This article first appeared in American Interest on September 30, 2019.
Globalism and globalists are major bugbears of the nationalists and populists now ascendant in political life around the world. Thanks to them, and in response to globalism’s supposed depredations, we have such phenomena as Brexit in the United Kingdom and the tariffs and trade wars of Donald Trump. Indeed, in the United States, in every direction one turns, one finds international agreements and institutions under assault.
On the third day of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral agreement to lower tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade across Asia. Shortly to follow on the scrap-heap was the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has blasted the World Trade Organization, saying if “they don’t shape up, I would withdraw.” Similarly, and even more consequentially, on multiple occasions Trump has dismissed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, declaring the alliance “obsolete” and a rip-off, and threatening to pull out. Even such seemingly technical institutions, like the Universal Postal Union, the global system for coordinating postal policies, have come under assault, with the Trump administration warning it might be heading for the exit door.
Conservative intellectuals in the Trump camp, tailoring their positions and pronouncements to fit with the president’s America First agenda, have been piling on. Instead of, as in former times, support for free markets for free peoples, we now find manifestos demanding opposition to “free trade on every front,” and bemoaning a worn-out conservative movement that undermines “the independence of nations.”
Dalibor Rohac’s In Defense of Globalism could not, therefore, have arrived at a more opportune moment. The book, as Rohac writes, is a personal one. In 1998 in his native Slovakia, he witnessed his country dispatch an autocrat and then reap the benefits from acceding to such “globalist” institutions as the European Union and NATO. An economist by training, Rohac is today a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the most thought-provoking and well-informed voices writing about European political economy today.
Drawing on a variety of disciplines with which he is conversant—not only economics, but history, political philosophy, and even game theory—Rohac offers a tour of current debates and discontents. The fundamental divide, as he sees it, is between those who see “nation-states as somehow natural forms of governance and those who see value in international pooling of decision-making.” As he notes, a host of problems, from terrorism to climate change to nuclear proliferation to ocean pollution, cross borders and are only amenable to international solutions. Those who rail against multilateral institutions in the name of national sovereignty, Rohac finds, “are either silent or revert to magical thinking about how such ‘global commons’ could be governed by individual governments acting in isolation.”
Though full of strong assertions, In Defense of Globalism is not at all a polemic. Quite the contrary, Rohac readily acknowledges that the critics of international cooperation are raising questions that “are not inherently illegitimate.” Indeed, he accepts some elements of their critique.
Migration, for example, he writes, has been “a challenge both to poorer countries experiencing brain drain and to societies in the West, which are not always in a position to integrate and assimilate large immigrant populations and where political elites have long been in denial about the true views of their electorates concerning the subject.” The root problem or contradiction here is that the free flow of labor—migration—has brought substantial economic benefits, but it has also set in motion countervailing political forces—too often energized by enterprising demagogues—that political systems have not properly reckoned with.
Rohac is thus avowedly “not Panglossian,” and he explicitly does not wish to be read as offering “an unqualified endorsement of all existing structures of international cooperation.” Nor does he believe that multilateralism is “intrinsically valuable”; it is instead just another “institutional form that can be put to good or bad uses.” His aim, therefore, is not to defend every aspect of current global arrangements, some of which have become dysfunctional, but to offer a new perspective on international cooperation that is “congruent with ideas of self-government and individual autonomy that have long defined the political right.”
This is an effort that requires demolishing a lot of conservative sophistry about the menace of world government. The idea of “’supra-nationalism’, in the sense of irrevocably transferring decision-making authority from national government to international bodies, is largely a bogeyman.” International institutions like NATO and the European Union are radically different in kind from, say, the Warsaw Pact; the core fact about their nature is that they allow for exit at any time. Far from being forms of despotism as some would have it—most prominently the Israeli political thinker Yoram Hazony—such multilateral institutions are the “responses of free societies to common challenges.” Indeed, their emergence on the world stage “has coincided,” writes Rohac, “with an unprecedented expansion of individual freedom, economic openness, and prosperity around the world.”
But that is all now being placed at risk. Resolving cross-border issues, particularly those involving security, requires international cooperation. At stake is nothing less than the continuation of one of the longest period of peace in history. But the world, Rohac warns,
finds itself today in a situation that dangerously resembles the 1930s. Across Western democracies, populist leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the people and denouncing the supposedly out-of-touch elites seek to upend the existing international order by scaling back international commitments. The repatriation of political control away from complex international organizations back to national capitals will have unintended consequences, not least the re-emergence of economic and political conflicts among governments.
Though cautioning against overplaying historical parallels, Rohac finds that our current predicament may be “even more dangerous that the dynamics of the interwar period.” More than seven decades have elapsed since the close of World War II, and collective memory of the effects of nationalism, protectionism, and war has faded away. It has become “natural, especially for younger generations, to see the world’s prosperity, openness, and relative peace as primitive, invariable facts of life.”
Prosperity, openness, and peace are not invariable facts of life. As In Defense of Globalism makes plain, at a moment when global institutions are under assault, they require nurturing and the sustained attention of an informed public. Rohac has made an important contribution toward that end.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is an opinion columnist for USA Today and a contributing editor at The American Interest.