The politics of revolt is dangerous nonsense

It's too bad Democrats wouldn't enlist a foreigner to deliver their rebuttal to President Donald Trump's address to Congress. They could have just replayed the speech given 11 days earlier by former British prime minister Tony Blair.

It was a passionate appeal to his country to reject its version of Trumpism. Mr Blair said the United Kingdom must reconsider Brexit, the narrowly won 2016 vote to withdraw from the European Union.

It is a speech worth reading because the parallels between Brexit and Trumpism are profound. At their core, both seek to undermine the big systems that have stabilised the globe and spread prosperity, security, rule of law, democracy and openness after two world wars: the European Union, the global trading system, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Nato, the United Nations and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Brexit and Trumpism argue for abandoning or diminishing all of these in favour of an economic nationalism that will - supposedly painlessly - make Britain and America better off.

Playing with these big systems is dangerous, not because they don't need improving - they do - but because many of the prescriptions - let's just put up a wall or exit - will make things so much worse for so many more people.

The critics are great at pointing out the flaws of these systems, but they always forget to mention the hundreds of millions of people they lifted from poverty to prosperity and the extraordinary 70 years of peace they maintained since the end of World War II.

In their place, the Brexiters and Trumpsters want to return us to a globe of everyone-for-himself nationalisms that helped to foster two world wars. They speak of leading grand "movements". Their vow is "rip it, don't fix it". As Mr Blair noted: "The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt."

It's dangerous nonsense. In the Cold War era, the world was glued together by these global institutions and by the fear and the discipline of two superpowers. In the post-Cold War era, the world was glued together by these big global systems and a US hegemon. We're now in the post-post-Cold War world, when US leadership and the glue of these big global systems are needed more than ever - because the simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalisation and climate change are weakening states everywhere, spawning super-empowered angry people and creating vast zones of disorder.

If we choose at this time to diminish America's global leadership and these big stabilising systems - and just put America first, thereby prompting every other country to put its own economic nationalism first - we will be making the gravest mistake we possibly could make.

That was a big part of Mr Blair's speech. Mr Blair is unpopular in the UK - but that's precisely what liberated him to say what many in British politics know to be true but won't say: Brexit was a stupid idea, based on an old political fantasy of a minority of conservatives; it was sold with bogus data; and following through on it will make Britain poorer, weaker and more isolated - and Europe more unstable. "The British pound is down around 12 per cent against the euro and 20 per cent against the dollar since the Brexit referendum," he noted. "This is the international financial market's assessment of our future prosperity: We will be poorer."

The way Mr Blair described Prime Minister Theresa May's commitment to executing Brexit - no matter what - sounded just like GOP leaders' support for Mr Trump's ideas after they had denounced them as utterly crackpot during the presidential campaign. "Nine months ago," Mr Blair said of Mrs May, "she was telling us that leaving would be bad for the country, its economy, its security and its place in the world. Today, it is apparently a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity' for greatness."

He added: "May says that she wants Britain to be a great, open trading nation. Our first step in this endeavour? To leave the largest free-trade bloc in the world. She wants Britain to be a bridge between the EU and the US. Is having no foothold in Europe really the way to do that?

"We are told that it is high time that our capitalism became fairer. How do we start laying the foundation for such a noble cause? By threatening Europe with a move to a low-tax, lightly regulated economy, which is the very antithesis of that cause."

As Mr Blair said of the EU: "In the long term, this is essentially an alliance of values: liberty, democracy and the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st century? Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question will be benign. Britain, because of its history, alliances and character, has a unique role to play in ensuring that it is."

So does America. But the spread of those values doesn't animate Mr Trump. The world is a win-lose real estate market for him. In the short term, he may rack up some wins. But America became as prosperous and secure as it is today by building a world in our image - not just a world where we're the only winners.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'The politics of revolt is dangerous nonsense'. Print Edition | Subscribe