Charles A. Kupchan
A crisis of governability has beset the Western world. It is no accident that
Globalization was supposed to have played to the advantage of liberal societies, which were presumably best suited to capitalize on the fast and fluid global marketplace. But instead, for the better part of two decades, middle-class wages in the world's leading democracies have been stagnant and economic inequality has been rising sharply.
The plight of the West's middle class is the consequence primarily of the integration into global markets of billions of low-wage workers from the developing world. Globalization is not just bringing economic distress to Western electorates, but also confronting them with intensified transnational threats, such as international crime, terrorism, unwanted immigration, and environmental degradation.
Voters confronted with these challenges look to their elected representatives for help. But just as globalization is stimulating this pressing demand for responsive governance, it is also ensuring that its provision is in desperately short supply. For three reasons, Western governments are experiencing unprecedented ineffectiveness.
First, the interdependence born of globalization dilutes the impact of many of the traditional policy tools used by liberal democracies. Struggling Western economies, for example, seem all but immune to stimulus spending and other efforts to foster growth. The scope and speed of global flows of commerce and capital mean that actions taken in Western capitals are outweighed by developments elsewhere, such as
Second, the diffusion of power from the West to the rest means that there are today many new cooks in the kitchen; effective action no longer rests primarily on collaboration among like-minded democracies. Instead, it depends on teamwork across a much more diverse -- and unwieldy -- circle of states. On issues ranging from rebalancing the global economy to isolating
Third, democracies can be nimble and responsive when their electorates are content, but they are clumsy and sluggish when their citizens are downcast. Representative governments have proved far better at distributing benefits than at apportioning sacrifice. Rather than shooting straight about the need for shared belt-tightening, vulnerable politicians have been catering to party bases and campaign donors, failing to make the tough choices needed to restore economic solvency.
This crisis of governability within the Western world comes at a particularly inopportune moment. As emerging powers rise, it is not only the West's material dominance that is at stake, but also its ideological primacy. China's brand of state capitalism is more than holding its own;
The West urgently needs a compelling answer to the fundamental tensions among democracy, capitalism, and globalization. A new political agenda should reassert popular control over political economy. In a globalized world, liberal democracies must turn to strategic planning and state-led investment in infrastructure, education, and jobs to restore competitiveness, redress inequality, and advantage mass publics rather than the party faithful or special interests.
Until such an agenda is devised and realized, the West's democratic malaise will persist.
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Copyright 2012 Council on Foreign Relations, publisher of Foreign Affairs. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services