October 6, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads – The Roots of Western Woes


A supporter of "Si" vote cries after the nation voted "NO" in a referendum on a peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

This has not been a good year for Western democracy.

First there was Brexit, a vote that is likely to result in a less open and less prosperous Britain. Then, earlier this week, there was the Hungarian referendum, which rejected EU plans to admit more refugees, and the Colombian vote against a peace deal with the FARC. And throughout this year in the United States there has been a groundswell of support for a candidate who frequently combines nativist rhetoric with illiberal policy proposals. How did we get here? A few theories offer some preliminary answers.

The first theory concerns immigration. Across the West, many governments have struggled to control the flow of immigrants into their countries—a trend that has been accentuated by the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. More immigration has meant heightened fears that national cultures and traditions are under siege. This has, in turn, resulted in illiberal policies that prefer closed borders over openness.

A second theory involves authoritarianism. The story here is that power in global politics has diffused in recent decades, away from states and into the hands of actors that are more difficult to influence and control. This has naturally led to political disorder, increasing the appeal of strongmen who can take power and impose order on a messy world. This helps to explain the staying power of authoritarian leaders in Cuba or autocrats in Russia.

The third theory links to trade. According to trade critics, globalization has proved to be a raw deal, resulting in jobs lost and wages cut. Working class citizens feel burned by deals and economic unions that have failed to live up to the promises of free-traders. In response, they are turning to illiberal, protectionist policies that will shield them from international competition.

While these theories offer only a partial view of a much larger picture, understanding immigration, authoritarianism, and trade will be key to understanding this unique era. The 2016 Chicago Council Survey, released today, offers further insight on where Americans stand on these and other pressing issues this year. Some of these views depart in surprising ways from the theories and election rhetoric, but deep-rooted concerns are nevertheless coming to the fore.

This week’s reads seek to connect theory with reality—and shed light on the difficult question of what is driving today’s illiberal trends around the world.

More Wealth, More Jobs, but Not for Everyone: What Fuels the Backlash on Trade

Peter Goodman/The New York Times

Peter Goodman tells the stories of those negatively affected by the trade-first policies of globalization. New evidence suggests the ratification of NAFTA and China’s membership in the WTO may have affected the American manufacturing workforce more than previously recognized, with the dot-com and housing bubbles of the early 2000s masking and delaying the effects of these trade deals. Yet economic data blames automation, not trade, as the main culprit for eliminating jobs. Ultimately, however, the reasons for the unemployment don’t matter much to the workers Goodman profiles; they see these as “instruments wielded in pursuit of the same goal”: paying them less so corporations can keep more.

What Is Russia Up To, and Is It Time to Draw the Line?

David Sanger/The New York Times

President Obama wondered recently if President Putin was content living with the current level of “constant, low-grade conflict.” The answer seems to be yes, as Russia escalates its airstrikes in Syria and supports hacking against the United States. Cyberattacks are ideal for Russia; they are cheap, untraceable, and perfect for creating confusion. However, US intelligence officials do not believe that Russia has a larger, more insidious goal in mind beyond bolstering Putin’s image of strength abroad as he faces serious problems domestically. The question at hand is whether the United States can live with the costs of not confronting Russia directly.

A Battle to Define Democracy

Alan Cowell/The New York Times

Democracy seems ensnared in a battle to redefine itself, writes Alan Cowell. Voters in the United States and United Kingdom are questioning the very notion of what qualifies would-be leaders to lead. In both, an inner core of activists is challenging deep-rooted political dynasties. This “malaise” is not limited to Britain. Thanks to effects of the civil war in Syria, the authority of elected elites is eroding in France and Germany as well. Looking further to Turkey and Russia, it is a time of wild-card autocrats maneuvering ruthlessly for power in perpetuity. “Democracies set the nation’s compass through votes that offer the losers the hope of a second chance,” Cowell writes, “but no one is talking about new elections now to clear the political murk.”

A New Cuba

John Lee Anderson/The New Yorker

With President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba underway, John Lee Anderson examines the implications for transforming the island nation. “The American people are not interested in Cuba failing,” Obama has said. “We’re interested in Cuba being a partner with us.” Even so, some Cubans, especially the elder Castro, think Obama’s visit this year was as subversive as the Bay of Pigs. In The New Yorker, Anderson provides a deep dive into the development of the Obama administration’s plan to open Cuba’s closed system through sedition and commerce, as well as American and Cuban reactions to the plan.

Theresa May: Taking Control

George Parker, Alex Barker, and Kate Allen/Financial Times

Theresa May dominates the post-Brexit political landscape in the Britain, with a routed opposition party and “glimpses” of a possible decade in power. But she has yet to explain how she will respond to the biggest upheaval in UK politics in a generation, other than to say “Brexit means Brexit.” Parker, Barker, and Allen trace May’s rise to power, outline the “hard” or “soft” Brexit choices available to her, and report on what’s known about her leadership style to shed some light on how she might wield the power she now commands.

Europe Needs Its Realist Past

Walter Russell Mead/The Wall Street Journal

The founders of the European Union were hardheaded pragmatists—and their wisdom could help today’s leaders handle Putin, migration, and Brexit, says Walter Russell Mead. The European unity project has been bogged down in slow, secretive, statist, and feckless bureaucracy. Venturing a solution, Mead says Europe must aim to become decentralized, outward-looking, and appreciative of hard power. Europe must embrace the national states and cultures at its historic heart and exploit their creative power, rebuild Europe’s military capacities, and proceed with a clear-eyed focus on European interests in a dangerous world.

15 Years in the Afghan Crucible

Carlotta Gall/The New York Times

It has been 15 years since American forces began their campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but sometimes it feels as if we are back to square one, writes Carlotta Gall. Having visited Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent since the early 1990s, Gall laments the general weariness with the campaign in the West. Gall describes how a redoubling of efforts to secure peace with the insurgents could be successful. It would be difficult, but the result would be welcomed by Afghans who have endured decades of war and serve as a tribute to the American soldiers who died there.

Special Report: The New Economy

The Economist

The consensus in favor of open economies is cracking, writes The Economist. In a special report, the magazine lays out what we know about globalization, examining the truths and myths about the effects of openness to trade and the costs of protectionism. It also investigates the complex effects of migration on jobs and the welfare state. Looking at deregulation and competition, it finds that a dearth of competition among corporations helps explain wage inequality and a host of other ills. Finally, in a section about “saving globalization,” it proposes fixes to make economic liberalism fairer and more effective. 

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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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