Make The Center Vital Again.

Make The Center Vital Again.

In the years following World War II, Western countries’ voters on the left and right supported liberal internationalism. They found a common cause in their support for policies that sought to expand international trade and cooperation and prevent the spread of communism. For decades, this “vital center,” as Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed it, held. But times have changed. Since the early 1990s, an antiglobalist backlash has seen the support of Western voters for parties favoring trade liberalization and multilateral cooperation fall by nearly 50 percent. The British vote to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, both in 2016, famously symbolized this transformation.

The current phase of antiglobalism in the West was birthed in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the postwar compromise between free-market capitalism and social democracy. During the Cold War, political parties across the West—left and right alike—were united in their commitment to combating the threat of communism. On the home front, they maintained a broad consensus to preserve welfare states. When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, the West’s politics changed. Foreign policy was no longer focused on the threat from the East. Political discourse moved on, and new growth strategies were fashioned in a world free of great-power conflict. Liberalizing markets and rolling back social protections to promote globalization eroded manufacturing and created a climate of economic insecurity. As voters lost their financial security and sense of national autonomy, they became increasingly receptive to appeals from parties on the extremes. 

The success of the antiglobalists has proven costly for the West, domestically and internationally. At home, a fragmented electorate has made it difficult for governments to muster the power and authority needed to govern in several countries, including Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom. This failure has fueled voter dissatisfaction, which, in turn, leads to greater political volatility and dysfunction. Internationally, this fragmentation has weakened support for Western priorities in multilateral institutions and fueled doubts about the benefits of liberal democracy. Early hopes that the unified response of Western democracies to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine would help break the antiglobalist fever have not been fulfilled. Instead, since the invasion, antiglobalists have made deeper inroads in France, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the possibility persists that Trump may return to the White House in 2025.

If Western governments hope to tame the antiglobalist passions roiling their societies, they could restore the balance between staying open to the world and safeguarding economic security at home. History is not the guide that many think it is. Turning inward or replaying the Cold War will not fix this problem. A new approach is needed to revitalize the center.

Things Fall Apart

During the Cold War, the professed commitment of Western leaders to a liberal world order won considerable electoral support. In the United States, liberal internationalism was backed by Democratic and Republican voters and significant business, labor, and agriculture segments. In Europe, voters favored closer economic and security ties with their neighbors and Washington. In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party also supported liberal internationalism, willingly tying its security to the United States while relying on state-led development, which secured the support of workers and farmers.

Cold War imperatives gave Western voters a reason to support liberal internationalism. So did the generous social protections granted by the postwar welfare state. The nature of these welfare provisions varied across the West, and support for them was always more assertive on the left. But the public widely accepted that governments were responsible for balancing the imperatives of free markets and economic security. Indeed, postwar Western policymakers viewed the welfare state as an essential part of the East-West struggle for ideological dominance; it softened the rough edges of market capitalism for working-class voters and countered Soviet claims that only communism offered a “worker’s paradise.”

To be sure, Western support for liberal internationalism was never unanimous. Every country had its naysayers. In the United States, progressive Democrats, including Senators Frank Church of Idaho and Vance Hartke of Indiana, worried about unchecked executive power and consequently opposed excessive military spending and interventionism. On the right, isolationist Republicans, including Senators John Bricker of Ohio, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and William Knowland of California, derided the United Nations and strong transatlantic ties as infringements on U.S. sovereignty. Some dissenting voices in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom fiercely resisted cooperation with the United States, fearing its hegemony. At the same time, debates over neutrality raged in Austria, Sweden, and Switzerland. The critical dividing line in these disputes remained between those parties in the vital center and those on the extremes.

During the Cold War, parties calling for an alternate foreign policy stood little chance of winning public backing. Consistently high levels of Western economic growth, caused by the huge expansion in trade resulting from the postwar economic recovery and the removal of tariffs, helped strengthen this consensus. Suspicions of Soviet intentions and fears of nuclear war also made voters skeptical of left-wing parties that seemed “too soft” on communism and right-wing parties that were considered too reckless or belligerent to be entrusted with the country’s security. Politicians who strayed too far to the right or the left—as did U.S. presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and George McGovern in 1964 and 1972, respectively—proved unelectable.

Mainstream party support for liberal internationalism remained consistently solid and resilient, despite occasional challenges. The most serious came in the 1970s when sluggish growth and runaway inflation caused a strong disagreement between the center-left—which called for increased government spending and market regulation—and the center-right, which argued for privatization, deregulation, and welfare reform. The center-right won. In the early 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan each began experimenting with different center-right economic policies. The success of their programs put pressure on other Western governments to follow suit. Even French President François Mitterrand’s socialist government found it necessary to pivot toward greater market liberalization.

The Center Can Not Hold

In the 1990s, however, everything changed. After the end of the Cold War, Western leaders began to see political advantage in liberalizing trade and granting greater authority to international technocrats. Parties on the center-left and the center-right saw the resulting market-driven form of globalization as a way to win the support of the most internationally competitive sectors of business and attract younger, educated, and middle-class voters who benefited from market liberalization. The leaders’ agendas in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States were cut from the same neoliberal cloth.

The enthusiasm of Western leaders for globalization after the Cold War succeeded in expanding markets and the reach of multilateral institutions. The EU and the World Trade Organization took on functions that had once been the exclusive preserve of the nation-state. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain, many industries in Western Europe moved east as workers from Eastern Europe moved west in search of better jobs.U.S. and Western investment in China accelerated.

At the same time, the ideologies and alignments that the Cold War froze began to thaw. As fears of communist expansion and nuclear Armageddon receded, voting for a maverick was no longer potentially fatal. Western voters, accordingly, became more willing to take a chance on those parties, candidates, and platforms that were once considered beyond the pale.

Recognizing this new reality, parties on the far left and far right began to reinvent and reposition themselves. Left-wing parties such as Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, France’s Communist Party, and Sweden’s Left Partycombined traditional antiglobalist politics of trade protectionism with positions on transnational issues, such as global justice, climate change and nuclear proliferation, to broaden their appeal among younger voters. On the right, parties, including Austria’s Freedom Party and France’s Front National, jettisoned long-standing rhetorical commitments to laissez-faire capitalism in favor of antiglobalism and social protection, hoping to appeal to disenchanted working-class voters.

In the following years, left- and right-wing parties also became adept at using antiglobalism to mobilize voters experiencing hard times. In the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing eurozone crisis, Syriza, a left-wing party in Greece, and Podemos, an anti-neoliberal party in Spain, exploited growing Euroskepticism and opposition to the EU’s demand for austerity to rally voters to their side. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, made gains in northern and eastern England by fusing an anti-immigration message with opposition to EU membership. In 2017, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, unsuccessfully ran for president, merging the party’s long-standing opposition to mass immigration with a new “strategic plan for reindustrialization” aimed at French regions hit hard by globalization.

These efforts did not catapult antiglobalist, populist parties into a national government. However, they did succeed in putting mainstream parties on the defensive by capturing a larger share of the national vote. Parties on the hard right, in particular, experienced unprecedented success in these years, their share of the national vote in Western democracies tripling between 1990 and 2017. This success was due in no small part to these parties’ willingness to fuse the explosive issue of immigration with opposition to trade liberalization and supranational institutions such as the EU; they succeeded in expanding their vote share, especially in impoverished regions.

Antiglobalism also became a driver of change within mainstream parties. Feeling pressure from antiglobalists over trade, immigration, and international cooperation, center-right parties became more nationalist and nativist and, in many cases, more protectionist. On the center-left, social democratic parties in Northern Europe sought to outflank those on their left who criticized globalization as a “race to the bottom” by urging that welfare standards be harmonized to curb the “advantage” of low-wage countries in Southern Europe. In the United States, Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders ran campaigns in 2016 that appealed to white working- and middle-class voters who felt left behind by globalization. At the height of the Cold War, parties on the center-left and center-right had more in common than they did with the parties and factions on the political extremes. Today, in many cases, this is no longer true.

Back In The 1950s

Although liberal internationalism has come under sustained assault, it is needed now more than ever. The rise of China, and increasing Russian aggression, have inaugurated a new age of great-power rivalry. To understand how to proceed, many foreign policy analysts such as Michael Beckley, Hal Brands, and Dominic Tierney have begun studying the Cold War for clues on reviving the vital center. Some suggest that policymakers today can capitalize on voters’ worries about growing Chinese power and assertiveness, just as their predecessors used the specter of Soviet influence during the Cold War to steer public opinion. Some go further, drawing stark parallels between a “new axis of autocracy” led by China and the threat posed by the former Soviet Union and its allies in the 1950s.

Foreign threats can certainly boost domestic solidarity. But the Cold War analogy can be misleading. Western solidarity then stemmed from more than fears of Soviet expansion. Western democracies also found a common purpose in their commitment to domestic social protections and liberal democracy. Social protection was seen as a complement to fighting communism during the Cold War because the conflict compelled Western leaders to prove that democratic capitalism, rather than communism, could offer workers greater economic security, equality, and opportunity. As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it in 1950: “There is no longer any difference between foreign questions and domestic questions. They are all part of the same question.” Without renewing this embrace of economic security and inclusive growth, invoking the threat of China is not enough to bring antiglobalists back into the fold.

Nor is fearmongering about China likely to unite Western democracies. Some capitals are more concerned by Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions than others. Western governments differ on how best to deal with China, even on the explosive issue of Taiwan. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement that Europe should not become a “vassal” in Washington’s rivalry with Beijing dramatically illustrated the lack of consensus. Most Western leaders favor a mix of carrots and sticks, hoping to maintain access to China’s markets and labor at the same time as they benefit from the protection of U.S. military power. For most Western democracies, dealing with China is not a zero-sum game. Here, too, the Cold War analogy breaks down.

Isolating China is not an option. China’s role in the global economy is too significant for it to be cordoned off through decoupling. Combating climate change also necessitates Beijing’s involvement, as China is the world’s largest carbon emitter. Chinese cooperation will be indispensable to any attempt to determine the climate future.

Shoring Up The Center

Today, Western democracies are struggling to keep foreign and domestic policy in balance. Commentators, including Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, and Kori Schake, see the war in Ukraine as a watershed moment for reaffirming the West’s commitment to the liberal order. But the revitalization of the liberal order will depend on more than the resolve of Western democracies in the current international crisis. To rebuild popular support for liberal internationalism, Western leaders could reimagine the relationship between foreign and domestic policy. They can reconnect their international policies to recognizable benefits at home for working families.

At a time when trade liberalization and other traditional foreign policies have fallen into disfavor, and the domestic coalitions associated with them have splintered, leaders could find new arguments about the necessity of international openness and cooperation. They could also forge unique domestic bargains and political alliances to support them. Western democracies cannot return to the postwar liberal order. They can, however, search for new ways of securing the benefits that the former order brought.

Renewal will require innovation, investment, and sustainable development. Some of these processes are already underway. Yet given the depth of the antiglobalist backlash, far more action and visionare needed if Western democracies can hope to revive the political center while still competing geopolitically. 

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