Mandatory Credit: Photo by Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock (5494075e) Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets a family of refugees from Syria Justin Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister greets refugees from Syria at Pearson International airport, Toronto, Canada - 11 Dec 2015
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau greets a family of refugees from Syria in Toronto in 2015 © Rex/Shutterstock

Last December, passengers arriving at Toronto’s international airport were greeted by an unexpected figure. The world had watched in horror during 2015 as refugees fled the civil war raging in Syria. Public opinion in Europe and North America was sympathetic at first, but soon turned alarmed. Politicians who opened borders out of pity began closing them out of fear. Except, that is, in Canada, where prime minister Justin Trudeau stood conspicuously in the arrival hall, ready to welcome the first of some 25,000 newcomers.

Critics dismissed the youthful politician’s presence as a stunt. Yet it was welcomed in a country that admits more newcomers per capita than either the US or Britain, while avoiding the kind of nativist backlash that lay behind this year’s Brexit vote and has powered the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Indeed, support for immigration is now so well entrenched that it has become a big part of Canadian national identity. For those alarmed at the wider tide of umbrage against openness to talent and trade sweeping through richer nations, this poses an obvious question: what exactly is Canada doing right?

The success of Canadian multiculturalism provides just one of 10 engagingly written case studies in Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix, all of which profile countries that have enjoyed unlikely successes overcoming seemingly intractable policy problems. Over a generation, for instance, Singapore moved from being one of the world’s most corrupt countries to one of its cleanest. Beginning in 2012, Mexico managed to win cross-party support for a series of radical economic reforms, despite a political system that had been just as divided as America’s. And in New York, where Tepperman works as managing editor for Foreign Affairs, he describes admiringly a shake-up led by the former mayor Michael Bloomberg to bolster security following the attacks of September 11 2001.

Lurking behind many of these examples is a wider concern, namely a loss of nerve among the leaders of richer nations, as they try (and mostly fail) to grapple with the political challenges of globalisation, or “globalism”, as Trump now tends to call it. “Why is it,” Tepperman asks, “that in this time of turmoil — this age of ISIS, inequality, political dysfunction, institutional decay, emerging-market panic and apparent global decline — a few countries are nonetheless flourishing?” And, in turn, might these successes, including Canada’s unusual support for open migration, suggest a way forward for others?

The Fix makes an acute point in its attempt to recover a lost sense of optimism. The benign economic years of the 1990s and early 2000s marked a high point for globalisation, but were a moment of political possibility as well. Leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embodied a hope that clever reforms to welfare systems or public services might usher in a new era of social and economic success. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this faith has ebbed, often quite understandably. Unelected central bankers have grown daring but elected politicians often appear impotent, as if paralysed by the anger of their electorates.

Their inability to push through economic reforms is summed up by an old quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, now European Commission president: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.” But what if things are worse than that? What if the rich world’s political class simply no longer knows what to do?

A variant of this more pessimistic case is made by Todd Buchholz, a former White House director of economic policy under George HW Bush. In The Price of Prosperity, Buchholz argues that, in addition to all their other woes, wealthy industrial nations face a crisis of “entropy”, born of the very openness that until recently sustained their prosperity.

Nations become rich by trading, he argues, but as they grow wealthy their populations tend to age. This requires higher migration, which sparks a twin backlash against foreign goods and people. More importantly, these same forces risk undermining a common sense of national identity. “Prosperous nations have suffered from a powerful tendency to fissure, splinter and lose their unifying missions,” he writes. “A more globalised, trade-based economy threatens to bleed patriotism out of nations.”

Buchholz sees this not just as a contemporary problem but as a kind of universal law, explaining everything from the decline of the Habsburg Empire to the “era of decadence” that hit 18th-century Venice, turning a once-mighty republic into a “a kind of theme park of gambling and debauchery”.

This is a bold theory, albeit not one that is wholly convincing. Buchholz’s historical analyses are written with brio but are at best impressionistic. More contentious is the claim that prosperity itself lies behind the current backlash against globalisation, rather than the more obvious explanation that leaders in wealthy countries have done a lousy job at sharing the spoils of global growth, or supporting those who feel their way of life has been disrupted by it.

Still, it is worth reflecting on why these anxieties are so concentrated in the rich world, despite its advantages. As Ian Goldin, a migration expert and academic at the University of Oxford, explains in The Pursuit of Development, such worries are much less evident in emerging nations, partly because many have clearly benefited from recent decades of economic change.

True, very few previously developing countries — Singapore, South Korea and a handful of others — have clambered all the way up into the rich-country club. But most have made huge strides nonetheless. Goldin’s concise volume shows that the number of people living in poverty has dropped by more than 1bn during the two decades to 2012, falling to just 900m. This is expected to halve again by 2020. Meanwhile, the world’s middle class will grow to 4bn over the next decade, having shot up from just 500m in the 1980s.

The worry, of course, is that these gains could just as quickly be reversed, especially if Trump and those like him continue to prosper at the ballot box — making it all the more important that centrist leaders in Europe and North America find new ways to convince anxious voters that global openness is in their interests. How might this happen?

Buchholz peppers his book with intriguing if largely impractical suggestions, such as junking unemployment benefit and replacing it with a kind of signing-on bonus for jobseekers. Ultimately, though, he has one big idea: patriotism. “If a nation wants to survive the gale forces of a swiftly changing economy, it had better convey to its children and to its immigrants a sense of its national character,” he writes.

The specifics here are quirky. All applicants for US green cards should be made to visit at least five national landmarks, he argues, while schoolchildren would be fed a diet of character-building patriotic stories. Yet while these proposals are unsatisfying, Buchholz is surely right that fostering a stronger sense of common identity is likely to be part of the answer to sustaining public support for open trade and borders.

Tepperman provides a different and generally more persuasive template, drawing broad lessons from his various case studies. The irony, though, is that these “fixes” turn out not to be fixes at all, at least in the short-term sense. Instead, almost all stem from steady, long-term policy commitments. Canada’s openness to immigrants, for example, began gradually in the 1970s as prime minister Pierre Trudeau began to fashion a more multicultural national identity in response to Québécois separatism. This was bolstered by other measures, from a points-based immigration system to attract skilled migrants, to government programmes that encouraged newcomers to assimilate.

“The trickiest thing to explaining these accomplishments is that they didn’t involve any tricks,” Tepperman says of one of his other chapters, in which he describes how Botswana managed to avoid the problems that often hit poorer nations that discover sudden mineral wealth. Instead, it is the “painstaking work of good government” that makes the difference.

This sounds obvious, but that makes it no less sensible. If rich countries want to rebuild support for globalisation, they will have to do so gradually, and with a sense of compromise. Tepperman’s fixes tend to work when their adherents admit their mistakes, and then dream up imaginative ways to build broad coalitions of support for reform. He is a fan of what he calls “promiscuous thinking”, which in practice means crafty ways to reassure, or more likely buy-off, potential opponents.

Those who support global openness therefore must begin by admitting that many of their previous policies did not work as advertised — that the gains from trade were not shared, and that influxes of migrants rarely came with government support to reduce strains on public services, or to help newcomers fit in. This could form part of a wider change of approach, in which those most hit by the effects of globalisation are given much more help to adapt — a tactic Denmark once dubbed “flexicurity”.

To take one obvious example, it now seems likely that America’s much-vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation Asian trade accord pursued by President Barack Obama, is set to fail. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has reneged on her early support for the plan in the face of widespread public disquiet about trade. Still, if she wins, Clinton would gradually be able to rebuild public and political support for comparable measures, if they came with far more wide-ranging and effective measures to compensate those who may lose out.

This is no certain route to success. In a number of Tepperman’s cases, the successful fixers themselves lose public support. This is true of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, whose early reforming zeal made him widely unpopular, even before he appeared at a press conference with Trump this month. Still, it may be that a perverse sense of optimism can also be taken from the widespread gloom that now afflicts so many richer nations. “Disaster, dire necessity, proved the mother of invention and made room for the solutions that followed,” Tepperman says of his various fixes. What feels like a moment of undisguised calamity may actually be just the moment to rebuild.

The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, by Jonathan Tepperman, Bloomsbury, RRP£20/Tim Duggan, RRP$28, 320 pages

The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them, by Todd Buchholz, Harper, RRP£18.99/$29.99, 384 pages

The Pursuit of Development: Economic Growth, Social Change, and Ideas, by Ian Goldin, OUP, RRP£11.99/$18.95, 240 pages

James Crabtree is a visiting research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy NUS in Singapore, and an FT contributing editor

Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article