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.

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.

While fortune smiled upon Primrose Hill and other cosmopolitan enclaves, others suffered. Since 2000, real income for the American middle class is down 7.5 percent. Poorer Americans fared still worse; real incomes for the fourth quintile fell by 10 percent, and the bottom quintile was the hardest hit, with incomes falling by 16 percent.

At university, we learned about the enlightened liberal order that emerged out of the chaos of economic depression and war. We supported free trade because we knew the rising tide would lift all the boats; and because the spread of prosperity, freedom and human rights was good for the world. And over time we became increasingly isolated from, and even disdainful of, skeptics.

Views about immigration reflect perhaps the strongest divide. As Ross Douthat points out, in the United States, most voters either want immigration cut (35 percent) or kept at about the same level (38 percent). But U.S. leaders, rather than maintain or curtail immigration, have proposed amnesties for illegal immigrants, and recommended increasing the number of low-skilled immigrants.

British elites have been even less responsive to the public. “The chattering classes are still not too bothered,” writes Sir Andrew Green. “They like the cheap nannies, cheaper restaurants and lower inflation that the lower wages of immigrants bring.” In Britain, notes Schwarz , “a staggering 71 percent of the total voting-age population believe immigration is the most urgent problem facing the country; 76 percent want immigration reduced.”

When some people spoke out, the cosmopolitans were vexed that people could be so ignorant or so racist to oppose the liberal project. People favoring trade protectionism, lamented elites, don’t understand how much better off we are today! And opponents of immigration were racist. As Member of Parliament Clive Lewis said of British opposition to migration, “It’s ultimately about racism.”

Ignored and disdained by the cosmopolitans, publics responded with fury. Europeans voted for right-wing leaders. America Trumped. Britain Brexited. It wasn’t simply that voters disagreed with leaders. It was that they felt those leaders didn’t even represent them anymore—that they prioritized the liberal order above their own countrymen. As political scientist Leslie Vinjamuri argues of Brexit, “Leave” voters seemed angrier at London than they were at Brussels.

The spread of liberalism has been driving human progress for hundreds of years. Its reversal would indeed be disastrous: increased protectionism would erode prosperity and would harm consumers, and trade wars would curdle international politics. Fortunately, the backlash to the liberal order is less about its liberalism and more about its particular “order”—i.e., the specific rules and norms that have defined this manifestation of liberalism.


Over time, the order has bundled together numerous liberal doctrines—the free movement of goods, the free movement of people, the breakdown of sovereignty—and insisted that members accept them all. But members are pushing back. To maintain the order, its leaders must allow countries to choose the elements of the order that their people favor.

Embracing free trade need not require societies to accept other parts of the order: notably open immigration policies. Countries that want to make themselves into safe havens for refugees should be able to do so. But, as has been made perfectly clear, many European countries disagree with this as a mandate for the EU more generally.

Toranomon, Tokyo.

After a long day at a conference about Japanese foreign policy, we are enjoying dinner. Some American professors are scolding our Japanese hosts for Tokyo’s failure to accept Syrian refugees. I listen, baffled and torn. One diplomat gently reminds the group about Japan’s generous aid to refugees; he gets back an earful about human rights and pulling one’s weight. The senior official hosting us listens intently but his eyes are weary. He’s torn too.

Liberalism transformed Japan after World War II. Its embrace of free trade and liberal institutions fueled the postwar recovery. But the transformation was always on Tokyo’s terms; Japan has always ordered à la carte off of the liberal menu. Japan’s economic model, for example, embraced profoundly mercantilist principles such as infant industry protection, subsidies and state-directed capital to favored industries.

In the United States and Europe, the backlash to the liberal order has come from people dislocated by globalization; from people concerned about the recent scale of immigration; and from people who felt that their elites had betrayed them. While Japan’s liberal partners convulse in populist revolutions, Japan remains calm. Why?

In Japan, leaders agreed to cut tariffs but its market remains far from open; a myriad of nontariff barriers continue to restrict imports. And for workers who were dislocated by trade, Tokyo upheld the social compact. “The Japanese government basically bought itself political stability,” writes commentator Yoichi Funabashi . “The social security budget has nearly doubled since 1990.”

Whereas in Europe and the United States cosmopolitan elites ignored the public’s desire to curb immigration, in Japan, the public’s skepticism about immigration translated into national policy. Strict immigration laws mean that only 1.5 percent of Japan’s population is foreign-born (most of them from Asian countries with linguistic and cultural similarities). As for refugees—the policy my colleagues were so exorcised about at dinner—in 2016 Japan accepted only twenty-eight refugees out of eleven thousand applications.

The Japanese value social harmony; leaders worry about integrating immigrants because of Japan’s unique culture and difficult language. While leaders understand the challenge of the low fertility rate and aging population, they have been cautious to see immigration as the remedy. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe commented: “I would say that before accepting immigrants or refugees, we need to have more activities by women, elderly people and we must raise our birth rate.” Japan may someday move toward a more open immigration policy. Meanwhile, it offers a promising example of à la carte liberalism—of a country committed both to liberal values and to retaining its sovereignty.

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. A failure to take seriously the ideas behind this and other nationalist/populist revolutions will only empower another round of backlash, in which a more politically skillful and polished next generation could present a more formidable threat to the liberal project. After all, perhaps Ivanka (like Marine Le Pen) will someday sideline her inconvenient father. Meanwhile, the best way for the liberal order to survive is to listen to the people within it, who are tired of elites disdaining them while hoarding its gains.

Jennifer Lind is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, and the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics . Follow her on Twitter @profLind.

A previous version of this essay was published in Politique étrangère, Vol. 82, No. 4, Winter 2017-2018.

Image: A supporter holds a sign during a rally with President Donald Trump at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S. June 21, 2017. Reuters/Scott Morgan