Albert Einstein said nationalism was an infantile disease, “the measles of mankind.”
Post-Brexit, the U.S. has a choice—whether to descend into the juvenile sandbox of nationalism or to push on with globalism, meaning the strengthening of international alliances and liberalizing trade.
Doomsday voices are already advising that the U.S. should react to the earthquake in Britain by “protecting” its economy and jobs. They have never been more wrong.
Brexit proves as no domestic event ever could that the protectionist vision is both emotional and futile. It is based on a delusion. “We” will hold on to “our” jobs. “We” will bar entrée – sorry for the French word – to non-natives. After all, they look different and talk funny.
The delusion is that “we” are the only active party—that the rest of the world will be a docile recipient, a passive absorbent, of whatever policy America pursues.
The truth is that “we” are somebody else’s “they.” Other countries can put up walls as fast as we can. It is already happening.
The delusion is that protectionism protects without also restricting and diminishing. No sooner did Britain vote for Leave then every asset in the British Isles, every share of stock, every corner pub, every home with its trim flowerbox, was revalued down by 10%.
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and the Tory leader most closely identified with the Brexit campaign, attended the victory celebration looking, in the apt phrase of the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Sternberg, like he was attending a funeral. The savings that Johnson promised from “Leave”—350 million pounds a week, was it?—are already history. To the hopes that France and Germany will turn their other cheek, show some statesman-like or at least adult patience, and engineer a mutually advantageous transition, or even consider a recoupling, the answers, respectively, were “non” and “nein.”
Within four days of the Brexit vote, Johnson was already promising, in a column in The Telegraph, that Britons would still be free to live, work and travel in Europe, but it’s not clear how or why this would happen. Too late, Britons have discovered that across the Channel, “we” refers to somebody else. For anyone who can stop waving the flag and allow themselves an hour of detachment, it is obvious that this national skirmishing and sullenness has as much chance at increasing Europe’s and Britain’s collective prosperity as do kids fighting over a sandbox.
Keeping the peace
Walter Lafeber, my professor in international relations at Cornell way back in the 1970s, taught that economic conflict leads to military conflict. Since the end of World War II, America has had seven decades of peace in Europe and four peaceful decades in Asia, thanks in part to steady trade liberalization. Do we really want to squander it?
The puerile trumpet of the Republican Party—let’s do the world a favor and not speak his name—says we should launch a commercial war with China, and rip up our trade pacts. The base of his party, millions of its voters, is subsumed with intolerance and fear of immigrants. Much as other Republican leaders may decry it and regret it, that is the truth.
So it is up to the Democrats to be the voice of sanity. Really, it is up to Hillary Clinton.
In the aftermath of Brexit, Bernie Sanders called on his party—meaning Clinton—to “wake up” and “reject” free trade. Clinton has heard—before as well as after Brexit—that to rally the base, to answer to the moment, she should renounce her somewhat checkered history of support for globalism, including her support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. The New York Times, in a post-Brexit news story, seemed decidedly uneasy that Clinton, rather than surrendering to populism, was offering “reasonableness instead of resentment.” Just like David Cameron, Britain’s humbled and now outgoing prime minister, the newspaper noted, Clinton has been urging voters “to see the big picture.” She has been promising to manage economic upheaval, but not pretending that it is possible—or desirable—to stop it. The Times seemed faintly alarmed that Clinton hasn’t “recalibrated her message.”
Left unsaid is that in the wake of Brexit, Clinton has begun to show a quality not often apparent in her: political courage. In an interview with LinkedIn (LNKD), her fullest since the vote, Clinton talked about a range of measures—job re-training, guaranteed incomes, reintroduction of vocational education in high schools—to help people in today’s economy. She dismissed the fantasy—actually, she called it a “cruel fantasy”—that we could “turn the clock back.”
Globalism is here. People FaceTime with people across the globe; they hear about opportunities, are inspired by ideas, seek to buy products from places around the world. This is irreversible.
Flirting with protectionism
Clinton in this campaign has also flirted with protectionism. She has come out against the Trans Pacific Partnership “in its current form,” leaving herself room to support it later. In the LinkedIn interview, Clinton was more confident. She dismissed the idea that the Republican nominee, if elected, “can get you the job you used to have and even at more money.” Translation: factory jobs aren’t coming back in anything like their former numbers. (Manufacturing jobs are also diminishing in China, by the way. Thanks to technology, manufacturing—wherever it happens—gets done with far fewer workers.)
Clinton sounded incensed not that automobile plants employ fewer workers but that “you can drive through a lot of America, inner cities, rural areas, [and] they don’t even have access to high-speed broadband.” Building out that infrastructure, at public cost, makes a lot more sense than closing the ports.
Suppose, for a moment, that every state in the U.S. restricted employment to its own residents. No Ohio jobs to Indianans or West Virginians—only to Ohioans. Suppose the ban extended to products made outside the state as well. The loss to mobility, the restriction on economic freedom, the gradual tourniquet on prosperity, is nearly unthinkable.
The analogy to the global community is not perfect, because the American states are more cohesive than are the world’s various nations. That is one reason the European Union has stumbled. And plainly, the E.U. in its execution has been bureaucratic, rigid, mistake-prone.
But the British campaign talk linking “Leave” with “Freedom” was topsy-turvy. For all its flaws, the mission of the E.U. remains that of collapsing national borders, of overcoming the myriad laws, rules and regulations that divided Europe’s peoples. Clinton was right to voice support for the E.U., and similar liberalizations.
Never one for boldness, Clinton could dramatize the difference between herself and her putative rival with her choice of a vice president. My suggestion is a business person with liberal politics and a global portfolio. How about Howard Schultz, the liberal and very “green” chief executive of Starbucks (SBUX)? Think about the contrast: one party offers a bankrupt-casino mogul who promises to bring back old jobs. The other features an icon of American business that operates in seventy countries. One party’s candidate sneers at trade and vows to break our agreements, just as his companies failed to honor their debts and had to lay off workers. The other ticket includes a CEO of a global corporation with 190,000 workers and an A2 credit rating. Which would be more likely to sell a message of prosperity?
This would require that Clinton decisively move away from the populist and sometimes anti-business demagogues in her party. She would have to fully embrace the liberal pro-growth approach of her husband. In the aftermath of Brexit, Tony Blair, the former Labor prime minister (like Bill Clinton, a pro-growth liberal) said, “The center must regain political traction.” It sounded almost plaintive. More than ever, the center needs a troubadour. Clinton is the one who could play that role. It would be her finest moment.