What Happens When Liberty Fails to Deliver

THE RETREAT OF WESTERN LIBERALISM by Edward Luce, 234 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.

On June 6, 2017, the Canadian foreign minister made an extraordinary speech to that country’s Parliament. Rather than outlining a specific policy proposal or program, Chrystia Freeland chose instead to defend the current international system — what many call the liberal international order — and argue that Canada must play a vital role in defending, supporting and strengthening it. The reason for this urgency, she implied, was that it faced various threats, not least that the United States of America, the country that had built, nurtured and sustained this order, now seemed disposed to “shrug off the burden of world leadership. To say this is not controversial,” she noted. “It is simply a fact.” In an almost elegiac fashion, she thanked the United States for its “seven-decades-long contribution to our shared peace and prosperity,” implying that the era of America as steward of the international system was over. She never mentioned Donald Trump by name, but the speech was about him.

That the foreign minister of one of America’s closest and most like-minded allies should feel the need to deliver a eulogy to American leadership tells us that many around the globe sense a systemic crisis. To understand the nature of this crisis, we could not find a better guide than Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” An important caveat: Luce, a highly regarded columnist for The Financial Times, is not using the word “liberal” in its American, partisan sense, but rather in its older sense. Liberalism here means the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Luce argues that the ideas and values that organized these societies internally and externally are now under mortal threat.

I suspect that Luce came to the view that animates this book while working on his last one, “Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent.” In that book, Luce documented in unsparing detail the ways in which the United States was in economic decay. He painted a vivid and prescient picture of the hollowed-out towns and counties that once made up America’s manufacturing, mining and agricultural heartland, places that are now well known and much talked about. He described the world of what he called “everyday Americans,” who had not seen a rise in their incomes in almost a generation and who, as a consequence, watched their communities and families fall apart. As Luce says in this new book, the key problem is “the backlash of the West’s middle classes, who are the biggest losers in a global economy” that has been working for most everyone else.

He argues that just as economics has been failing to deliver, so has politics. The end of the Cold War ushered in an age of technocracy in which both parties huddled around the center, offering a variety of tax cuts on the one hand and targeted government interventions on the other. Referring to the left-wing parties’ move to the center, Luce quotes a scholar, Jan-Werner Müller, who said, “The third way turned elections into a mere choice between Coke and Pepsi.” If economic divisions seemed to narrow, cultural ones have grown, involving issues like immigration, race and religion, over which divisions are stark and compromise is seen as betrayal. The result is two angry teams, unable to trust the other at all, no matter what facts or evidence suggests. Despair about their circumstances and bitterness toward elites have left Middle America “so cynical about the truth,” Luce writes, “that it will take its script from a political version of pro wrestling.” All this has made American politics dysfunctional and paralyzed. If America’s share of the global economy has declined, its political model has slipped even more in global esteem.

At the same time, Luce points out, there is the challenge to the Western order from newly rising powers. He quickly sketches out a mostly familiar story of the economic emergence of China and the inevitable expansion of its influence in Asia and perhaps beyond. This is bringing it into conflict with the global superpower and, “under Trump,” Luce writes, “the two great countries seem almost destined to stray into some kind of crisis.” He doesn’t dwell on this prospect much; he is far more consumed by his larger story of the economic and political decay of the West.

“The Retreat of Western Liberalism” is really an extended essay, and it meanders a bit without getting too absorbed by any one issue. Luce writes in fluid prose, moving from a telling statistic to a striking quotation. Throughout, one is struck by his command of the material and the acuity of his prose — he is unsparing in his condemnation of the elites who didn’t see this coming, too absorbed in their own bubble, too confident of their smart strategies. Hillary Clinton and her crowd come in for special condemnation as the most egregious examples of elite groupthink the author had ever seen.

But while we all deserve criticism for missing the phenomenon of the “left-behinds” and the economic and cultural forces that were roiling large parts of the country, I am not yet convinced that we must write obituaries for Western liberalism. Since this book was written, elections have taken place in several European countries, and everywhere the pro-European, pro-globalist forces have done well. In Holland, the center-right candidate won. In France, the centrist reformer Emmanuel Macron now dominates that country’s politics like no figure since Charles de Gaulle. In Britain, the Labour Party had a resurgence. In coming elections in Germany, the center-right Angela Merkel appears likely to win. And if she loses, it will be to the even more pro-European Social Democratic candidate.

There remain powerful reasons to embrace and uphold the liberal international order. Britain, a perennially Euro-skeptic country, has decided to leave the European Union. But that Union has grown from six to 28 over the past decades because dozens have clamored to join. And they have done so for a reason. Consider the latest aspirant, Ukraine. In 1990, around the time they were liberated from the Soviet empire, Ukraine and Poland had the same per capita GDP. Today the average Pole is over three times as rich as his counterpart in Ukraine, and Poland is secured economically, politically and militarily by the European Union and NATO. It is not just elites who benefit from the Western order; it is primarily ordinary people.

The West faces many problems, and Luce outlines them vividly. But it has enormous reserves of wealth, talent and energy with which to solve them. Luce adumbrates some solutions himself, in a thin last chapter, and they are familiar variants of the center-left agenda (ones that, I have to say, sound a lot like those proposed by Hillary Clinton) — smarter redistribution, better retraining, etc. The important point, however, is that good policies do work. Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.

In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.