Blog Post

Stop Forecasting Catastrophe, the West is Not Yet Lost!

October 08, 2019
Photo Credit: DarwelShots / Shutterstock

Editor's note: This piece is a revised version of a Deutsche Welle​ piece by Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff published on September 23, 2019. 

If reformed, the western order will have a future in defiance of populists and nationalists. Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff writes that its core principle must be "robust liberalism." 

If you listen to the alarmist chorus, America is lost, the West is disintegrating, and the liberal international order is moribund. If Donald Trump wins re-election, the triumphant advance of the populists will be unstoppable. As the free world fades, an era of neo-nationalism is upon us, led by the new revisionist superpowers China and Russia. At least, that's how the fatalists see it.

They are right to think that liberal democracy is in the midst of a deep crisis. But to write it off, discarding a political order based on the enlightenment idea of individual freedom, would be a colossal miscalculation. After all, we know that populists may be good at grumbling, but they have a hard time governing. Ethnic nationalism, as the 20th century demonstrated, is a recipe for disaster, not a panacea. Donald Trump might or might not succeed at the ballot box; but over time, his policies will rendezvous with reality. At that point, a price for all the recklessness in international affairs will come due. The same is true for Trump’s European disciples. In the end, a failure of ethnic nationalism is more likely than an era of ethnic nationalism.

Catastrophic predictions about the international order may be similarly misplaced: The short period of American hegemony is certainly over, but that does not mean that western countries will have to live under the yoke of new revisionist great powers: During the Cold War, the West coped rather well with a competing system of governance. A multi-order world might even create cohesion within the Western camp.

The truth is that western democracies are much more resilient and adaptable than the fatalists believe. They inherited from the enlightenment the gift of self-criticism, an essential and unique feature of democratic politics. Because of this gift, liberal democracy can identify and correct problems, without repudiating or destroying itself.

But for the liberal international order to have a future, western states will have to abandon one delusion they held for at least 30 years: The idea that the whole world will adopt the western order. With the Soviet collapse, a golden age of democracy was proclaimed. The mantra was: trade facilitates change, and liberalization leads to freedom. Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and eventually the Middle East, they were all, it was believed, on a path toward convergence with the West.

This misconception led to liberal overreach. Since the world was headed toward democratic peace under American leadership, it seemed unnecessary to actually put willpower and sometimes even resources behind achieving this goal. Other than groups of dangerous terrorists, the world no longer contained enemies, only partners on path to becoming friends. In such a world even rule-breakers and freeloaders were tolerable, for instance in the world trade system. They just needed more time to become "like us." As the course of history knew only one final destination, a few wrong turns along the way were inconsequential. That others might be pursuing their own agendas, or only pretending to be partners and friends, was an idea incompatible with the self-certain outlook of democratic determinism.

Thirty years on, as German historian Andreas Rödder writes, we are confronted with “the ruins of our expectations.” So, what now?

First of all, the populist critique cannot simply be dismissed. The truth is that the populists have helped to lay bare some misconceptions and self-delusions of mainstream politics. At a minimum, they raise questions about how personal freedom, freedom of movement, and free trade have been interpreted. Recognizing the legitimacy of such questions does not mean embracing a "my country first" ideology.

In order to temper the nationalist fever, friends of the free world must get to work on reviving their project. For this, the world needs the West, and a reformed West at that.

This renewal should follow the principle of robust liberalism. This is an interpretation of democratic liberalism that is more in tune with the times: true to principle and rules, more modest and more aware of liberalism’s limitations, yet ready and willing to defend itself vigorously. Robust liberalism reimagines the West by ending its overextension while representing, protecting and defending its core with renewed vigor. It stands up for democratic principles, human rights in particular, but drops the dauntless, missionary brand of liberalism, which in its left-wing version seeks to globalize ever more aspects of governance, and in its right-wing version seeks to help spread liberal values across the globe, at gunpoint if necessary.

Robust liberalism is different, more tempered and skeptical. It does not strive to achieve the highest good in the world, a summum bonum. It contents itself instead with preventing a summum malum, a great evil (like genocide). This allows liberal democracies to uphold their values but still coexist peacefully with unfriendly, even dangerous regimes, even without the support of a liberal hegemon. A version of the liberal international order will thus live on, one that accepts the realpolitik of competing systems.

That's no easy task in a time of authoritarian revival. It requires that western democracies start following their own rules - and enforce them. It demands that Western countries fight against those trying to undermine and infect our democracies by importing authoritarian habits like corruption or digital oppression. The Cold War liberals have already shown how a posture of principled moderation can be adopted. Such a liberalism is cautious and defensive, not strident and offensive; it leads by example, not by intervention.

This kind of robust liberalism is a good fit for our times. It can guide the necessary renewal of the liberal order.