Liberal Internationalism for the 21st century

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How to keep the Western consensus from falling apart

CETA’s just a symptom. Is it too late to get back on track?

Colin Robertson IPOLITICS October 21, 2016

The liberal international order, based on free trade and open markets, is under severe strain. Reform and renewal must begin within the trans-Atlantic alliance of democracies.

These were some of the conclusions of a group of serving and former policy-makers and thinkers, from both sides of the Atlantic, recently brought together by the Ditchley Foundation for a weekend retreat at the Greentree Estate on New York’s Long Island.

Change — economic and social, demographic and environmental — goes beyond shifts in the balance of powers. A host of challenges — nativism, isolationism and protectionism — threaten liberal democracies. Brexit defied conventional wisdom and in the United States Donald Trump channels the angry populism of a vast number of Americans who think the system is not working for them.

The fix to this democratic discontent begins at home, through policies that address inequality while also rethinking how governments can better interact with their citizens.

In a practical sense, this means tax fairness designed to promote inclusiveness and investments in infrastructure that promote sustainable growth. The United States could learn from Europeans’ traditional focus on fairness while the Europeans could take lessons from American innovation and resiliency.

The next step: repair the western alliance. The habits of cooperation have deteriorated and old mistrusts have resurfaced. The U.S. is fed up with carrying the burden of defence, while the Europeans see American standards for the new economy as neo-imperialist.

We need a 21st century version of liberal internationalism that re-endorses free trade and open markets — but makes inclusion and fair distribution dominant themes.

open quote 761b1bThere’s a risk that we’re headed into a period of ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ mercantilism.

Elected leaders need to explain why we are democracies. We deal with complexity but it is just as important to communicate it — and this requires the support of business, labour and civil society. Current and new mechanisms need to be developed to deal with issues like climate and cyber-security.

Trade has become a particular flashpoint. There’s a risk that we’re headed into a period of ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ mercantilism. We have moved to a post-tariff world where the barriers are now increasingly regulatory. Fiscal policies will vary — but can we figure out agreed boundaries around currency, taxation and trade adjustment to avoid a race to the bottom? How do we bring to heel global corporations that have perfected tax and regulatory avoidance?

While great powers have weight and capacity, especially in military might, middle powers like Canada are often better at coalition-building and working at the diplomatic seams.

Middle powers are more nimble and they can make a difference when they find their niche. At the United Nations last month, Justin Trudeau promised that Canada is “here to help”.

Specifically, Canada can help bring a focus on gender equality, offer up our experience in the integration of refugees and demonstrate a renewed commitment to peace operations. Can we also figure out a way to export our successful experiment in pluralism?

If the first year of the Trudeau government was about telling the world that ‘Canada is back’, then the years to come must be about visibly demonstrating how, where and what Canada is doing to ‘help’. Words are fine but dollars are better — and we are a long way from our NATO pledge of 2 per cent of GDP for defence and the Pearsonian benchmark of 0.7 per cent of GDP for international development.

The bigger challenge for Mr. Trudeau, as for all democratic leaders, is sustaining commitments for longer than the life of one government. This means creating consensus, across partisan lines and with the public, that will endure changes of government.

Democratic governance today is increasingly about transactions, accountabilities and meeting operational objectives. But good public policy — especially now that the boundaries between what is foreign and what is domestic have effectively merged — depends on finding time to think and reflect.

The Ditchley approach — rigorous policy discussions during a long country weekend — is a throwback to an age before 24-7 news cycles and constant connectivity. Next month’s annual Halifax International Security Forum, with the backdrop of our principal Atlantic port, is a very useful variation on this approach. These kinds of forums may not provide all the answers — but they raise many of the right questions.

In a complicated world, we need more constructive thinking on the practical application of democracy and the liberal international order that sustains it.