West’s political and normative project ‘under fire’


Germany’s outgoing President Joachim Gauck on Wednesday used his final major address to emphasize the importance of a resilient democracy and robust security policy, DW reports. He called today’s Germany “the best and most democratic Germany we have ever had,” but warned that “liberal democracy and the political and normative project of the West is under fire.”

In the post-Cold War era, the landscape of peace remains heavily influenced by the nature of the Western liberal order, note Ohio State University’s Bear F. Braumoeller and Yale University’s Bruce Russett.  As Russett and John Oneal documented in their book, ‘Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations,’ these three characteristics of the Western liberal order are especially conducive to reducing conflicts, they write for the Post’s Monkey Cage blog. But democracy, interdependence and international organizations also help create positive peace — when countries not only don’t fight one another, but live in expectation of cooperation.

Collapse from within?

“Until now, it was widely assumed that the main challenge to the liberal order would come chiefly from rising powers such as China, India and Russia,” notes Amitav Acharya, author of ‘The End of American World Order.’ But recent developments suggest that it is collapsing from within, he writes for The Financial Times.

The emergence of illiberal democracy and new forms of populism is in large part due to failures of democratic leadership and the failure to establish a genuine “culture of democracy” to undergird formal democratic institutions, argues Fareed Zakaria, author of The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.

It bothers Jan-Werner Müller, a German professor who teaches at Princeton University, that the term “populism” is normally used without a precise definition. He offers one in his book “What is populism?” (2016), notes analyst Hans Dembowski. To Müller, the decisive issue is that populists claim to be the only legitimate representatives of “the people”. He considers this notion is inherently undemocratic since no nation is a homogenous entity, he writes for Development and Cooperation:

In a democracy, different interests are expressed by different parties, and government policies result from controversial debate, relying on majorities that are based on coalitions of various interests. Accordingly, different views matter, broad-based discourse is welcome and opposition to the government is legitimate. Populists, however, deny that there are diverging interests, and pretend that they are the true representatives of a homogenous nation which is being abused of an exploitative coalition of elitist leaders and parasitic minorities, who are pampered by the state. They do not engage in nuanced discussions of policy details, since that would not fit the grand scheme of “us versus them”….

According to Müller, democracy is certainly damaged, but does not necessarily end once populists take office. The big issue is whether civil society, the media and a host of institutions prove resilient enough to keep a check on the government, stemming the centralisation of powers. It is often argued that populists basically attract people who have lost out in the processes of modernisation and globalisation. Müller warns that this notion is misleading, as populists actually find support among a variety of social groups. In particular, they attract people with social-Darwinist leanings.   

The way to resist populism is to insist on pluralism, diversity and broad-based controversial debate, Dembowski adds:

As Müller argues, however, the governments of many western countries – especially, but not only in the EU – have been promoting technocratic ideas according to which there are no alternatives to their market-driven policies. This attitude is undemocratic too, according to Müller, and it serves the populists, who claim to offer an alternative to the status quo.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email