Spare a thought for my generation – Generation X, the generation born immediately following the Baby Boom, from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s. Mine was the generation that grew up during the final stages of the Cold War, and came of age just as the ‘End of History’ was supposedly beginning. Ours would be a brave new world, where liberal-democratic states, globalised markets, and International Law would generate unseen freedom, prosperity, and peace. The dangerous world of bi-polar superpower confrontation and ideological struggle had ended in the victory of liberalism which, now uncontested, would provide a framework for the final realisation of universal human progress.
Instead, the past thirty years have seen a litany of broken promises and catastrophes. Instead of providing freedom, free-market forces have hollowed out the agency of democratic states, while economically empowering and globally embedding autocratic models of governance in China, and elsewhere. The prosperity generated by globalisation has been distributed unevenly, squeezing the middle in the West, creating an underclass of the permanently excluded, and a tiny billionaire oligarchy, tearing at the openness and tolerance aspired to by liberal societies as a result. Far from providing peace, well-meaning innovations in International Law and efforts at externally imposed regime change – more often than not selectively applied – have resulted in forever-wars, open-ended, half-hearted commitments, and unintended consequences in places from Bosnia, over Afghanistan and Iraq, to Libya.
These are but a few of the Liberal World Order’s broken promises; and, in many cases, they are based on a clinging to tried assumptions – the permanence of liberal-democratic legitimacy, the positive-sum outcomes of free-market globalisation, the universal attractiveness of liberal values – by policymakers, politicians and statesmen stuck in the intellectual certainties of policy inertia. Those assumptions may result in a gradual attrition of the system in the best of times; in times of crisis, they become dangerous blind spots. Beyond their material effects, the speed of ‘events’ combine with pent up tensions and contradictions to highlight, destabilise and de-legitimate counter-productive patterns of common sense, and sites of long-held authority.
Contrary to the promises of the past, the post-Cold War Liberal World Order has indeed become one of perennial crises; these started in relatively minor form during its heyday – as the Savings & Loan debacle, the Southeast Asian crisis, the Dot Com bust – but have now escalated to unparalleled scale and frequency, partly because of the very interconnected nature of the global systems that it created. The world had barely moved beyond the 2008 Financial Crisis and its aftershocks – the Euro crisis in particular – when COVID-19 emerged. While arguably exogenous to the system itself, no-one should be under the illusion that it will leave the Liberal World Order unchallenged: somewhere between ideologically charged claims that ‘this will change everything’, and the unjustifiably relaxed assumptions that ‘all will return to the old normal’ lies the truth, that, while they rarely end in a complete, fundamental systemic transformation, global crises always leave their mark, exposing and exploding tensions and contradictions which had usually accumulated – and been pointed out – long before the critical inflection point.
Beyond immediate considerations of public health and economic survival, the current pandemic is therefore likely to have lasting ideological and geopolitical effects. Some aspects of both are already on display in the heat of the crisis: the suddenly intensified relevance of nation-states – both as means of tackling the crisis, and as focal points of political identification – as opposed to a far less visible, and more abstract role for supra-national and international institutions, and appeals to ‘global/European solidarity’ and the ‘shared fate of humankind’; the abrupt transformation of normally beneficial interdependence into malicious dependence, and the consequent illustration of the fragilities – indeed, dangers – of global supply chains; and the apparently more effective responses shown by autocratic states – notably China – in the latter (although certainly not the earlier) stages of the crisis, and their demonstrative magnanimity towards later victims. All of these are likely to leave a yet-to-be specified, longer-term mark.
These effects both emerge from, and feed into, the broader crisis of the post-Cold War Liberal World Order. Does this imply the current world order is doomed? And, if it is, can certain aspects of it – specifically the liberal values that underpin it – be adapted for the more demanding conditions of the 21st century? How should liberal-democratic states, and their underlying societies, react to the contradictions within a project with universalist aspirations that is now, clearly, at a crossroads? The answers to these questions depend, above all, on the separation of the spurious assumptions underlying the crisis from empirical facts, and fundamental values, something I shall attempt to do below, in the three themes laid out above: the ‘revenge’ of the nation-state, the pitfalls of free-market interdependence, and the challenges posed to liberal universalism by an increasingly complex world order. I shall conclude by arguing for a scaling back of boundless liberal ambition, in favour of a universalism realised within the state, pragmatic and prudent foreign and trade policies, and the reinvigoration of liberal societies as examples, rather than models of good governance and the ‘good life’.
Assumption One: the Nation-State is Dead
The idea that the 21st century would see the death – or, at least, the dramatically reduced relevance – of the modern nation-state was surprisingly widespread only a decade or so ago. The underlying assumption was that, with the advent of complex interdependence and transnational forms of communication, new, ‘post-modern’ forms of political organisation would eclipse this holdover of a less enlightened, more nationalist age. Some posited that the globalised world would be a neo-medieval one, with states but one component in a multi-level system of governance including transnational corporations and organisations, supra-national entities exemplified by the EU, regions, intergovernmental organisations, and private military companies; others argued that democracy would be displaced from the national to the regional through the creation of a truly global ‘civil society’; and those of a more critical bend looked at the state as a social and historical artifice, subject to deconstruction. In much of scholarship and policymaking, the nationalist conflicts and failed states of the 1990s were seen as a temporary anomaly, the lingering after-effects of a lack of political civility born from decades of autocratic rule, or plain misrule; instead, the future was one of constant and ever-tighter integration, and growing universalist identification with standard – liberal, interconnected, universal – forms of governance.
But the nation-state did not die or wither away; instead, especially following the 2008 financial crisis, it staged a dramatic comeback, a comeback that, especially in the West, engendered an existential crisis in the EU, and as-yet unresolved culture wars between national and universal forms of identification. Much has, and will be written about the underlying causes of this national resurgence, but one set of explanations does stand out: the inability of more technocratic forms of governance, and globalisation’s more diffuse forms of identification to displace the legitimacy of the state as the focus of democratic politics; a democratic deficit duly exploited by resurgent populist movements on the political left, and, especially, the right.
One might venture to think that the COVID-19 crisis, and the current revalidation of medical, and, to a lesser extent, economic expertise, may lead to a move away from democratic to technocratic legitimacy in coming years, thus tempering this resurgence of national populist politics and forms of identification. But appearances can deceive. The ‘revenge of the nation-state’ remains of relevance, as demonstrated by the simple answer as to who populations have first turned to in these times of extreme insecurity. In the EU and elsewhere, national heads of states and government have been the first port of call in devising national responses and providing reassurance, and national emergency measures devised by technocrats have still required their democratic stamp of legitimacy. The most visible symbolic acts have occurred primarily at the national level, within national communities, and, even in Europe, ‘solidarity’ has been performed between distinctive nation-states, rather than within an over-arching ‘polis’.
In the process, the much-vaunted ‘security communities’ of old – the EU, NATO, ‘the West’ – have been relegated into the background, in spite of playing essential, but often easily eclipsed supporting roles – especially in the economic realm, as in the case of the ECB and the European Commission. The question remains to what extent these roles will be visible to, and appreciated by, anxious and insecure electorates in the affected states. Some reactions in Spain and Italy to the EU’s failure to enact fiscal in addition to symbolic solidarity are ominous in that regard, adding to the ability of right-wing populist narratives to discredit these alternative forms of identification and solidarity. At a time when narratives cannot be centrally controlled or shaped – by gist of an information space distorted by malicious internal and external actors operating through conventional social media – there is no reason to believe these appeals to national forms of legitimacy will be adequately tackled, and contained. The democratic deficit outside of the state, and the failure to construct strong forms of existential identification over and above the purely national will therefore likely continue to haunt transnational and supranational liberal projects like the EU for the foreseeable future.
Assumption Two: Interdependent, Free Markets are Always Good
The beneficial nature of free-market economic governance is the second of the long-standing elements of liberalism that may see a long-standing crisis of confidence intensified through COVID-19. One does not have to be a Marxist to recognise the crisis-prone nature of the post-Cold War economic system; but beyond the lingering, and largely unaddressed long-term effects of its preceding internal crises, two as yet unaddressed imbalances are relevant to the external shock that we are witnessing today. Firstly, the unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of the globalised, interdependent political economy; and, secondly, the re-emergence of economic governance as an object of contentious political choice, rather than, merely, of neutral technocratic management.
The first aspect – of inequality – goes beyond the inequities directly perceived at the societal level as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such inequities – between the winners and losers, the billionaires and the ‘squeezed middle’ of globalisation – may only be partially tempered in societies where socialised medicine provides a buffer against the most blatant excesses of existential insecurity. Where such provisions do not exist, COVID-19 brings home the very real consequences of unequal access to care, a realisation amplified by the a-social behaviour of parts of the upper classes themselves: the wealthy firing employees en masse, or pleading for special treatment; the super-rich purchasing pandemic survival packages, or hoarding life-saving respirators for exclusive personal use.
This is significant in light of the populist challenge to the Liberal World Order, which, regardless of whether it emanates from the right or the left, is built precisely on the Manichean idea of pitting ‘corrupt’ elites against an ‘authentic’ people. Nothing clarifies its underlying theme of ‘loss of control’ like a period of intense existential angst, coupled with visible privilege and what may possibly be an economy weakened over the longer term; a reliance by some on a revalidation of expertise or gestures of solidarity as long-awaited solutions to deeper-seated economic disillusionment therefore appears premature.
But globalisation’s long-engrained inequalities also operate at the inter-state level; and they have been exposed like never before. To those states and societies in the wrong positions within the global supply chain, interdependence has turned into dependence overnight; and while this is especially relevant today when it comes to issues related to biomedical and food security, it may conceivably crystallise into greater future sensitivity as to where, and by whom, other strategically significant products and commodities are manufactured.
The themes of self-sufficiency and redundancy may gain in relevance in coming years, as will a careful consideration of the nature of the regimes controlling the flow of vital supplies, whose political openness was, contrary to another assumption of a more liberal age, not facilitated by their modernising integration into the globalised economy. Instead, the entanglement of liberal and illiberal economies has become a clear and present danger to the former through strategic, and broader commercial dependence, corrupt capital flows, and market-driven cultural and political (self-)censorship, especially in the realms of higher education and popular culture. COVID-19 has simply underlined the extent to which, within this broader context, globalisation can become a threat, rather than an asset to open societies with liberal values: difficult choices will, once again, have to be made as a result.
The second aspect – the revalidation of political control over market technocracy – relates directly to this recognition that the latter do not always work in favour of liberal polities, and that some political limits to free trade – in the name of safeguarding fundamental values from autocratic interference – are required. But it also taps into a broader understanding that entirely free markets are neither achievable, nor, in fact, desirable. Of course, the monetary and fiscal measures taken by central banks and governments in the heat of crisis are largely devised and executed by the very economists whose credibility took a (near) fatal hit in 2008-09; one might venture to think that success would lead to a revalidation of their ability to steer economic policy in the right direction.
There are, nevertheless, several ways in which they risk chipping away (or, more dramatically, destabilising) some long-held liberal orthodoxies in economic management, orthodoxies which were already substantially damaged by the – quite illiberal – corporate welfare seen during the 2008-09 crisis. Firstly, the long-term success of the dramatic measures taken, and their ability to undo the economic cost of the pandemic, remains to be seen: it is all too easy for populations to agree with and support free-spending rescue packages; even if they don’t fail, the real test will come when their bill becomes due. Secondly, a large part of these populations – especially those marginalised and squeezed by the forces of globalisation – will have suddenly discovered that the imperatives of the free market can be counter-acted with state intervention, which may become a possible policy choice where it was previously unthinkable (as in the case of socialised healthcare in the United States), or lead to an intensified rejection of market-driven austerity (notably in the Eurozone’s south). In the latter case, this might actually become a reality that forces the EU, and Eurozone into making a final choice between between fiscal union and sound economic governance on the one hand, and continued inequality and eventual disintegration on the other.
Thirdly – and more broadly – the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated the extent to which, even in the most extreme of times, economic management is subject to moral and political choices, an important point in an age where ‘taking back control’ is a recurring theme in the West’s political processes. Nowhere is this better illustrated in the wrangling, within the United States and elsewhere, on the macabre trade-offs between the life-saving imperatives of preventative lockdowns, and the longer-term requirements of economic growth. This competition between two logics – of the Coronavirus threat, and of the market – is one that will have to be ultimately resolved by a politics bolstered by democratic legitimacy, and where the economy, for once, does not lay claim to a taken-for-granted priority. Again, this is a precedent that may come to unseat liberalism’s adherence to market diktat in favour of more democratic, interventionist control in the post-COVID-19 age.
Assumption Three: Open Societies Are the Future, Always and Everywhere
This democratic choice highlights the importance of introspection and renewal in liberal societies’ attempts to tackle a third assumption that has come under increased pressure; namely that they will always and everywhere be able to lay claim to both practical and moral pre-eminence in the management of human affairs. This has, arguably, been the most dangerous assumption of all, its resulting overconfidence breeding both a lack of self-awareness and an overly messianic universalism, both of which have become more untenable in the 21st century – and both of which have been highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis.
The first – lack of self-awareness – is based on the taken-for-granted assumption that that liberal models will always be superior to autocratic ones; in the second decade of the twenty-first century, this argument – based on the comparative advantage over the failed and long-stagnant Soviet experiment immediately following its collapse – is no longer as straightforwardly obvious as it once was. Instead, it is now overshadowed by the longer-term fact that the top-heavy, statist Chinese economic system has consistently outperformed the West’s, famously lifting more people out of poverty than ever in the history of mankind, and creating a fledgling superpower in the process. China’s present ability to push back globally at Western points about its system being to blame for the COVID-19 crisis (or, in fact, the ongoing situation in Xinjiang) is but one expression of this trend, amplified by the ‘curation’ of the global information space by the Chinese regime.
This problem goes beyond an ‘information war’ between the Chinese Communist Party, and the liberal West. It is also enabled by the structural socio-economic contradictions and systemic faults – many of them outlined above – which the Western policymaking elite has allowed to accumulate, unaddressed, for the past three decades. The crisis-prone nature of the Liberal World Order – with many of its crises emanating from lax regulation within its Western core – chips away at this comparative advantage from a practical perspective. The West’s moral comparative advantage is furthermore compromised by the hollowing out of democratic governance, and the inequalities and crises emerging from free-market orthodoxy. Both have resulted in the gradual transformation of Western democracies – especially the power at their core, the United States – from genuinely competitive liberal democracies rooted in vibrant, grass-roots civil societies, into increasingly unequal, socially fractured and polarised plutocracies dominated by a disproportionately influential millionaire and billionaire elite. Coupled with permanent compromises on civil and human rights emanating from the ‘war on terror’, these have arguably also chiselled away at the comparative moral advantage long enjoyed by liberal, Western societies, creating vulnerabilities easily exploited by 21st-century information warriors.
In no small part, this crisis of confidence also has to do with post-Cold War liberalism’s activist universal ambitions: liberal-democratic forms of governance were not only seen as superior, they were also defined as universally applicable, regardless of historical or other structural conditions, and, as the expected end-point of modernising processes – something dramatically contradicted by recent democratic backsliding in ‘mature’ democracies like Hungary’s. The expectation was that globalisation would facilitate liberal forms of governance at home and abroad; dictatorship was thus seen as an anomaly, to be overcome as the West, led by the United States, performed its role and – in the words of the latter’s first post-Cold War National Security Strategy – created ‘open, democratic and representative political systems worldwide’. Overlooked was the possibility that these assumptions were born from the after-effects of Western colonialism, the resulting global cultural and material dominance of the West, and the boost of ideological victory in the Cold War – all three of which are now slowly fading into the background.
Failures in regime change and humanitarian intervention – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere – were one illustration of the dangers of universalist hubris and resulting overstretch; and COVID-19 now amplifies these dangers in two ways. Firstly, by assuming modernity moves in one – liberal – direction, the West let down its guard, in expectation that China – and others – would, at some point adopt the same kind of ‘openness’ everyone was deemed to aspire to and reach after attaining a certain level of development; and, secondly, in expecting China, and others, to specifically respond to crises in ways they themselves would have responded, i.e. in the transparent and accountable ways seen in their own, open, and – all appearances to the contrary – more highly developed, mature economies. In both these misconceptions, the liberal West both over-estimates its own capability to impose change in an increasingly post-Western world, over societies that may not at all be receptive to solutions born from liberal perspectives and socio-economic contexts that are quite different from their own.
In fact, Western liberals have all too often ended up reading the politics of non-Western societies that – like China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s – diverge from the liberal-democratic norm, in ways that fit their ideological preferences: frustration at their repressive and opaque methods has led to one-size-fits-all liberal solutions being proposed, and longed for, often ignoring structural limitations, tortuous historical backstories and local political cultures that make these societies less than receptive to Western-style liberalism. As a result, unrepresentative dissidents have become preferred interlocutors; rumblings of localised discontent have been interpreted as heralding the imminent destabilisation of the regime; and attempts at revolution – however hopeless – have been prematurely embraced. This wishful thinking is dangerous, in that it hinders ideologically detached, pragmatic solutions to global problems that do not assume shaping societies according to Western preferences, or, alternatively, in that they base policies on expectations of change that are neither imminent, nor, indeed, probable. Both of these are perilous for liberal states, risking ineffectiveness, overstretch or aggravation through impositions that cannot be achieved, or internal change that won’t occur: the response to COVID-19 will, when the time comes, have to navigate between these two extremes, towards a pragmatism free from ideological imposition and expectation.
COVID-19 is thus an additional challenge to a Liberal World Order which was already under considerable strain from the multiple contradictions which have accumulated since the end of the Cold War. While it is too early to tell how the decisions taken during and after the crisis will shape the future, it is quite reasonable to assume that these tensions will not suddenly disappear, and that they will be, to an even greater extent, in want of solutions. The three ‘weak points’ highlighted above emerged during the high point of the Liberal World Order, in the first decade of the post-Cold War era; but the assumption that the state will just wither away, that markets will resolve everything, and that liberalism will always rule the roost may become even less tenable than before.
Firstly, when it comes to the nation-state, policymakers may, of course, continue hoping for the best, and the sudden disappearance of populism and retrograde nationalism in light of, among others, the revalidation of expertise, international cooperation and solidarity; this would, nevertheless, represent a considerable leap of faith, considering the extent to which COVID-19 has illustrated the continued relevance of the state, and identification with national forms of community, in the responses taken at times of crisis. The challenge posed by its continued status as the principal ‘container’ of democratic politics, and the main provider of security will remain, as will the question of how to reconcile this reality with more universal forms of legitimacy and identification. Issues like the recent wrangling over ‘Coronavirus bonds’ in the EU suggest this will be a difficult task indeed, whose kicking into the long grass might very well lead to the collapse of a number of liberal projects, including the EU itself.
Secondly, that markets are too important to be left to economists alone is another lesson that might – counter-intuitively – be drawn from the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, at first sight, the emergency measures taken under the guidance of experts appear to bolster the case for technocratic governance; but beyond the immediate requirements of the crisis itself, they also open up the possibility of political and moral choice: against the taken-for-granted inequalities generated by its diktats, and against the idea that markets and interdependence are the best recipe for security. In a world where some do not play by these rules, but, instead, consistently subordinate the market to politics, interdependence may very well turn into dependence: a key insight to be kept in mind in the post-Coronavirus era.
Thirdly, and most importantly, comes the necessity for a redefined, more realistic universalism, one that does away with the expectation that other societies will automatically gravitate towards the tenets of an unreformed Liberal World Order that continues to find itself in crisis. The mistaken view that ‘there is no alternative’ to liberalism because it is the only ideology with universal appeal and applicability should be done away with in favour of the realisation that local, culturally specific solutions can, on aggregate, also form a challenge to its global ambitions, and become more relevant if the West’s long-held relative material dominance continues to fade. Shaping the world, and others, in liberalism’s image may very well become much more difficult in coming decades; instead, an effort at perfecting liberal democracy, and realising universalist value at home – within liberal democratic states and communities of liberal democratic states – should become the norm, as should safeguarding these states through flexible foreign policies, and the pragmatic management of global issues, including those related to public health – free from unrealistic expectation and ideological missionary ambition.
Whether or not this turning of Western, liberal societies into examples to be aspired to, rather than models to be imposed, will occur following COVID-19 may become the crucial question of the 21st century. The jury is still out – not least because of the weakening of liberal democracy at its very core – the United States – under an administration neither interested in its domestic invigoration, nor capable of formulating a coherent – let alone pragmatic – foreign policy. Yet, such post-crisis introspection will be crucial if liberal values are to survive for future generations; and, as the current crisis has shown, it is entirely overdue.
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