by Judah Grunstein

November 23, 2016

from WPR Website

Google's cache PDF version








The Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election have offered clear examples of how emotion and affect increasingly drive political behavior.


In both cases, resentment and anger over unaddressed grievances, combined with fear and anxiety over radical disruptions to the economy and national identity, won out over reasoned arguments in favor of the status quo.

But emotion and affect don't disappear with the counting of the ballots. Election victories always create euphoria among the winners and despair among the losers.


The nature of President-elect Donald Trump's insurgent candidacy and his upset victory magnify both reactions.


The election outcome calls into question not only fundamental aspects of both of America's political party coalitions but also, given the uncertainty regarding Trump's foreign policy declarations during the campaign, America's role in the world and, by extension, the global order built upon it.

There are potential dangers in the reactions of both the winners and the losers.


The euphoria of victory often leads to overreach, making short shrift of the political capital gained at the ballot box. And as most incumbents in Western democracies can attest, the victor's popularity, which usually spikes after the election, is often painfully short-lived.

This makes the despair felt by the losing side all the more ill-advised. Proponents of the liberal international order are right to be concerned and even alarmed.


Even if Trump walks back some of his more iconoclastic positions or fails to successfully implement them, the grievances that fueled his victory, and Brexit before it, represent a significant challenge to the global order - and they will not disappear.


To the contrary, Trump's victory is a boon for like-minded politicians in France, the Netherlands and across Europe. The impossible has now become possible, and the inconceivable plausible.


Were either country to elect a government led by populist nationalists, it would almost certainly spell the end of the European Union, removing not only another pillar of the international order, but the one most fundamentally aligned with the core American values of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law.

Yet now that the shock of Trump's victory has worn off, resolve, and not despair, must be the order of the day for those who would seek to shore up the liberal international order. They cannot hope to do so without reflecting upon why it now bears the brunt of so much resentment and hostility.


Certainly, part of its current unpopularity is due to the fact that it is an easy target to blame for complicated phenomena.


Productivity gains and global labor competitiveness, for instance, are more directly responsible for job losses in developed industrial economies than is trade. And some of the more spectacular successes of liberal internationalism, such as the dramatic reduction in global poverty, have occurred far from the view of American and European electorates.

But simply dismissing the popular uprising against the status quo as ill-informed and misguided would be a mistake.


Politics is certainly about explaining complicated phenomena, but the events of this year should make clear that it is also about telling compelling stories. And for now, liberalism's opponents are telling the more compelling story.


To change that, liberal internationalists would do well to craft a new narrative, beginning with discarding the neoliberal ideology that coupled market-driven prosperity with the inevitable triumph of political liberalism.


After all, as cases from Russia and China to Turkey and across Latin America and Asia have shown, there is no law of nature that precludes market-driven prosperity from going hand in hand with authoritarianism.


Now that the shock of

Trump's victory has worn off,

resolve, and not despair,

must be the order of the day

for those who would seek

to shore up the liberal international order.



A new narrative justifying liberal internationalism is needed, one based on a bottom-up approach that begins by identifying the trends on the ground that are shaping grievances and driving political behavior, and then works backward to identify the changes necessary to effectively respond to them.


This narrative would take into account feelings as well as facts, propose projects as well as policies, and offer purpose as well as process.

It would examine the pillars of the liberal order, with an eye to striking new balances between its desirable aspects and the challenges they now face. Balances are always only ever tentative and fleeting in the grand scheme of history.


Some of the resentment on display today is simply nostalgia based on the misreading of a temporary moment of history - namely the postwar period of prosperity - as a permanent condition of a bygone golden era.


But clearly the costs of globalization's disruption have begun to outweigh the advantages of its openness to a sizable enough population of voters that new balances must now be found.

To begin with, balancing that openness with the popular call for protective barriers will require more effectively addressing the disruptions caused by liberalized trade and investment.


But it will also require seriously tackling the challenges presented by mass immigration, whose benefits for too have long blinded many advocates to the cultural impact that massive influxes of immigrant populations can cause. In some ways this horse has already left the barn, particularly in Europe.


But ignoring the issue or clinging to outdated ideological dogmas only plays into the hands of populists who exploit it for electoral advantage.

Another new balance that must be struck is between the multilateralism of liberal internationalism and the groundswell of nationalism currently on display in the U.S. and Europe.


Clearly some issues require an approach that transcends borders:

  • climate change

  • nuclear nonproliferation

  • terrorism

  • pandemics

  • trafficking of drugs, arms and people

Indeed, how effectively these challenges are handled is directly related to the current rise of nationalism, because unless people feel fundamentally secure within their own borders, they will look with hostility on arrangements that require ceding sovereignty to unaccountable global bodies.

But the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe also signals a growing skepticism toward the global roles of both places, whether America's as the world's security backstop, or Europe's as its safe haven for asylum-seekers.


Should both pull back from the lead on these and other issues, as now seems likely, thought must be given to how to fill the gap so that diplomacy, and not military force, remains the default position for deciding on the rules and norms of global governance.


This will be particularly salient for guaranteeing human security in areas where it is under threat and regulating the use of force in international affairs to prevent a return to limited wars.

Finally, a new balance needs to be struck between the resurgence of national identity and the emergence of global cosmopolitanism, which in many ways is at the heart of the current populist revolt.


That means treating questions of national identity with more respect, without ceding ground on the potential dangers that nationalism can present.


On some issues there can be no compromise; bigotry and intolerance in all their forms can never be countenanced. But so long as the discourse over national identity is dominated by nostalgia for an imagined past, rather than the opportunities of a shared present and future, the issue will continue to benefit populists.

Perhaps more than anything else, liberal internationalists should return to the core norms and values that anchor their aspirations for an open and rules-based global order.


Defending liberalism and political pluralism, human rights and dignity, and economic development to better meet the needs of the planet's growing population all make for a compelling narrative.


As a platform, it fits awkwardly into the landscape of realist power politics most likely to characterize a world given over to populist nationalism.


But it is one that liberal internationalism remains well-suited to advance.