The Liberal Order Is on the Defensive Due to Our Lack of Will
For the first time in seven decades the thing that is often imprecisely called the liberal order is not on the offensive. There were problems in the past, often much larger than now, bloodier wars, communism, or terror, but the liberal order—a dynamic phenomenon—was on the march. Not so today.
Several reasons can be attributed to such state of affairs. The United States, the driver of the liberal order ever since World War II, is diminished. China is ascendant. Nervousness has crept in about our assumptions that Beijing will liberalize as it gets richer. The European Union is going through an existential crisis and it is far from certain that it will be with us in a decade. At the same time, digital communication has democratized public discourse to the point that almost everyone, regardless of ability and skill, education, and substance of thought, can participate. We are in the midst of one of those changes that will have civilizational impact, and naturally do not yet have a good vantage point to see where it will all go.
These are all clear and hard causes of our predicament, showing in the weakening of liberal politics. But it is above all our own weakness that is the primary cause of the retreat. We have let the liberal order down by lack of will.
The Quest of Knowledge and Competition Is Fully Possible Only in Democratic Capitalism
And yet there are no objective reasons for the abandonment of the order’s pillars—constitutional democracy and free-market capitalism. It is chiefly due to these building blocks that over the last half-century a billion people in Asia and the Americas rose out of destitution, many entering the middle class. From the Internet to genomics, from the artificial intelligence to smartphones, from virtual reality to the improved health care, all the technological and scientific wonders are products of the free quest for knowledge and competition that is fully possible only in democratic capitalism.
In other words: our crisis is of leadership. In politics across post-industrial nations, there seems to be a dearth of strong champions of the liberal order, international and domestic. Yet without leadership in politics we will not be able to move back into proactive mode elsewhere. Leaders must make a strong case for democratic capitalism and liberal internationalism.
Abroad and at home, our errors were not in applying wrong lessons, but sometimes applying them either stupidly (the harsh free-market reforms in Latin America and Russia in the 1990s), or losing resolve too quickly (the war in Iraq). Even in regions where the democratic and economic transformations were relatively successful, like Central and Eastern Europe, corruption and cultural deafness alienated all too many citizens from free markets, free trade, and liberal democracy. The lessons are not in abandoning but improving them, making institutions stronger, cleaner, and more agile.
The important work must start at home, in domestic affairs. The kind of interconnected society emerging all around requires a stronger sense of democratic citizenship than we have now, and it will not emerge automatically. Across the West we have largely abandoned systematic attempts to educate young people in the virtues of citizenship and practices of democracy. We do not teach historical and philosophical underpinnings of liberal constitutionalism. Too many students are intellectually defenseless when faced with demagoguery, right-wing populism, or radical-left socialism. They do not know how and why to argue against them and indeed many are adopting some of these chimeras as if they were real solutions to legitimate problems. And all too often, young people do not know how to argue at all. Thus
life-long learning, a buzzword that nonetheless soon will be a must, should not be just about preparing people for the economy based on artificial intelligence, but above all it must prepare a new generation of citizens—defenders of open society.
A Matter of Survival of a Decent, Prosperous Culture
The defense of liberal constitutionalism and free-market capitalism is not a matter of left or right. It is the matter of survival of a decent, prosperous culture, which two decades ago Francis Fukuyama declared ideologically victorious. His essay was brilliant but premature. He was, however, absolutely right in believing that from the point of view of competing ideologies, democracy and capitalism are objectively still by far the most desirable, and as such do represent the pinnacle of history. There is no system more attractive to the vast majority globally: not the fundamentalist Islam, not chávismo, and certainly not the kleptocracy in Moscow that some on the European and American right mistake for protection of conservative values.
It seems that a lack of vigor in the capitalism-cum-democracy camp is a kind of political and cultural malaise. We have allowed the internal erosion and now we find ourselves in a hole. It is worth remembering what came after the malaise of the 1970s in Western politics: a revival represented on the right by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and on the left by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and others.
This is the year of important elections in Europe, and we might have started to turn the corner. In Netherlands, a decent, mainstream, establishment right beat the right-wing xenophobes decidedly. At the time of writing I cannot know the outcome of French presidential and German parliamentary elections, but for the defenders of liberal order the situation certainly does not look hopeless. Czech parliamentary elections later this year might confirm that despite problems, not all Central Europe has gone authoritarian.
The politically weakened Blair in the UK has caught second breath, starting an impressive fight for the resurrection of centrist politics. He needs support and it should come from the younger generation of politicians. The task ahead is monumental and truly global. It might require yet another revolution.
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