NAFTA architect articulates the global story at the core of the Brexit vote

Thursday’s referendum on whether Britain will leave the European Union (EU), known as “Brexit,” has added to market volatility over the past month. Even as chances of a Brexit have decreased, political leaders, central bankers and billionaire investors like George Soros have reiterated their stance that a “leave” vote would cause severe market disruption.

While the discussions over the Brexit vote have focused on the UK and the EU, the core of the matter reflects a global theme that has been subject to intensifying rhetoric.

Former White House Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton Mack McLarty said the popularity of the “leave” camp in the UK fits in with a broader aversion to globalization across the world. McLarty—who served as a top advisor to Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter—said global economic uncertainty has exacerbated fears and calls for more protectionism.

“These feelings about insecurity and the future and change are not just limited to the United States,” he said. “They are a global phenomenon. I think it’s incumbent on our leaders, both in the government and in the private sector, to really address those needs, concerns and anxieties.”

McLarty, who said he sees Thursday’s Brexit vote coming in very close, emphasized an important demographic divide among the voters.

“It’s interesting that younger people are largely supportive of the UK staying in the EU where older people are leaning the other way. Those that were rebels when the Beatles were popular are continued rebels,” he said, adding that younger people surprisingly have not embraced the “leave” movement in the same way.

Immigration fears

McLarty observed that similar themes have dominated the US presidential campaign platforms from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“I really believe when people feel uncertain and anxious about their future, then that’s when people are understandably more reluctant to change,” he said. “And that goes right into globalization, technology and immigration issues.”

McLarty added, though, that Trump’s rhetoric and his proposal to construct a wall between the US and Mexico, which has gotten much support among his base, are dangerous.

“You have to a secure border and you have to support legal immigration,” he said. “But having said that, I’m of a total different belief than Mr. Trump. I think we are a nation of immigrants - that’s what built this country. That’s what’s made us great. And I think it lends to our innovative, entrepreneurial spirit which is the lifeblood of our economy. So to be a champion or advocate for legal immigration and all of the benefits it brings to our country I think is the right position to be. So I sharply, strongly disagree with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

The trade deal question

When it comes to trade deals—including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which President Obama has made a top priority—dysfunction in DC has allowed people to become disillusioned and anxious, according to McLarty.

McLarty, who was one of the chief architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, said that trade deals have largely benefitted the US.

“By any measure, NAFTA has created jobs and good-paying jobs,” he said. “It’s been good for Mexico as well...A stable neighbor on our southern border is very important to our country.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s statement that other countries “beat us all the time” has mounted support from those that oppose free trade.

“It’s much easier to identify the concerns about trade,” McLarty said. “I think he has tapped into feelings...Clearly he is reflecting some of the mood of the country. We must do a better job explaining the realities of trade, the advantages of trade, and we must do better in supporting those affected--not just by trade--but by changing global economy and technology.”

In the end, McLarty believes free trade deals are key.

The US is not losing

“We just simply live in a more interconnected world, so trade is a reality,” he said. “We really need to really work hard to understand how to make it work for us and not against us.”

Above all else, McLarty said that the rhetoric that the US is “losing” is wrong.

“The United States is a leader on the world stage,” he said. “Our engagement in the world is essential to maintain that leadership… not just for our country and our citizens but also for the stability and peace and prosperity of the world.”

He added, “The real challenge for both candidates is to put forward a vision for the country: how they want to lead the country in these times of change; how they can bring the country together and work together and get things done.”