Stop forecasting catastrophe, the West is not yet lost!24 September 2019 | 13:17 | Deutsche Welle
If you listen to the alarmist chorus, then America is lost, the West is at an end and the liberal, international order is moribund.
If Donald Trump wins re-election, then the triumphant advance of the populists would no longer be stoppable. As the free, democratic order wastes away, an era of neo-nationalism is on the rise, with China and Russia the new revisionist superpowers.
At least, that's what the fatalists like to say.
They are at least correct in saying that liberal democracy is in a deep crisis.
But to write it off, thus discarding the ideas of freedom forged during the Enlightenment, would be a grave error. After all, we know that populists can grumble, but cannot govern. The 20th Century demonstrated that ethnic nationalism is a sickness, not a panacea. Maybe Donald Trump will fail at the ballot box, but at the latest, reality will pour cold water on his policies. The same will befall his European coconspirators, and sooner than many expect.
It's not even a given that western states will have to exist under the yolk of new revisionary great powers: In the Cold War they learned to cope rather well with competing systems of governance.
Self-criticism is democratic politics' defining characteristic
The truth is that the western democracies are much more resistant and adaptable than the fatalists believe. Part of the Enlightenment's legacy is that self-criticism has become a defining feature of democratic politics. No other form of government can claim that. That's why liberal democracy can identify and correct problems, without repudiating or abolishing itself.
But for the liberal international order to have a future, western states will have to abandon one erroneous path: The idea that the whole world will adopt this western order. Ever since the revolutionary year of 1989, the belief that the end of the Cold War would usher in a golden age of democracy has been widespread. The mantras were that trade facilitates change, that opening the world up would lead to freedom. Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East were seen by the West simply as stations on democracy's unstoppable march around the globe.
This idea brought about liberal overexpansion: because all of politics was thought to be steering towards a collective goal, democratic peace under American protection, actually putting resources and willpower into the achievement of this goal no longer seemed necessary. Besides terrorists, there were no more enemies, only partners on the path to becoming friends. In a world like this even rule-breakers and freeloaders were tolerable, for instance in world trade.
The logic was that they just needed more time to become "like us." As the course of history knew only one final destination, a few diversions en route would not matter. That others might be pursuing their own agendas, or only pretending to be partners and friends, that idea didn't even feature in the holier-than-thou world of democratic determinism, so sure of its own eventual victory.
In the rubble of our own expectations
30 years later, Mainz-based historian Andreas Rödder writes, "we're standing in the rubble of our own expectations." So, what now?
First of all, we must take the systemic criticisms of the populists seriously. Their voters are not just the left behind and those fearful of the future. The truth is that the populists have helped to lay bare some misunderstandings and some cases of self-delusion. At the least, they raise understandalbe doubts as to how freedom of movement and free trade in international cooperation should be interpreted. Recognizing this in no way requires embracing a mantra of "my country first." Less still does it mean approving of the populists' political recipes.
Anyone wishing to bury this renewed nationalist fever must urgently start work on corrections aimed at renewing the democratic project. For this, the world needs the West, and a reformed West, at that.
Reimagining the West with robust liberalism
This renewal should follow the principles of a robust liberalism. What's meant by that is an interpretation of democratic liberalism more in tune with the times: true to its principles and its rules, more modest and more aware of its liimitations, but simultaneously more ready to defend itself. Robust liberalism could reimagine the West, halting the desire for expansion without end, but also protecting, representing and defending the core ideas with redoubled vigor.
It means decisively standing up for democratic principles, human rights in particular, but simultaneously distancing oneself from the "watch out, here I come" brand of aggressive liberalism. The left-leaning version of this seeks to globalize ever more aspects of the world's politics, its right-leaning counterpart tends to advocate exporting perceived goodness and freedom globally, at the barrel of a gun if necessary.
This is not a hunt for the greatest good
Robust liberalism should not be hunting for an ultimate good, for a summum bonum. It must be far more moderate and skeptical. What's much more decisive is preventing a summum malum, an ultimate evil, let's say a crime against humanity like genocide. That's how it can succeed in not betraying its peaceful values, all while still cooperating with unfriendly or even hostile regimes in a world without liberal (or American) hegemony. This is a way to protect the liberal international order while showing it also accepts the reality of power structures in competing systems of governance.
That's no easy task at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise. It demands genuinely accepting and following your own rules, and taking action when they're broken. It involves taking a stand against those surreptitiously tying the services of authoritarianism to western countries. The free world needs to adopt a posture that's tolerant but ready to defend itself. The required liberalism is cautious and defensive, not strident and offensive. It must be exemplary, not missionary, in nature. This principled caution is a good fit for our times. Robust liberalism like this could lead to a renewed world order of peace.
The truth is that the western democracies are much more resistant and adaptable than the fatalists believe.
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the US. Before that, he led the planning and speech-writing team of German former President Joachim Gauck. This guest op-ed is based on his new book, released this week in German. Its title roughly translates as: "The World needs the West a restart for the liberal order."
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