Who has the upper hand in the global struggle for liberal democracy?
Those who were concerned over the emergence of an essentially unipolar world at the end of the Cold War can now certainly put those concerns at ease.
The victory of liberal democracy over Communism -- as it appeared with the demise of the USSR, unification of Germany, and establishment of a pluralist South Africa almost in tandem -- turned out to be merely an inflection point where the main players in a game of duopoly were changed out for a different set of competitors.
Once the dust settled through the debris of Islamist terror in the intervening decades, the new set of rivals is clearer than ever before … and they are not simply nation states with different values about organizing societies and economies. At least on the surface, that is.
A newly minted PhD in international politics today should be forgiven for initially assuming that the victory of liberal democracy in the Cold War is evident all around: Apart from China, Cuba, and North Korea, all other erstwhile Soviet-client states have become free-market democracies, China has a thriving capitalist scene, and even North Korea technically has multi-party elections (yep, it is true, check it out). Dig deeper and you will see a very different reality, though.
The rivals are no longer dueling camps of capitalist liberal democracy and socialist “workers’ paradise.” Almost everyone now proudly carries the mantle of democracy and markets, from Hungary to Turkey to Bangladesh.
Rather, the coming struggle is likely to be one pitting those practicing liberal democracy versus those using its imagery and styles to perpetuate a 21st century round of authoritarianism.
In places as different as Budapest and Warsaw, Damascus and Dhaka, Rome and Moscow, and, sadly, Delhi and, since 2016, parts of Washington DC, those forces are ascendant and slowly evolving to make coalitions of necessity.
Emboldened by its triumphs at the national elections in Italy, Hungary, Brazil and, earlier in 2016, the United States, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is increasingly consolidating its place as the key leader of the authoritarian block of powers who, regardless of whether they are electoral democracies or putative dictatorships, put a low premium on individual rights, rule of law, and cultural pluralism.
With regional powers like Brazil, India, South Africa, and China (together referred to as BRICS) playing the role of local satraps to Russia’s global dominance on the authoritarian side of the ledger and President Trump in thrall of his counterpart in Moscow, the array of authoritarianism-infused regimes is impressive and growing more so by the day.
Mind you, most of these are theoretical democracies, and many have competitive, well-regarded elections; some even have robust independent judiciaries and respected bureaucracies. For now.
The wishes of those in power in these countries, however, are quite clear. Fewer checks on the executive, pliant judiciaries, official and unofficial penalizing of dissent, enforced hagiography of narrow nationalist symbols and historical personalities, unquestioning obedience to authority, and ultimately aggrandizing electoral systems in a manner that future electoral outcomes leave less and less to chance.
In other words, the PiS in Poland or PSL in Brazil or BJP in India seek nothing less than the Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) sense of a mythical national identity that, by definition, cannot co-exist with pluralist liberal democracies in the context of the rule of law and fundamental individual rights.
Within the ambit of this kind of new coalition led by Russia and its BRICS partners, there is plenty to be attractive to the governments in as disparate places as Venezuela and Bangladesh, Iran and Cuba, Hungary and Turkey. And by the day, this coalition is adding members and muscle.
Standing against this growing tide of illiberalism are far and few countries of consequence. With an American president whose own tendencies are markedly authoritarian, a British prime minister who has made Europe her main adversary, and an Australian head of government whose ministry rests on stoking xenophobia, the traditional role of Anglosphere in championing liberal values has been severely diminished.
Germany, France, and Canada have ended up being the default leaders of the shrinking global order of pluralist democracies.
With Canada’s general elections this year, and the internal populist pressures faced by Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, the fate of this last line of defense of liberalism does not look too promising.
In fact, a string of elections in the democratic world in 2019 may well decide the fate of pluralist liberal democracy around th globe. In addition to Canada, India and Australia, and likely the United Kingdom, go to the polls this summer and fall and, in each case, there is a clear demarcation between those who would be Vladimir Putin’s favourites and those who would not.
And it would matter. For though capitalism defeated communism in the Cold War, the forces of authoritarianism have the clear upper hand in their global struggle against liberal democracy today.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]