The agony of Western liberalism

10:24, 01 марта 2022

МОСКВА, 01 марта 2022, Институт РУССТРАТ.

About a year ago, the RUSSTRAT article “The end of American hegemony is approaching” reviewed a series of publications in the journal Foreign Affairs, which stated the decline of the liberal world order, and with an emphasis on each element of the former leadership of the «countries of the free world«: in the implementation of foreign and domestic policies, economic models and, most importantly, ideology.

A year later, in the article “The Real Crisis of Global Order» two American professors are trying to find a solution to the current situation. I suggest you familiarise yourself with the way out they found, which is far from ordinary.

The article begins with the fact that the authors try to link the crisis of the liberal world order with the assumption of office of US President Donald Trump in 2017. Even with his departure from power, this crisis has not disappeared and now threatens liberalism as such, experts say.

In their view, for decades after World War II, representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties were committed to the project of creating a liberal international order under the leadership of the United States.

Now, however, everything has changed – the two main political parties have completely different views on the development of the United States, and this split is much more serious than disputes over public investment. Representatives of the parties see the opposite side as an existential threat to the very survival of the United States as a democratic republic

After the inauguration, US President Joe Biden began to declare “the battle between democracies and autocracies in the 21st century”. At the same time, he stated that democratic liberalism faces threats both from within and from outside.

According to the authors, authoritarian powers and illiberal democracies seek to undermine key aspects of the liberal international order. But now the main pillar of this order — the United States — is in danger of succumbing to «non-liberalism» at home.

Professors try to explain this effect by saying that the main democracies in Europe and North America assumed that lowering international barriers would promote the spread of liberal values. This was true for a while, but now the international order favours a host of illiberal regimes.

China, for example, completely rejects liberal democracy. The authors also mention reactionary populists and conservative authoritarians, probably referring to Russia, who, in their opinion, position themselves as defenders of traditional values and national culture and, at the same time, undermine democratic institutions. Thus, in the eyes of many right-wing Americans and Europeans, «non-liberalism» looks completely democratic.

Experts believe that in their current form, liberal institutions cannot stop the growing wave of non-liberalism. Democratic governments do their best to prevent the spread of anti-democratic ideologies and tactics, both domestic and foreign. Therefore, liberal democracies must adapt to deal with threats on many levels.

However, there is one catch, the authors write. Any attempt to deal with the current crisis will require political solutions that are clearly not liberal or require a new version of the liberal order.

Thus, the authors do not directly recognise, but hint that the old liberal world order has exhausted itself and is not an engine of progress. Liberal management methods are no longer valid, they need to be updated, and they will clearly not be liberal.

I would like to note that a striking example of the transition from liberal methods of governance to dictatorship at the moment is Canada, where the government of Justin Trudeau introduced a state of emergency, despite the lack of grounds that are directly spelled out in the legislation.

The police brutally suppress peaceful protests of the population, while using extra-judicial forms of punishment, confiscating property and blocking bank accounts of protesters.

Further in the article, the authors state that with the collapse of the USSR, the ideological confrontation disappeared. With its collapse, many of the new democratic regimes that emerged in the 1990s were only partially democratic. Optimists in the West have mistakenly dismissed early signs of weakness in liberal democratic institutions as mere obstacles to full democratisation.

Many analysts in those years promised that the expansion of the market would lead to the emergence of a strong middle class, which, in turn, would require political liberalisation, but this did not happen. Some states, such as China, have managed to effectively take advantage of the liberal economic order without accepting the demands of political liberalism.

Experts admit that the September 11, 2001 attacks, which forced the United States to launch a global war on terrorism, led to a variety of illiberal control methods, including “extended interrogation” torture.

It came down to a paramilitary version of democracy promotion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The upheavals of the «colour revolutions» — liberal uprisings in post-Soviet countries and the Arab Spring that broke out in 2010 — have further highlighted the threat posed by agents of the liberal order, various international institutions, Western NGOs, and social networks.

Authoritarian and non-liberal regimes have adapted to the situation and applied measures to protect themselves from these transnational liberal threats.

According to the authors, there is a unique situation of “asymmetric openness”, when the modern liberal order has become more favourable for authoritarian regimes than for liberal democracies, which have become less effective. Illiberal regimes can now use the freedom of global flows, economic or political, to promote their own non-liberal influence.

The openness of democracies no longer creates a liberal global media and information environment and plays into the hands of autocracies that promote their agenda but block Western media.

So China expelled BBC correspondents and banned the British network from broadcasting in the country in 2021 for covering the unrest in Xinjiang. At the same time, state-run media outlets such as CGTN in China and RT in Russia receive billions of dollars in support and host many foreign bureaus and correspondents.

In my opinion, it is worth recalling the situation with the broadcasting of Russia Today in Germany, which was blocked by the decision of the German government, with the wording «for spreading fakes about COVID-19».

The authors also point out that autocracies are now trying to influence politicians in liberal democracies by funding think tanks and sponsoring politicians.

Digital technologies allow autocracies to create new tools for internal and transnational repression. They allowed the security services to launch monitoring, intimidation, and silencing campaigns against political opponents.

Of course, American experts simply extrapolate the experience of “Western democracies» to the autocracies they dislike so much. Previously, only Western countries sponsored or bribed politicians in third world countries, and now this scheme has returned to them like a boomerang. The use of digital technologies in repressive measures, after what happened to US President Donald Trump, when he was blocked on social networks, was not worth mentioning at all.

In addition, the authors note that authoritarian states operate freely within the framework of international institutions. China currently heads four UN agencies and nominates candidates for senior positions in other agencies.

Now these states are already creating an ecosystem of alternative institutions and limiting the influence of liberal democracies. By establishing new regional economic and security organisations, countries like China and Russia can promote their regional programs through institutions that openly reject the spread of liberal norms and values, American experts note with regret.

In this case, the authors of the article grudgingly state that the monopoly of Western countries on imposing liberal values on the world has already ended.

Further, two American professors come to the disappointing conclusion that the threat to liberal democracies comes from within. The United States and the European Union themselves have used some non-liberal methods to counter autocracies. Also, anti-democratic forces are being formed within the democracies themselves, which are manifested in non-liberal political movements, parties and politicians.

The US has used coercion to interfere in global markets in an attempt to maintain access to and preeminence in strategically important technologies. So the administration of Donald Trump has put significant pressure on its allies to abandon the Chinese 5G technology. Even many American politicians and officials who are committed to market liberalism generally consider the sanctions policy to be justified and successful.

The authors believe that the neoliberal version of market liberalism — a push that began in the 1970s that led to even greater deregulation and capital mobility — has undermined social protection and increased inequality, including by radically overhauling the tax code to benefit high-income individuals and corporations in the United States. However, rather than change this policy, many US policymakers prefer to place the blame on Chinese trade practices.

Let me explain that here we are talking about how American corporations, in search of cheap labour, moved their production to Asian countries, and, in particular, to China. This, in turn, led to the loss of jobs in the United States, with the subsequent increase in inequality in society.

Against this background, there has been a rise in the United States of liberal progressives who are calling for changes in the rules of procedure in their political interests, ostensibly to prevent a retreat from democracy. If it were not for liberal regimes implementing such measures, observers would rightly accuse them of undermining democracy.

In this case, experts state the fact that liberal democracies face very real threats coming from the growth of reactionary populism, conservative authoritarianism and other anti-democratic movements within their countries.

Another dangerous factor for liberalism, because of which it can “undermine itself”, experts define the liberal dogma, according to which certain rights and values are universal, that they exist regardless of differences between countries, cultures or historical past.

The United States’ promotion of modern liberal values, ranging from LGBT rights to gender equality and migrant rights, is angering conservatives even in the democratic states of Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary).

Experts separately note that Russia, in their opinion, may have inadvertently succeeded in becoming a beacon of traditional values due to the campaign to demonise LGBT rights, because of the rejection of gay propaganda and the prosecution of child sexual abuse. These policies have become transnational and thus have served as the basis for non-liberal policies in other countries, the authors write.

This statement in the magazine Foreign Affairs is worth a lot. Previously, only right-wing American publications were able to recognise that Russia has become a stronghold of traditional values and a role model for patriots in many other countries.

Indeed, simply by opposing the US policy of spreading LGBT values and protecting “oppressed minorities”, Russia can earn a large number of political points in the international arena.

The authors’ next revelation is that the Joe Biden administration, by declaring corruption a threat to national security, is jeopardising its own interests.

Anti-corruption measures threaten not only oligarchs with political connections in Europe, but also a wide range of American politicians, businessmen and consultants. In recent years, and especially after the 2016 election, such measures have become another source of partisan polarisation in the United States.

It is worth explaining that more and more information is surfacing in the American media that the electoral campaigns of some politicians are very generously paid for with money from abroad.

Summing up all this, experts conclude that the US foreign policy aimed at protecting liberal democracy will require the administration of Joe Biden or any future administration of the Democratic Party to take one of the sides in the domestic policy of allied, democratic or semi-democratic states. For many, this special moment in the international order heralds the beginning of a new cold war, driven by the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

But the best, if still tense, historical analogy can be found in the «Twenty-Year Crisis” — the tense period between World Wars I and II, when democracies faced numerous challenges, including the Great Depression, reactionary conservatism, revolutionary socialism, and rising international tensions, the professors write.

Back then, the democratic powers of France, Britain, and the United States did little to stop the rise of fascism or prevent young democracies from sliding toward conservative authoritarianism.

The authors hope that history will repeat itself and, as in the past, Franklin Roosevelt’s extensive New Deal spending program made liberal democracy attractive, and the United States and its allies defeated the Axis powers.

Joe Biden is now trying to implement his own version of the “New Deal” in his domestic politics, combining several significant spending bills. In his foreign policy, Biden wants to build a US-led coalition of democracies to counter growing «neolibalism» and especially counter efforts by China and Russia to reshape the international order.

However, it is not clear why American experts forgot about the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, who ruled the country from 1929 to 1933, and whose fruits of infrastructure projects were reaped by Roosevelt.

In recent history, the US Democratic Party has prevented the implementation of the ideas of the previous president, Donald Trump, on the implementation of infrastructure projects. Now Joe Biden is starting from scratch and he is not doing very well, as he is hindered by a split in his own party.

We must pay tribute, the authors state that the chances are not in favour of the new White House administration. The US spent staggering sums of money on failed foreign conflicts, ultimately paying for the collapse of American hegemony in the Middle East and the complete collapse of its nation-building project in Afghanistan.

In addition, because of the split between Democrats and Republicans, both US allies and rivals are aware that any agreement they make with the White House may not survive the current administration. The US Senate will not be able to ratify the treaties in the foreseeable future, which limits Washington’s ability to undertake significant reforms of the international order.

Some analysts recognise that promoting liberal democracy in the world is currently a less important priority than preventing a retreat from democracy in the United States.

At the end of the article, the authors conclude that the liberal order must change in order to survive. The US leadership will have to choose the ideological side both within the country and in conducting foreign policy. This will blur the distinction between liberal and non-liberal practices.

It will be necessary to abandon the norms adopted after the end of the cold war, such as limiting favouritism towards political factions within the main democratic allies. It will be necessary to do this with a clear understanding that these actions can have unpleasant consequences and become a rhetorical cover for non-liberal and anti-democratic practices, both at home and abroad.

In addition, it is stated that the fight against internal threats remains a difficult task. In the US past, defending liberal democracy has led to terrible excesses, including ugly repression and horrific violence, experts write, referring to the “McCarthyism” period of the 1950s.

The authors believe that in today’s conditions, trying to stop the growing wave of right-wing extremists, the United States risks returning to those dark times. But the alternative of inaction — the failure of Western liberalism to fight back against fascism, as in the 1930s – remains a dangerous prospect. As a result, liberal democracies really must assume that they will not regain their primacy in the international order in the near future. The question is not whether the liberal order will change, but on whose terms.

This last sentence in the article, I think, should still be interpreted in the context of the struggle between the US Democratic and Republican Parties.

The questions raised in this article are of interest to the entire Western world.

At the 58th Munich Security Conference, US Vice President Kamala Harris was asked by a moderator what advantages democracies have over rising autocracies, but Harris could not give a clear answer.

She was also asked about the foreign policy consensus in the United States, as Europe fears the return of Donald Trump to the White House, which does not really like the “Atlantic Partnership with Europe”. Responding to this question, Harris referred to the record representation of the US delegation, which consisted of representatives of both parties, and assured those present of the continuity of the foreign policy course.

Separately, it should be noted that American experts did not even try to cite any advantages of democracies over autocracies. In the 1990s, we were convinced in Russia that liberal democracy and an open market were the only way to prosperity. Now it is obvious that this is not the case, but it is difficult for American experts to admit this and draw appropriate conclusions.

Summarising the above, and based on the current situation in the world, we can say that the crisis of the liberal world order is no longer a crisis of the global order. In this case, we are talking about the crisis of the liberal democracies of Western countries and, above all, the United States.

As the authors point out and, on the example of Canada, it becomes apparent that the distinction between liberal and non-liberal methods of governance will be erased. However, it is implied that such regimes can still be called liberal, although they do not set out specific criteria for this “new liberal order”.

Judging by the trends laid down, a number of liberal democracies are waiting for a change of elites, so during the anti-coronavirus restrictions, confidence in the authorities has been largely undermined, and openly repressive actions against dissenters only increase the protest mood of the electorate. Where the authorities will be able to hold on until the next election, and where they will be demolished ahead of schedule, we will soon find out. However, we can already conclude that the current crisis of liberalism will gradually develop into its agony.