Lunch-Pail Populists Rise Around World

From Buchanan to Le Pen, they decry free trade

PAT BUCHANANS of the world, unite. The politics of economic nationalism is on the rise in Russia, France, and much of Europe, as well as in the United States.

Large numbers of workers in all these nations are worried about the effect that cut-throat global competition may have on their jobs. Facing wage stagnation or worse, this international anxious class is more and more backing leaders who articulate their unease about the modern world economy.

Thus commentator Buchanan is not alone in decrying free trade, immigration, and high corporate profits. Elements of his platform are shared by politicians as disparate as Russia's Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov, French National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen, and Italy's right-wing Gianfranco Fini.

There are profound differences among these populists, too - Republican Pat Buchanan is surely no communist. But together they may represent a powerful backlash against the fast-paced changes of modern life lumped together under the phrase "economic globalization".

"Economic globalization has entered a critical phase," concluded World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab in a recent, widely noted International Herald Tribune article. "A mounting backlash against its effects, especially in the industrial democracies, is threatening a very disruptive impact on economic activity and social stability in many countries."

This doesn't mean that anti-North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) rioters are about to descend on Washington, pitchforks at the ready. Mr. Buchanan, for his part, remains a long shot to win the White House.

But his verbal onslaughts have been a big reason why Sen. Bob Dole has lately taken to questioning NAFTA on the stump. Editorialists in both Mexico and Canada have begun worrying that Buchanan's popularity will reinforce protectionist trends already visible in the US.

And other nations are showing evidence of more intense economic nationalist effects:

*In Russia, voters are increasingly unsatisfied with the results they've seen from free-market reforms. Mr. Zyuganov, who has talked vaguely of renationalizing some Russian industry, is the current favorite to win the country's June 16 presidential vote.

*In France, the European Union's plans for a single European currency caused riots in the streets. Last December's wild strikes by French public-sector workers were sparked by proposed cutbacks in government social benefits. Those cutbacks, in turn, were an effort by the French government to get its fiscal house in order, per EU Euro-currency guidelines.

Combined with similar but less-noticed worker unrest in Belgium and Italy, the French strikes have put the concept of a single European currency in jeopardy. "It's true that throughout Europe, you get a kind of hostility to the European idea, which is the local version of globalization," says Roger Kaplan, an analyst and editor at Freedom House in New York.

*In Poland, strikers from the famed Solidarity trade union blocked coal deliveries for almost two weeks earlier this month. Among their demands: a government guarantee that market reforms won't cause further layoffs or benefit cuts for coal miners.

Overall, there's a mood of helplessness and unease among developed-nation workers who are being left behind by modern economic change, experts note. One cause: The perfection of information technologies is allowing capital and jobs to flow across borders in unprecedented fashion. The lowering of trade barriers inherent in such pacts as NAFTA and the EU only turbocharges this process. Meanwhile, workers feel they have little say in the redistribution of power occurring over their heads.

Dynamic economic growth could produce enough cash to make everyone happy - but industrial nations, for the most part, are mired in sluggish times. The result is a situation where populists on the right urge a return to policies past, and those on the left blame big corporations. Liberal Ralph Nader, after all, joined Buchanan in denouncing the NAFTA treaty.

"It's become liberal chic to view free trade as a mechanism of corporate capital to increase its share," notes Peter Morici, a professor of international business at the University of Maryland.

To some experts, the real question is why the backlash against globalization isn't more widespread. Buchanan is the only candidate for the GOP nomination whose message targets the worried workers of blue-collar America, says Alan Tonelson of the US Business and Industrial Council. After all, if you've just lost your job because the assembly line has moved to Mexico, debate about a flat tax may seem about as relevant as argument over the shape of craters on the far side of the moon.

The fact that neither major party really addresses economic anxiety is another reason to believe a third party could emerge soon. "We may see a kind of political realignment where the fault line of economic nationalism and free trade becomes more important," says Mr. Tonelson.

Even some proponents of world trade admit that economic globalization isn't improving the lives of workers as fast as they had hoped. Today's trends have created millions of economic losers throughout the industrial democracies, according to Mr. Schwab. Leaders have long promised them that greater integration would lead to higher standards of living for everyone. So far that hasn't happened.

Instead, workers may increasingly see their economies as winner-take-all contests in which globalization most benefits those already at the top. Unless these perceptions are changed, economic globalization itself may be put at risk.

Could the industrial democracies really reverse their economic clocks? True, Buchanan talks of scrapping NAFTA. But experts say it would be hard for most economies to go backward. In Asia, for instance, nations are scrambling to set up the legalistic, multilateral organizations that are driving the liberalization of economies in the West. "There are very few countries that are going to close off access to their markets at this point," says Benedicte Callan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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