Ngaire Woods Keynote Lecture

The weakening of democracy and the fracturing of the global order

On 19 February 2018, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Keynote Lecture "The Weakening of Democracy and the Fracture of the Global Order" by Ngaire Woods.

Ngaire Woods is Dean of the School of Government at Oxford University and Professor of Global Economic Governance at Oxford University.

Professor Woods visits us to talk about the weakening of democracy and the fracturing of the global order. Ngaire Woods founded the Global Economic Governance Programme at Oxford University and has led the creation of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. She is co-founder of the joint Global Leaders Fellowship programme of Oxford and Princeton Universities.

Professor Woods is a member of the International Advisory Panel of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the Board of Trustees of the Rhodes Trust, as well as Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Values, Technology and Governance and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Global Development in Washington.

His research has mainly focused on improving organisational governance, the challenges of globalisation, global development and the role of international institutions and global economic governance.


A few years ago, no one worried about the future of democracy, or of the international economic order. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, everyone thought that the victory of liberal democracy and the market economy was absolute, that there would be no turning back, and politicians became complacent. Today, Donald Trump's arrival in the White House has raised fears that his policies will accelerate the fracturing of the international order and, moreover, endanger American democracy itself. This situation is not specific to the United States. The populist wave that has brought Trump to the presidency of the world's leading power is being repeated, with greater or lesser intensity, in other Western countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, it has been particularly felt with Brexit, while in France the threat is that the National Front will win the presidential elections. We are therefore facing a difficult and complicated situation. However, we are also facing an extraordinary opportunity for democracies to start thinking about their reform, as well as for the international economic order, which must support them. That is the view of Ngaire Woods, a decade at Oxford University's School of Government. Woods was at the Rafael del Pino Foundation on 19 February 2018, to give a lecture on "The weakening of democracy and the fracturing of the world order" in which she analysed this problem. For her, the root of the problem lies in the tremendous complacency in which the political class became ensconced after the fall of the Soviet Union. Politicians then stopped listening to citizens and forgot that democracy is a project that should involve everyone. The international financial crisis changed everything and marked a before and after. The fact that a local financial crisis, such as the subprime mortgage crisis, became a global one, and that it emerged at the epicentre of the system, made it clear that the system did not work, that the model had broken down. As a result, developing countries, which used to look to the West to see what was happening in the United States or Western Europe, now no longer ask what is happening in those areas of the world. Now they are concerned with what is happening in and with countries like China or Singapore, something unthinkable a decade ago. Today, the global model is being questioned because of the absence of global financial regulation, which is necessary when the relationships and interdependencies that have arisen as a result of globalisation turn what were once local problems into international crises. This is a matter of concern because the history of the last hundred years has taught us that after a global crisis, support for populist parties increases, as is now the case. We must also add the deterioration of people's expectations. In the past, everyone expected that their standard of living would improve over time, and even that their children would be able to live better than their parents as a result. Today, however, not only are these expectations not being met, but people are witnessing a decline in their standard of living. For many people, technological change and globalisation have meant that their purchasing power has stagnated or, worse, declined, and their standard of living has worsened. And these people vote. As a result, when you look at how people vote, there is a clear message of distrust of the establishment, but also a desire to live better in the face of worsening living conditions. A clear example is what is happening in the United States, where infant mortality is rising because of reduced public spending on health care, while life expectancy is falling, especially for whites. Those who support the populists, those who vote for them, are not the poorest, but the middle classes who have been robbed of the American dream, and who see how political power only cares about minorities, not the middle class. In this situation, the political and social environment is becoming rarefied, revolutionary. The question is whether this revolution will strengthen democracy or weaken it. If we want to strengthen democracy, the political establishment will have to learn three lessons from the populists, three things that these organisations do well. First, populists speak the language of the people, they speak to their problems, they appeal to their feelings. The establishment does not do this, which shows how far it is from the people, from their problems, how little it cares about them. Secondly, populists use simple and direct messages, although they are often simplistic and false. But they address people directly, which leads to the third lesson. Through such language, populists send a message of transformation, of salvation, to mobilise powerful energy. Politicians must learn quickly from populists about how to communicate with the people. But when politicians turn to populism and also damage fundamental institutions, such as the independence of judges or the rule of law, this is very dangerous for the future of democracy, because in a democracy we are all supposed to be equal before the law. Another danger related to populism is the populist movement's advocacy of direct democracy, often in the form of referendums. Against this, it should be borne in mind that many political decisions are difficult, and involve choices that result in winners and losers. But governments make these decisions because it is their duty and they must take responsibility, not forgetting that democracy implies being in a constant process of consultation with citizens, and then making decisions. This is the opposite of what a referendum implies and represents, in which the convener shirks the responsibility of governing. The populist challenge is a challenge to the rule of law, which took hundreds of years to develop. But it is also an opportunity to renew democracies because traditional political parties are collapsing. This opens space for the emergence of a new class of politicians who know how to listen to the people. The question is how democracies can survive in a period of global fracture. Globalisation, technological change and the resulting impoverishment of a number of people, as well as immigration, are giving rise to the rise of nationalism.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.