“Liberalism is in retreat. Democracies are feeling the effects of growing populism. Parties of the political extremes have gained ground in Europe. The vote in the United Kingdom in favor of leaving the EU attested to the loss of elite influence. Even the US is experiencing unprecedented attacks from its own president on the country’s media, courts, and law-enforcement institutions. Authoritarian systems, including China, Russia, and Turkey, have become even more top-heavy. Countries such as Hungary and Poland seem uninterested in the fate of their young democracies…
“We are seeing the emergence of regional orders. Attempts to build global frameworks are failing.”
Haas has previously made alarmist statements, but this time he is employing his rhetoric to point to the global nature of this phenomenon. Although between the lines one can easily read, first of all, a certain degree of arrogance — the idea that only we liberals and globalists really know how to administer foreign policy — and second, the motifs of conspiracy.
“Today’s other major powers, including the EU, Russia, China, India, and Japan, could be criticized for what they are doing, not doing, or both.”
Probably this list could be expanded by adding a number of Latin American countries, plus Egypt, which signs arms deals with North Korea while denying any violation of UN sanctions, and the burgeoning Shiite axis of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon.
But Haas is crestfallen over the fact that it is Washington itself that is changing the rules of the game and seems completely uninterested in what its allies, partners, and clients in various corners of the world will do.
“America’s decision to abandon the role it has played for more than seven decades thus marks a turning point. The liberal world order cannot survive on its own, because others lack either the interest or the means to sustain it. The result will be a world that is less free, less prosperous, and less peaceful, for Americans and others alike.”
Richard Haas’s colleague at the CFR, Stewart Patrick, quite agrees with the claim that it is the US itself that is burying the liberal world order. However, it’s not doing it on its own, but alongside China. If the US had previously been hoping that the process of globalization would gradually transform China (and possibly destroy it, as happened to the Soviet Union earlier), then the Americans must have been quite surprised by how it has actually played out. That country modernized without being Westernized, an idea that had once been endorsed by the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Now China is expanding its influence in Eurasia in its own way, and this is for the most part welcomed by its partner countries.
But this has been a painful process for the US, as it is steadily and irrevocably undermining its hegemony.
“Its long-term ambition is to dismantle the U.S. alliance system in Asia, replacing it with a more benign (from Beijing’s perspective) regional security order in which it enjoys pride of place, and ideally a sphere of influence commensurate with its power. China’s Belt and Road initiative is part and parcel of this effort, offering not only (much-needed) infrastructure investments in neighboring countries but also the promise of greater political influence in Southeast, South, and Central Asia. More aggressively, China continues to advance outrageous jurisdictional claims over almost the entirety of the South China Sea, where it continues its island-building activities, as well as engaging in provocative actions against Japan in the East China Sea,” writes Patrick.
And as for the US:
“The United States, for its part, is a weary titan, no longer willing to bear the burdens of global leadership, either economically or geopolitically. Trump treats alliances as a protection racket, and the world economy as an arena of zero-sum competition. The result is a fraying liberal international order without a champion willing to invest in the system itself.”
One can agree with both authors’ assessments of the changed behavior of one sector of the US establishment, but this is about more than just Donald Trump (who is so unpredictable that he has staffed his own team with a member of the very swamp he was preparing to drain) and North American populism. One needs to look much deeper.
In his book, Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience, Stein Ringen, a Norwegian statesman with a history of service in international institutions, notes: “Today, American democratic exceptionalism is defined by a system that is dysfunctional in all the conditions that are needed for settlement and loyalty … Capitalism has collapsed into crisis in an orgy of deregulation. Money is transgressing into politics and undermining democracy itself.” And, quoting his colleague Archon Fung from the Harvard Kennedy School, “American politics is no longer characterized by the rule of the median voter, if it ever was. Instead, in contemporary America the median capitalist rules as both the Democratic and Republican parties adjust their policies to attract monied interests.” And finally Mr. Ringen adds, “American politicians are aware of having sunk into a murky bog of moral corruption but are trapped.”
Trump merely reflects the dysfunctionality and internal contradictions of American politics. He is the American Gorbachev, who kicked off perestroika at the wrong time. Although it must be conceded that if Hillary Clinton had become president, the US collapse would have been far more painful, particularly for the citizens of that country. We would have seen yet more calamitous reforms, a swelling influx of migrants, a further decline in the nation’s manufacturing base, and the incitement of new conflicts. Trump is trying to keep the body of US national policy somewhat alive through hospice care, but what’s really needed is a major restructuring, including far-reaching political reforms that would allow the country’s citizens to feel that they can actually play a role in its destiny.
These developments have spread to many countries in Europe, a continent that, due to its transatlantic involvement, was already vulnerable and susceptible to the current geopolitical turbulence. The emergence of which, by the way, was largely a consequence of that very policy of neoliberalism.
Stein Ringen continues on that score:
“Global financial services exercise monopolistic power over national policies, unchecked by any semblance of global political power. Trust is haemorrhaging. The European Union, the greatest ever experiment in super-national democracy, is imploding …”
It is interesting that panic has seized Western Europe and the US — the home of transatlanticism, although different versions of this recipe for liberalism have been employed in other regions — suffice it to recall the experience of Singapore or Brazil. But they don’t seem as panicked there as in the West. Probably this is because the Western model of neoliberalism does not provide any real freedom of commerce, speech, or political activity, but rather imposes a regime of submission within a clearly defined framework. Therefore, the destruction of the current system entails the loss of all those dividends previously enjoyed by the liberal political elites of the West that were obtained by speculating in the stock market, from the mechanisms of international foreign-exchange payments (the dollar system), and through the instruments of supranational organizations (the UN, WTO, and World Bank). And, of course, there are the fundamental differences in the cultural varieties of societies.
In his book The Hidden God, Lucien Goldmann draws some interesting conclusions, suggesting that the foundations of Western culture have rationalistic and tragic origins, and that a society immersed in these concepts that have “abolish[ed] both God and the community … [soon sees] … the disappearance of any external norm which might guide the individual in his life and actions.” And because by its very nature liberalism must carry on, in its mechanical fashion, “liberating” the individual from any form of structure (social classes, the Church, family, society, and gender, ultimately liberating man from his very self), in the absence of any standards of deterrence, it is quite logical that the Western world was destined to eventually find itself in crisis. And the surge of populist movements, protectionist measures, and conservative policies of which Haass and other liberal globalists speak are nothing more than examples of those nations’ instinct for self-preservation. One need not concoct conspiracy theories about Russia or Putin interfering in the US election (which Donald Trump has also denied, noting only that support was seen for Hillary Clinton, and it is entirely true that a portion of her financial backing did come from Russia). The baseline political decisions being made in the West are in step with the current crisis that is evident on so many levels. It’s just that, like always, the Western elites need their ritual whipping boy(although it would be more accurate to call it a human sacrifice). This geopolitical shake-up began in the West as a result of the implicit nature of the very project of the West itself.
But since alternative development scenarios exist, the current system is eroding away. And other political projects are starting to fill the resultant ideological void — in both form as well as content.
Thus it’s fairly likely that the current crisis of liberalism will definitively bury the unipolar Western system of hegemony.
And the budding movements of populism and regional protectionism can serve as the basis for a new, multipolar world order.
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Featured image courtesy of Yuri Gripas / Reuters