From the AICGS Bookshelf: The Retreat of Western Liberalism
Edward Luce is an experienced veteran of U.S. affairs for the Financial Times, but his latest book takes a wider focus in an attempt to provide a framework for how one might understand developments occurring on both sides of the Atlantic.
In “The Retreat of Western Liberalism,” we find a series of warnings about the state of Western democracy today, as seen in political earthquakes like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, or in the appearance of a cultural and economic backlash against governments and the elites.
Luce claims that Trump’s election is a part of other trends on the world stage, marked by people’s fears about their futures. These include job security amid increasing globalization and automation, nationalist and populist responses to growing diversity, and broader doubts about the stability and security of the democratic system and the meaning of Western values.
This has resulted in populist resurgence in Europe and the U.S., including in many countries in the European Union. Indeed, in some instances like Poland and Hungary, we see government majorities forming around this trend even suggesting that liberal democracies are no longer working. The impact of the worldwide recession adds traction to those arguments as does the increasing gap in many societies between rich and poor, between the “winners” and “losers” in society, and that has opened the doors to those siren calls of “illiberal democracy” as a better alternative.
Luce describes the geographic gap in European and American societies—between the two U.S. coasts and the so-called “fly-over” states or the urban-rural constraints in Europe— and illustrates the asymmetries in economic, political, and cultural debates.
Centrifugal forces are impacting Europe and the United States, as well as the transatlantic community, add another worry in the global arena. The traditional role of the United States as a global rule-setter and enforcer in many institutional settings is now in jeopardy as the Trump administration signals inward “America First” thinking. That leaves open the opportunity for China, Russia, and India to become larger forces shaping the global agenda.
The fundamental disease that is referenced in this book is a decreasing level of trust in institutions and in the leaders that are supposed to manage them. With that happening on both sides of the Atlantic, deriving a consensus about how to deal with global issues within the transatlantic community becomes that much more challenging. Indeed, the ability to sustain a consensus around the values and interests of Western liberal democratic systems also loses traction. One sees that in Europe in the debate over the asylum/refugee crisis. And one sees it in the United States with regard to the clash over those who proclaim the primacy of American interest over the global community—or indeed who reject the very concept of such a global consensus.
Luce makes a direct reference to Angela Merkel as the main champion of the European consensus and expresses his concern about the increasingly important role of Germany in holding Europe together. He clearly is worried about the long-term impact of the Trump era on the image of the United States within the global arena as well as the danger of the U.S. falling into a dysfunctional system unable to forge a consensus on both domestic and foreign policy at a critical moment for Western liberal democracies.
In the U.S., the trends of an opioid epidemic, increasing intolerance in societal debates, and mistrust of the governing elite and the media are all contributing factors. In Europe, one sees the emergence of the right-wing populist parties which are not going to disappear even if they lose elections such as happened recently in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. The challenge to confront these backlashes is to find a better way of making liberal democracy once again both responsive to all of those who are losing confidence in the future of their country, let alone their own futures.
Luce ends the book with the reference to the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin when he asked about the results of the constitutional convention and responded “it’s a republic, if you can keep it.” That response echoes today as we grapple with the present and future of liberal democracies.