Liberal democracy ‘docile in defense of itself’


The peace-building aspect of the liberal order has been an extraordinary success, but its institutions have become disconnected from publics in the very countries that created them, according to Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane. Much ink has been spilled on the domestic causes of the populist revolt: racism, growing frustration with experts, dysfunctional economic policies. But less attention has been paid to two contributing factors that stemmed from the international order itself, they write for Foreign Affairs:

  • The first was a loss of national solidarity brought on by the end of the Cold War. During that conflict, the perceived Soviet threat generated a strong shared sense of attachment not only to Washington’s allies but also to multilateral institutions. Social psychologists have demonstrated the crucial importance of “othering” in identity formation, for individuals and nations alike: a clear sense of who is not on your team makes you feel closer to those who are. The fall of the Soviet Union removed the main “other” from the American political imagination and thereby reduced social cohesion in the United States. …
  • The second force stirring discontent with the liberal order can be called “multilateral overreach.” Interdependence requires countries to curb their autonomy so that institutions such as the UN and the World Bank can facilitate cooperation and solve mutual problems. But the natural tendency of institutions, their leaders, and the bureaucracies that carry out their work is to expand their authority. Every time they do so, they can point to some seemingly valid rationale. The cumulative effect of such expansions of international authority, however, is to excessively limit sovereignty and give people the sense that foreign forces are controlling their lives….

The Western civilization narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated, David Brooks writes for the New York Times:

It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals. …Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them. The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. 

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter, the BBC’s Rachel Nuwer writes:

In Syria’s case – as with so many other societal collapses throughout history – it was not one but a plethora of factors that contributed, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and author of The Upside of Down. Homer-Dixon calls these combined forces tectonic stresses for the way in which they quietly build up and then abruptly erupt, overloading any stabilising mechanisms that otherwise keep a society in check.

Andrew Michta laments the loss of Western confidence in an essay in The American Interest. Edward Luce offers a response in his forthcoming book ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’,” adds Brooks, who cites the loss of faith in democratic ideals outlined in a study published in the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. “But liberalism has been docile in defense of itself.” 

On the other hand, Western societies may not meet with a violent, dramatic end. In some cases, civilizations simply fade out of existence – becoming the stuff of history not with a bang but a whimper, Nuwer adds:

The British Empire has been on this path since 1918…. and other Western nations might go this route as well. As time passes, they will become increasingly inconsequential and, in response to the problems driving their slow fade-out, will also starkly depart from the values they hold dear today.

“Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” says Jorgen Randers, author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

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