At a Summit of Center-Left Leaders, Hailing a 'Progressive Moment'

  • Share
  • Read Later
Toby Melville / Reuters / Corbis

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown

You'd think the center-left would see this week's G-20 summit in London to seek ways of saving the world economy as a golden moment to cement the hegemony of progressive ideas on how to manage capitalism. But when the luminaries of what was once known as the "Third Way" movement, including G-20 host and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Vice President Joe Biden, gathered in Chile last weekend for the Summit of Progressive Leaders, the cupboard seemed remarkably bare of new ideas.

The forum was the brainchild of "Third Way" pioneers of the 1990s, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, both of whom had sought to govern by marrying some of the social concerns of the traditional social-democratic left with the market-oriented economic growth strategies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Today, a similar outlook is shared by the moderate leftist parties that govern in Latin America's biggest economies, such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile. And the current global economic crisis would appear to be an auspicious moment for political leaders whose central message has always been that the free market alone cannot solve the world's problems. (See pictures of the global financial crisis)

Speaking at the forum, Brown described what he called a "progressive moment," given the fact that the global financial meltdown has shattered the faith of governments around the world in unrestrained free-market solutions, and prompted an outcry for an alternative that places greater emphasis on social justice and care for the environment.

"It's a progressive moment because markets have failed and we have got to show that they can be brought to work in the public interest," he told the summit in the Chilean beach resort of Vina del Mar. "It's a progressive moment because we have new administrations, particularly in America, that understand the opportunities as well as the challenges ahead. But it is also a progressive moment if we can find, not just a theory for explaining why markets have failed, but if we can find the policies that will ensure that this new global economy can be made to work in the public interest."

But neither Brown nor any of his colleagues at the forum were able to provide policy answers to the questions posed by the British prime minister. The meeting's final communique was filled with boilerplate calls for putting people first, reforming financial institutions, building a foundation for a new, fairer economy and such, but it offered few ideas on how any of this could be done.

Then again, conference organizer Roger Liddle had warned against expecting too much from the event. "It is about establishing a consensus," he said before the talks began. "This isn't an occasion where we're going to get very specific and detailed policies."

Such limited objectives may have left many impatient. After all, those present were invited precisely because they share the same moderate leftist outlook; with the G-20 summit, being billed as perhaps the decisive policy event, due to be held within days, many observers had expected a more substantive policy discussion on ways out of the crisis.

The challenges may be slightly different in Latin America from those faced in Europe. The main challenge facing the progressive governments of this region is not right-wing laissez faire capitalism, but the more populist socialism epitomized by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. "Sometimes the adversary of progressive ideas can be populist ideas," said Rudy deLeon from the Center for American Progress in Washington, perhaps with Chavez in mind. "And in a time of economic challenge that can be an issue."

A decade after the Washington summit at which Clinton, Blair and then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sat down to sketch out a common world view, their successors have a prevailing wind at their backs. Yet, here in Vina del Mar, they seemed hesitant to seize "the progressive moment".

"There is a tremendous sense of a new opportunity for progressives to make a fresh case for governing," says Will Marshall, a Third Way veteran and head of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "But despite this wonderful sense of possibility, I think people are sobered by the magnitude of the challenges."