Embedded Liberalism in the Global Era: Would Citizens Support a New Grand Compromise?

By Wolfe, Robert; Mendelsohn, Matthew | International Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Embedded Liberalism in the Global Era: Would Citizens Support a New Grand Compromise?


Wolfe, Robert, Mendelsohn, Matthew, International Journal


Robert Wolfe is associate professor in the school of policy studies at Queen's University. Matthew Mendelsohn is associate professor in the department of political studies at Queen's University, and is currently on leave serving as deputy minister and head of the Democratic Renewal Secretariat, Government of Ontario.

THE "COMPROMISE OF EMBEDDED LIBERALISM"(1) is one of the most powerful metaphors in international relations, offering a compelling story about the political foundations of international organization in the second half of the twentieth century. We understand embedded liberalism as a story about the basis for a multilateral international order, rather than the overlapping comparative politics story about domestic institutions aimed at facilitating adjustment to economic change.(2) The compromise between free trade abroad and the welfare state at home was one made by states in their own interests, but it was also made by citizens in industrial democracies prepared to accept the constraints of multilateralism in return for a more prosperous and peaceful world. Many scholars are concerned that the existing compromise as a constitutive rule for global governance is unsustainable in this era of globalization. John Ruggie worries, in contrast, that it may not be possible to "take embedded liberalism global" in order to integrate a wider range of countries, institutions, and social actors.(3) In this article, we draw on public opinion analysis to make inferences about whether the compromises embedded liberalism requires are still legitimate, and therefore if a new grand compromise for global governance is possible.

The compromise of embedded liberalism was not a grand decision sealed by a treaty, but an ongoing process first evident in the actions of state officials during the 1940s. This postwar international order may have been negotiated at the outset, but its continuing reproduction depends on the social interaction shaped by the compromise itself, which influences the attitudes of citizens towards global governance that are a necessary if not sufficient condition for the maintenance of strong international institutions. Embedded liberalism is not a fixed bargain about levels of social spending or tariff bindings but a dynamic commitment to allowing countries to be different within a multilateral framework. It is a compromise between the needs for universality on which a strong order must rest, and the needs for particularity that are inevitable in a plural world order. If it continues, it should shape how citizens understand their relations with the world, and that understanding should be observable in the responses citizens give in answer to survey questions about free trade, globalization, and the work of international institutions. As described more fully below, we conducted an opinion survey designed to probe how Canadians understand the political compromise between the efficiency of open markets and the security of the welfare state.

The usual narratives about the public's response to globalization are problematic because they focus on individuals' self-interest.(4) But then why do privileged people in rich countries seem to protest the process that has made them wealthy? The dozens of articles that have speculated on the origins and political significance of the anti-globalization protests of the past few years mostly ignore formal research on public opinion. Many observers of the wave of street demonstrations take public protest as an indicator that citizens are hostile to trade, to trade agreements, to multilateral institutions and to globalization generally, without much evidence. Our results show that taking protest as an indicator of public opposition may be misleading because, in many countries, citizens are not hostile to trade or trade agreements or international institutions, although they may be more uncertain about globalization.

The scholarly conceptualization of embedded liberalism depends on the notion of separable communities able to make their own decisions on the distribution of the costs and benefits of openness. …

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