Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 22 March 2024


In the essay below, Zakaria extols the merits of liberalism and deplores its apparent decline. In this Blog we have written at length about liberalism as "the ideology of capitalism". 

There are two flaws in Zakaria's paean to liberal ideology. The first is that it ignores the elephant in the room - capitalism, with its class antagonism and wealth inequities. The second is that, as we have explained at length in connection with the theories of Benjamin Constant and Adam Smith, liberalism presupposes a neat clear separation between Politics and Economics. So long as the capitalist economy is immune from the Political, liberal theoreticians and bourgeois economics tell us, the public sphere can be free to opinion and beliefs and the economy can chug along in equilibrium.

We have shown that economics is indeed a concentrate of politics and that therefore no such neat and clear hermetic separation exists. - Which is why liberalism and global capitalism are now fighting for their survival.

Opinion | How to beat the backlash that threatens the liberal revolution

(Daren Lin for The Washington Post)
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We are living in an age of backlash to three decades of revolutions in different realms. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world saw the liberalization of markets, the democratization of politics and the explosion of information technology. Each of these trends seemed to reinforce the other, creating a world that was overall more open, dynamic and interconnected. For many Americans, these forces seemed natural and self-sustaining. But they were not. The ideas that spread across the globe during this era of openness were American, or at least Western, ideas, undergirded by U.S. power. Over the past decade, as that power began to be contested, those trends began to reverse. These days, politics around the world is riddled with anxiety, a cultural reaction to years of acceleration.

Excerpted from Age of Revolutions: Progress and Backlash from 1600 to the Present by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright (c) 2024 by Phelps Berkeley LLC. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company.

The opposition to American power is easily visible in the geopolitical realm. After three decades of unquestioned American hegemony, the rise of China and the return of Russia have brought us back to an age of great power competition. These nations, as well as some regional powers such as Iran, all seek to disrupt and erode the Western-dominated international system that has ordered the world in recent decades.

But this is not simply a response to the United States’ hard power; it is also a reaction to the broad spread of Western liberal ideas. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are allied in one crucial respect: They believe that Western values are alien to their societies and undermine their rule. Far more worrying: There has developed within the Western world itself a negative reaction to many of these same values.

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The democracies of the West all face a rising tide of illiberal populism that is skeptical of openness, globalization, trade, immigration and diversity. The result has been that across the world we are living through a democratic recession, rising tariffs and trade barriers, growing hostility to immigration and immigrants, ever-expanding limits on technology and information access — and even skepticism about liberal democracy itself.

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How to beat the backlash that threatens the liberal revolution

Liberal ideas have transformed societies and how they interact. Look around. Since 1945, the birth of the “liberal international order,” the world has experienced what John Lewis Gaddis has called the “long peace,” the longest stretch with no great power conflict in modern history. Since then, most nations have usually behaved abroad according to a set of shared rules, norms and values. There are now thousands of international agreements that govern the behavior of countries and many international organizations that create forums for discussion, debate and joint action.

Trade among these countries has exploded. Trade as a share of world economic output stood at about 30 percent in 1913, an era often thought of as a high point of peace and cooperation. Today it is about 60 percent. Since 1945, the annexation of territory by force, once a common occurrence, has become vanishingly rare — which is why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands out as a stark anomaly.

As the backlash to U.S. power and ideas forges ahead, the question is whether the existing international order will be sustained, with great power peace, global trade and some measure of international cooperation still in place — or whether we will return to the jungle of realpolitik.

The world of rivalry and realpolitik has been with us since time immemorial. The world of a rules-based international order is relatively new. Like so many liberal ideas, it emerged from the European enlightenment. Thinkers such as Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant began arguing for conceptions of national interest that veered away from war and toward “perpetual peace.” In the 19th century, British liberals adopted some of these ideas, and Britain at times began to act abroad to uphold its values and not simply its interests. For example, it not only abolished the slave trade, but also used its navy to block foreign slave ships. Yet it was only out of the ashes of World War II that an utterly dominant United States was able to conceive of a genuinely new international system and make it a reality.

That system — the United Nations, Bretton Woods, free trade, cooperation — emerged in the mid-1940s but was largely rejected by the Soviet Union, and so grew within a Western bubble. Until 1991, when Soviet Communism fell and the liberal order saw a fast and furious expansion to include dozens of countries from Eastern Europe to Latin America to Asia. President George H.W. Bush called it “a new world order.” But it was really the expansion of the existing Western order to encompass most of the world.

Why is it now imperiled? Was the geopolitical backlash inevitable? Were the two main forces — the rise of China and the return of Russia — products of structural shifts in power? Or were individual decisions, particularly those of the West, to blame?

(Daren Lin for The Washington Post)

Many realists have argued that Russia’s revisionist aggression was provoked by the steady growth in the number of NATO members after the Cold War. During the debate over NATO expansion in the 1990s, I was a cautious voice on the issue: I was in favor of admitting the major Eastern European countries — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — but then for pausing to consider Russian interests and sensibilities. And I believed in 2008, as I do now, that President George W. Bush’s decision at that year’s Bucharest summit to open up the possibility that Ukraine might join NATO but not make a formal offer to it was the worst of both worlds — enraging Russia without giving Ukraine a path to security.

But even without NATO expansion, Russia might have invaded Ukraine. (Some think it might have done so even sooner.) Ukraine had long loomed large in the Russian consciousness; the crown jewel of the czarist empire. Russia traces its history to the medieval state known as Kievan Rus, whose capital was Kyiv, and much of Ukraine was under Moscow’s rule for more than 300 years.

When Putin famously called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he went on to explain why. It was because millions of “Russians” were no longer part of Mother Russia — a view that sees Ukrainians as Russians (albeit second-class ones) and Ukraine as a subordinate region of Russia. After a period of weakness in the 1990s, when Russia began waging two bloody wars to keep Chechnya from seceding, Putin set himself the goal of restoring Russian power, especially in its “near-abroad.” This put him on the path toward reversing Ukraine’s independence.

A Russian policeman checks the passports of Chechen refugees near Grozny, Russia, in January 1995. (Sergei Karpukhin/AP)

The Soviet Union was the world’s last great multinational empire, and a quick glance at history teaches us what usually happens when such empires collapse: The imperial power undertakes bloody efforts to hold on to its former territories. The French waged a savage war to keep Algeria, which they saw as a core part of France. They tried to hold on to their colony in Vietnam, as did the Dutch in Indonesia. The British killed more than 10,000 people in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. Putin’s foray into Ukraine can be similarly understood as a war of imperial restoration.

Still, many realist analysts do not point the finger at Russia. Instead, they criticize the United States for having been too strong and assertive in its Russia policy, with NATO expansion seen as improperly encroaching on Moscow’s “backyard.”

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When it comes to China, the consensus goes the other way — that Washington was too weak and submissive. The United States welcomed China into the international system and opened the floodgates of trade and investment without regard to China’s exploitative economic practices and authoritarian tendencies. This was done in the belief that China would moderate and become a responsible democracy. The new Cold Warriors, who want total confrontation with China, claim that this decades-long policy of “engagement” was naive and failed. After all, China did not turn into a liberal democracy.

In reality, Washington’s policy toward China was never purely one of engagement, and its core aim was not to turn China into Denmark. The policy was always a combination of engagement and deterrence, sometimes described as “hedging.” Since the 1970s, U.S. officials concluded that bringing China into the global economic and political system was better than having China sit outside it, resentful and disruptive. But Washington coupled these efforts to integrate China with consistent support for other Asian powers as a balancing mechanism. It kept troops in Japan and South Korea, deepened ties with India, expanded military cooperation with Australia and the Philippines, and sold arms to Taiwan.

To a large extent, this balancing act worked. Before President Richard M. Nixon’s overtures to Beijing, China was the world’s greatest rogue state, funding and giving political support to insurgencies and guerrilla movements across the globe, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Mao Zedong was obsessed with the idea that he stood at the vanguard of a revolutionary movement that would destroy Western capitalism. There was no measure too extreme for the cause — not even nuclear apocalypse. “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died,” Mao explained in a speech in Moscow in 1957, “the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed to the ground, and the whole world would become socialist.” By comparison, China since the time of Deng Xiaoping has been a remarkably restrained nation on the international stage, neither going to war nor funding armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the 1980s.

Chinese Community Party leader Mao Zedong and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Bulganin in Moscow on Nov. 4, 1957. (AP)

But Xi has initiated a much more assertive foreign policy. He has overturned much of the Chinese consensus that fueled his country’s success, scrapping Deng’s diktat “hide your strength and bide your time” and Hu Jintao’s promise of a “peaceful rise.” There is little hidden or peaceful about Chinese clashes with Indian troops in the Himalayas, pressure on South Korea to remove a U.S. missile defense system, and naval exercises menacing Taiwan. Perhaps it was inevitable that this day would come after China had bided its time long enough and was ready to flex its muscles. China feels it deserves to be treated as the global great power that it is.

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We cannot be sure what the world would have looked like had Washington pursued very different policies toward both China and Russia. The alternative scenarios are tempting. Would Russia ever have been democratized and integrated into the liberal order like postwar Germany? If Washington had gotten tough with Beijing, would China have become a version of Japan in the 1980s, economically threatening but benign geopolitically?

In truth, the peaceful rise of Germany and Japan was an anomaly for specific historical reasons. China and Russia were bound to flex their muscles eventually. And it is ironic that some of the high priests of realpolitik, who would usually argue that clashes between great powers are the inevitable result of competing national ambitions, still blame U.S. actions — in one case for being too tough, in the other for being too weak.

Changes in the global balance of power were arguably more crucial in stirring Russia and China into action, though in both countries domestic leadership made fateful decisions. After bouncing back from its ’90s-era weakness, a revived Russia was likely to try to regain some of its glory. For its part, China was never going to meekly accept a modest status after having risen meteorically to become the world’s second-largest economy. After all, Xi’s “Made in China” announcement, setting out the goal for China to dominate leading sectors of the economy and to be largely self-sufficient in those areas, came in 2015, before President Donald Trump’s tariffs and President Biden’s technology bans. The unipolar moment could not last forever. History was bound to return.

(Daren Lin for The Washington Post)

But the return of great power competition is part of an even larger story. Tensions over hard power are to be expected when new countries gain power and influence. But the rise of China and return of Russia must also be understood as acts of cultural balancing — responses not merely to the United States’ geopolitical dominance over the past three decades but also to the spread of liberalism across the globe.

After years of globalization and integration, Xi and Putin worried that their countries were slipping from their grasp, becoming more influenced by a set of global values than traditional ones, and they moved to reassert national interests and culture over cosmopolitan ones. Similar impulses motivate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and other populists. They attack the ideas and institutions of liberalism at home — the established parties, the courts and the media — because they worry that an open world is corroding the old way of life.

The most dangerous part of these trends is not that Russia and China are acting more aggressively on the global stage. The West is powerful enough to keep those forces at bay. What is more concerning is that this cultural backlash seems to have infected the West and indeed the United States itself, threatening the very foundations of our modern, liberalized world. The rise of populism in the West strikes at the core of the greatest achievement of Western politics and economics: the creation of free societies and free markets within the rule of law.

Signs supporting former president Donald Trump at a rally in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 14. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The crisis of global liberalism has not emerged in a vacuum. It is the result of rapidly transforming societies and leaders who capitalize on fears of all this change. In fact, for most people, globalization and the digital revolution have changed the world in myriad positive ways. These forces have democratized technology, unleashed innovation, raised life expectancies, spread wealth and connected the far corners of the Earth.

But the forces that modernize societies so much and so fast are also, by definition, profoundly disruptive. Improvements often upend traditional ways of living, leaving many people feeling unmoored. Material progress can lift standards of living on average, but it might also shatter individual communities and people. Marginalized groups might feel liberated, but members of the majority population might feel unnerved. And as private corporations gain efficiency and scale by transcending national borders, people feel increasingly powerless.

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who played a pivotal role in guiding South Africa from apartheid to democracy, once wrote, “To be human is to be free.” We all want to be free. We want choice, autonomy, control of our lives. And yet, we also know that when human beings embrace freedom, they can end up feeling profoundly ill at ease. Freedom and autonomy often come at the expense of authority and tradition. As the binding forces of religion and custom fade, the individual gains, but communities often lose. The result is that we might be richer and freer but also lonelier. We search for something, somewhere, that will fill that sense of loss, the emptiness that the French philosopher Blaise Pascal called “the infinite abyss.”

Throughout history, governments have defined what makes a meaningful life, directing people to serve God, the fatherland or the communist cause. The results were usually disastrous. The liberal state, by contrast, does not tell its citizens what makes a good life; it leaves that to the individual. It puts in place a set of procedures — elections, free speech, courts — to help secure liberty, fair play and equality of opportunity. Modern societies protect your life and liberty so that you may individually pursue happiness and fulfillment, defining it as you please so long as you do not impinge on anyone else’s ability to do the same.

But constructing one’s own meaning of life is not easy; it is much simpler to consult the Bible or the Quran. Many see the rational project of liberalism as a poor substitute for the awesome faith in God that once moved men to build cathedrals and write symphonies.

When describing the triumph of liberal democracy in the book-length version of his famous essay, “The End of History?,” Francis Fukuyama added to his trademark phrase so that the title read, “The End of History and the Last Man.” Fukuyama’s worry was that although victory over communism would leave Western societies rich and tranquil, it would also make everyone passive. The image Fukuyama conjured after the victory over communism was of people with no great ideological cause to defend, who would spend their days pursuing their material needs and wants — and feeling empty, alone and depressed.

Into this void stepped populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. They offer people what the German American scholar Erich Fromm called an “escape from freedom.” A distinguished psychologist who studied the rise of fascism, Fromm argued that once human beings live through the chaos of freedom, they get scared. “The frightened individual seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to; he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again by the elimination of this burden: the self,” he wrote.

In explaining his own illiberal ideology, Orban has argued that liberalism is too focused on the individual and his ego. “There are certain things which are more important than ‘me,’ than my ego: family, nation, God,” he told Tucker Carlson last year. Orban’s policies (purportedly) aim to put those things on a pedestal and, in Fromm’s words, eliminate the burden of the self. Taking a page from the same playbook, Putin implores Russians not to follow the West’s siren song of individual self-expression but instead help make Russia great again. Xi speaks in similar tones about China’s great project of national rejuvenation, which celebrates Chinese culture as distinct from Western individualism.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves with leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum on the outskirt of Beijing in May 2017. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

It is important to recognize that in material terms, the West remains strong. The coalition supporting Ukraine — the United States, Canada, Europe, the East Asian democracies, Australia, Singapore and some others, what one might call “the West Plus” — comprises almost 60 percent of global economic output. With the Ukraine crisis and the Russian threat, Europe has become more unified, and the West Plus is more closely allied than ever before. Holding the alliance together will be a challenge, but no greater a challenge than the Cold War, when many countries sought to find a third way between the United States and U.S.S.R. But if successful, the West Plus could bolster and expand the zone of peace and freedom.

The diplomats who founded the European Union were steeped in history and determined to ensure that war did not break out again in Europe. Today’s European leaders are beginning to infuse their day-to-day decisions with a similar sense of historic responsibility. Ever since its founding, the European Union has dreamed big but has never managed to overcome its divisions and act as a coherent unit. If Europe finally becomes a strategic player on the world stage, that could change — which would be the biggest geopolitical consequence of Russia’s invasion.

The United States, for its part, must also act in a more historically minded way and remember the main lesson of the last century: An international system in which the most powerful player retreats into isolation and protectionism will be one marked by aggression and illiberalism, whereas a system with an engaged superpower can safeguard peace and liberalism. Engagement could take many forms. The United States could make common cause with a more unified Europe, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore — perhaps joined on occasion by India, Turkey and some others. Instead of having one hegemon uphold the international order, it would be enforced by a coalition of powers united around shared interests and values.

(Daren Lin for The Washington Post)

Beyond the challenge of shoring up a liberal order internationally, there is the additional challenge of defending the liberal project within societies — and the two are connected. Think about India. Its economic takeoff has been accompanied by a surge in a homegrown version of populist nationalism, called Hindutva, a form of Hindu supremacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India encapsulates a larger, global problem that the United States will have to confront: How will it approach potential allies whose own nationalist politics have illiberal overtones?

Populist strongmen around the world often claim that the values of an open society — pluralism, tolerance, secularism — are a Western import. They say they are building an authentic national political culture that is distinct from Western liberalism. And it is possible that the erosion of cosmopolitan and liberal ideas in these societies will reveal that they rested on an elite that was educated or inspired by the West, that underneath a less tolerant nationalism lay in wait.

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who studied at Harrow, a leading British school, and Trinity College, Cambridge, once told the American ambassador, “I am the last Englishman to rule India.” The country Nehru and his fellow post-independence leaders created was built on values they drew from deep associations with Britain and the West. Their India was a secular, pluralistic, democratic and socialist state. I was the first to celebrate when India jettisoned much of its socialist heritage, which had caused untold dysfunction and corruption. But socialism is not the only imported Western idea that countries are now second-guessing. All kinds of Enlightenment ideas — freedom of press, independent courts, religious tolerance — have been fading in countries such as India, Turkey and Brazil. It’s true that Russia and China stir up anti-Western discontent in other countries, but they are exploiting a backlash that already exists. In many places, the Enlightenment project — of which the liberal international order is a crucial part — is seen as a legacy of Western dominance.

Jawaharlal Nehru salutes the flag as he becomes India's first prime minister on Aug. 15, 1947, in New Delhi. (AP)

But by far the greatest danger we face is that in the heart of the West itself, there are people who reject the Enlightenment project. Many voters in the United States, Britain and France are opting for populists who present themselves as being in total opposition to the established order and its embedded values. Populists speak of the paramount importance of God, country and tradition. These ideas have powerful resonance.

Liberalism’s problem is that it has been too successful. It has been and remains the principal force for political modernization across the world. Look at what life was like centuries ago: monarchies, aristocracies, church hierarchies, censorship, official discrimination by law and state-run monopolies. Over time, all of these traditions and practices have cracked and crumbled because of the powerful appeal of liberal ideas that celebrate individual freedoms and rights, empower ordinary people and oppose tyranny and state control. Liberal ideas in economics — respect for private property and the use of open markets, trade and free exchange — have taken hold almost everywhere across the planet, though often with adjustments to ensure greater economic equity. But liberalism is not a perfect system, and its shortcomings and excesses provide ample fodder for its enemies to attack it.

We live in a revolutionary age. With all the change and transformation that have occurred, people are overwhelmed, anxious and fearful of a future that could mean more disruption, dislocation and the loss of the world that they grew up in. Some in the West are ready for radicalism. Some outside see this as the moment to break the long dominance of the West and its ideas. But if we tear down liberalism at home, if we allow it to be eroded abroad, we will find that the edifice of ideas and practices that liberalism and democracy have built will also crumble. And we will return to a world that is more impoverished, tense and conflict-ridden than the one we have known for generations.


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