Is Globalisation the Source of Democratic Discontent?



The Democratic Malaise: Globalization and the Threat to the West
Foreign Affairs


Taking a look back prior to the recent global financial crisis, the author argues that the forces of economic globalisation over the last few decades have created a 'widening gap between what electorates are asking of their governments and what those governments are able to deliver', particularly in the most advanced democracies.

He argues that globalisation has led to unprecedented flows of goods, services and capital across national boundaries and integrated billions of low-wage workers into the world economy. Because the economies of advanced democracies are both mature and open, they have suffered a loss of jobs, stagnant wages, destabilising asset bubbles, and a rapid rise in inequality. In addition, globalisation has other troubling knock-on effects such as surging immigration, climate change and environmental degradation.

Citizens looking to their governments to address these issues have generally found them unwilling or unable to counter their negative impact. The author provides three reasons for this lack of effective action:

  • Globalisation has weakened the fiscal and monetary policy instruments used by liberal democracies. The scale and speed of commercial and financial flows across the world have significantly curtailed the ability of individual countries to impact aggregate demand, investment and employment.
  • The diffusion of economic power beyond the wealthy Western countries has made international cooperation much more difficult. Reaching consensus and coordinating action between countries in different stages of development and with different political systems has often been beyond the reach of our existing international systems.
  • Democracies, with checks and balances and competition amongst interest groups, can be sluggish when faced with difficult choices and a divided and polarised public. They 'appear to be better at distributing benefits than at apportioning sacrifice'.

To respond to these challenges more effectively, Kupchan calls on the leaders of the advanced democracies to engage in more strategic economic planning, embrace a form of progressive populism that appeals to all citizens and not just one side's political base, and to urge their citizens not to look inwards toward protectionism and isolationism.


Thumbnail image: Mike Mertz/Flickr


Charles Kupchan

Georgetown University

Published Date
January 1, 2012