Skip navigation

The Global New Deal: Lessons and Legacies: History of the Present Series

March 25, 2021


  • Kiran Klaus Patel, Chair of European history at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich; Founding director of Project House Europe
  • Mark Gilbert, Professor of History and International Studies, SAIS Europe  

For decades, the American “New Deal” of the 1930s has been used as shorthand for massive public spending campaigns in democratic societies, from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call for a “Global New Deal” in 2000 to the EU’s implementation of its “Green Deal” and proposals in the US for a “Green New Deal” in the present. Why has the New Deal had such an outsized impact upon our modern public policy discourse, even almost a century after its implementation first began? What led to the success of the New Deal, and what was its impact throughout the 20th and 21st centuries?
The New Deal, Patel argues, cannot be understood without first perceiving the Great Depression as a dual crisis of capitalist economics and democratic politics. For many Americans, the Great Depression was a challenge to the efficacy of the American social order – people were inundated with images of American deprivation through both media and art (such as Dorothea Lange’s photography) even while autocratic and communist orders projected an image of resilience and prosperity through propaganda (and deeply downplaying the desperation of their own situations in the process). Therefore, in trying to restore a sense of American “security” – namely, securing the lifestyles of ordinary Americans against the insecurities of the age, more than against any physical threats – the authors of New Deal policy looked to the world for ideas, drawing inspiration from British public housing projects and Mexican public art programs alike. Accordingly, the New Deal was a hodge-podge of differing and sometimes contradictory plans that ended up unified beneath the intense expansion of federal and state government into the lives of ordinary Americans. In doing so, the New Deal did not focus on international cooperation, but instead on domestic intervention and on insulating America from global forces.
This model of recovery, though not immediately effective in resolving the Great Depression, rapidly shifted American perceptions of the crisis, and gave rise to a national consciousness of, and confidence in, the state’s power. By the early 40s, projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority had transformed from catch-up measures to proud signals of the economic potential of the liberal state, while insecurities around the perceived economic strength of the USSR and fascist Italy transformed into confidence in an “American Way,” ready to be exported as a global model for prosperity and strength. From this point forward, the state would have an ever-larger role in public life, starting with the implementation of the GI Bill in 1944 and continuing throughout the 20th century. 
Today, the specifics of the original 30s New Deal legislation have fallen out of public consciousness, replaced by three broad impressions of the program’s spirit: bold, experimental mobilization and action as a balm for economic and political crisis; domestic intervention as the duty of an active state to address systemic problems (something anathema to later neoliberal thought); and, an international exportability fostered by the New Deal policymakers’ attempts to spread New Deal policy as a model for global development (even when not viewed as useful within the countries they were attempting to export to, and despite the insulationist impulses of the “real” New Deal: emphatic internationalism only came to dominate Roosevelt’s politics once the New deal was over). The New Deal has become more powerful as an idea than as a substantive basis for policy, and its association with American innovation and exceptionalism has come to overshadow its origin as the internationally-inspired invention of modern American society. To reduce it thusly is to both overlook its many failings and to undersell just how profoundly transformative – economically, politically, and psychologically – the New Deal really was.