December 16, 2016 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Can Liberal Democracy Survive?


In the realm of ideas, are there any serious competitors to liberal democracy? Twenty-five years ago, the answer seemed obvious. The Berlin Wall had just crumbled, communism had failed, and fascism was a stain. It appeared that Western-style liberalism had permanently triumphed over its alternatives. Fast forward to present day, however, and liberal democracies across the world are beset by crises—from Brexit in the United Kingdom, to political turmoil in South Korea and Italy, to authoritarian crackdowns in Turkey. What happened?

To understand the precarious state of the world’s democracies, we need to look at their principal threats. Perhaps the most immediate danger comes from Russia—which, for over a decade, has engaged in a shrewd and, at times, aggressive campaign to undermine the West. Indeed, this week, we learned from an exhaustive report by the New York Times about the myriad ways Russia conspired to influence last month’s US presidential election. And as Larry Diamond reminds us in The Atlantic, Russia’s hacking in 2016 fits into a much longer pattern of Russian attempts to puncture faith in Western democratic institutions.

A second threat comes from the toxic mix of authoritarianism and populism around the globe. In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is moving his country from an increasingly liberal society to one that is closed, repressed, and unaligned with its Western allies. Meanwhile, the recent impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye raises the possibility that a more populist party will assume power, causing increased friction in the US-ROK alliance and damaging the liberal global order.

Liberal democracies are also straining from persistent economic stress. Even in the United States—a relative bright spot in the global economy—economic growth has been disappointing. And as new research from Stanford University shows, generational economic inequality has been creeping upwards, with the “American dream” becoming ever more difficult to achieve.

Given these challenges and more, we are witnessing an alarming change in public attitudes toward liberal democracy. A new study by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa shows an increasing number of young people critical of democracy as a system of government, and a growing share of citizens prefer a “strong leader” instead of elections. In to this situation steps China, offering a mix of authoritarian government and state capitalism—perhaps the only model at all competitive with liberal democracy. At the same time, China is working to build a new regional economic and security architecture in Asia to challenge the US-led order that has existed since WWII.

Can liberal democracy survive? This week’s reads highlight some of the challenges facing the world’s democracies, and provide some perspectives on the ongoing tension between illiberal and liberal democracy.

Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy

Larry Diamond/The Atlantic

Russian President Vladimir Putin is overtly attempting to undermine liberal democracy at the core of the Western world, with his support for far-right populist parties in Europe and his intrusion into the 2016 US election in support of Donald Trump. He also has a history of taking aim at fledgling democracies with his 2008 invasion of Georgia and his annexation of Crimea in 2014. It is vitally important to the US that Europe remain free, and it must quickly develop a response to Russia’s actions and prevent Putin from “making the world safe for autocracy.”

The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the US

Eric Lipton, David P. Sanger, and Scott Shane/The New York Times

Russian hacking of private emails and servers at the Democratic National Committee represents the first attempt by a foreign power to subvert the American electoral process via cyberespionage. The release of emails and documents related to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign has been followed by suspicion that the obscure group of hackers connected with the Russian state intended to tip the election in favor of Donald Trump. So far, the US government’s response has been slow and far short of what many see as necessary: a reciprocal counter-cyberstrike to deter future Russian aggression.

Foes of Russia Say Child Pornography is Planted to Ruin Them

Andrew Higgins/The New York Times

The Russian government has increasingly relied on cyberwarfare to achieve its aims, writes Andrew Higgins in The New York Times, and it is now targeting individuals who oppose Vladimir Putin’s regime. Several anti-Russian activists have been charged with possession of child pornography, but they claim the illicit materiel was planted on their hard drives by the Russian state to discredit them. The technique, known as kompromat, is a novel iteration of Russia’s strategy of hacking democratic elections and launching cyberattacks against infrastructure in the Baltic States and Ukraine.

The Dangers of Disruption

Francis Fukuyama/The New York Times

Francis Fukuyama provides an overview of the rise of illiberal democracy, as well as the populist disruptions that came to define 2016. The rise of Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and Trump in the US represents a popular backlash against the effects of globalization. In order to defend liberal society, the global political and economic elites must redesign institutions to create a society that distributes the benefits of globalization more equitably and protects those most vulnerable to its disruptions.

Xi Jinping, Davos and the World in 2017

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

As Chinese President Xi Jinping heads to Davos to participate in the World Economic Forum, Philip Stephens questions in the Financial Times what China’s role will be in a changing world. Beijing’s call for a “new model of international relations” could make it a guardian of the Western liberal order as the US withdraws under Trump’s “America First” strategy. In any case, Stephens writes, the new international order will be messy, as rules are once again replaced by great power politics.

South Korea Impeachment of President Park is Latest Hit to Global Political Order

Alastair Gale and Jonathan Cheng/The Wall Street Journal

In the latest incident of populist revolt against the global political order, the South Korean National Assembly has overwhelmingly voted in favor of impeaching President Park Geun-hye for corruption charges. Public anger against President Park’s maintenance of a bilateral free trade agreement with the US and her support of an economic system organized around massive conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai has risen in recent years. The impeachment vote could open up the floor to leftist politicians who hope to reduce reliance on the security alliance with the US and increasingly engage in dialogue with North Korea and China.

Turkey’s Autocratic Turn

Yaroslav Trofimov/The Wall Street Journal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading an autocratic turn in the country not seen since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and establishment of the secular Turkish republic. Once praised as a liberal reformer, the leader of the conservative Justice and Development Party is pushing for constitutional reforms to legitimize his absolutist ruling practices, pulling away from membership negotiations with the EU, and jailing opposition voices. The turn against democracy is foreboding, as Turkey was once viewed as a political and economic success story in a region defined by turmoil, Yaroslav Trofimov writes in The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, People Really Are Turning Away from Democracy

Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa/The Washington Post

Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa present their research on the rise of illiberal politics around the world in The Washington Post. Surveys show a larger proportion of young people in the US and other Western democracies are either indifferent or hostile to the democratic system of government, and a rising percentage are also in favor of a “strong leader,” as opposed to parliaments and elections. Mounk and Foa write that this alarming evidence of a shift away from liberal democratic politics should serve as a wake-up call to Western elites to defend the norms of our democratic institutions.

The American Dream, Quantified at Last

David Leonhardt/The New York Times

A team of researchers at Stanford University has compiled tax data to compare incomes over multiple generations. In 1940, it was almost a given that children would be better off than their parents; they would achieve the American Dream. However, by 1980, inequality had risen and growth had slowed such that only about half of children would grow to be better off than their parents were. David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times that America must advance educational attainment and more equitably distribute the benefits of globalization in order to revive the American Dream.

What’s Really Pushing Politics to the Right? Immigration.

Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

The rise of far-right populist movements across the US and Europe is a symptom of an increase in global migration, Fareed Zakaria writes in The Washington Post. Donald Trump’s success has been accompanied by right-wing populism gaining ground in countries experiencing high immigration rates, like Sweden and Germany. Conversely, economically successful countries with low immigration rates, like Japan and Spain, do not experience a similar rise in right-wing populist activity. Western societies must institute smart immigration policies with greater emphasis on assimilation in order to ensure the survival of an open and connected world.


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