Writing in The Washington Post last month, former Treasury secretary Larry Summers suggested that the proper response to recent manifestations of popular discontent—i.e., the rise of Donald Trump and the vote for Britain to leave the European Union—should not be for elites to insist on continuing their decades-long project of globalization. Rather, they should recognize that “the willingness of publics to be intimidated by experts into supporting cosmopolitan outcomes appears, for the moment, to have been exhausted,” an observation that carried with it a tinge of lamentation.
In place of such intimidation tactics, he proposed that elites meet the people halfway, by fostering the development of an ideology he called “responsible nationalism.” This “new approach” would “begin from the idea that the basic responsibility of government is to maximize the welfare of citizens, not to pursue some abstract concept of the global good.” Under “responsible nationalism,” it would be “understood that countries are expected to pursue their citizens’ economic welfare as a primary objective but where their ability to damage the interests of citizens of other countries is circumscribed.”
The argument is as surprising, coming from someone like Summers (formerly a leading proponent of globalization and neoliberal capitalism), as it is disturbing, suggesting that the dream of progressives and liberals for more than a century—what Summers dismisses as “reflexive internationalism”—can now be officially declared dead. But not everyone on the left is fully prepared to concede that there can be such a thing as “responsible nationalism,” or that it’s the proper response to the small-minded, anti-immigrant invective that has fueled the rise of the far right in the United States and in many places around the world. We asked four writers on foreign policy and international affairs to consider the Summers op-ed and to respond to his argument.
A New Moral Order
Larry Summers’s admission that globalization isn’t all it was cracked up to be is a bit like the pope’s confessing that Mary wasn’t a virgin after all. In the old days, such heresy would be met by excommunication and torture. Today’s elite can disavow decades of their own sermons at the stroke of an insouciant op-ed. But entertaining though it is to see a fully paid-up member of the economic elite humbled, it is, alas, a little too late. The horse has bolted from the barn.
Summers nevertheless argues that the stable door should be slammed shut. His proposal is that national governments should now protect the interests of their voters rather than “reflexively” promote the merits of international cooperation. “Responsible nationalism,” Summers calls it—a pretentious contradiction-in-terms that conceals the same old poverty of thought. As long as environmental and labor standards are protected and tax havens are abolished (Summers, as high priest, doesn’t care to say how these miracles might be effected), national governments should be permitted to make decisions unconstrained by international obligations. This sort of gentle, paternalistic protectionism, he suggests, might be a cure for the more toxic kind of nationalism exemplified by the supporters of Brexit and Donald Trump.