For the first time in over half a century liberal democracy is in retreat. The democratic waves that ebbed and flowed between the 19th and 20th centuries appear to be receding once more. The signs of pushback against liberal values and democratic institutions are not just visible in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, but also in the strongholds of Western Europe and North America. After triumphantly declaring the "end of history" in 1989, scholars like Francis Fukuyama now fear that the world is moving from a "democratic recession" toward a "democratic depression."
With illiberalism on the rise, there are fears that this could be the year the global liberal order dies. The order consists of a dense network of international agreements, trade arrangements and military alliances. Drawing on enlightenment era values of liberty and reason, it was constructed by U.S. President Roosevelt and the Western allies in 1945. Its express purpose was to prevent the recurrence of war and the economic nationalism that inspired conflict to begin with. While the order has come under criticism in the past, it has never experienced anything quite like the assault of the present.
At the centre of the global liberal order are a clutch of organizations designed to defend democratic governance, open economies and common security. Among them are the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (all founded in 1945), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that later became the World Trade Organization (in 1995), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (in 1949) and others. Taken together, their express goal is to generate positive sum, or win-win, solutions. While critics routinely grumbled about their legitimacy, effectiveness and overstretch, on balance, they have helped preserve stability, extend democracy and expand economic opportunity.
While the global liberal democratic order is most certainly down, it is far from out. According to the Polity Project which tracks trends in autocracy and democracy, democratic governance is still spreading. In 1989, at the time of Mr. Fukuyama's pronouncement, there were 52 democracies. By 2009, at the start of the Obama administration, the number had risen to 87. Today there are at least 103, accounting for over 60 per cent of the world's population. Even China and Russia are less repressive to their own populations than in the past. It is true that some democracies in parts of Western and Eastern Europe have experienced set-backs and a spike in reactionary nationalism, but these are nevertheless remarkable achievements.
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So what explains the fears of a democratic deficit and the decline of the global liberal order? According to columnist Edward Luce, a big part of the story has to do with the spectacular rise of China. The country's economic growth is nothing short of breathtaking: Its GDP grew from $950-billion (U.S.) in 2000 to $22-trillion in 2016. What's more, China benefited from three geopolitical windfalls over this period – the Iraq War in 2003, the 2008 global financial meltdown and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Each of these developments bolstered the appeal of China's alternative, and authoritarian, pathway to development, emboldening autocrats who may have previously been swayed by the political and economic dividends of liberalism.
Another factor driving anxiety among supporters of the global liberal order is the eroding commitment to democratic principles inside Western countries themselves. Revolted by the election (or near election) of extreme-right parties and the rise of populists, moderate Europeans and North Americans are suffering from a crisis of confidence in their democracies. And not without good reason. Since coming into office, U.S. President Donald Trump has defunded the UN and denounced NATO, threatened to end multilateral trade agreements and badly damaged the trans-Atlantic relationship. On the domestic front, he has been widely perceived as defending white supremacists, denounced independent media and denigrated migrants. If the binding agents of democracy are trust and equal opportunity, the glue of autocracy is fear and discrimination.
Looking to the future, will the global liberal order survive the onslaught from within and without? Steven Pinker believes that the historical forces underpinning the forward march of liberal democracy – mobility, urbanization, education and connectivity – are not ending any time soon. Nor are international pressures for greater gender, racial and social equality. Mr. Pinker and other defenders of the liberal project are adamant that they are on the winning side of history. After all, authoritarian populism is an old man's game. Its supporters tend to be male, religious, less educated and in the ethnic majority. They complain of being strangers in their own country, and often dislike immigration and global governance. New studies of the election of Mr. Trump, Brexit and the rise of nationalist parties in Europe suggest that support falls off in relation to age.
This is not to say that the global liberal order is unscathed or not in need of fixing. Urgent repairs are required in liberal democratic states themselves – including addressing disproportionate representation that overweight rural areas in favour of urban ones (where most people live). Strategies to reduce the consequences of economic inequality are commendable alongside efforts to curb polarizing discourse and the stoking of inflammatory identity politics. To be sure, the global liberal order will survive in some form but it must also learn to accommodate a more pluralistic world. The U.S. will need to play a major role – deep global engagement is not optional – but it will also have to recognize the realities of a multi-polar world full of new and restless powers. The results will be halting and incremental, but it could well be more positive than a world of disorder.
A key requirement to ensure the reform and improvement of the global liberal order is reasoned and informed debate. The resort to hysterical narratives creates fertile grounds for extremism and charismatic demagogues. What is urgently required is a careful reflection on the nature of our civic discourse. The ways in which new technology platforms shape and amplify the worst of our human instincts must be brought squarely into the discussion. The business of liberal democratic politics and society is messy and confusing – but that does not mean it cannot be improved. This should not be the year that the liberal global order dies, but rather one where democracy sits confidently at the center of our public discourse.