Berlin seems a fitting venue for the official launch of "Contestations of the Liberal Script."
It's not just because after 1945 the city was between divided between two ideological camps – a democratic one and a communist one. It's also because Germany's capital has become a global attraction. Maybe it is because of its extraordinarily chequered past. In any case, academics from across the world gather here from February 6-8 to launch this ambitious seven-year-long project.
On the face of it, there is no one reason why the liberal order is under threat. Just look at its record of survival and appeal. Two World Wars had shaken the very foundations of an order that inspired, among others, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848.
After 1945, a complicated power struggle came into play. The West, represented by the United States and Western Europe – which America has put back on its feet thanks to its immense financial, economic and political assistance – represented two features. One was the commitment to values and democratic institutions. The second was building a multilateral architecture.
Whether it was the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or NATO and what is today's European Union, these institutions were about creating a liberal world order based on rules. They were attractive. Had they not been so appealing why did Spain, Portugal, Greece and later, the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe rush to join the liberal order? Why did Poland's independent trade union movement Solidarnosc and, not so far away in Prague, Charter 77 look to the idea of Europe/the West anchored on the Euro-Atlantic organizations of NATO and the EU for their inspiration?
Even more importantly, these dissident movements used that wonderful document – the 1975 Helsinki Final Act – to give them inspiration and legitimacy, particularly since the communist regimes under which they lived actually signed up to that document.
Saddled for decades by fascist and communist regimes, dissidents, individuals and émigrés who unceasingly worked for freedom wanted the liberal way. They wanted the right to individual freedom, to a free media, to the rule of law, to an independent judiciary, to accountability.
Such values were not a European phenomenon. In Latin America, in South Africa, in South Korea and later across the Middle East, citizens wanted to shake off the shackles of oppression or authoritarian rule.
Yet for all these successes, the liberal script is under huge pressure.
There are no easy explanations as the participants in this project will try to provide. Looking back over the years since the Berlin Wall was pulled down in November 1989, there are several reasons why the liberal script is being challenged and questioned.
First, after 1989, the liberal elites took it for granted that the democratic model would prevail and spread. But it's very difficult to create a new political, democratic culture overnight. It's also very difficult to quickly build a middle class especially when the state dominated all aspects of economic activity and quashed any independent economic activity. The middle classes were anathema to the communist creed.
Second, the liberal world became complacent. About corruption. About double standards when it came to criticizing some countries for backtracking on values when so many in the liberal club were adept at doing that.
The liberal world also became reluctant to reach out to reformers that really needed support, for instance Venezuela or Egypt. The leaders of the liberal world chose not to intervene.
This begs another big issue: the role, or non-role, of liberal interventions. Pro-democracy movements yearn for support from the liberal world. Whether it is hard power (which liberals are ambiguous about deploying to support a liberal agenda) or sanctions, or support for dissidents in China, the liberal script is not in good shape to deal with these issues. To make matters even more difficult for the liberal script is how President Donald Trump is more content on pursuing a populist, anti-liberal agenda. It's as if the post-1945 liberal western order is an aberration.
It need not be so. Yet Liberals are confused about how they should promote their agenda and what they stand for. At the same time, they are increasingly intrusive in ways that populists can exploit.
And finally, there is social media with all its ramifications. Social media spreads information and disinformation, news and fake news. It also spread anonymous, unsubstantiated rumors, half-truths and hatred.
Unlike authoritarian regimes who have moved quickly to control or censure social media, the liberal script remains divided about how to respond to the impact social media is having on politics, on expectations, on stability. In short, its very essence – that the liberal script is anchored on the universality of human rights – is being contested as never before. Its survival is not a given.