In the years immediately following World War II, voters on the left and right in Western countries both backed liberal internationalism. They found common cause in their support for policies that sought to expand international trade and cooperation and prevent the spread of communism. For decades, this “vital center,” as Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed it, held. But times have changed. Since the early 1990s, an antiglobalist backlash has seen the support of Western voters for parties favoring trade liberalization and multilateral cooperation fall by nearly 50 percent. The British vote to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, both in 2016, famously symbolized this transformation.
The current phase of antiglobalism in the West was birthed in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the postwar compromise between free-market capitalism and social democracy. During the Cold War, political parties across the West—left and right alike—were united in their commitment to combating the threat of communism. On the home front, they maintained a broad consensus in favor of preserving welfare states. When the Soviet Union collapsed, however, the West’s politics changed. Foreign policy was no longer focused on the threat from the east. Political discourse moved on, and new growth strategies were fashioned in a world free of great-power conflict. Liberalizing markets and the rolling back of social protections to promote globalization eroded manufacturing and created a climate of economic insecurity. As voters lost their economic security and their sense of national autonomy, they grew increasingly receptive to appeals from parties on the extremes.
The success of the antiglobalists has proven costly for the West, domestically as well as internationally. At home, a fragmented electorate has made it difficult for governments to muster the power and authority needed to govern in a number of countries, including Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom. This failure has fueled voter dissatisfaction, which, in turn, leads to greater political volatility and dysfunction. Internationally, this fragmentation has weakened support for Western priorities in multilateral institutions and fueled doubts about the benefits of liberal democracy. Early hopes that the unified response of Western democracies to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine would help break the antiglobalist fever have not been fulfilled. Instead, since the invasion, antiglobalists have made deeper inroads in France, Italy, Sweden, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the possibility persists that Trump may return to the White House in 2025.
If Western governments hope to tame the antiglobalist passions roiling their societies, they must restore the balance between staying open to the world and safeguarding economic security at home. History is not the guide that many think it is. Turning inward or replaying the Cold War will not fix this problem. A new approach is needed to revitalize the center.