Will the Liberal Order Destroy Itself?

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

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.

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.

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