Jul. 21, 2016

The Crisis of the Liberal West

In 1989, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an article that received widespread attention and acclaim. Titled “The End of History?” Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy was being established as the final form of government for humans. As expanded upon in Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, the political evolutions of previous centuries would come to a halt when liberal democracy as practiced in Western nations such as the United States would be seen as the pinnacle of political, sociological and cultural development. This argument was drawn from the international political situation of the late 1980s and early 1990s as communism collapsed along with the Soviet Union while the United States became the only remaining superpower. To a Westerner, liberal democracy looked to be the only really viable system for the future.

Western liberal democracy was broadly defined as a political system that required competitive, free and fair elections to form a government that would be responsive to voters and maintain a strong system of rule by law. The government would regulate a market economy while promoting free trade and maintain political and economic links with foreign states, including entering into political alliances such as the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and economic alliances such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Nations would enter into multilateral alliances that could successfully stop conflicts from spiraling out of control.

Fukuyama’s arguments were quickly challenged during the 1990s. Western nations failed to respond effectively to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and took several years to mount an effective intervention to halt the Bosnian Civil War that erupted following the disintegration of Yugoslavia. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, Fukuyama’s theory came to be seen as naïve. Western nations, led by the United States, entered into long and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that were marred by significant blunders and misjudgments. The international recession of 2008 caused many in both the US and Europe to cast doubt on the model of a free market economy.

In 2015 and 2016, events in several of the leading Western nations have caused observers to question whether liberal democracy is in serious danger of failure. In the United States, Donald Trump has become the nominee of the Republican Party. Trump has used bombastic xenophobia (as well as open racism at times) to great success. He has harshly criticized free trade pacts and has questioned the relevance of NATO. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the rule of law and opts for a might makes right ideology in the tradition of a Banana Republic strongman. In fact, the only ideology that Trump espouses seems to be that only he is able to “make America great again” due to his sheer brilliance. The US has had many narcissistic politicians, but few could compare to Trump’s jaw-dropping levels. Many Republican office holders are horrified by Trump and refuse to endorse him, causing some to predict a split in one of America’s two major political parties. In the race for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton faced a strong challenge from the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. The Democratic Party has moved well to the left of when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, or even when Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. Questioning the entire market economy, along with embracing an increasingly militant form of identity politics, is becoming standard within the modern Democratic Party.

Besides the US, Europe has been the other major center of liberal democracy in the world. In recent years, however, Europe has been veering towards catastrophe. After the 2008 economic crisis, Southern European nations such as Greece, Italy and Spain have experienced brutal economic conditions. The introduction of the Euro has been a terrible misjudgment, forcing weak nations such as Greece into a currency union with economically powerful nations such as Germany. The EU has become an increasingly unpopular organization that suffers from a lack of democratic credibility. Many Europeans view the EU as an unelected technocracy that arrogantly ignores the will of the people. Thus, anti-EU politicians from both the far right and the far left have become increasingly popular. In France, the far-right Marine Le Pen looks likely to reach the second round of the 2017 Presidential election. The weak Socialist government of Francois Hollande has presided over economic stagnation and multiple terror attacks, leading the nationalist Le Pen and her National Front party to gain ever more popularity.

Far-right parties have also surged in wealthy liberal democracies such as Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. A far-left government has been governing Greece since 2015, where an openly Neo-Nazi party has also entered Parliament. Leaders that have weakened democratic institutions and encouraged xenophobia now govern the newer EU nations of Central Europe in Hungary and Poland. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban praises Vladimir Putin’s Russia and calls for an “illiberal democracy.” Angela Merkel, widely considered to be the most powerful person in Europe, has come under increasing political fire since opening German borders to a wave of refugees in 2015. The most successful far-right German political party in decades looks likely to enter the German parliament (the Bundestag) next year. An aggressive Russia under the authoritarian and gangster-like Vladimir Putin has sent soldiers into Eastern Ukraine and makes aggressive moves on the world stage that contradict Western interests. Finally, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in June 2016, presenting the EU with probably the biggest challenge it has ever faced. British voters rewarded a xenophobic campaign that made vague promises to “take back control” of Britain from the supposedly autocratic EU. Radical fringe leftists who openly despise modern Western values now lead Britain’s largest center-left party, the Labour Party. Europe is now more divided and conflicted than any time since the end of the Second World War.

Few observers in 2016 will try to repeat Fukuyama’s argument about an “end of history.” The fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of the Liberal West over the Soviet Union is now a distant memory. Instead, liberal democracy looks to be possibly mortally threatened by a dangerous wave of populism. Movements on both the Right and the Left disparage free market economic liberalism and favor statism. The Right is embracing a xenophobic nationalism, while the Left pursues a highly illiberal form of identity politics. The path that the West has taken since the end of the Cold War now seems to have reached the edge of a perilous cliff. Frankly, I cannot say whether we will be wise enough to back away from this cliff and build a new path. If we ultimately plunge over the cliff, however, I do not doubt that the landing will be brutal.