April 12, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: Springtime for Illiberalism


It's springtime in Chicago, which means grey days, snow flurries, and Cubs baseball. Unfortunately, a more sinister springtime buds around the world.

Illiberalism is on the rise, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's reelection putting roots down in Central Europe. Orban is a prominent promoter of a new Western governing style, one in which leaders and parties use elections as a means to solidify power rather than as a way to be held accountable.

In the Hungarian election, Orban successfully claimed that Western bureaucracies like the European Union, international speculators (with George Soros as the primary example), and migrant refugees were ruining Hungary's economy and undermining its national sovereignty (though Orban's childhood friend confessed they've "never seen" a migrant in his hometown).

Orban and his far-right Fedesz party claimed that the "people's will" was to eject these scapegoats by overriding Hungary's constitutional checks on power. Thus, Orban and his cronies delegitimized the press, neutered the judiciary, and exploited fears of the "other" to create a hybrid Western autocracy.

In Roger Cohen's must-read piece, "How Democracy Became the Enemy," he describes the emergence of this "competitive authoritarianism," which is essentially a "European single-party rule that retains a veneer of democracy while skewing the contest sufficiently to ensure it is likely to yield only one result."

This is happening in Hungary, but also in Poland, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, and in many other places around the world. Illiberalism thrives when popular concerns about external threats are directed toward internal institutions and protections.

Western democracies, for their part, have failed to heed the warning signs and respond appropriately. As Yascha Mounk explained during his recent visit to the Council, "It's tempting to think of the threat to democracy as being very explicit. But if you study how democratic systems perish, it's rarely from openly anti-democratic candidates."

For the final word on these fledgling fascist tendencies, look no further than Madeleine Albright's "Will We Stop Trump Before It's Too Late." Ever the student, survivor, and creator of history, Albright rings the alarm bell to say that fascism poses a more serious threat now than at any time since World War II.

While these issues are happening "over there," we cannot ignore the fact that Orban's illiberal interests extend to the United States, where he was the first European leader to support President Trump's campaign. In recognition, Trump called Orban "strong and brave" and has had similar praise for other potentates and strongmen. At best, ignoring "DO NOT CONGRATULATE" recommendations sends the wrong message at a moment that desperately calls for a full-throated defense of liberalism.

The persistence and growth of these alternative systems prove that the United States and the European Union are not doing enough. In fact, in many ways, they are actually supporting them. The European Union gave Hungary $33 billion from 2012 to 2016, and Poland got even more. It's time to begin tying payments and other forms of support to the defense of liberal democracy.

We find ourselves in a global conflict between those who favor open elections, free press, and equality under the law, and those who favor skewed elections, muzzled press, and hamstrung judiciaries. If we are to heed the lessons of the past, we need to recognize and uproot this insidious ideology before it is too late.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. Click here to subscribe to This Week's Reads.

How Democracy Became the Enemy

Roger Cohen / The New York Times

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who has been in power for eight years and was re-elected last Sunday, is countering the West using a variety of methods that mirror other world leaders: Neutralizing the independent judiciary, subjugating the media, demonizing immigrants, and creating loyal new elites through crony capitalism. Orban has hailed “a new era” reflecting a popular desire in parts of Europe and elsewhere for democracies that are not open. “Hungary is not unfree, but it’s not free either,” Cohen writes. “The European nations most enamored of freedom–those released three decades ago from the withering grip of the Soviet empire–have transformed into those most skeptical that liberal democracy provides it.”

Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?

Madeleine Albright / The New York Times

Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright argues that fascism–and the tendencies that led toward it–pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II. Albright points to examples ranging from authoritarian power grabs in the Philippines, Turkey, and China, to right-wing nativists movements in Europe and the despotism of Vladimir Putin. “If freedom is to prevail over the many challenges to it, American leadership is urgently required,” Albright warns. “But by what he has said, done and failed to do, Mr. Trump has steadily diminished America’s positive clout in global councils.” Hear more from Secretary Albright by attending or watching her program at the Council on April 20.

Trade Is Not a Job Killer

Donald J. Boudreaux / The New York Times

Compared to the number of total annual job losses, Boudreaux writes, job losses from trade shrink into insignificance. These greater forces of routine job destruction and creation, or job churn, include the number of workers who quit, retire, or leave their jobs for other reasons, such as disability. Boudreaux posits that the major source of job churn is technological innovation, and that the number of jobs in the US economy is higher than ever today, since job destruction and creation are two sides of the same coin in a market economy. Therefore, Boudreaux concludes, Trump’s protectionism will not create a multitude of jobs and, in fact, may increase hostility toward technological innovation and other more significant sources of economic change and growth.

The Average American Is Much Better Off Now than Four Decades Ago

The Economist

A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) showed a 51 percent rise in median household income between 1979 and 2014. How is this estimate so much more sanguine than the Census Bureau’s oft-cited figure that median household income has barely grown in that same span of time? Well, The Economist explains the gap is accounted for by three methodological differences between the CBO and Census Bureau estimates: the CBO considers demography, uses personal-consumption expenditures to measure inflation, and takes taxes and transfers into account. All in all, “the idea that the typical American is little better off than four decades ago does not withstand scrutiny.”

Could Enemies Target Undersea Cables That Link the World?

Deb Riechmann / The Associated Press

The Russian navy has been increasingly lurking near undersea cables that transfer 95 percent of global communications. These cables can be tapped for intelligence purposes or severed to cause a major outage–crippling financial markets, defense systems, and transnational networks. Unsurprisingly, Russia hasn't been transparent about its maritime activities, but Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at CNA Corporation, says they “are doing their homework, and in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us.”

Will China Really Supplant US Economic Dominance?

Kenneth Rogoff / The Boston Globe

Rogoff, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, casts doubt on the foregone conclusion by some of his peers that China–with its huge labor force and manufacturing edge–will eventually wrest the mantle of economic hegemon from the United States. China’s rapid growth has been driven mostly by catch-up and investment, Rogoff writes, as well as from adoption of Western technology, and, in some cases, appropriation of intellectual property. Thus, he concludes, size isn’t everything for hegemony. “China might win the silicon future if the US drops the ball, but it won’t become the dominant global power simply because it has a larger population.”

The Architect of Trump’s Threatened China Trade War

Bob Davis / The Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration’s recent efforts to force China to change its economic behavior by slapping tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports have US trade representative Robert Lighthizer’s fingerprints all over them. With a negotiation style that has been described as “like-minded” to Trump’s, Lighthizer argued that years of negotiation with Beijing produced little and the time had come for a confrontational approach. Davis describes how Lighthizer managed to exploit and outmaneuver Trump’s warring factions in the lead up to the announced Chinese steel and aluminum tariffs in March and how he continues to clarify and strengthen his role on Trump’s economic team.

A Saudi Prince’s Quest to Remake the Middle East

Dexter Filkins / The New Yorker

Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, has made it his goal to transform the Saudi economy and society. Filkins details MBS’s rise in the House of Saud and how the heir-apparent fostered close relations with the United Arab Emirates, and in recent years, the Trump administration. The latter seeks to work more closely with the Saudis to confront Iran. As crown prince, MBS has eliminated or silenced nearly all potential opposition to his rule, yet “his supporters in both Washington and Riyadh feel that, whatever his faults, the alternative would be worse.”

US National Security Advisor Lt. H.R. McMaster: “Russian Aggression is Strengthening Our Resolve”

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster / The Atlantic Council

Outgoing national security advisor H.R. McMaster delivered these remarks on the centennial anniversary of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence, celebrating the history of US-Baltic partnership. In his last public engagement as part of the Trump administration, he stressed the need for US military and allied forces to do more to respond to and deter Russian aggression, delineating four critical areas in which this could be done.

If Trump Walks Away from the Iran Deal, Tehran Will Win

Dennis Ross / The Washington Post

Dennis Ross, who admits at the outset that he was not a fan of the Iran deal, nevertheless argues that if Trump withdraws from it he will be doing so alone–the Europeans will not join. “It will isolate the United States, not the Iranians,” Ross writes. Walking away would also “create the illusion of toughness without the effect” at the very moment when Iran is embedding itself militarily in Syria and directly challenging Israel. The Trump administration’s priority should be to blunt the real Iranian threat in the region, which requires mobilizing support, not saying it is up to others, Ross concludes.


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