This letter was published in the Financial Times on 29 December 2017
As a think tank for the radical centre, we strongly support Martin Sandbu’s call for a bold, centrist radicalism in The battles for ideology that will define our age (December 27, 2017).
However we suggest that he is quite wrong to frame the issue as an ideological battle between a ‘liberal internationalist camp’ working to preserve an open, multilateral trading system and an ‘anti-liberal front’ led by the Trump administration. The battle we face is a different one. It is between those who cling to twentieth century thinking and refuse to address the shortcomings, in a twenty-first century world, of the current international trading system and multilateral institutions that underpin it; and those who believe that survival of an open, peaceful world order depends on wholesale, radical reform.
We put ourselves in the latter camp. The greatest threat to the multilateral system comes from those who are so invested in its current form (for reasons of personal career, personal profit, or a simple inability to envision alternatives) that they fight to perpetuate the indefensible status quo. Such behaviour is the essential fuel behind the political success of reactionary forces. As such, it is complementary to, and works in tandem with, rather than, as Sandbu suggests, against the ‘anti-liberal’ front.
True liberals have always understood the need for continual reform as stagnating systems inevitably get progressively captured by powerful interests. Liberalism dies when it becomes the Establishment, itself captured by vested interests and an apologia for the status quo. Those who refuse to countenance significant reform of the existing international trade system do not deserve the ‘liberal’ moniker. Rather they are reminiscent of Philip II of Spain for whom “no experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”
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