Munich Forum hears stinging rebuke of populist politics


The West’s democracies must share the blame for the way in which the world is rejecting globalization, turning its back on refugees and dismissing the need to separate truth from lies, U.S. Sen. John McCain told the Munich Security Forum today.

“All of us must accept our share of the blame for this turn of events. We grew complacent. We made mistakes. At times we tried to do too much, and at others we failed to do enough,” McCain said. “We lost touch with many of our people. We have been too slow to recognize and respond to their hardships. We need to face up to these realities, but this does not mean losing hope and retreating. That we must not do.”

But McCain (R-AZ) delivered a stinging rebuke of populist politics and a staunch rejection of moral relativism.

The Germans who founded the conference in the wake of World War II, McCain said, “did not assume the West would survive, because they had seen its near annihilation. They saw open markets give way to beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism, and the poverty that imposed. They saw a world order fracture into clashing ethnic and nationalist passions, and the misery that wrought.”

“From the ashes of the most awful calamity in human history was born what we call the West — a new, and different, and better kind of world order… one based not on blood-and-soil nationalism, or spheres of influence, or conquest of the weak by the strong, but rather on universal values, rule of law, open commerce, and respect for national sovereignty and independence,” he continued. “Indeed, the entire idea of the West is that it open to any person or any nation that honors and upholds these values.”

The founders of the conference would be alarmed by western nations’ “increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism… by the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims… by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies… [and] that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

“But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West… that they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without… and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it is unclear whether we have the will,” he added.

The international order and liberal democracy are in crisis, according to the new report from the Munich Security Conference – Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?, says Carnegie analyst Judy Dempsey.

“With few exceptions—German Chancellor Angela Merkel for one—leaders on neither side of the Atlantic hold the moral high ground when it comes to defending the post-1945 structures that were designed to promote and protect values, stability, and democracy,” she contends.

The era of liberal internationalism that began in 1945 could be closing. To avert that outcome, three urgent tasks are at hand, analyst Charles Kupchan writes for Foreign Policy:

  • First, centrists of all political persuasions must come together to offer a new social compact that is a credible alternative to the false economic promises of the populists. Restoring the faith of workers in the political establishment requires a comprehensive plan – fresh initiatives on education, vocational training, trade policy, tax policy, and wage minimums – to ensure that all enjoy an adequate standard of living and share in globalization’s benefits. Globalization is here to stay. But its unequal distributional effects must be addressed for the sake of democratic politics.
  • Second, while the United States and other Western democracies are buffeted by populist forces, the moderating effects of institutional checks and balances will be crucially important. Legislatures, courts, the media, public opinion and activism – these constraints on executive authority must be fully exercised.
  • Finally, if the United States and Great Britain are to be, at least temporarily, missing in action when it comes to defending the liberal international order, then continental Europe will have to hold down the fort. With the internal cohesion of the EU strained by the very populism the bloc needs to face down, it is not good timing for the EU to fill the gap left by Anglo-American dysfunction. But at least for now, European leadership is liberal internationalism’s best hope.

The “adversaries” of the democratic West “have no meaningful allies, so they seek to sow dissent among us and divide us from each other,” McCain told the Munich Forum.

“They know that their power and influence are inferior to ours, so they seek to subvert us, and erode our resolve to resist, and terrorize us into passivity,” he added. “They know they have little to offer the world beyond selfishness and fear, so they seek to undermine our confidence in ourselves and our belief in our own values.”

“In the final analysis, the survival of the West is not just a material struggle; it is now, and has always been, a moral struggle,” said McCain, chair of the International Republican Institute, a core partner of the National Endowment for Democracy. “Now more than ever, we must not forget this.”


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