What do Donald Trump, Vladmir Putin, Nigel Farage, Recep Erdoğan and other new nationalists have in common? They all blame hostile foreign forces for national decline, real or perceived. They have promised to “take back control” to make their country great again. They will fail, unless they can fix the very global institutions against which they rail.
Like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the recent wave of nationalism and populism took experts largely by surprise. Many post hoc explanations have focused on the secular rise of inequality, the resilience of authoritarianism, the persistence of racism and xenophobia, the decay of the public sphere in the digital era, and the long-term decline in trust in governments and elites.
These trends are important factors. But why have similar dynamics gripped so many diverse economic and political systems at the same time? Typically, the answer is “globalization”. But this complex phenomenon requires unpacking. Certainly the benefits of the post-war liberal order, though substantial, have not been shared equally. The consequences for workers in industrialized democracies, exposed to the so-called “China effect,” may have been particularly dislocating. But why is the anti-global backlash happening now?
Our shrinking ability to manage globalization is significant. The post-war order benefited from a largely virtuous circle in which increasing globalization required more global cooperation, which enabled further interdependence. The number of international institutions and their offshoots increased from a few hundred in 1950 to more than 7,000 today. By “embedding” the global economy in a linked system of domestic regulation and global governance, the industrialized world was able to sustain an economic miracle, as John Ruggie has argued.
In some ways, this system worked too well. As more, and more diverse, countries joined the global economy, consensus became harder. As global problems grew more complex and penetrated deep into domestic societies, interdependence demanded sharper adjustments. In response, institutions stagnated and fragmented, and global governance became gridlocked.
The consequences have been severe. Our inability to contain the 2008-2009 financial crisis cost trillions in household wealth and millions of jobs worldwide. We have not yet put in place adequate safeguards to prevent another crisis. Our failure to contain, let alone stop, the wars in the Middle East has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Our weak international refugee system has failed to alleviate the suffering of the millions displaced by conflict. While there has been some progress on efforts to mitigate global climate change, a year of violent droughts, flooding, storms, and fires across the world highlights how far we have to go.
Worse, our failure to manage global problems has fuelled an anti-global backlash. This weakens the system even more, by attacking the domestic foundations of the global order. It is a self-reinforcing gridlock.
Gridlock undermines our ability to manage globalization and deal with global issues. Significant segments of the world’s population suffer as a result. Exposed to the hard edges of global linkages, populations naturally react and seek to reassert national control. These political conditions let nationalist, populist leaders succeed. Wise governments could use this opportunity to regulate globalization more effectively, as Dani Rodrik and others have argued. But instead of calibrating nuanced and productive solutions, such leaders tend to reject global cooperation and openness altogether. This often exacerbates the very problems that brought them to power.
While the new nationalists are, in part, symptoms of the problem, they also compound it. How likely would Brexit have been without the refugee crisis in Europe? How would President Donald Trump’s electoral prospects have changed if workers in the rust belt hadn’t lost both their jobs and their mortgages?
The new nationalism’s global reach shows that we cannot understand the trend by looking solely at individual countries. Similarly, the link between gridlocked global governance and the new nationalism shows that we cannot develop solutions in isolation. In an interdependent world, better management of globalization on every scale is needed to really “take back control”.
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Making global governance great again will be a decades-long challenge. But already we see pathways of change emerging, sometimes in direct reaction to the new nationalism. Different actors are devising new ways to solve global challenges, be it philanthropists tackling disease, cities teaming up across borders to fight climate change, or local communities welcoming migrants and refugees. Ambitious declarations like the Paris Agreement or the Sustainable Development Goals focus us towards common projects. In some countries, politicians are even winning power by promising greater cooperation on shared challenges.
If we can build on these positive trends to find new and better ways to manage globalization and deliver real, shared benefits, we will undermine a key driver of the new nationalism. If we fail, the cycle of weakening global governance and nationalist backlashes will continue to spiral.
Thomas Hale and David Held's book Beyond Gridlock was published by Polity Press in September 2017.