Will the Liberal Order Destroy Itself?

December 18, 2017 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: Donald TrumpMAGALiberalsImmigrationRefugeesAmerica

Will the Liberal Order Destroy Itself?

While cosmopolitan Americans grieved on November 9, 2016, that Trump would ruin the liberal international order, the order was already straining under its own ambitions.

Plants closing—feared by Whirlpool’s workers in Clyde—means people cannot provide for their families. Factory closures ripple out to the community; the decreasing tax base means fewer resources for schools, and fire and police departments. Stress soars as people often replace a higher-paying job with temporary work or with multiple part-time jobs. In the United States (until recently), people also frequently lost health insurance. Unemployment attacks self-esteem and social status, elevating depression, drug use, alcoholism and suicide. Social services face fewer resources amidst exploding demand. So when people heard a candidate finally talk about their pain, and lambast American leaders for negotiating “bad deals,” they listened—and cheered.

St. Denis, Paris.

Writer Ben Judah takes a walk in a suburb transformed by immigration. Most residents are of North African, Arab and South Asian descent. Judah talks to a woman, Maria, emerging from a Catholic church there. “Immigration changed everything,” she tells him . “The French have all left Saint-Denis. Look around you.” Judah notes that “Since 2012, stabbings, shootings and car rammings have taken place every few months, punctuated by slaughters such as Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan.” Immigrants themselves resent a thicket of regulations that keeps unemployment in their communities high; they suffer discrimination and anti-immigrant violence, and endure police harassment.

The scale of recent immigration to the United States and Europe has been massive. In the United States in 1970, the number of immigrants was 9.6 million (about 5 percent of the U.S. population). By 2015, this number had quadrupled to 43.3 million (13.5 percent of the population). Furthermore, the number of immigrants living illegally in the United States rose from 3.5 million in 1990 to about 11 million today.

Europe also recently experienced “one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history.” In Britain after 1997, under Labour leadership, the country accepted twice as many immigrants than it had accepted over the previous fifty years. One wave of immigrants came from Eastern Europe after several countries there joined the EU in 2004. Europe accepted millions of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, with a massive spike in 2015.


Immigration on this scale has fueled concerns across Europe. One issue is economic effects; immigrant workers increase the tax base, but large numbers of low-skilled immigrants push wages downward and increase demand for social services (education and health care), and create future entitlements for health care and pensions. People also worry about greater violence. Crime rates remain generally low, but terrorist attacks, whether rightly or wrongly connected to immigrants, have created a strong sense of insecurity. As Pew Research Center finds , most Europeans (76 percent in Hungary; 61 percent in Germany; 52 percent in the UK) believe “refugees will increase the amount of terrorism in our country.”

Europeans are also concerned about integration. As Angela Merkel famously commented, in Germany, multiculturalism “utterly failed.” While the United States generally does better in this regard, in Europe immigrant communities tend to be insular, with people leading parallel lives. An unsettling number even hold values anathema to their societies; for example, surveys of Muslims in Britain and France have found that about a quarter favor the adoption of Sharia law in those countries.

Across Europe and the United States, these different concerns have unleashed a political backlash to immigration. Donald Trump emerged victorious in 2016 after a campaign dominated by promises to build a “big, beautiful wall.” Right-wing parties have gained influence in France, Germany and Sweden. And as seen most recently in the Austrian elections , in “middle Europe,” “increasingly, their dominant political sentiment is antithetical to, even contemptuous of, the liberal, pro-integrationist ideals of the European Union.”

Primrose Hill, London.

The lads—Americans, British, Japanese, and an assortment of other Europeans—are running football drills. As practice winds down, the dads (and occasional mom) arrive, watch the boys run around, and chat amiably. Most of them are in the finance industry; some are in the high-tech or entertainment fields. Amidst them appears the odd journalist (or, like my husband and me, academic).

Life is good. Our kids go to the same schools and New England summer camps. We went to the same universities. Do you know my friend Helen? She was at Berkeley/Yale/Chicago then. Let’s get coffee after you get back from Zurich and I get back from Dubai. They are clever, kind, great parents, globally minded. They are horrified at Brexit, appalled by Trump.

Those on the Primrose Hill football pitch are the winners of the liberal international order. Globalization has made their production costs plummet, their markets balloon, their profits soar. Since the 1980s, incomes for the top one percent of American households rose 275 percent. Even me, a mere academic on this “Fortune 500” sideline: universities are booming as their intellectual property is demanded by a larger market than ever before.