The Third Way International

Throughout the 1990s, Bill Clinton and other Democratic Leadership Council figures launched a campaign to take their Third Way ideology global.

Former president Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 2016. (Matt A. J. / Flickr)

In October 1998, flush with victory after Tony Blair’s triumph in the previous year’s elections, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens published his now famous manifesto, The Third Way. In just over 150 pages, the volume announced to the world a new political faith.

Appearing in an era when the spirits of socialism and communism still haunted the Left, Giddens’s call for a “renewal of social democracy” was meant to close the book on the past and begin a new chapter in the history of social progress. Everything was new — the new economy, New Labour, New Democrats, the New Middle.

In reality, it was all a rather post-hoc affair. The electoral left had been adapting itself to the neoliberal world of free markets and privatization for years already, but a unified, transnational ideological narrative for the reorientation had been missing.

Giddens said his task was to provide the British Labour Party and other European social democrats with “theoretical flesh” to cover the skeleton of their policymaking. Though his book later became a central reference point for scholars of New Labour, what it really signaled was Third Way’s achievement of buzzword status.

The same month Giddens’s book was hitting the stands, Bill Clinton’s policy guru Al From declared in the Democratic Leadership Council’s journal, The New Democrat, that the Third Way was now “the worldwide brand name for progressive politics for the Information Age.”

The effort to provide center-left politicians like Clinton and Blair a stronger theoretical foundation for what they were already doing had accelerated following New Labour’s 1997 election victory and the coming-to-power of similarly-oriented social democrats elsewhere.

Together, the intellectuals and politicians that constituted the “center” half of the center-left equation were about to embark on what they saw as the final campaign against left-wing fundamentalism in their parties.

The timing of the campaign to codify the Third Way as an international ideological project was initially driven by concerns of legacy and political continuity. The global embrace of the New Democrat message of “opportunity, responsibility, and community” occurred when Clinton was well into his second term, prompting his DLC to more earnestly consider its own future in a post-Clinton world.

Having become so identified with the policies of the president, the organization began to re-envision itself as a participant in (and in some respects, originator of) a global revolution in the politics of the Left. The DLC was eager to sharpen its image as something more serious than simply an electoral vehicle for conservative-minded Democrats or Clinton acolytes. It began to see itself as the American franchise of a worldwide movement — the pioneer of a new ideological project for the center-left.

Though it had been one of the first of this new breed to use the phrase “Third Way,” placing it into the Democratic Party platform as far back as 1992, the DLC had rarely employed the term as a descriptor for its politics up to this point. The New Democrats had assembled a rich conceptual map, but they had not often applied a label to the ideology they created. This changed following the international adoption of their framework by other center-left parties. With a number of domestic policy achievements under its belt, the DLC pivoted to promoting its role as the leader of an international Third Way project.

For Bill Clinton, the embrace of his brand of politics by other world leaders could not have come at a more opportune time. When impeachment and scandal were threatening to become the things his presidency would be remembered for, the sudden international interest in Third Way politics presented an opportunity to forge a larger and more respectable legacy.

Working with From and the DLC, the White House eagerly began promoting the Third Way through meetings with foreign leaders and international conferences attended by academics and party leaders.

The first such international meeting around the DLC’s ideas — years before the term Third Way was popular — had been in January 1993, when Blair and his ally Gordon Brown had been part of a Labour Party delegation meeting with the Clinton transition team to discuss the New Democrats’ success in changing their party. Still in opposition, they were looking for tips on seizing the initiative on crime from British Conservatives and emphasizing private sector growth in their economic messaging.

From recalled how when they met again four years later in 1997, now-Prime Minister Blair pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Opportunity, responsibility, community,” Blair remarked. “These are the notes from our first meeting during the Clinton transition.”

As far back as 1993, then, the DLC’s core concepts were already being carried abroad. They were at the heart of Blair’s New Labour agenda from its inception.

November 1997 saw the first convening of an official bilateral meeting on the future of “New Democrat–New Labour politics,” hosted by Blair at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house retreat. The conference was called to discuss how to consolidate a “new progressivism” that would ensure the Third Way did not end up being a transitory electoral marketing scheme, a danger Blair called “winning power but not the battle of ideas.”

First Lady Hillary Clinton led the nine-member US delegation that included From, government officials such as Larry Summers, Frank Raines, and Andrew Cuomo, as well as journalist Sidney Blumenthal and political scientist Joseph Nye. On the British side, among others, were Blair, Brown, Giddens, Peter Mandelson, and David Miliband.

Discussions between representatives of the New Democrats, New Labour, and others seeking to affil­iate themselves with the tendency continued over the next year and a half. When Blair visited Washington in February 1998, he met with Vice President Gore and From to discuss the Third Way. In May and June that year, President Clinton held discussions on center-left policies with Italian prime minister Romano Prodi and Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso.

Speculation was rife that Clinton and Blair were out to undermine the Socialist International, the global alliance of social-democratic parties, and replace it with a full-fledged “Third Way International.”

The embrace of the DLC’s ideology by well-known foreign politicians further strengthened and legitimated its conceptual framework within the Democratic Party at home. The growth of the global Third Way movement was employed as an instrument to try and coopt the New Democrats’ domestic opponents.

Seeking to unite the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton called a meeting of various figures from across the factional divide at the White House in the summer of 1998 to debate the Third Way and win over converts to the New Democrat outlook. Among those attending were Ruy Teixeira from the Economic Policy Institute, Elaine Kamarck and Bruce Reed from the DLC, Representative Dick Gephardt, who had by now traveled far from his DLC roots and become a staunch free trade opponent, and AFL-CIO head John Sweeney.

Another retreat hosted by Blair in the fall saw the first lady and From travel again to Chequers. And at the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, a Third Way forum was hosted by New York University in conjunction with the DLC’s sister think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. Headed by Will Marshall, the event featured the Clintons, Gore, Blair, Giddens, Prodi, Swedish prime minister Göran Persson, and the Bulgarian prime minister Petar Stoyanov.

Marshall and the PPI then hosted a one-day conference on Third Way policy in Virginia in January 1999 at which From and David Miliband planned a DLC-sponsored event to be held following the NATO summit in Washington that April. Both Clintons, Blair, German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Dutch prime minister Wim Kok, and the new Italian prime minister (and former head of the Italian Communist Party) Massimo D’Alema attended the post-NATO meeting. Virtually alone among West European social democrats, France’s Lionel Jospin declined the invitation.

From opened the conference by defining how the leaders gathered should present the Third Way in their countries and reiterated its core concepts.

Its first principle and enduring purpose is equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none. Its public ethic is mutual responsibility. Its core value is community. Its outlook is global. And, its modern means are fostering private sector economic growth. . . .

The Third Way’s international profile began rising dramatically over the next year. Reporting on the coalescing alliance following the meeting, the Guardian observed that “the most elite club in the world is becoming extremely fashionable.” On the eve of the 1998 European elections, Blair and Schröder issued a joint statement, Europe: The Third Way / Die Neue Mitte, calling on social democrats across the continent to accept the logic of “modernization” and adapt to changing conditions.

Leaving behind what they characterized as left-wing ideological straitjackets, the leaders presented the British/German model as a benchmark for fellow socialists. Their statement constituted the seminal attempt to implant the Third Way’s conceptual framework across Europe.

The program was meant as an obituary for “old left” politics, but it was not particularly original. The Blair/Schröder statement mirrored DLC messaging. It included an acceptance of equality of opportunity over equality of outcome, a contractual understanding of welfare benefits as conditional on personal responsibility, an end to class struggle and a “rekindling of community” and partnership, a stronger role for the private sector in driving economic growth, flexible labor markets, a state that would “not row, but steer” a “supply-side” welfare regime focused on investment in human capital rather than redistribution, and a “more responsible” attitude toward public debt. The statement concluded by characterizing the politics of the Third Way as “Europe’s new hope.”

Not all European social democrats were eager to sign on to a British-led and American-inspired redefinition of socialism, though. In France, Jospin, who had earlier declined the invitation to From and Miliband’s Washington conference, commented, “The French left, like France, imitates no one.”

The Third Way program — in both its original DLC version as well as its European progeny — was jarring because of the extent to which it traded traditional left principles for those of the New Right. Clinton, Blair, and the rest of the Third Wayers told the Left it could no longer turn to an old set of “big government” policies and expect them to work in a globalized world.

Instead of ironclad pledges of fealty to particular policies such as public ownership, economic planning, or demand management, social democrats had to be guided by the values which had supposedly always inspired them. Whether it was the New Democrats, New Labour, or Die Neue Mitte, the same conceptual core of opportunity, responsibility, and community appeared again and again.

As far back as 1990, Clinton and the DLC had declared in the “New Orleans Declaration” that they intended to echo the language of conservatism. The Third Way advocates pledged their devotion to the mission of expanding “opportunity, not government.” The war on poverty was replaced by a “politics of inclusion” that would phase out social welfare. The compensatory role of social assistance and affirmative action were denigrated. The lauding of individual initiative and upward mobility refuted a focus on problems of group inequality and the search for social solutions to discrimination.

Economic security would be achieved through free trade, not protectionism. Strong defense had to be maintained on the world stage while the prevention and punishment of crime would define domestic security policy. Concerns of the oppressed were to be sidestepped, as the integration of minorities into the “economic and cultural mainstream” was preferred to “racial, gender, or ethnic separatism.” And finally, citizenship was to be redefined in line with communitarian principles, entailing “responsibility as well as rights.” A strong reliance on “moral and cultural values” would govern public behavior.

What Blair and other European Third Way social democrats borrowed from America was not just a campaign slogan or political marketing. The replacement of long-standing left commitments to equality, economic security, and solidarity represented a thorough ideological repudiation of the foundations of social democracy.

The debate over the Third Way was always, fundamentally, a battle of ideas that played out against the backdrop of massive political and economic change. Reagan and Thatcher had unhesitatingly acted to extend and shape the global economy in a neoliberal direction following the crisis of Keynesianism. In the 1980s, the New Right, in true Gramscian style, was already consolidating its own historic bloc and the Third Way eventually emerged as a part of it.

By the turn of the century, the battle for the soul of social democracy was over. The Left had stood opposed, but with greatly diminished social forces, it was powerless in the face of Third Way advance.

In the end, there were few opponents for Clinton, Blair, and others to contend with in their own parties. There was little resistance to the final codification of the Third Way in November 1999. The flurry of meetings and panels that From, Marshall, and others had been organizing over the previous years finally culminated in an international conference held in Florence under the slogan, “Progressive Governance for the 21st Century.”

In his opening remarks, Clinton elaborated the importance of Third Way thinking for governing the new global economy and took the chance to again reinforce the New Democrats’ opportunity-based conception of equality, their emphasis on individual responsibility, and the communitarian values they counterposed to the traditional class-based outlook of the Left.

We think ideas matter. We think it’s a great challenge to marry our conceptions of social justice and equal opportunity with our commitment to globalization. We think we will have to find what has often been called a Third Way, a way that requires governments to empower people with tools and conditions necessary for individuals, families, communities, and nations to make the most of their human potential.

The skeptical view of globalization that Clinton and the other Third Way leaders were battling on their left demonstrated its influence a week later when protests sunk the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle over the human and environmental costs associated with the global free-trade regime. Seattle showed that although they had conquered the field within their own parties, the Third Wayers still had to contend with dissent in the streets.

The line-up of keynote speakers in Florence included most of the same names as the earlier forum after the NATO meeting, with the exception that Jospin finally made an appearance. Though generally on board with much of the substance of the discussions, he continued to express unease with the Anglo-American-led redefinition of social democracy.

In a pamphlet issued just days before the conference, Jospin declared he was for “modern socialism” but not the Third Way:

If the Third Way lies between communism and capitalism, it is merely a new name for democratic socialism peculiar to the British. . .. If, on the other hand, the Third Way involves finding a middle way between social democracy and neoliberalism, then this approach is not mine.

Regardless of Jospin’s discomfort around particular labels, the Florence conference represented, in essence, the launch of a loosely-bound “Third Way International.” The conversion of European social democracy to New Democrat ideology was now complete.