Shada IslamDirector for Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe
Liberal democracy is not obsolete, but why wouldn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin gloat? Liberals and progressives are under pressure across the world. In too many EU countries, the rule of law is in danger, racism and xenophobia are being mainstreamed, there is a renewed pushback against gender equality, and there are threats to the media and civil society.
A growing band of illiberal democrats is eroding any credibility the EU had in promoting European values on the global stage. It’s hardly reassuring, for instance, that the foreign minister of Pakistan—a country where minorities live in fear for their lives—can publicly chide EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on the rise of Islamophobia in Europe.
It’s going to get worse—but only if the EU’s new leaders allow it to. With the far right now firmly anchored in the new European Parliament, pressure for tougher EU policies on migration is likely to increase. The situation is already grim, and the world is watching every EU move. Italy’s decision to arrest Carola Rackete, the captain of the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship, which sailed into the Italian port of Lampedusa with forty-two asylum seekers on board despite a ban from Rome, is just one example of an EU policy gone terribly wrong.
Standing up for liberal democracy requires more than statements denouncing Putin’s claims. It requires EU action at home. Can Europe rise to the challenge? I hope it can. I fear it won’t.
Kornely KakachiaDirector of the Georgian Institute of Politics
Pressures on democratic systems are threatening fundamental values of democracy—respect for human rights, individual liberties, equality, the rule of law—and progress toward democracy has been stalled or reversed in many parts of world. But there is no reason to believe that liberal democracy is obsolete.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and some of his Western admirers are trying to undermine the basis of democratic discourse. Yet so-called illiberal democracy is associated with corruption scandals, oligarchization of the economy, criminal connections, and attacks on the judiciary and civil society.
The model of sovereign democracy that the Kremlin is trying to sell to the democratic world as an alternative to liberal democracy is also linked with a propaganda machine based on the latest media technologies and purely decorative elections. In this version of authoritarian governance, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel once said, “facts are irrelevant, international treaties are obsolete, and sovereignty is a matter of power rather than law.”
With the rise of resurgent authoritarianism, there is an urgent need to rethink the foundations of democracy and develop new political strategies. To paraphrase a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, reports of the death of liberal democracy have been greatly exaggerated.
Denis MacShaneSenior Adviser at Avisa Partners
The tragedy of liberal democracy, which American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously described as heralding the end of history, is not that it is obsolete but that since 1990 it has been all-conquering.
The end of European Soviet communism and the rise of postnational globalization have seen liberal democracy sweep all before it since the Reagan-Thatcher years. The economic version of liberal democracy has destroyed the careful post-1945 balance between capital and labor. Individualist, accumulationist liberalism has removed all counterbalancing forces to money and power, notably in the liberal onslaught against trade unions and worker rights.
Political liberalism, with its focus on individual rights and incessant cultural-identity politics, has undermined the role of the historic nation and its cautious conservatism. In consequence, voters unhappy with liberalism’s onslaught turn to nationalist defenders of tradition and history. Workers and poorer people who are ignored by modern liberal democracy are easy prey to leftist anti-EU populism.
The last three decades, since the end of communism and hyperliberalism, have produced an inevitable backlash from America’s Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and Britain’s Boris Johnson.
Liberal democracy is not obsolete, but its hubristic contempt for social democracy and democracy rooted in national conservatism has done serious damage to the brand.
Mariann ŐryHead of the Foreign Desk and Senior Editor at Magyar Hírlap
Criticizing liberal democracy has been made a taboo because it’s seen as the only real, good form of democracy. A growing number of parties in Europe that are labeled populist support direct democracy, and the people appreciate that because they don’t share the “we know best what’s good for you” attitude of the liberals. No wonder that most people don’t support parties that dismiss the will of the people when it’s not in their favor.
From Central and Eastern Europe, liberalism is seen as a way of thinking that has weakened Europe, creates open societies that welcome an unlimited number of immigrants who don’t share liberal values, and destroys the immune system of European society. Liberals are overrepresented in Western mainstream media, academia, and European institutions, so despite their mostly poor election results they manage to play decisive roles in European politics.
The argument that liberal democracy doesn’t mean what some people think it means is useless. What matters is that if European politicians and institutions continue to obey the ever-growing demands of the open-society lobby, they will completely lose touch with the people.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies
Russian President Vladimir Putin knows how to provoke, depending on what foreign audience he is talking to. But his latest big statement is not worth having us gasp for air. His remarks before the June 28–29 G20 summit about liberalism being obsolete were clearly meant as yet another rallying call for a colorful range of populist and antidemocratic forces across Europe. His comments also remind listeners of the blatantly obvious: democracy and human rights are not the universally accepted values many in the West would like them to be.
What is more interesting is that Putin seems to deem it necessary to try to rein in domestic dissatisfaction and opposition by declaring on the international stage that liberal democracy is dead.
Zsuzsanna SzelényiVisiting Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not the only politician in Europe who argues that the 2008 financial crisis proved the Western-led liberal world’s inability to protect people from economic harm, and that the 2015 migration crisis showed liberals’ inability to protect Europe’s Christian cultural identity. Such politicians also argue that in a crisis, quick decisions are better made by one leader, and aim to build a communitarian society led by a strongman.
Autocratic powers may deliver quick results as they take more risks and escalate crises to confuse their rivals. But there is no question that systems made up of fewer people make more errors and are less capable of correcting them. In contrast, democratic powers, structures, and institutions make decisions more slowly because of the greater participation that the system requires. By building decisions based on collaboration, democrats can eventually win and build progressive societies and achieve a high-level public good for the long term.
This critical, self-reflective profile of liberal democracy will result in the revival of the European system and push the Western world forward to the future—hopefully.
Tomáš ValášekDirector of Carnegie Europe
It isn’t, but Russian President Vladimir Putin would like you to think so. And he’s goading the rest of Europe into thinking the same. He has some willing helpers, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose role has been well covered. Less understood is how unhelpful the response from some corners of the liberal world has been.
Orbán and Putin essentially argue that it’s the illiberal way or the highway. That’s a false, reductive choice, yet many Western liberals seem hopelessly tempted. Too often they accept the argument and simply argue it from the opposite end. Most do so out of concern for the well-being of the liberal model. But it probably hasn’t been lost on some that by recasting the dominant political fight of today as liberals vs. illiberals, they marginalize socialists, Christian democrats, and others.
In the long run, that’s a dangerous game. If liberal vs. illiberal becomes the only choice, the illiberals are guaranteed to eventually come to power, because in a democracy, power always changes hands in the end. The right response is to reject Putin’s and Orbán’s false dilemma and restore Europe’s big-tent approach to political diversity. The EU has been a home to German Christian democrats, French socialists, and Dutch liberals alike, and it must continue to welcome all democratic political philosophies. That’s the truly liberal thing to do.
Ivan VejvodaPermanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences
Certainly not. A battle royal is currently pitting those who stand on the side of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the obligations that flow from it against antiliberals who domestically and internationally wish to go back to a previous time when authoritarianism ruled and great powers wielded their might around the world.
As Europe celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of communism and as most people now realize that there is no end to history, tectonic shifts are occurring due to rising inequalities and the questioning of solidarity, in particular with refugees, who continue to flee war zones, violence, and poverty.
The recent case of Carola Rackete, the German sea captain who saved lives and was arrested in Italy for docking a migrant rescue ship in the port of Lampedusa without authorization, exemplifies this struggle.
One does not need go back to the modern democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to know that freedom in all its forms and human rights were won in long, hard battles against antiliberals. That is why upholding the international liberal order and democratic institutions domestically remains an ongoing fundamental task.
Pierre VimontSenior Fellow at Carnegie Europe
When Russian President Vladimir Putin foresees the demise of liberal democracy, he is not only referring to the political system in most Western democracies. He is also condemning the principles inherited from the Enlightenment philosophers, from the rule of law to the values of individual freedom and secularism. With the new, strong-leader conception of politics comes the rise of might over right, the return of the most traditional Christian values, and the rejection of migration, which is considered an existential threat to Western societies.
Yet the end of liberal democracy sounds somewhat premature. With its many political, economic, cultural, and moral variations, liberal philosophy is still very much alive. After all, it pushed back populism without too much effort in the 2019 European Parliament elections. And its long-held inspiration of mutual tolerance and respect still represents the most sensible answer to today’s challenges. Modernizing representative democracies, regulating the excesses of social networks, and finding the right balance between generosity and realism in dealing with migration: these are but a few challenges where liberalism comes out more than often as the most relevant response.
The liberal approach is therefore far from done. But to remain relevant, it has to avoid complacency and show a genuine capacity to constantly reinvent itself.