U.S. President Barack Obama warned today against a rise in nationalism and populism – from both Left and Right – noting that a backlash against globalization had stoked illiberal movements. He said that “even if progress follows a winding path — sometimes forward, sometimes back — democracy is still the most effective form of government ever devised by man.”
Democratic institutions are also essential for the peaceful transfer of power, he added, speaking in Greece, the ‘cradle of democracy’. “After the election, democracy depends on a peaceful transition of power, especially when you don’t get the results you want,” Obama said.
“Democracy is stronger than organizations like ISIS,” Obama said today, using one of the names for Islamic State.
Democracy is why the United States welcomes “people of all races, and all religions and all backgrounds and immigrants who strive to give their children a better life,” he added. “Our democracies show that we are stronger than terrorists, fundamentalists and absolutists, who can’t tolerate difference.”
But he added that while globalization and automation have generated prosperity, they were also creating extraordinary anxiety.
“Globalization, combined with technology, combined with social media and constant information, have disrupted people’s lives, sometimes in very concrete ways — a manufacturing plant closes and suddenly an entire town no longer has what was the primary source of employment — but also psychologically,” Obama said. “People are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world. It starts looking different and disoriented.”
“And there is no doubt that that has produced populist movements, both from the left and the right, in many countries in Europe,” he added. “A suspicion of globalization, a desire to rein in its excesses, a suspicion of elites and governing institutions that people feel may not be responsive to their immediate needs. And that sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity. And that can be a volatile mix.”
“The lesson I draw — and I think people can draw a lot of lessons but maybe one that cuts across countries — is we have to deal with issues like inequality,” said Obama.
“We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’,” he said. “We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up…the 20th century was a bloodbath.”
“If we want to survive, this is the only way. To base our future on national-cultural identity. Otherwise we have no chance of surviving as Europe. We are not Europeans because we have ‘common European values,’ this is a misunderstanding.”
“We have to respect the fact that the people would like to have the feeling of that they control their own lives, and that there is no such thing as a ‘European nation,'” he said. “We have French, we have Germans, we have Hungarians but there are no European people. So the legitimacy, the democracy can come only from the nations, nowhere else. So if someone wants to build a European architecture over the European people, that’s sad. It’s a house built on sand, not on rock.”
The latest issue of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy analyzes the populist spectre haunting Europe.
Obama said freedom of speech and assembly, a free press, freedom of religion, separation of powers and free and fair elections remain the bedrock as “our democracies are facing serious challenges.”
“So here, where democracy was born, we affirm once more the rights, ideals and institutions upon which our way of life endures,” he said.