From being Fukuyama’s celebrated ‘end of history’ in 1989 to facing its most serious challenge since World War II, Western liberalism is no longer the undisputed political panacea it was once viewed as. With the rise of so-called ‘anti-liberal, nationalist’ governments and movements sweeping across the US and Europe, the much vaunted liberal international order today faces an ideological challenge.
A recent study by Stanford University Professor Larry Diamond found the steady erosion of liberal polity between the years 2000 and 2016, with democracies breaking down in 27 countries and authoritarian regimes becoming even less responsive to their citizens.
A white paper issued by The World Economic Forum in 2016 confirmed this trend, wherein “the liberal world order is being challenged by powerful authoritarian movements and anti-liberal fundamentalists.”
The Brexit vote and the emergence of Donald Trump as the US president in 2016 has further alarmed self-styled proponents of liberalism, for as John Mearsheimer puts it “Trump ran against every element of liberal hegemonic agenda and still got elected”.
Several reasons have been bandied for the rising public disaffection with the globalist liberal ideal. Many blame the emergence of the problem to the neo-liberal assertion in the 1990s that the benefits of free market dynamics would cumulatively help resolve even complex socio-political issues.
The challenges facing Western liberalism notwithstanding, the world needs to cherish and imbibe many of its universalist principles such as tolerance, rule of law, human rights etcDr. Adil Rasheed
However, it turned out that unbridled capitalism led to huge income disparities across the globe, a phony debt-driven consumerist culture and the rise of a corporate elite (the infamous one percent of society) prone to corrupting the democratic body politic with motivated campaign donations, business lobbies and pressure groups.
The impoverishment of the middle classes in the West that form the bedrock of many liberal democracies, systemic anomalies caused by dangerous speculative instruments in finance, introduction of new technologies and globalization of industry etc. have raised social anxieties and political unrest to a fever pitch.
Today, even the most ardent supporters of liberalism have started to accept some of the mistakes made by the post-Cold War neoliberal order led by the US. To Harvard Professor Stephen M. Walt post Cold War liberalism perhaps ‘over-promised’ what it could deliver.
According to him, “promoters of the liberal experiment argued that spreading democracies, human rights and open markets would guarantee peace and prosperity everywhere and largely for everyone, but of course that turned out not to be the case.”
The liberal elite
Among the political blunders he claims the liberal elite made were the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the euro, the mismanagement of the US economy leading to the financial crisis of 2008 and the politics of austerity in Europe that prolonged the crisis.
Another Harvard professor, Michael Sandel posits that “people want politics to be about values, moral questions, justice, inequality and what it means to be a citizen, but when liberal and progressive voices failed to offer that kind of politics and became largely technocratic that vacuum was filled by narrow, intolerant voices and strident nationalism we see today”.
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For his part, Francis Fukuyama avers that being individualistic in orientation, liberal societies develop weak collective identities, unlike the strong sense of identification with community and a higher purpose engendered by nationalist and religious groups that gain traction in times socio-political instability and crises.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the influx of migrants into US and Europe, it is only natural that the values of liberal tolerance and universality would suffer in the West.
These frank admissions of failures by liberal thinkers, though highly commendable and reflective of the spirit of introspection that liberalism rightfully extols, seem out of sync with the erstwhile dogmatism they displayed while spreading the liberal message through coercive means around the world, often with disastrous consequences.
Take for instance, the self-righteous assertion by liberal thinkers like Professor Michael Doyle that non-liberal governments are almost invariably in a state of aggression with their own people.
Such conceited claims about the deviousness of other political systems underscores the rank ideological fervour Western powers resorted to while making gratuitous interventions, unwarranted invasions and gross violations of the sovereignty of non liberal nations in recent decades.
The pretext was almost invariably the imposition of a liberal democracy in countries and societies which may or may not have had any prior experience or understanding about such systems of governance.
Many Western powers often imposed these ideological solutions through military means or punitive economic measures, often contravening their own national interests, expert geo-strategic warnings and the very values of tolerance, rule of law and universal morality that liberalism professes.
The challenges facing Western liberalism notwithstanding, the world needs to cherish and imbibe many of its universalist principles such as tolerance, rule of law, human rights etc. For its part, Western liberal powers also need to introspect about some of their dogmatic excesses in the past, which would help them restore an increasingly fractious and disjointed global order.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).