Could anti-globalism actually leave liberals more room for manoeuvre?

21 May 2016


One of the most frequently cited benefits of international co-operation is that states can come together to deal with common problems.  The problems in mind are usually those such as international trade, environmental regulation and cross-border crime. They are not usually domestic problems of political dissatisfaction.  World leaders focus much of their energy in appearing to each other as strong and assured.  They are less willing to concede that their sleepless nights are not caused by international problems, but by anti-establishment politicians in their own countries.  This attempt to keep face is becoming increasingly unnecessary, as they are all increasingly facing the same single problem - dissatisfaction with liberal internationalism.



Europe has seen a dramatic rise in successful populist parties in the first 6 years of this decade.  On one side, left-wing parties such as Podemos and SYRIZA have challenged the austerity measures of the Spanish and Greek bailouts.  On the other hand, Golden Dawn and the Front National are just two of the right-wing nationalist parties that are increasing their political presence.  There are stark differences between many of these parties, but all have partly drawn their support from dissatisfaction with the European Union and the European Central Bank.  Their appeal is often in their anti-globalist rhetoric.  Left and right-wing parties express their frustration with big business and with trans-national and global institutions.  Dissatisfaction with globalisation appears to be the one thing that can unite Europe’s far-left and far-right parties. This is no mean feat, and it’s a feature of modern politics that deserves to receive a lot more attention. 



The success of these parties may appear to be the stuff of nightmares for centrists.  However, it pales in comparison to the cross-border issues that European leaders face.  If you listen to the rhetoric of many British Eurosceptics, you will get the impression that European elites could not negotiate themselves out a paper bag.  The refugee crisis is perhaps the most complex and devastating issue in Europe’s post-war history, so the strongest possible metaphorical paper bag poses no challenge in comparison.  If this lack of faith in the EU becomes gospel, the damage to its legitimacy could be devastating.  It could therefore be in the interests of centrist politicians to confront this political dissatisfaction head on, before it creates a completely different monster. 



America is now facing a similar problem of political dissatisfaction.  Bernie Sanders represents the anti-establishment sentiment of the American left, even styling himself as a European-style democratic socialist.  Donald Trump, on the other hand, is an unashamedly anti-establishment figure that appeals to disaffected voters, but with a far more conservative agenda.  If Hillary Clinton proves most predictions correct and is elected president in November (which is a big “if” in a year of failed predictions), then the world will have a committed liberal internationalist in its most powerful office.  Although she may be keen to protect US commitment to NATO, NAFTA and liberal internationalism in general, the pressure that Sanders and Trump will have applied to the status quo may still need to be addressed. 



The question we must now ask is whether this common problem will change how world leaders interact with each other.  It may no longer be deemed necessary for them to look to ignore anti-globalist sentiment and look to protect the liberal internationalist order.  Where they may once have put domestic populism aside for fear of how their counterparts would respond to their demands, they may now realise that they are facing the same pressures and concerns.  The rock may be more movable and the hard place may be softer than previously believed. 

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