- - Sunday, April 30, 2017


Donald Trump, Brexit and now Marine Le Pen.

President Trump may be backing off his threats to scuttle NATO and NAFTA, but the institutions the West put in place after World War II to foster common security and prosperity are fast becoming profoundly less relevant.

NATO and security alliances in the Pacific were designed to defend western democratic, capitalist societies from a principal military threat — the dark, alternative universe of Soviet and Chinese autocratic socialism.

These days, the United States and its allies can still marshal whatever resources may be necessary to counter Russia and Chinese adventurism should they choose. However, growing economic inequality within western nations and state entropy through much of the Middle East and North Africa has rendered the West vulnerable to internal disaffection, dysfunctional governance, disruptive mass migration and transnational terrorism.

The rise of Ms. Le Pen is founded on two realities. The EU’s economic institutions are too strong and inflexible and are smothering the French and many other European economies. Its security arrangements are too weak and inept to guarantee the integrity of the EU’s external border and public safety across Europe. All have to change or a united Europe will fail.

The WTO — its predecessor the GATT — IMF and World Bank were established to support the integration of western market economies, and help export democratic capitalism to the emerging nations of Africa and Asia.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the western strategy toward Russia and China was to encourage their embrace of capitalism and membership in the WTO. The underlying assumption was that competitive markets and peaceable democracies are necessary to support thriving capitalism. These rivals would eventually embrace western norms of state behavior — respect for human rights and private property — and abide by WTO free market principles out of necessity for success.

The rise of China has dispelled that notion in spades. It remains undemocratic, and human rights and private property are hardly secure. Its economy is a mutant hybrid of socialism and capitalism — state-directed and often state-financed — and Beijing blatantly flaunts WTO rules.

Its success has shuttered factories and rendered millions unemployed in the United States. Armed with new wealth, Beijing projects soft power, challenges the efficacy of democracy in Asia and elsewhere, and militarizes the neutral waters of the South China Sea.

In the United States and elsewhere, the economically dispossessed are relegated to working in restaurants, cleaning offices and generally serving the new global aristocracy of technologists, bankers and the like. Their wages hammered and cultural institutions diluted by migrants from Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Politicians like Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and David Cameron have responded to their burdens with false empathy, lectures on tolerance and harsh enforcement of political correctness.

That’s how we got Donald Trump, Marine Le Penn and the conscripted revolutionary, Theresa May.

Mr. Trump is discovering that Steve Bannon and other nationalists in the White House were good at exploiting those conditions to help him get elected but clueless to intelligent solutions. They are much like the angry man who does not know what he wants. Mr. Trump must jettison their influence and become more broadly acceptable, or get little done and become a one-term president.

Ms. Le Pen is about freeing France from Brussels’ yoke and re-establishing France’s borders and defenses. But the French economy is simply too dependent on the EU to withdraw, and she will likely lose the runoff election.

Theresa May will not be able to genuinely withdraw the U.K. from the EU. In a charade of sovereignty, the U.K. will be stuck with contributing to the EU budget and abiding by its rules, or accept a hard break and lose Scotland in the bargain.

What follows will not be pretty but providence has a way of blessing democracies with more thoughtful leaders in the wake of fools, firebrands and the fainthearted.

Rising from the debris, America will look out more for its own prosperity and deal more assertively with China — even if that breaks a few WTO rules — but remain an essential partner to its friends. The EU will mutate into something more effective and face down Russia and Islamic terrorism.

If nothing else, when ultimately threatened, democracy and capitalism move to action, profoundly adaptable and resilient. I put my faith and bet my fortune on it.

• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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