Is some revelation at hand?

Brexit and Sinn Fein’s success boost talk of Irish unification

It would not be an easy process




UNDER THE cavernous roof of the Royal Dublin Society’s Simmonscourt Hall, Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Fein, is facing a gaggle of reporters. The atmosphere is electric; the day before, February 8th, Sinn Fein had won more first-choice votes in the general election than any of Ireland’s other parties, which was a stunning upset. “We asked people to give us a chance, a chance to deliver the platform that we have set out,” Ms McDonald says, “and that platform is about solving the housing crisis, it’s about getting to grips with the crisis in our health services, it’s about giving families and workers a break, giving them some breathing space.”

The words could belong to any European politician whose insurgent party has broken up a staid political establishment. But Sinn Fein is also something more. All major political parties in the republic are, in principle, committed to seeing the six counties which remained in the United Kingdom in 1922 rejoin the 26 counties which gained their independence, and thus create a united Ireland. Sinn Fein, though, sees that cause as a real and pressing ambition. The party has international standing; as well as now being a force in the Irish Dail, it is the second-largest party in Northern Ireland. And it has a deeply troubling past. From the 1970s on, it was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary organisation which tried to push the British state out of Northern Ireland through terrorism.
Sinn Fein’s new popularity does not have much to do with all that. Pundits attribute its success instead to its promise to spend more on public services and to the widespread desire to vote for a party beyond the centre/centre-right duopoly of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. The fact that, under Ms McDonald, Sinn Fein has lost a lot of the stigma produced by its terrorist association also helped. But if its newfound prominence does not derive from a fresh thirst for Irish unification, it is still one of three reasons why that prospect is starting to look like an unexpectedly big issue.

Of the other two reasons, the most obvious is another political upset: Brexit. In 2016 52% of the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. But 56% of Northern Ireland voted to stay. Michael Collins, who was the Irish republic’s ambassador to Germany at the time, remembers that “The first call I got at 7.30 [the morning after the Brexit vote] was from a member of the German Bundestag, saying ‘Does this mean now that we have Irish Unity?’” Not in the short term. But the fact that unification would allow Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU is now a big part of the debate.

For the third reason, step away from the hurly-burly of electoral politics to take in the deep tides of demography. When the six counties of Northern Ireland opted out of independence in 1922, they thought they were ensuring that a part of the island would always remain under Protestant control; Protestants outnumbered Roman Catholics there by two to one.




That edge has been dulled. Analysis by The Economist of the censuses of 2001 and 2011, along with results of Britain’s quarterly labour-force survey, strongly suggests that Catholics are now the single biggest confessional grouping in Northern Ireland (see chart). Gerry Adams, who was president of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018, and who is widely believed also to have been a senior figure in the IRA—a charge he completely rejects—once quipped that though “outbreeding unionists may be an enjoyable pastime...it hardly amounts to a political strategy.” Yet it has still brought about a change. If the 2021 census bears this out, the finding will add to the fears of unionists.
The unionists, who have dominated Northern Ireland since partition, are for the most part Protestants whose identities are bound up with Britishness—whether through support for the British government itself, British traditions or the idea that the royal family is the ultimate defender of their faith. Even before Sinn Fein’s success in the south, Peter Robinson, the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the biggest party in Northern Ireland, was warning his fellow unionists to prepare for a referendum.

Study reading-books and history

The possibility of such a referendum is enshrined in the Good Friday agreement (also known as the Belfast agreement). Reached in 1998, this deal marked the end of the decades of violence which grew out of civil-rights protests against the province’s unionist-dominated parliament in the 1960s and the backlash against them. In 1972 that parliament was dissolved and the province, garrisoned with British soldiers, ruled directly from London. Over 3,500 people died during these “Troubles”, a majority of them civilians, a tenth of them British soldiers; some 2,000 were killed by the IRA and other republican paramilitaries, half that number by paramilitaries on the unionist side.

The Good Friday agreement created a new devolved government in the north in which power would be shared between the two communities. It recognised that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and that the republic of Ireland had an interest in its people, who would have the right to be recognised as Irish, British or both. It also provided a political path to a united Ireland, should the people north and south of the border both want it. But none of those involved thought that path would be walked down any time soon.

The decades since have been mostly peaceful, and the north has become a much more “normal” place. But although its workplaces are increasingly mixed and its police force reformed, in their schools and their houses the communities remain separated. Because it is hard to close religious establishments to make way for integrated ones, over 90% of the population is still segregated at school (though not at university).

The threat of violence has left public housing mostly segregated. Six-metre “peace walls” mark places where troublemakers from one community might mount incursions against the other. Remnants of the old paramilitary organisations persist; they are mostly concerned with drug crime and extortion, but they still sometimes engage in political violence.

The route to unification that the agreement sets out is fairly simple. “If at any time it appears likely” to the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland that a majority would back reunification, Britain must call a referendum and honour its result. “Appears likely”, though, does give the minister room for manoeuvre. The Constitution Unit at University College London says he should take into account a number of factors.

A consistent majority for unification in opinion polls would certainly be one, as might a Catholic majority, or a nationalist majority in Northern Irish elections. None of these has as yet been seen. But opinion polls have been showing increasing support for unification since the Brexit vote, and some now have it neck and neck with the status quo; Catholics may already be a plurality; and although unionists got more votes than nationalists at the British general election last December, the nationalists won more seats.

Since February 8th, Ms McDonald has warned that Britain, and “London in particular”, need to get ready for unification, because “constitutional change is coming.” If Sinn Fein is to enter into a coalition, or provide any support to a governing party, its price is likely to include the beginning of preparations for a referendum. Aengus Ó Snodaigh, a Sinn Fein parliamentarian, says the as-yet-undefined Irish government would have to bring people together from across the island “to sit down and figure out what type of society we want.”

If the north were to vote for unification, the south’s constitution would have to be changed, which would require its people, too, to have a vote. In “A Treatise on Northern Ireland”, Brendan O’Leary, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the “rational order” would be for such a vote to take place after some time spent negotiating the form of unification.

That is, at the moment, an open issue, and one which would not just be up to Ireland. Richard Humphreys, an Irish high-court judge, points out that, even after unification, the Good Friday agreement would still give Britain a role as a guarantor of citizenship, and its devolved institutions would be expected to function in Ireland as they do now in the United Kingdom.

In the longer term, Mr O’Leary outlines three plausible outcomes to a unification process: a unitary state run from Dublin; a devolved government in the north not unlike today’s; or a confederation of two states. Each would raise different questions about the workings of the new state, including the courts, the army and public services.

Constitutional implications aside, issues of identity and economics are likely to drive any initial decision. Both are being changed by Brexit. Take identity first. The Good Friday compromise rested, to some extent, on the idea that all British Islanders were European. As John Hewitt, a Northern Irish poet, put it in 1974:

I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago, and English is my native tongue, so I’m British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European.

Quite a few Northern Irish people, of all confessions and none, feel that Brexit has stripped them of their European identity. There are a lot of people who are not against the idea of a united Ireland but have long wondered whether it is worth the trouble. Now that unification would bring a return to the EU—the European Council has confirmed that the “entire territory” of a united Ireland would be part of the union—they may be swayed in that direction.

Many in the north also realise that life in a united Ireland would feel a lot less alien to them today than it would have in the republic’s clerically policed past. A country where, 30 years ago, contraceptives were tightly controlled, abortion banned and gay rights unheard of, now boasts, in the person of Leo Varadkar, still taoiseach (prime minister) at the time The Economist went to press, a national leader who is both gay and of mixed race. A woman who wants an abortion in Dublin is better placed than her sister in Belfast, where unionists have opposed liberalising abortion law. Gay marriage is legal in Northern Ireland only because Westminster mandated it over unionist objections.

All this said, identity is about little things as well as big ones, and there would be an almost limitless number of them to fiddle with and take umbrage over. “When I opened my curtains in the morning [after Northern Ireland rejoined the republic], is the postbox still red or is it green?” asks Mike Nesbitt, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Mark Daly, a senator for Fianna Fail, argues that there need to be agreements made in advance to prevent nationalists from rubbing their victory in unionists’ faces.

What would stop nationalists naming Belfast’s main airport after Mr Adams, for example? Other questions abound. Would there be a new flag? A new national anthem? Would the state commemorate British soldiers from the north who died in the Troubles? The national conversations Mr Ó Snodaigh envisages would have issues galore to chew on.

Then there is the economy. It has long been a reason for persuadable voters in the north to stick with the status quo, and for Irish politicians supportive of unification in principle not to strive for it in practice. As Mr Collins’s early-morning caller knew, the last reunification of a partitioned country was remarkably expensive. In the 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some €2trn ($2.2trn) was spent rebuilding the economy of the east.

Northern Ireland, though poorer than the south, is nothing like as badly off as East Germany was compared with the west. In 1989 West Germany boasted four times the east’s GDP per person. But it also had four times its population, whereas the republic of Ireland is less than three times larger than the north (see table). And the north’s economy is in a long-standing mess, scarred by the Troubles and “left behind” by deindustrialisation.

Harland and Wolff, which laid the keel of Titanic in 1909, went into administration last August; its two gigantic cranes, Samson and Goliath, tower over the Belfast skyline as silent monuments to decline. Official data suggest that the public sector in Northern Ireland accounts for well over 50% of local GDP and that it raises enough tax to pay for only two-thirds of its spending. The British government makes up the difference.



Nationalist economists claim that Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit is artificially inflated by statistical trickery. They say, for instance, that if the region broke free from Britain it would not have to repay the portion of Britain’s public debt built into those figures.

There is precedent here. In the 1920s Ireland’s republican leaders negotiated down the British government’s initial demand that their new nation take on a pro rata share of public-debt and pension liabilities. On the other hand, during the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 the British government insisted that a newly independent Scotland would have to assume responsibility for its share of British public debt.

Covering Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit would be a tall order for the republic. It would have some help. In a recent interview Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, told The Economist that “we expect that both philanthropists and the private sector in America would stand ready to help Northern Ireland in the event of reunification.” The EU would obviously play a role. But providing just half of the north’s current subsidy would cost the republic some 3% of its national income.




This strongly suggests that in a newly united Ireland the north would face spending cuts—as might the south. That is grist to the mill of unionists who argue against unification on the basis of poor public services (the issue which, ironically, just boosted Sinn Fein’s vote).

“You’re given Scandinavian rates of taxation with southern European standards of health care and services,” says Steve Aiken, the leader of the UUP. “I just don’t know why people in the Irish republic put up with it.” The National Health Service performs worse in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom. But it is free at the point of need. Many northern nationalists, never mind unionists, shudder at the thought of the south’s insurance-based model.

Brexit further complicates the economics of Irish reunification. To some, it is another argument for remaining part of Britain. Northern Irish businesses sell twice as much to the mainland as to the republic. But for others, Brexit makes it essential to leave Britain. An official analysis of the effects of a free-trade agreement between Britain and the EU sees it lowering Northern Ireland’s national income by 8% over the long run, compared with just 5% for the United Kingdom as a whole.

Scots Wha Hae

On top of this, the possibility of a further political upset looms. Brexit did not just take the people of Northern Ireland out of the EU against their will; it did the same for the people of Scotland, 62% of whom had voted to stay in. The Scottish National Party, which currently forms a minority government in Edinburgh, sees being taken out of the EU against its will as grounds for Scotland to have a second vote on independence. It has no mechanism for forcing the Westminster government to go along with this, but that does not mean it will not happen. And this time the nationalists might win.

Given the strength of the ties between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Scotland, such a vote would be a heavy blow to unionists. “A lot of people here would feel they had lost the mothership,” says James Wilson, an Ulsterman and former British soldier. A United Kingdom consisting just of England, Northern Ireland and Wales would look fundamentally incoherent—not a fatal flaw in a state, but a serious one.

For the time being, only Sinn Fein is arguing for a unification process to start soon. The more common nationalist position still cleaves to the spirit of St Augustine: “Lord, give me a border poll—but not yet.” Claire Hanna, an MP for the Social and Democratic Labour Party, the north’s other nationalist party, says that although a united Ireland is now on her agenda in a way it was not before Brexit, reconciliation, the economy and public services remain her priorities.

One observer in Dublin holds unification to be “like the pursuit of happiness—it can’t be pursued directly, it can only ensue from a position of harmony and peace.” It is a nice, if somewhat quietist, sentiment. But it is one that just a couple more political surprises could put to severe test.

Emerging market bonds appear immune to coronavirus

The sector is holding up well but how long will it last if monetary stimulus efforts fall short

Jonathan Wheatley

Shoppers pass in front of a fruit stand at an indoor market in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. The Central Bank of Brazil is scheduled to release Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures on March 19. Photographer: Jessica Nolte/Bloomberg
Sao Paulo market. Brazil will be in the line of fire if the viral outbreak leads to a global slowdown © Bloomberg


Emerging market bonds seem immune to the coronavirus. Take the yield on Brazilian 10-year government bonds, which has barely budged this year. After ticking up in the past fortnight to 6.78 per cent, it is still tighter than the 6.8 per cent at which it closed 2018 and in a different world from the 12.5 per cent it reached last September.

EM bonds as a whole, in fact, are holding up well amid the giant sell-off that has hit risky assets across the board. Does that make them a strange kind of haven?

Simon Quijano-Evans, chief economist at Gemcorp, a Mayfair fund manager, says that depends not on EMs themselves but on the response — or lack of it — from global governments.

“The G20 [group of leading nations] needs to react in a co-ordinated manner,” he said. “We have seen a total collapse of G20 co-ordination in the past three or four years and this needs to change, lest this turns into something much more serious.”

So far, he said, investors in EM bonds are holding their nerve but the key question is how long that will last. Adam Wolfe, emerging markets economist at Absolute Strategy Research, said investors have already priced in some “pretty aggressive” interest-rate cuts from developed market central banks and that a continuing search for yield has supported EM bonds.

But if the monetary stimulus investors are counting on falls short, he added, EM fixed-income assets will come under pressure.

Mr Quijano-Evans looked at the biggest five-day falls during the past four decades in total-return indices of US stocks in the S&P 500, European stocks in Frankfurt’s Xetra Dax and EM sovereign bonds in the JPMorgan EMBI-Global Diversified index.

The S&P index fell 11.5 per cent to last Friday and the Xetra Dax index 11.3 per cent in dollar terms. Both are in the same ballpark as similar shocks since the 1980s. But the EM bond index dropped just 2.1 per cent last week, a fraction of its losses in previous wobbles, when it fell in line with US and European equities.

The gap in EM bond yields over US Treasuries has widened, he noted, but the magnitude of the falls in US yields means EM bonds, too, have held up well.

This could be testament to the work being done by EM central banks and governments over the past decade to control inflation and stabilise their currencies. “They have reduced some of the riskiness,” Mr Wolf said.

The danger — as the OECD noted on Monday — is that the viral outbreak leads to a global slowdown, further hitting commodity prices, starting with oil. Brent crude dipped below $50 a barrel on Monday. While that might benefit energy importers such as Turkey and India, it would spell serious trouble for those exporters in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East that have so far suffered relatively little damage.

Brazil, too, would surely be in the line of fire.

George Friedman's Thoughts: Variations on Apocalypse

By: George Friedman


I have been thinking and writing about the coronavirus in China. In general, I’ve focused on its geopolitical aspect, on its effect on Chinese national power.

But there is something more interesting going on. What is most fascinating about the coronavirus is how it has gripped the imagination of the world.

It has been given a power beyond what it appears to have. In the simplest sense, it appears to be just another of the sort of disease that has troubled humanity since the beginning. But there is a deeper sense in which it has gripped us. It brings with it a hint of the apocalypse, the disease that brings with it the end time, annihilating all that is in an orgy of cleansing death.

The Black Death, the gold standard of apocalyptic disease, originated in Asia. It is said that a trading ship landed at Messina in the 13th century, carrying with it an illness that killed 30 percent of the population of Europe, with life ending in horrid sores and fevers. It was a killing simultaneously awful and utterly efficient.

The annihilation was fearsome, and reasonable people believed that this was the end of humanity. They also sought meaning in that end, some reason for God’s wrath, some sin that had been committed to cause humanity to deserve this end.

They sought meaning in their failure to please a jealous God. That the apocalypse was nigh was clear to them. What they hungered for was not life, but an explanation of what they had done to deserve this. What accompanied preparation for the apocalypse was ruthless self-flagellation for what they had brought on themselves. Indeed, they had brought it on, by allowing rats to roam free and not bathing. But they didn’t know that; they sought a meaning more profound.

Today, we are more enlightened. We do not blame God but the government. Some claim that the novel coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has named COVID-19, is far more murderous than it appears, with the political authorities hiding the truth. Some say that it was caused by foreign countries waging biological war.

But all look to the modern God, the state, some state, or any state, to hold responsible. Someone, somewhere failed to detect and stop the virus in time. As with the Black Death, the idea that diseases come on their own schedule and leave in unpredictable ways is rejected.

What differs is that those who dread the virus don’t blame their own sins in the face of God, but blame the contemporary God, the state, for not protecting them.

The Black Death was worse than the coronavirus. What binds them together is the conviction that in some way they threaten our very existence, that greater powers that were supposed to protect humanity commanded the virus into being. It could have been God; it could have been a scientist.

That the Europeans so many centuries ago blamed their own sins while we moderns blame others is interesting to consider, but more important perhaps is a consideration of the fascination we humans have with the apocalypse.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was an intense belief held by the best minds that humanity was on the eve of destruction. Rock music was written with this title. The cause of this catastrophe was overpopulation. By 1970, the Club of Rome, a highly respected gathering of the best and brightest, said the world would no longer be able to feed itself and would be running out of natural resources.

Unless humanity repented of the sin of reproduction, it would annihilate itself. This was a belief that could not be challenged, and those who said not only that it was untrue but that the birthrate would soon plummet were dismissed. The coming apocalypse was written in stone, and those who would challenge it either were mad or would profit from the apocalypse.

What always struck me about this, and virtually every class I took included at least one lecture on this, was that those who argued the apocalyptic view were not actually frightened by it. They loved the role of Jeremiah. They awaited it with the faith of the righteous and, I suspect, were looking forward to the last moment, when they could scream, “I told you so.”

Now, if you expect me to discuss global warming here, not a chance. I learned in the 1960s not to get involved with religious wars. But not only would the population bomb, as it was called, destroy us, but each of us who reproduced would be responsible for that destruction.

The first story of the apocalypse that I know of was the story of Noah. The world had displeased God by its corruption, and God had decided that his creation had to be annihilated.

But God saw virtue in Noah, who built an ark on which he loaded all the animals of the world (don’t ask me about hygiene, this is a metaphor) and his children, and God unleashed a storm that wiped out all other living things. The waters then receded, and Noah refounded humanity.

The story of Noah places the blame directly on humans and says that sin demanded a cleansing of the Earth. It is the theme of cleansing that I think is always embedded in the idea of apocalypse.

The Black Death demanded that Europe cleanse itself, and moral cleansing ended the plague, so they thought. The population bomb demanded an end to reckless and heedless fornication, a remarkably religious dimension to a secular global apocalypse.

The notion that apocalypse originates in vileness and can be ended only by reform and denial of sins is at the root of this mode of thought.

But also at its root is not only the imposition of virtue but also a fascination with the apocalypse and even a yearning for it. These can be grand apocalypses such as those that Christianity promises, or generational apocalypses that Judaism speaks of when it says that in every generation they shall come to kill us.

Both sorts of apocalypse, grand and petty, are filled with dread and with hope. They are also filled with anticipation. I think it is a weariness with the prosaic, a dream of the heroic, and a hope for something more worthy of life for those who are redeemed or survive.

We are fascinated by the coronavirus not only because of its prosaic meaning (another decade, another virus) but also because it has a promise of vastness and that, in the end, we will discover the sins and sinners who allowed it to happen. And because deep in our imaginations, Noah lurks, and we dream of a cleansing of the world and having the privilege to remake it in our own image. It is a small thing with the coronavirus, but Noah’s dream lurks.

There is now a genre of science fiction called “post-apocalyptic” in which humanity is virtually wiped out by something or other, and one or a handful of people struggle to survive and rebuild. The world is filled with evil, be it gods or Martians, but it will be redeemed by them.

What is clear is that the authors, usually quite good, have a longing for the apocalypse, and the best clearly imagine themselves fleeing in rags, turning and reclaiming the world for humans.

Anything that brings a modern dream of the apocalypse with Noah’s is clearly pointing toward something important. We humans hate and long for the apocalypse, and for the cleansing it will bring and the manner in which we will be elevated above all by surviving.

As I said, the coronavirus doesn’t rise to these heights, but the people commenting on it sometimes do.

The fear that this is the big one is coupled with the slight thrill that it just may be. 

America’s Isolationist Default

There is much truth to the view that President Donald Trump's "America First" policies are an abdication of global leadership, sounding the death knell of the post-World War II multilateral order that the United States shaped and sustained. At the same time, this troubling turn represents a reversion to long-standing US values.

Barry Eichengreen

eichengreen138_SANDY HUFFAKERAFP via Getty Images_americanflagfence


BERKELEY – Donald Trump’s “America First” policies are widely regarded as an abdication of global leadership, sounding the death knell of the post-World War II multilateral order that the United States shaped and sustained. There is much truth to this view. At the same time, this troubling turn represents a reversion to long-standing US values. Acknowledging that the second half of the twentieth century was an anomaly, rather than the norm, raises troubling questions about the nature of US leadership and about the fate of multilateralism after Trump.

As a resource-rich continental economy separated from Europe and Asia by vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the US has always been tempted by isolationism. Thomas Jefferson famously spoke of no entangling alliances. The Monroe Doctrine, dating from 1823, was not just an assertion of US dominance in the Western Hemisphere, but also an effort to keep America out of European wars. In the twentiethcentury, the US entered World Wars I and II years late, long after the stakes were clear, and only after being directly provoked by German U-boat attacks and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.

Moreover, the US long sought to advance its interests abroad unilaterally rather than through multilateral engagement. The Monroe Doctrine is a case in point. America’s refusal following World War I to join the League of Nations is another.

Equally important, domestic business has long held inordinate sway over US economic and foreign policies. This historical pattern reflects the fact that the US was the first country of continental scope to industrialize. Its immense internal market supported the efforts of US entrepreneurs to pioneer the large multidivisional corporation in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This was the age of the robber barons, who held sway over not just the US economy but also its politics. For example, the “Big Four” California railway tycoons (Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker) controlled not just freight rates but also the state legislature. Viewed from this perspective, the Trump administration’s willingness to cater to domestic corporations’ every regulatory whim is firmly in step with US history.

Americans’ deep, abiding, and historically rooted distrust of government also reinforces isolationism. The view that government only creates problems is not just a product of Fox News. America’s founders were profoundly suspicious of overweening government, from which they suffered under British colonialism.

Following independence from Britain, the fact and then the legacy of slavery created deep-seated opposition to federal interference with local social arrangements and states’ rights. Rallies of gun-rights advocates at state capitols and the occupation of federal land by Western ranchers are peculiarly American aberrations, but they are also modern-day manifestations of the long-held view that government can’t be trusted and that the best government is one that governs least. Trump and his policies stand squarely in this tradition.

The existential threat of WWII was enough to shock the US out of its isolationist, anti-government tendencies, at least temporarily. Possessing the single strongest economy, along with politicians, including presidents, with personal experience of war, the postwar US was able to provide the leadership needed to construct an open, multilateral order.

But it was naive to think that this was “the end of history” – that the US would continue to exercise this kind of international leadership indefinitely. In the event, growing economic insecurity, together with the rise of identity politics (reflecting the inability of the once-dominant white majority to adjust to the reality of greater socioeconomic diversity), was enough to cause the American body politic to revert to its unilateral, isolationist mindset.

The next US president – whoever she or he may be – is unlikely to be as committed to free trade, alliance building, and multilateral institutions and rules as the presidents of the second half of the twentieth century. But it is still possible to imagine multilateralism without the US. Climate change illustrates the point: Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement has not weakened the commitment of other countries to its targets, nor should it.

Another example is how the European Union, China and 15 other countries reacted to Trump’s efforts to paralyze the World Trade Organization by leaving its appellate body inquorate with too few judges. In response, they set up their own ad hoc, shadow appellate body to maintain WTO standards and procedures.

As this last case demonstrates, the successor to US global leadership must be collective global leadership, with the two largest economies, the EU and China, at its fore. Unlike the US, the EU is making every effort to work with China. Given the inevitable geopolitical tensions, cooperation won’t be easy. But, as America once understood, it is the only way.


Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era.

You’re Not Listening. Here’s Why.

There’s an unconscious tendency to tune out people you feel close to because you think you already know what they are going to say.

By Kate Murphy


Credit...María Medem



“You’re not listening!” “Let me finish!” “That’s not what I said!” After “I love you,” these are among the most common refrains in close relationships. During my two years researching a book on listening, I learned something incredibly ironic about interpersonal communication: The closer we feel toward someone, the less likely we are to listen carefully to them. It’s called the closeness-communication bias and, over time, it can strain, and even end, relationships.

Once you know people well enough to feel close, there’s an unconscious tendency to tune them out because you think you already know what they are going to say. It’s kind of like when you’ve traveled a certain route several times and no longer notice signposts and scenery.

But people are always changing. The sum of daily interactions and activities continually shapes us, so none of us are the same as we were last month, last week or even yesterday.

The closeness-communication bias is at work when romantic partners feel they don’t know each other anymore or when parents discover their children are up to things they never imagined.

It can occur even when two people spend all their time together and have many of the same experiences.

Kaleena Goldsworthy, 33, told me it was a shock when her identical twin, Kayleigh, decided to move to New York City 10 years ago to pursue a career in music. Kaleena, now the owner of a company that makes cocktail bitters in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she and her twin had previously been inseparable. They had spent most of their lives sleeping in the same room, going to the same schools, attending the same parties, competing in the same sports, and playing in the same band.

“When my sister moved, we were forced to recognize we had all these preconceived notions about who the other was,” Ms. Goldsworthy said. “We weren’t really listening to each other, which made it harder for us to really know each other.”

Social science researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the closeness-communication bias in experimental setups where they paired subjects first with friends or spouses and then with strangers. In each scenario, the researchers asked subjects to interpret what their partners were saying. While the subjects predicted they would more accurately understand, and be understood by, those with whom they had close relationships, they often understood them no better than strangers, and often worse.

“Accurately understanding another person often requires a second thought, to think, ‘Wait a minute, is this really what this person meant?’ and to check it,” said Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who studies the closeness-communication bias. “We just don’t do that as much with those we are close to because we assume we know what they are saying and that they know what we are saying.”

A prime example, he said, was when he gave his wife what he thought was the perfect gift: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, during which she would get to feed the dolphins, beluga whales and penguins. He thought she’d love it because she’d once expressed interest in swimming with dolphins. But she didn’t love it. At all. She was annoyed because she was pregnant at the time and suffering from morning sickness. Just the thought of touching a dead fish made her want to vomit.

“I didn’t stop to think, ’Is this the right gift given where my wife is now in her life?’ I hadn’t really been listening well enough to know where she was,” Dr. Epley said. “We all develop stereotypes of the people we know well, and those stereotypes lead us to make mistakes.” Now he said he asks his wife for a list of gifts she wants.

The closeness-communication bias not only keeps us from listening to those we love, it can also keep us from allowing our loved ones to listen to us. It may explain why people in close relationships sometimes withhold information or keep secrets from one another.

In an in-depth study of 38 graduate students, confirmed in a larger online survey of 2,000 people representative of all Americans, the Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small found that slightly more than half the time, people confided their most pressing and worrisome concerns to people with whom they had weaker ties, even people they encountered by chance, rather than to those they had previously said were closest to them — like a spouse, family member or dear friend. In some cases, the subjects actively avoided telling the people in their innermost circle because they feared judgment, insensitivity or drama.

You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon when someone close to you revealed something that you didn’t know while the two of you were talking to someone else. You might have even said, “I didn’t know that!”

The revelation most likely occurred because the additional person was listening differently than you previously had. Maybe that person showed more interest, asked the right questions, was less judging or was less apt to interrupt. Again, it’s not that people in close relationships are purposefully neglectful or inattentive, it’s simply human nature to become complacent about what we know.

So what can you do about it? The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar said the primary way to maintain close relationships is through “everyday talk.” That means asking, “How are you?” and actually listening to the answer.

Too often spouses, and also parents with their children, reduce conversations to logistics such as what to have for dinner, whose turn it is to do the laundry, or when to leave for soccer practice. Friends might run down their latest accomplishments and activities. What often gets left out is what is really on people’s minds — their joys, struggles, hopes and fears. Sometimes people keep conversation light with friends and family because they assume they already know what’s going on, but also, they may be afraid of what they might learn.

But what is love if not a willingness to listen to and be a part of another person’s evolving story? A lack of listening is a primary contributor to feelings of loneliness.

In a 2018 survey of 20,000 Americans, almost half said they did not have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend, on a daily basis. About the same proportion said they often felt isolated and left out even when others were around.

Of course, technology doesn’t help. Devices are a constant distraction, and people tend to be woefully inaccurate at interpreting feeling states through text and emoji. What exactly does a smiley face with its tongue sticking out mean?

“Technology magnifies the closeness-communication bias because you have less information to work with,” said Dr. Epley, referring to the brevity of texts and absence of cues like tone of voice and body language.

It turns out the best way for us to really understand those closest to us is to spend time with them, put down our phones and actually listen to what they have to say.


Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”