Does liberalism need global conflict in order to thrive?
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When you’re a child, anything that happened before you were born seems like ancient history. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, that’s how I thought about the Second World War. In reality, it was, back then, still within touching distance. My parents’ generation had been born during the war – and my grandparents’ generation had fought and suffered through it. At school, there were hushed whispers about a teacher who’d endured a Japanese prison camp and another who’d escaped the Holocaust.

That lived experience is now fraying away to its final threads. In another generation, it will be gone altogether. We’ll mark the centenaries with the same respect that we’re currently giving to the First World War – but we’ll also do it with the same, inevitable, sense of detachment. At least, I hope we will. Because, in this respect, an inability to truly understand is a blessing.

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Or is it? In a thought-provoking piece for Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen suggests that with our growing distance from global conflict, we are losing something more than memories:

“The open, democratic world order based on egalitarian rights and the rule of law — liberalism, for lack of a better term — is under increasing pressure. The signs, serious and less so, are everywhere.

“The trend has now hit so many nations that the explanation has to be global. Social media are frequently cited as a driving force, but I would like to consider an alternative or perhaps complementary possibility for the breakdown of liberalism: As World War II and the Cold War recede in our collective memory, people in the West are simply becoming less cooperative.”

Cowen’s thesis is that what he calls liberalism needs strong and tyrannical foes to (a) help define what liberalism is, (b) rally people around its banner, and (c) discredit the alternatives:

“After the end of the war, there was a general (and correct) sense that international cooperation had been crucial to the Allies’ victory, and that it would be necessary moving forward. World War II affected the lives of so many people, in most Western countries, that this feeling was deep and widespread. Furthermore, the ideas of the ‘populist right,’ which in some ways resembled the now-discredited views of the Axis powers, were not very appealing.”

It’s a fascinating idea – and it’s interesting that the populist surge didn’t begin until the political leadership of the West had passed to the post-war baby-boomer generation. Another supporting piece of evidence is that right-wing populism is notably weak in Spain and Portugal – the western democracies with the most recent experience of fascist government.

It’s not that the liberal West lacks for enemies and rivals in the world today. However, they’re not seen as strong and/or dangerous enough to pose an existential threat.

So, is that all there is to it: in the absence of global conflict, we start squabbling among ourselves? I’m not sure that even Cowen is fully convinced, which is why he spends the second half of his article looking at mass immigration as an alternative/parallel explanation for the populist surge.

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And yet, I think he’s on to something important when he mentions the “unprecedented array of multilateral institutions, including NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, the Bretton Woods system, the United Nations, and what later became the World Trade Organization” that were created by western leaders after the war.

These institutions still exist. Indeed, in many ways they’re more powerful than ever. What we politely describe as “international cooperation” – i.e. the globalisation of power politics – has an everyday impact on all of our lives. However, it has come to be seen – with good reason – as serving the interests of a global elite rather than the common good of the people of each participating nation. Whether in respect to military intervention in the Middle East, or the bailouts of the Global Financial Crisis, or the response to the Eurozone Crisis, or the terms of international trade, or the (mis)management of migration, the institutions of the post-war world are perceived as working to protect and enrich the winners of globalisation at the expense of the losers.

It’s not that ordinary people have turned against the principle of national and international cooperation, but that they’re desperate to be included in its benefits – and increasingly angry that they’re not.