms and disdains international co-operation in favour of America-first nationalism.
The system established after 1945 was built on US power. But it endured and, after the end of the cold war, expanded because US leadership was embedded in multilateral rules and institutions. Everyone had a stake. Washington sometimes over-reached - in Vietnam or with the invasion of Iraq. By history’s standards, however, the Pax Americana was essentially benign, resting as much on the force of example as military might.

Legacy of war
In Europe, a legacy of war between states was replaced by a system that recognised their interdependence. There are lots of things wrong with the EU, but nothing at all when set against what came before. Compare the peace and prosperity of the second half of the 20th century with the barbarism of the first. It was no accident that, once the Berlin Wall had come down, the freedoms available in the west of the continent were grabbed with both hands by the formerly communist nations in the east.

This order, of course, was the creation of the west. The redistribution of power within 
the global system was always going to impose stresses. Nations such as China have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the US-led open trading system. But Beijing was never going to sign up to liberal democracy or forever abide by rules and institutions of exclusively western design. The challenge was whether the system could be revised to accommodate the aspirations of rising states and contain the resentments of a declining Russia.
What was not predicted was that the rich democracies would turn against their own creation, and the question would become whether they could manage the insurrections within. The textbooks tell us that at moments of global transition established powers such as the US defend the status quo, while rising states such as China seek to upend it.
History has been turned on its head. With Mr Trump, the US has joined the ranks of revisionist powers, threatening to surrender US global leadership in the cause of economic nationalism. Britain has done something similar by repudiating the EU. Germany and Japan are almost alone in seeking to hold on to the old multilateral order.
The charge sheet against western elites is by now familiar enough. Globalisation was rigged in favour of the one per cent. Politicians, mesmerised by markets, conspired in the theft. The incomes of the majority stagnated even as they carried the burden of post-crash austerity. Bankers who should be in jail are still pocketing bonuses. Unchecked migration has heaped cultural dislocation on to the economic insecurities wrought by technological change.

These grievances cannot be brushed aside. Mr Trump’s xenophobia, the vote for Brexit in the UK and rising populism across Europe have been fed by the complacency of a political establishment in thrall to unfettered capitalism. Winning back public confidence requires mainstream politicians to deploy the tools of government - taxation, education and welfare policies, and yes, redistribution - to balance the excesses of globalisation.
No one should pretend, though, that the populists have the answer. Protectionism impoverishes everyone. Demonising Muslims will not make anyone safer. Locking out Mexicans or, for that matter, Polish plumbers, will not raise the living standards of workers in the US or Britain. Closed societies are meaner, poorer and more repressive. Rising nationalism most typically provides a backdrop to wars.
Memories are short. In Britain, the Brexit vote has stirred a fashion for rose-tinted spectacles. The 1950s were tough, the story goes, but communities stuck together. There were jobs and opportunities for the white working classes.
Breadline wages and slum housing, hotel signs declaring “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” and cabinet ministers who denounced homosexuality as a “contagious perversion” as dangerous as heroin addiction go unmentioned. Opportunity? University was for a privileged five per cent.
The danger with nostalgia is that it can blind you to progress.
Philip Stephens