The 14th Anniversary edition of Brent H. Cameron’s book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization is available now on Amazon worldwide.
Rarely do we have the ability to gain perspective in the middle of a situation. Human nature dictates that we tend to the here and now, to take care of the immediate crisis or challenge and worry about the ‘bigger picture’ later, when circumstances allow. The difficulty in this is that we never seem to emerge from ‘situations’. Resolving an issue means only moving on to the next one.
Those among the cognoscenti who have made it their mission to thwart Brexit, or the rise of populism wherever it manifests itself, should be credited with something. Despite their gross neglect of domestic challenges afflicting working poor and middle class people, their antipathy toward the plight of those outside their zone of comfort, or their inability to anticipate challenges, they do manage to pull out one big idea – an overarching narrative of the western liberal, rules-based, international order being weakened.
It is unfortunate, however, that they have no clue how or why we find ourselves in such circumstances in the first place.
To be clear, populism is not the cause of crisis – it is the manifestation – much like heart attacks are not instantaneous health events, but the consequence of doing too much of what’s bad and too little of what’s good. And if the body politic has high cholesterol, high blood pressure and clogged arteries, we should not blame the sharp pain in the chest. We should question those who controlled our system’s diet and exercise regimen.
A previous generation of elites moulded a free and democratic world from the ashes of war and destruction. They passed the torch to the current generation who have mismanaged and squandered this inheritance. They self-aggrandized at the expense of their duty to the broader society. Their hubris and arrogance created a world where illiberal power rose from relative weakness to become peer rivals, fuelled by the sacrifices inflicted upon those who live modestly and toil for their families. When those people complained about their circumstances, they were met with sneering condescension and insults. They were made to feel that not only was help not forthcoming, but that their current plight was somehow some karmic justice for undefined past sins of propriety.
And so, lacking the power of the purse or social status, a free people utilized the one thing – the only thing – that they had to seek redress against a cognoscenti that cared nothing about their future – their vote. If populism is a bitter fruit to elites, surely they must recognize that they were the ones who planted those seeds, and tended to their care.
That a cadre of thought leaders and described professionals can be so surprised and paralyzed by this movement shows a combination of hubris, incompetence, and a glaring lack of empathy for those who are not similarly oriented.
And so, our ‘betters’ continue to lose to populist parties and candidates – both left and right – and stand helpless in the face of aggressive posturing from an emerging superpower whose prominence was built on two decades of economic access advanced on the vague promise of changing their totalitarian ways, sometime, somehow.
Whether the cognoscenti likes it, the future may very well be populist. That is a guarantee of different, not better.
Those drawn to populism already recognize that there is no help on the horizon – no salvation or cavalry on the move. Those who had been entrusted with the power to do good have shown themselves incapable or unwilling to act, and people have voted to replace them with people who – while not guaranteed to make their world better – at least acknowledge the problem in the first place.
But replacing one set of leaders with another is only part of the answer. We are in our current predicament precisely because we have been led by people who saw their sinecure as an end in and of itself. Just being – and collecting – was enough. If populism is going to mean something – and truly matter – it cannot be the mere replacement of nameplates on desks and office doors. It cannot be the small and cosmetic either.
Populism needs its own big idea – and that idea is the same one that the current crop of elites profess to care so deeply about – the preservation of the western liberal democratic order.
Britain is seized by Brexit, but Brexit is a process (albeit an agonizingly slow one). What Brexit represents and what it leads to will prove its value. Brexit frees the UK to join similarly oriented partners in a ‘new globalization’ that harkens back to the ideas and values that informed the creation of post-War institutions.
We need a ‘Bretton Woods 2.0’ – a software upgrade for liberal democracies facing the increasing challenge of unrepentantly illiberal rivals.
The first, introductory step is CANZUK – the partnering of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Today, the CANZUK plan is official foreign policy in New Zealand, has major political support in Australia among the governing Liberal National Coalition, and may very well become official foreign policy in Canada after elections this October. A strong endorsement from a British government upon completing Brexit would be the final piece in place.
CANZUK will not save the world, but a free trade and free movement network of four major economies – grounded on reciprocity, democratic institutions and the rule of law, encompassing over 130 million people – becomes a new centre in an increasingly multipolar world. Its collective hard and soft power influence, as well as its existing relationships within the Commonwealth and beyond, would give it the ability to set the tone.
In less than 24 months, we could have a network that could strategically partner with the United States, India and other Commonwealth partners, Japan, and – yes – EU member states, on an agenda that stresses that relationships must adhere to the basic rule of law, that democracy and respect for human rights is a non-negotiable precondition, and that trade must be reciprocal, that no partner can be permitted to build itself up by tearing the others down.
Populists can avoid the fate of those they replace by envisioning this bigger world and building it – something that the current crop of elites have been incapable of rendering, even with every tool and advantage at their disposal.
If the populist moment is now, then at least let it count for something good in this world.