Defending liberal world order requires democratic renewal (and vice versa)


vaclav havel eventVáclav Havel’s legacy is a vital moral and intellectual resource for confronting the authoritarian resurgence and for addressing the challenge of democratic renewal, a commemorative conference at the National Endowment for Democracy heard yesterday.

“Complacency was not in Havel’s vocabulary,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The former Czech dissident-turned-president “went from intellectual troublemaker to intellectual troublemaking statesman,” she observed.

For Havel, “the greatest threat is our indifference to the fate of others,” Albright added, whether in respect of political repression in Cuba or genocide in Rwanda. Yet he never allowed his frustrations to harden into despair.

“We are at a dark moment in the history of the Enlightenment project,” said Robert Kagan, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, citing the prevalence of “real doubts” about whether democracy can deliver, materially and spiritually.

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright

Growing tribalism was undermining core liberal principles, such as individual rights and cosmopolitanism, while support for advancing democracy was waning, a development “traceable to the Big Lie that the invasion of Iraq was about democracy promotion,” Kagan added.

Threat to values

“The ghosts of conflicts past: virulent nationalism, authoritarianism, prejudice and sectarian divide have reappeared in modern but no less vicious guise,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Brussels this week: “On both sides of the Atlantic we hear calls to ban all immigrants, end free trade, align with autocrats — all at variance with the values on which our alliance had been built.”

Nationalism, populism and nativism were even on the rise in Havel’s own Czech Republic, where illiberal forces were occupying political space and corroding democratic institutions, said his former colleague Igor Blazevic.

Recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe suggest that democracy has morphed from being an instrument of inclusion to one of exclusion, said Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies. The West became complacent and narcissistic following the post-1989 transitions, but it has now lapsed into pessimistic self-pity and “moral panic” over the autocratic resurgence when it should adopt Havel’s approach of healthy self-criticism.

Russia does not provide an alternative model or systemic alternative to the West as the USSR purported to do during the Cold War. But Vladimir Putin does represent a certain ideological orthodoxy based on illiberal cultural conservatism, said The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt. This merits a response of “democratic encouragement” rather than aggressive democracy promotion, he argued.

Journal-of-Democracy-July-2016It is hard to conceive of a successful defense of the liberal world order without a project of democratic renewal, and vice versa, according to Marc Plattner, editor of The Journal of Democracy.

Defending the liberal world order requires assertions of principle and power, said Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin fellow in Culture and Policy at Brookings. Asserting power without principle breeds cynicism, while principle without power amounts to moral posturing and political impotence, he suggested.

Although he emerged from the non-violent dissident movement, Havel was prepared to countenance military power when it was necessary to defend or advance freedom, said The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl. But he recommended combating evil in its “germinal stages,” which is why he would have been appalled at the West’s “horrendous failure” to intervene in Syria.

On a positive note, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond observed that the majority of the world’s states are electoral democracies which are home to a majority of the world’s people, while surveys like those of Afrobarometer testify to the sometimes “mystifyingly” resilient commitment to democratic values and institutions. On the other hand, we could be “on the precipice of a reverse wave,” depending on the outcome of developments in key swing states, including Ghana, South Africa, Turkey and, most crucially, Ukraine and Tunisia.


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