Unfortunately, in the intervening years the problems we face have only grown more acute and global while the responses provided by our political leaders have become more politicized and nationalist. Climate change, nuclear, biological and now cyber arms proliferation, international trade, internet governance, the transfer of work from man to machine, bank capital standards, human trafficking and genetic engineering, among others, are all significant challenges that require a coordinated international response. Instead the world is becoming more Balkanized and the responses less effective. Let’s examine why.
I believe that the core problem lies in the mismatch between the global forces that are increasingly driving our challenges beyond national boundaries and the historic sources of political power and legitimacy (at least in Western democracies) that arise in and are limited by these borders. Add to this the tendency of elected leaders to pretend that they can solve all these global challenges and the age-old demagogic weapon of blaming the foreigner, and we are left in an even worse place. Let’s take international trade and immigration as examples -– hot buttons in the 2016 US Presidential Election and in the Brexit Referendum. To explain to a democratic electorate that lowering bilateral tariffs increases wealth globally requires either a very patient politician who is willing to rise above jingoistic slogans or a crash course in Ricardian economics. Likewise, immigration helps to drive GDP growth, especially when birthrates are declining. However, these are relatively sophisticated arguments and it is far easier for the unscrupulous politician to blame free trade and immigrants for job loss rather than the far more difficult problem to solve of the transfer of work from humans to machines. Unsurprisingly then the populist solution to the “problem” of free trade and immigration is to build a wall to keep those evil, job-stealing Mexicans out of the USA or to exit the European Union to stem the flow of Polish plumbers into the UK.
While most of the blame lies with demagogic politicians such as Donald Trump, Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage, supportive media including Fox TV and the Daily Mail share some responsibility – in fact they are rallying the same audiences for commercial rather than political gain. We, the electorate and audience, are also to blame. First, because we have a duty as citizens of a democracy to take an active part in our political system and to educate ourselves to fulfill this duty. Second, because we must resist the modern tendency to assume there is a simple solution to every problem, an efficacious drug for every malady, a court-ordered tort award for every injury.
So how do we get out of this mess? First, we must not be too pessimistic. We live in a world in which more people now die as a result of having too much to eat rather than too little and in which more people choose to commit suicide than die in wars, terrorist acts or murders. We live longer, healthier lives; infant mortality and death during childbirth are down, and fewer of our species live in abject poverty. These are amazing achievements, and the fact that many of these improvements take place in the developing world should not drive us to beggar-our-neighbor in a zero sum game. What these positive developments are telling us if we are willing to listen is that the most important forces shaping the 21st Century are global ones. They are the flipside of the global challenges I listed above. Is it not then logical that we need more global or at least regional coordination not less? Rather than exit the EU, we should strengthen it. Ditto NATO, the Paris Climate Accords, the UN, G8, G20, NAFTA, TPP. I am not arguing that the US should renounce its national interest in an all-embracing Kumbaya moment, only that an America First policy will impoverish us all.
When Prime Minister Theresa May declared at last year’s Conservative Party conference that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” I took offense. Until we recognize that we can be patriotic citizens of the countries of our birth or immigration and, at the same time, responsible citizens of this planet that has been entrusted to us, we have only ourselves to blame for the failure of our nationalist solutions to our global problems.