Liberal democratic order in crisis?


The liberal democratic world order is facing an unprecedented set of strains and challenges, analysts suggest.

As democracies appear ever more dysfunctional, divided, and irresolute, as authoritarian regimes exploit and propagandize these difficulties, and as China expands its economic and political muscle through its Belt and Road Initiative and surge of development “assistance”, global faith in democracy as the best system is eroding, argues Larry Diamond (right), Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The specter that now haunts the world is something unseen since the 1930s: an authoritarian zeitgeist celebrating the suppression of political and individual freedom as a better way to govern, he writes for The American Interest:

No great power can pin its global engagement on principle alone. But in most countries, we can do and say something on behalf of freedom and the rule of law. And on many fronts, including the troubled transitions in Ukraine and Tunisia, our engagement and pressure could make the difference between success and failure. If we do not renew our global leadership for freedom, and our resolve to assist and defend it where we can—including against Russia’s ongoing cyber assaults—the long decade of democratic recession will give way to an authoritarian rout.

The democratic order has had a spectacular run. For nearly seventy years, it has provided security, fostered freedom, and produced unprecedented levels of global prosperity. But the order did not sustain itself.  It relied on powerful democratic states to advance and sustain it—and no state has been more critical to its success than the United States, argues Ash Jain, a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and Co-Director of the D-10 Strategy Forum. Four key indicators reveal the state of the free world, he writes:

Alliances.  A system of democratic alliances has been the defining feature of the liberal world order.  The United States has formed alliances and partnerships with nearly fifty democracies around the world—alliances that not only serve as a collective deterrent  in the event of an attack, but as importantly, as a force multiplier for American power to advance common interests….
Rise of the revisionists. Russia and China (with greater nuance) have made clear their opposition to the democratic order and have been acting to undermine it where they can….
Democracy deficit. For the twelfth consecutive year, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains.  As Freedom House notes, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, a period characterized by “emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”….
Rules-based trade.  Support for free and open trade ordered by transparent rules has been a consistent feature of American global leadership….

“The democratic order remains intact—but it can at best be described as in stable but serious condition, one shock away from critical,” Jain concludes. “In the near term, the survival of the order may hinge on what role the United States chooses to play if faced with a global crisis.”

Yet neither the liberal order nor the U.S. can thrive in the long term without stronger American engagement, for three key reasons, according to Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and author of “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump”:

  • First, America’s allies may be defending the liberal order, but they are not necessarily doing so in the way that Americans might prefer. It is laudable that the EU, Japan and other countries are pushing back against protectionism, but the agreements they conclude will be far less favorable to U.S. interests than they would be if Washington were at the table and setting the agenda….
  • Finally, although U.S. allies have sometimes bristled at descriptions of America as the “indispensable nation,” the hard reality is that there are limits to what they can achieve without Washington. No one, not even most Europeans, expects great breakthroughs in European defense cooperation in the age of Trump. This is because EU military integration still suffers from its perpetual problem — it has all the liabilities of a complicated multilateral undertaking without the benefit of having the U.S. there to plug the inevitable gaps.

The title of a major report for discussion at the January 2018 meetings at Davos, based on a survey of global elite opinion, is ominous for the future of the international system, notes one observer: “Fractures, Fears and Failures.” The report’s subheadings include: “Grim Reaping,” “The Death of Trade,” “Democracy Buckles,” “Precision Extinction”, “Into the Abyss”, “Fears of Ecological Armageddon” and “War without Rules.”

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