Saving Our Future

The liberal world order we have relied upon since the end of World War II is under attack. Forces long presumed dead and buried are rearing their ugly heads. Authoritarian power grabs, sectarian prejudice and the toxic brew of nationalism and nostalgia combine to gnaw away at the institutions that underpin global peace and prosperity.

But these forces are symptoms of something more potent, something legitimate and not malign. People sometimes choose the wrong path when they’ve lost confidence in the old answers.

The frustration is real, and it’s justified. The global economy is accelerating at a digital pace, but our systems and politics are stuck in the industrial age. The basic contract at the heart of democratic societies is fraying. Wages are stagnating. Schools are failing to meet the demands of the marketplace. Governance is weakened or outright subverted by organized money and partisan paralysis. It’s little wonder that citizens everywhere are in revolt, for fear that they’re being left behind while others are always racing ahead.

To ignore this fear of the future is to invite even greater economic dislocation, and all the anger and alienation it entails. Our institutions depend on the public’s trust, and regaining that trust must be priority No. 1.

Today, at home and abroad, our next steps are not set. They never have been. But rather than talk about whether democracy is dying and the liberal order is decaying, we must embrace activism and action to ensure that neither of those outcomes becomes real, let alone irreversible. Otherwise, our reflexive defense of the liberal order will only contribute to its defeat.

Julius Long, left, and Randy Furniss, outside of a lecture by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, in Florida. When Mr. Furniss was punched and spit on by protesters for wearing a swastika shirt, Mr. Long stepped in to protect him. (Credit: Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

The American experiment itself didn’t emerge from gauzy parlor talk; it was earned the hard way — by people willing to put themselves on the line for a powerful vision strengthened year by year, mile by mile, since 1776. Hundreds of millions of people didn’t just one day sign up for some great theory because they’d read a policy white paper. They did it because they’d lived and felt the devastating failure of the alternative, and they wanted peace, freedom and opportunity.

We need to make democracy and the international liberal order relevant to people’s lives in actions, not in words.

A few critical issues must be tackled if we are to make our leaders accountable and make them work for people.

Nothing can be fixed if we don’t first deconstruct the gridlock that is choking governments everywhere. That starts by recognizing that healthy democracies rest on the firm foundation of civil discourse and reasoned debate. Both, however, are in diminishing supply today, and a decision will never be effective if even the facts it’s based on are a point of contention.

No wonder, then, that around the world there is a growing constituency of neo-populists who argue against the very alliances and organizations that protect us. Many see an easier life on a path of isolation — they’re tempted by the promise that walls on our borders and less contact with our neighbors will keep the world’s troubles at bay. Brexit lingers as a reminder of the costs that would befall a Fortress America. In Washington today, globalism is a burden, not a badge of honor.

But history tells us that we must open ourselves up if we are to restore faith in government or empower Americans to compete in a world that’s changing faster and becoming more vulnerable to reactionary forces, not less.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Amine Tiras, 6, at a rally. For years Turkey’s armed forces have been engaged in wars in the Middle East, including fighting the Islamic State in Syria. (CREDIT: Turkish Presidential Press Office via The New York Times)

Just as important, we must strengthen our collective response to violent extremism and to forces that seek the return of a world in which might makes right and the strong bully the weak. Resurgent authoritarian powers like Russia and nonstate actors like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are waging war against the very principles the United Nations and NATO were founded to protect. Effective leadership requires that we do more to deter immediate threats even as we shore up the global institutions that provide security in the long term.

It is clear that we need to do a better job of providing young people with good-paying jobs and peaceful outlets for expression. Today’s agitators, from neo-populists to violent extremist groups, know all too well that legitimate authority is hard won and easily lost. When young people see opportunities denied to them because of corruption or marginalization, growing indignity makes the siren song of extremism all the more appealing.

We must also create an environment where innovation can flourish and the benefits are widely shared. Education for people of all ages, combined with apprenticeship programs, makes up the foundation of fair, inclusive economic growth. Governments need to support entrepreneurs while also helping them to absorb the disruptions that come with rapid advances in such fields as artificial intelligence, robotics and 3-D printing. The gig economy is a reality of 21st-century work. We need to make sure workers are protected and empowered to take risks, pursue flexible arrangements and change jobs without losing their benefits.

Efficient and reliable public infrastructure is the beating heart of a modern, dynamic economy. Extending broadband access and upgrading our roads, bridges and dams isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for inclusive growth. That also means using trade to foster better relationships, not as leverage in political brinkmanship. New environmental and labor standards will encourage innovation and demonstrate the ability of democracies to deliver sustainable growth and jobs, economic dynamism and fairness. We must seize the extraordinary opportunity presented by a new clean energy market to power our economies and protect this fragile planet we share.

The challenges are real, but there is every reason for optimism. History has proved time and again that adapting to big changes in technology and society is stamped in the American DNA.

Our global system demands renewal and reform, not rejection and recrimination. If we treat it as a relic of decades past, it will rust away and future generations will pay the price. Nostalgia won’t defeat neo-populism; progress will.

John Kerry served as the 68th United States Secretary of State, under President Barack Obama, and is the author of Every Day Is Extra.