The Collapse of the Liberal World Order
The world is entering a period where once-robust democracies have grown fragile. Now is the time to figure out where we went wrong.
Once upon a time -- that is, back in the 1990s -- a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history.” The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the United States. For its part, the United States committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of pesky autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in a benevolent and enduring world order.
Once upon a time — that is, back in the 1990s — a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history.” The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the United States. For its part, the United States committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of pesky autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in a benevolent and enduring world order.
As you’ve probably noticed, the heady optimism of the 1990s has given way to a growing sense of pessimism — even alarm — about the existing liberal order. The New York Times’s Roger Cohen, a thoughtful and committed liberal, believes that “the forces of disintegration are on the march” and “the foundations of the postwar world … are trembling.” An April white paper from the World Economic Forum cautions that the liberal world order “is being challenged by a variety of forces — by powerful authoritarian governments and anti-liberal fundamentalist movements.” And in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan warns that the United States itself may be imperiled because it has become “too democratic.”
Such fears are understandable. In Russia, China, India, Turkey, Egypt — and yes, even here in the United States — one sees either resurgent authoritarianism or a yearning for a “strong leader” whose bold actions will sweep away present discontents. According to democracy expert Larry Diamond, “between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries,” while “many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens.” Great Britain has now voted to leave the EU; Poland, Hungary, and Israel are heading in illiberal directions; and one of America’s two major political parties is about to nominate a presidential candidate who openly disdains the tolerance that is central to a liberal society, repeatedly expresses racist beliefs and baseless conspiracy theories, and has even questioned the idea of an independent judiciary. For those of us committed to core liberal ideals, these are not happy times.
I may have a realist view of international politics and foreign policy, but I take no pleasure whatsoever from these developments. Like Robert Gilpin, “if pressed I would describe myself as a liberal in a realist world,” by which I mean that I appreciate the virtues of a liberal society, am grateful to live in one, and think the world would in fact be a better place if liberal institutions and values were more widely — even universally — embraced. (I’m deeply skeptical about our ability to accelerate that process, and especially with military force, but that’s another matter). So it would have been perfectly fine with me if the liberals’ earlier hopes had been realized. But they weren’t, and it’s important to consider why.
The first problem was that liberalism’s defenders oversold the product. We were told that if dictators kept falling and more states held free elections, defended free speech, implemented the rule of law, and adopted competitive markets, and joined the EU and/or NATO, then a vast “zone of peace” would be created, prosperity would spread, and any lingering political disagreements would be easily addressed within the framework of a liberal order.
When matters didn’t go quite so smoothly, and when some groups in these liberal societies were in fact harmed by these developments, a degree of backlash was inevitable. It didn’t help that elites in many liberal countries made some critical blunders, including the creation of the euro, the invasion of Iraq, the misguided attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial crisis. These and other mistakes helped undermine the legitimacy of the post-Cold War order, open the door to illiberal forces, and left some segments of society vulnerable to nativist appeals.
Efforts to spread a liberal world order also faced predictable opposition from the leaders and groups who were directly threatened by our efforts. It was hardly surprising that Iran and Syria did what they could to thwart U.S. efforts in Iraq, for example, because the George W. Bush administration had made it clear these regimes were on its hit list, too. Similarly, is it that hard to fathom why Chinese and Russian leaders find Western efforts to spread “liberal” values threatening, or why they have taken various steps to forestall them?
Liberals also forgot that successful liberal societies require more than the formal institutions of democracy. They also depend on a broad and deep commitment to the underlying values of a liberal society, most notably tolerance. As events in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several other places demonstrate, however, writing a constitution, forming political parties, and holding “free and fair” elections won’t produce a genuinely liberal order unless individuals and groups in society also embrace the key liberal norms as well. This sort of cultural and normative commitment cannot be developed overnight or injected from outside, and certainly not with drones, special forces, and other instruments of violence.
It is also abundantly clear that post-Cold War liberals underestimated the role of nationalism and other forms of local identity, including sectarianism, ethnicity, tribal bonds, and the like. They assumed that such atavistic attachments would gradually die out, be confined to apolitical, cultural expressions, or be adroitly balanced and managed within well-designed democratic institutions.
But it turns out that many people in many places care more about national identities, historic enmities, territorial symbols, and traditional cultural values than they care about “freedom” as liberals define it. And if the Brexit vote tells us anything, it’s that some (mostly older) voters are more easily swayed by such appeals than by considerations of pure economic rationality (at least until they feel the consequences). We may think our liberal values are universally valid, but sometimes other values will trump them (no pun intended). Such traditional sentiments will loom especially large when social change is rapid and unpredictable, and especially when once-homogeneous societies are forced to incorporate and assimilate people whose backgrounds are different and have to do so within a short span of time. Liberals can talk all they want about the importance of tolerance and the virtues of multiculturalism (and I happen to agree with them), but the reality is that blending cultures within a single polity has never been smooth or simple. The resulting tensions provide ample grist for populist leaders who promise to defend “traditional” values (or “make the country great again”). Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but it can still be a formidable political trope.
Most important of all, liberal societies are in trouble today because they are vulnerable to being hijacked by groups or individuals who take advantage of the very freedoms upon which liberal societies are based. As Donald Trump has been proving all year (and as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Recep Erdogan, Geert Wilders, and other political entrepreneurs have shown in the past), leaders or movements whose commitment to liberal principles is at best skin-deep can take advantage of the principles of open society and use it to rally a popular following. And there is nothing about a democratic order that ensures such efforts will invariably fail.
Deep down, I think this explains why so many people in the United States and in Europe are desperate to keep Uncle Sam fully engaged in Europe. It’s not so much the fear of a declining but assertive Russia; it’s their fear of Europe itself. Liberals want Europe to remain peaceful, tolerant, democratic and embedded within the EU framework, and they’d like to pull countries like Georgia or Ukraine more fully into Europe’s democratic circle eventually. But deep down, they just don’t trust the Europeans to manage this situation, and they fear it will all go south if the “American pacifier” is removed. For all of liberalism’s supposed virtues, at the end of the day its defenders cannot shake the suspicion that its European version is so delicate that it requires indefinite American support. Who knows? Maybe they’re right. But unless you think the United States has infinite resources and a limitless willingness to subsidize other wealthy states’ defenses, then the question is: what other global priorities are liberals prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve what’s left of the European order?
Photo credit: MATT CARDY/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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