The debate about whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union has taken place within a number of different rhetorical frames. Of these, ‘taking back control’ has been the most powerful. Anyone could understand what was at stake and take a position in the debate. As the debate about membership became a process of leaving, however, ‘taking back control’ became more confusing as a frame for the conversation. Over the past two years it has been hard to determine who is taking back control, how much control can be repatriated, and how much – under any circumstances – the British people will remain constrained and perhaps even powerless to shape their own destiny.
On 4 December 2018, United States (U.S.) Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo gave a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels about ‘restoring the role of the nation-state in the liberal international order.’ At the core of that speech, he posed a fundamental challenge to world order: ‘Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.’ He insisted that: ‘nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.’ And he went on to explain: ‘Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them.’ In the language of the most recent U.S. national security strategy, this perspective on world affairs is characterized as ‘principled realism’. Pompeo describes it more simply as ‘common sense’. While Pompeo is right that his view is common, he is wrong to believe in its realism or even that it makes sense.
On 28 September 2018, Lorenzo Forni of Prometeia invited me to give a short comment on the relationship between ‘populism’ and economic policy-making. Although, I hadn’t thought about that relationship before, I came up with four things I think we might want to consider (in addition to what we might useful think of as ‘populism’ in the context of the question Lorenzo asked). My argument was that populists bring new people into the policy-making process. They also bring a healthy dose of unpredictability. Their messaging on policy issues is not great, which causes problems in a world defined by rational expectations, and they tend to be skeptical toward independent agencies like central banks. Finally, populists are disinclined to international policy coordination. The combination is not wholly bad — sometimes change is for the good! — but the results are often below the promises that populists make to the electorate. The text of the presentation follows.
On Tuesday, 6 November, Americans went to the polls to elect members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the membership of the Senate, a handful of state governors, a host of politicians at the state and local level, and a series of ballot propositions concerning local rules and finances (like bond issues for school maintenance) across the country. These elections are called mid-term because they are held midway through the four-year term of office of the sitting national president.
The name ‘midterm’ is misleading, however, because it makes these elections sound like a national contest. They are not. Although the election results will have a strong impact on the performance of the national government, the mid-term elections are primarily local contests. Moreover, despite and perhaps even because of the very prominent role played by President Donald Trump in the campaign, these mid-term elections were even more local than most.
The past decade has witnessed a sudden uptick in secessionist movements in Europe. The uptick started on the western side of the continent with the 2009 Belgian elections, where the New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest party in the country; further to the east, we might point to the Russian invasion and partition of Georgia. Flemings, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians rarely fall in the same category for analysis. Nevertheless, there is something they have in common that warrants exploration. Moreover, that something is shared by the Scots, the Catalans, and the Russian-speakers in Crimea and the Donbass region.
The fast pace of change in European politics has everyone focusing on current events. Behind the scenes, however, politicians are manipulating how we view the past. Since change requires some kind of baseline or benchmark for us to appreciate its magnitude, we need to be very careful about how our memories are curated. The new ‘normal’ is only normalised when we forget just how far we have travelled and when we stop remembering (or appreciating) the lessons we learned through harsh experience.