July 13, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

The New Demagoguery

Dawn breaks behind the Houses of Parliament and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, London, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth 

Remarks delivered by Council President Ivo Daalder upon his acceptance of an honorary doctorate in civil law, awarded by the University of Kent, July 13, 2016.

Graduates of this great university; family and friends; Honorable Vice-Chancellor; ladies and gentlemen – it is a great honor to be recognized and to be receiving this honorary degree.

Professor Flockhart, thank you for that very kind oration. If my mother were here, she would have nudged me and whispered: “What a nice young man. Why couldn’t you be more like him!”

I am proud to have sat where you, the graduates of the University of Kent, are sitting today. That was 34 years ago. I don’t remember who at that time received an honorary degree or what the topic of his or her talk was. And don’t worry, neither will you. You are forgiven.

I have watched my share of commencement addresses and speeches by honorary degree recipients. I realize it is normal to use an occasion like this to provide you with all kinds of wisdom about the life that is ahead of you, about long roads yet to be traveled, about the inevitable forks in these roads that you will encounter… (And when you do, remember what that great American philosopher, baseball player and coach Yogi Berra, said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”)

And it is customary to leave you with all sorts of advice: to pursue your passions, live your dreams, reach your full potential, certainly ignore what your elders have to say.

But rather than repeat these bromides, I would like to use the few minutes I have to speak about a serious, important topic – the state of our world – the one you are entering into as graduates. More precisely, I want to talk about the state of the Western World, the state of Europe and America.

As Professor Flockhart said, this is my world. I came to Kent in 1978, a Dutchman who had been raised in Holland, Italy, and America. I eventually moved to the United States, married and started a family, and became an American citizen … I am an immigrant. I had the great honor of returning to Europe as a representative of my country at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

I am very much the product of a particular era – the postwar era, which witnessed the building of the European project, a project built by wise European and American leaders.

And I fear that this great project is threatened as never before. The result is great uncertainty about the future – your future – and I believe it is important we understand why and what you can do to secure that future.

Seventy years ago, in the wake of two world wars that left tens of millions dead and hundreds of millions more destitute, our leaders in Europe and America had the strength, the vision, and the wisdom to create a new international order -- an order based on cooperation rather than conflict, founded on a common commitment to collective security, mutual prosperity, and indivisible freedom.

They founded international institutions – the United Nations, the Bretton Woods financial organizations, the Atlantic Alliance – and European cooperative institutions, like the Council of Europe, the Economic Coal and Steel Community, the Western European Union, and, of course, the European Common Market.

Through these institutions, habits of collaboration and compromise replaced the previous patterns of conflict and war.

Rather than standing apart – and come to Europe’s aid only when it descended into fratricidal war -- America became part of this cooperative security and economic system. America defined itself, rightly, as a European power.

So by the end of the last century – which in its first 45 years had been marked by economic depression, by war, and untold devastation – Europe and America were a zone of peace and prosperity. A zone that after the Cold War ended in 1989, had extended even further, to include central and eastern Europe.

A Europe whole, free, and at peace was a truly historic achievement. There had been nothing like it in history, ever before.

Yet, today there is great uncertainty whether that Europe – and the peaceful and prosperous international order created over the past seven decades – can survive.

Over the past decade we have seen growing inequality within and between our societies.  A globalized elite – living in closely connected, global cities – has thrived as never before.

But within these global cities – whether it is in London or New York, in Paris or Chicago, in Amsterdam or Atlanta – a growing number of people have been left behind. And beyond these cities – out in other parts of the country – more people have lost out on the benefits produced by globalization and accelerating technological innovation.

All too many people, in the past fifteen years, have seen their wages stagnate or even cut, their jobs lost, hopes dashed, and dreams deferred.

Globalization has produced much that is good in the world – not least an extraordinary reduction in global poverty, as hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa found jobs and opportunity to provide them with a decent living.

But globalization has undeniably left a large number of people behind, especially here in Europe and in America. And our politics has been unable to offer them much hope, for the answers are neither easy nor easily doable in the short term.

Unsurprisingly, people have looked for others to blame for their plight – to immigration; unfair trade practices; big banks and big business.

Under these circumstances, the populist temptation has grown precipitously. A message that places people against the powerful – that is anti-elite, anti-establishment and, here in Europe, anti-EU – is a powerful, seductive message.

The populist message is being heard throughout Europe and America. Worryingly, it is gaining support. It is a message based on fear and anger – a message that pits us vs. them. It is a deeply divisive message.

Most alarming, the populist message is a nationalist message – of putting America First – of taking our country back … fier d’être Français (proud to be French).

Nationalism has its place in our world – to enhance national cohesion, to increase national pride, to motivate collective action. But a nationalism that emphasizes differences, that places self above others, that denigrates and demonizes those of a different race, religion, or nationality – such nationalism is not only deeply divisive, it is, as history shows, dangerously so.

Today, we are witnessing a New Demagoguery – nativist, xenophobic, and racist – which denounces the evils that are but offers nothing positive in their place.

Those who built Europe and the West out of the ashes of the Second World War had a positive vision, a vision of hope. Those who would take it down offer nothing of the kind.

The big political division today – in Europe and in America – is no longer left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative. It is open vs. closed – between those who want to have open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan cultures, and global foreign policies vs. those who want to close borders, put up barriers to trade, embrace nationalism, and pursue isolationist foreign policies.

While I fear for the moment – and worry that the New Demagoguery may usher in a period not unlike the 1930s – I have hope for the future. You, the graduates of this university along with all others in your age group, you are the open generation.

You are Europeans. You travel as easily to Berlin or Barcelona or, even Boston, as you do to Birmingham or Bristol. In the age of Easy-Jet, of Erasmus, and the Euro, open is the new normal.

You are graduates of the UK’s European University. You get it.

No doubt, we have big problems to solve – problems of low wages of high unemployment, skill gaps to be closed, inequalities to be overcome.

But the future is open – not closed. And you have it in you to make sure you succeed in solving the big problems. After all, as alums of the University of Kent, your hashtag is: #WeAreEuropean.

I thank you for your attention. And I wish you all the very best in pursuing your dreams in a world that has been – and must remain – open!


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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