Real danger to the world isn’t Brexit – it’s the rise of illiberalism


Two weeks after Britain’s EU referendum, Europe has defied predictions that the UK’s vote to leave would inspire a surge in copycat breakaway movements, with establishment parties enjoying gains and populists dropping points in the polls, The Guardian reports.

Brexit’s real importance probably comes not from its direct effects, but from its symbolism. It’s a sign of a much bigger, broader trend — a global political regime change, argues Stony Brook University’s Noah Smith. The real danger to the world isn’t Brexit — it’s the rise of illiberalism, he writes for Bloomberg:

If you weight the world by population rather than by the number of countries, the retreat for democracies is less dramatic, but still clear. The Economist Intelligence Unit maintains democracy index, which it says has been “in limbo” or declining since the index was created in 2006. Reporters Without Borders, an international nonprofit, sees a “deep and disturbing decline” in press freedom around the globe. And the widely used Polity IV data set shows the number of democratic countries stagnating or falling in almost all regions of the globe since the early 2000s. The World Economic Forum believes that the liberal order is being “challenged by a variety of forces.”

The U.S. should use this week’s NATO summit in Warsaw to begin redirecting the security agenda after Brexit, notes Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state. NATO can be another pillar of Britain’s internationalism and the basis for future ties with Germany, France and the other European states, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

European publics are likely to turn to nativist policies if the EU cannot secure its borders…..From the Marshall Plan through German unification, U.S. diplomacy in Europe was most effective when Americans recognized that Europeans must decide to help themselves. The United States can be a catalyst, organizer, source of ideas and provider of critical assistance in their decisions. U.S. activism inevitably sparks criticism. But Washington cannot afford strategic detachment from Britain and Europe.

The next U.S. president will be as important for Europe’s future as were Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, adds Zoellick (left), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

A split is emerging between NATO members who see the greatest threat to the alliance coming from the east, from a revanchist Russia, and those who would prioritize the danger from the south, from radical Islam, RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore adds:

And with populism on the rise across the West, NATO faces “stiff political headwinds,” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted in her keynote address to the Warsaw Summit Experts’ Forum, a conference on the sidelines of the summit. “On both sides of the Atlantic, there are myopic voices questioning NATO’s purpose,” Albright said…..

“We need to return to a transatlantic conversation about the health of our democracies,” Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.

Political actors on the right have already seized on the Brexit result, note Daniel Cohn-BenditClaus Leggewie and Patrizia Nanz. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany, and Marine Le Pen in France are all looking to play the plebiscite card, which is a hallmark of illiberal democracy and the antithesis of participation, they write in The Guardian:

The distinction drawn by the influential economist Alfred Hirschman between “voice” and “exit” is useful in understanding what occurred in Britain on 23 June. If a person is dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live, they can “voice” – stay and try to change them by speaking out; or they can “exit”, and leave. Dissatisfaction with ruling elites is not generally overcome by choosing the latter.

It is curve balls such as Brexit — black swans, to use Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s metaphor — that really matter to history. The things we can reliably predict are trivial, forecaster Philip Tetlock tells The Financial Times. By contrast, thinks “there are a lot of grey swans out there,” says the author of Superforecasting:

Tetlock’s first assault on the edifice of received opinion was a 20-year study into the accuracy of thousands of forecasts from hundreds of academics, analysts and pundits. Expert Political Judgement (2005) found that the average expert’s predictions were no better than a random guess. He does not, however, believe that substantive foresight is impossible. In last year’s book Superforecasting, he outlined an alternative to dependence on experts. 

There are good reasons why liberalism is in crisis and illiberalism in the ascendant, argues James Traub, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. Illiberal democracy is a highly effective political strategy because many of the constituent principles of liberalism, especially the ones seized on by the populists, are intended to serve as bulwarks against majoritarianism, he writes for Foreign Policy:

The high-water mark of liberalism was the mid-20th century, when the world was threatened by the totalitarian nightmares of communism and Nazism. For its great exponents, like George Orwell, liberalism meant anti-totalitarianism.

That moment has long since run its course, and liberalism has taken on different meanings that are less urgent, less binding, and more deeply contested. Liberalism (as tolerance of others) isn’t working for the French or Belgians who look at the North African immigrants in their midst and fear another terrorist attack or for Germans who worry that refugees will upend their culture. Liberalism (as free trade) isn’t working for American industrial workers whose factories left town and reopened in Mexico. Other contemporary elements of liberalism, such as the cosmopolitan welcoming of diversity and difference, go deeply against the grain of the way most people live and will always be subject to charges of elitism. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat has pointedly argued that cosmopolitanism is an elite taste masquerading as a universal principle.


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