To defend liberal order, democracy’s champions must act with more conviction


It has been another bad week for liberal democracy, the Brookings Institution’s William A. Galston (left) writes for the Wall Street Journal:

In France a late surge by Jean-Luc Mélenchon raised the hitherto unthinkable prospect of a presidential runoff between the candidates of the hard left and the far right, both of whom have pledged to withdraw from NATO and institute a pro-Russian foreign policy. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly prevailed in a referendum that would amend the constitution to grant him sweeping new powers, opening the door to authoritarianism with a thin democratic veneer.

“The conduct of the referendum illustrated the difference between mere majoritarianism and real liberal democracy,” notes Galston, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“International pro-democratic forces must now rally to the defense of democracy wherever it is threatened,” he adds.

Such developments prompt Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry to ask if the world is witnessing the demise of the U.S.-led liberal order.

Constructed in the years following World War II, the liberal international order is complex and sprawling, organized around economic openness, multilateral institutions, security cooperation, democratic solidarity, and internationalist ideals. For decades, the United States has served as the system’s first citizen, providing leadership and public goods—anchoring the alliances, stabilizing the world economy, fostering cooperation, and championing the values of openness and liberal democracy, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

The profundity of this political moment is greater still because it occurs amid a wider crisis across the liberal democratic world. The centrist and progressive governing coalitions that built the postwar order have weakened. Liberal democracy itself appears fragile, vulnerable in particular to far-right populism. Some date these troubles to the global financial crisis of 2008, which widened economic inequality and fueled grievances across the advanced industrial democracies, the original patrons and beneficiaries of the order. In recent years, Western publics have increasingly come to regard the liberal international order not as a source of stability and solidarity among like-minded states but as a global playground for the rich and powerful.

“If the liberal international order is to survive, leaders and citizens in the United States and elsewhere will need to defend its institutions, bargains, and accomplishments. Those seeking to defend it have one big advantage: more people, within the United States and abroad, stand to lose from its destruction than stand to win,” he asserts:

The defenders of the order should start by reclaiming the master narrative of the last 70 years. The era of U.S. leadership did not usher in the end of history, but it did set the stage for world-historical advances. Since the end of the Cold War, over a billion people have been raised out of poverty and hundreds of millions of children have been educated. The world has been spared great-power war, and a sense of common responsibility for the well-being of the planet has emerged. In trying to reclaim this narrative, politicians and public intellectuals should take their lead from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1941, the two leaders met in Newfoundland and signed the Atlantic Charter, a declaration of their shared commitment to building a better world after the war ended. They pledged to establish an international system based on the principles of openness, cooperative security, and social and economic advancement.  

“Today, the leaders of the liberal democratic world should present a charter of their own, to renew their support for an open and rules-based order,” Ikenberry concludes:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” William Butler Yeats wrote in the aftermath of World War I. If the liberal democratic world is to survive, its champions will have to find their voice and act with more conviction.


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