Engagement Within Atlantic Societies Is Key to Local and Global Order

February 07, 2019
8 min read
Photo Credit: Triff / Shutterstock

In the Broadway hit Hamilton, the laconic voice of George III keeps repeating “oceans rise and empires fall.” That shrugging fatalism may be good art, but it is not the anthem our age needs. Rapidly converging technological, social, geo-economic and geopolitical changes demand quality and diversity of engagement throughout our societies far greater than anything visible today. Upon that will hinge the ability to address anti-establishment and anti-globalization impulses coursing through democratic societies throughout the Atlantic world.

This view is increasingly a premise, not a polemic, at gatherings of policy, business, and civic leaders from North America, South America, and Europe. The German Marshall Fund of the United States and Fundação Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil have used their convening partnership to highlight this—most recently at a conference in São Paulo that focused on the potential today’s disruption holds for renewing and reconfiguring a resilient and open global order, grounded in voluntary rules-based cooperation.

Engage like the Future Depends on It; Because It Does

One message, in particular, is increasingly clear when Atlantic thought leaders gather these days. That is the need for broader societal engagement in what will be a long, difficult, and high-stakes process of stabilization, rebuilding, and reinvention in national societies and global systems. Voices as diverse as sociologist and former Brazilian president Cardoso, Sweden’s ex-prime minister Carl Bildt, and former U.S. undersecretary of state Thomas Shannon underscored in São Paulo a key point: as conflict and confrontation loom, and global power shifts, how societies respond will determine whether citizens are able to maintain their democracies and the core values and interests that define the aspirations of majorities of them.

This is particularly important as deficits in traditional national leadership grow. Nowhere is this epitomized more than in the current unconventional U.S. administration’s attempts to accelerate a retreat from the United States’ post-World War II global leadership roles and alliances.

Elsewhere too those deficits are glaring. In many countries, the response is complicated by questions of capacity and will. Political polarization and the need to address key domestic priorities divert bandwidth from attempting the necessary systemic adjustment. Those priorities include economic inequality, migration, and internal security, which are all at the heart of popular perceptions of national wellbeing, identity, and even legitimacy.

These issues are pressing. But, even if government leadership is distracted or otherwise compromised, there is enormous and under-deployed leadership potential in other parts of democratic societies. That organic leadership can have exponentially more impact than the impulses of individual political leaders.

More Space Than Ever to Act

Today’s many stakeholders enjoy unprecedented space for action, are more interconnected and aware than ever, and are also bolstered by more inclusive regimes of rights and laws than ever. But there are also countervailing tendencies and ideologies in some states that seek to constrict space for civic engagement. This only highlights growing imperatives for individuals, businesses, media, schools, local officials, and other actors throughout liberal societies to leverage interests and political processes to engage, shape policies, offer creative alternatives and build common cause across borders in defense of shared needs.

Coalescing such whole-of-society leadership may seem a monumental challenge, but the domestic and international incentives are compelling and mounting.

Particularly as living memory ebbs, it is important to reflect on how much more overwhelming and uncertain a task was faced in the ruins of World War II. The global rules-based order that emerged was, from its beginning, a work of improvisation, often based on inadequate understandings. The outcomes it sought were far from inevitable. Its development and success required constant statesmanship and civic mobilization to convince skeptical publics of the merits of new global arrangements that ran against many strongly ingrained national traditions.

Today’s Atlantic societies are more empowered but they have more to lose if they fail to anchor their interests and politics in effective, relevant, and fact-based frameworks for cooperation. As the liberal order of the last nearly eight decades is eclipsed, they face the need to rebuild and renew under more auspicious circumstances than obtained in the late 1940s. People are far better informed today and benefit from once unimaginable improvements in terms of rights, health, education, and prosperity. Most important, they have the strong foundations of the order that made this possible.

Making the World Safe for Diversity?

Much of the impetus behind the United States support for liberal democracy post-World War II flowed from the conviction that this was the most effective and practical way to safeguard its citizens’ values and way of life—including a social contract that had evolved significantly in the 1930s and 1940s.

Today, a similar motivation, broadly shared in democratic countries, might lead toward different norms of cooperation to secure similar ends—particularly in a future world with multiple centers of power. Those norms might prioritize pushback on the outdated zero-sum approaches of some of today’s rising powers, global spoilers, and domestic actors alike. They may also include concerted work to convince competitors like China to play by more transparent and fairer trade rules.

However, as the political scientist Graham Allison pointed out recently, systemic renewal does not require changing every foreign regime into a democracy. He posited that maybe it is enough for now to sustain a world order that is truly, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “safe for diversity.” Achieving this, Allison observed, will take a surge of strategic imagination that stretches beyond much current conventional wisdom.

Agency, Not Complacency

As crises of governance, legitimacy and social consensus show in democracies in South America, North America, and Europe, it is necessary to focus on the profound opportunity cost of complacency and fatalism.

Atlantic societies, in all their diversity, have never had more agency, nor have they likely ever been stronger. The centrifugal drama of increasingly polarized politics sometimes obscures how resilient the core is, or the gravitational pull of the efficiency, stability, and innovation that a renewed and updated consensus can generate.

If history is a guide, that consensus will have to be built from the ground up. It will be shaped by the tenor and honesty of individual discourse; the practices and decisions of businesses big and small; creative new policies, enacted by local governments that respond to evolving priorities; the soundness of ethics and values that families, schools, and faith and civic institutions transmit; the integrity of media; and the teaching and exercise of critical judgment. It will be shaped too by a resolve to vote for competent and committed candidates for office at every level. In sum, a new consensus will be shaped by the engagement of all.

Renewal Underway?

In the United States, Europe, and South America it is possible to look beyond political dysfunction and confusion and see a center that, while not static, is holding.

In the United States, consistent polling and recent electoral results paint a clear picture of the majority. Most Americans are socially tolerant, want a country that is open to free and fair trade, know immigration is a positive and enriching phenomenon, support alliances, and favor multilateral cooperation to address global challenges.

In Europe, there is a strong popular impulse growing in defense of the norms, values, rights, and other concrete benefits that a whole, open, and democratic continent confers on its citizens. Members of the European Union will doubtless continue to shape the European project in new ways—and progress may not always be linear—but that may be precisely the means to renew popular support for it.

Brazil’s case is particularly instructive. Its democracy has been strained by epic crises of corruption, public insecurity, and economic uncertainty. The popular backlash led to an unmistakable electoral repudiation of the entire traditional political establishment in 2018. Yet, that outcome itself was the fruit of the resilience of Brazil’s institutions, notably the integrity of its independent judiciary that shined a light on the dysfunctions of the country’s politics, and shook the system to its foundations.

Brazil’s unconventional and untried new president, Jair Bolsonaro, from the far right, is now challenged to deliver something markedly better in those three areas at the center of the crises that facilitated his unexpected rise. If he helps achieve reforms that bring sustainable growth, safer streets, and cleaner government to the southern hemisphere’s largest democracy, the accomplishment will be historic. If, on the other hand, as many citizens fear, he uses his powers to promote divisive aspects of his social agenda that undermine civic rights and consensus, that broader success could be fatally stymied. The engagement of the whole of Brazil’s society in support of its democratic norms may influence this course decisively.

Globally, too, there are positive signs. Despite anti-globalization assaults, international economic integration is not collapsing. In fact, technological advance seems certain to strengthen it. The world trading system remains resilient. Even nationalist skeptics of free markets such as the current presidents of Mexico and the United States are trying to re-up to economic integration via a continuation of the North American Free Trade Agreement under another name. The belief of many that globalization’s benefits are declining and the associated anti-globalization reactions may be essential precursors to building the will needed to update norms to ensure fairer distribution of gains.

The Creative Power of Change

Zooming out, there is an opportunity to harness creatively some of the immense energy released as the tectonic plates of technology and global power shift. In a more competitive and multi-polar world, imagination and a thoughtful understanding of interests will be of more use than nostalgia and dogma.

A former foreign minister at the recent São Paulo meeting commented afterward: “I wish there were a thousand meetings like this going on right now.” There probably are, and this is a good start.

The liberal order of the last three-quarters of a century was above all a pragmatic means to a pragmatic end. That purpose should remain the guide for the Atlantic community. The proven and enduring dynamism and creativity of its societies is likely the greatest predictor of its success.