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An Idea Under Siege

Edward Luce is the Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times
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The weakening of Western hegemony and the crisis of liberal democracy

The Retreat of Western Liberalism | Edward Luce | Little Brown | Rs 599 | Pages 234

A GAGGLE OF STUDENTS are driving at high speed to Berlin. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven,’ wrote Wordsworth about the French Revolution. The poet’s sentiments captured our mood. The year was 1989. Having grown up under the Cold War’s nuclear shadow, the temptation to catch a glimpse of its physical demise was irresistible. Being students, we did not inform anyone of our absence. The instant we heard East Germany had opened Checkpoint Charlie, uniting Berlin, we were on our way. Four hours later we had boarded a ferry from Dover to Zeebrugge. Within eighteen hours we too—three boys and two girls—were chipping at that wall alongside tens of thousands of others, young and old, German and foreign. With chisels and pickaxes we made our tiny contributions to this orgy of historic vandalism. Friendships were forged with people whom we had never met, nor would again. One group of West Berliners hugged us and shared their bottle of champagne. Could there have been a more fitting way to toast the new era than with champagne from strangers? Two days later we returned to England, chronically hungover, astonished to have avoided any speeding tickets, carrying a small chunk of the wall apiece. I have since mislaid my souvenir. But my tutor, who had noted my absence, was mollified by my excuse. ‘I suppose it’s better than the alternatives,’ he said when I showed him my bit of the wall. ‘Did you have fun?’

We were infected with optimism. As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, I imagined that I possessed the key to the historic significance of the moment. PPE’s detractors called it a Pretty Poor Education. They may have had a point. But in that moment, all the late-night essay crises seemed to come together. A less derogatory phrase for PPE is Modern Greats, in reference to Oxford’s venerable Greats degree in classics. In content, there is little comparison: Sophocles’ tragedies bear scant relation to the desiccated logic of Oxford economics. But they share a conceit about the primacy of Western thought. On this, if little else, there is no quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. We called it progress, or rather Progress—belief in which is the closest thing the modern West has to a religion. In 1989 its schism was healed. By unifying its booming western wing with the shrivelled post-Stalinist eastern one, there was no longer any quarrel between the present and the present.

Donald Trump, and his counterparts in Europe, did not cause the crisis of democratic liberalism. They are a symptom. This may be hard to digest, particularly for American liberals

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, ‘The End of History?’. ‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War ... but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,’ he wrote. Though I did not subscribe to Fukuyama’s view of the ideal society I shared his relief. A monumental roadblock had been cleared from our future. No longer would nuclear-armed ideological camps face each other across the twentieth-century bloodlands of central Europe. That riven continent, from which Britain no longer stood aloof, would unify. Democracies would take the place of the Warsaw Pact, whose regimes were falling like dominoes to peaceful demonstrators. It was not just autocracy that was dying but nationalism. Borders were opening up. Global horizons beckoned. A unipolar world was dawning. At a stroke, and without a shot being fired, our generation was staging the funeral rites for the twin scourges of Western modernity, communism and fascism. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm was to write, the short and genocidal twentieth century, which began with the Russian revolution in 1917, came to an end in 1989. Though still alive, history was smiling. The human species had proved it could learn from its mistakes. It was a good year to turn twenty-one.

Nearly three decades later, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory, I found myself in Moscow. I had been invited to attend a conference on the ‘polycentric world order’, which is Russian for ‘post-American world’. The conference was hosted by the Primakov Institute, named after the man who had been Russia’s foreign minister and prime minister during the 1990s. Yevgeny Primakov was displaced as prime minister in 1999 by Vladimir Putin. While my friends and I had danced on the rubble of the Berlin Wall, a brooding Putin had watched his world crumbling from 130 miles away, at his KGB office in Dresden, a city in what was still East Germany. Later he would describe the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the ‘greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century’. It was Primakov who championed the term multipolarity in what at the time seemed like a vain bid to dampen America’s oceanic post-Cold War triumphalism. Putin picked up the concept and made it his own. As the world’s one indispensable power, Americans never warmed to the idea of multipolarity. Such was Washington’s self-confidence that it even came to disdain the word ‘multilateralism’. As Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State in the late 1990s, put it, ‘It has too many syllables and ends with an “ism”.’

With chisels and pickaxes we made our tiny contributions to this orgy of historic vandalism. Friendships were forged with people whom we had never met, nor would again

Now here I was in Moscow at an event attended by the likes of Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB (successor to the KGB), and Vladimir Putin himself. Though unsmiling, it was Russia’s turn to celebrate. The institute had sent me its invitation several months earlier and I had promptly forgotten about it. On 9 November, the morning after the US presidential election, as I tried to make sense of the dawning new reality I recalled that invitation. By eerie coincidence, it was twenty-seven years to the day since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The worm had turned. America had just elected a president who was a big fan of walls and a big admirer of Vladimir Putin.


Let me declare now that nothing is pre-ordained. To a person whose life has coincided with the rise of democracy, the spread of market economics and signs that the world had finally subscribed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (even if much of it is paid only in lip service—hypocrisy, as they say, being the compliment vice pays to virtue), merely to pose the question is troubling enough. Wasn’t that debate settled a long time ago? Isn’t the march of human freedom unstoppable? Doesn’t the whole world crave to be Western? We can no longer have any confidence in that. It was remarkably arrogant to believe the rest of the world would passively adopt our script. Those who still believe in the inevitable triumph of the Western model might ask themselves whether it is faith, rather than facts, that fuels their worldview. We must cast a sceptical eye on what we have learned never to question. Our sanity may be tested in the process.

Doesn’t the whole world crave to be Western? We can no longer have any confidence in that. It was remarkably arrogant to believe the rest of the world would passively adopt our script

We should be particularly wary of the siren song of history. George Santayana famously said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. The idea of history as a separate force with a mind of its own is a bedtime story to help us sleep. Today, only Marxism remains dormant. Belief in an authoritarian version of national destiny is staging a powerful comeback. Western liberalism is under siege.

More to the point, non-Western visions of history, which were overshadowed by colonial rule but never forgotten, are staking their pressing claim to relevance. In very different ways, China and India have traditionally taken a circular view of history. They still do. Material conditions may improve. But humanity’s moral condition is constant. There is no spiritual or political finale towards which history is guiding us. To the rest of the world, which accounts for almost nine-tenths of humanity, most of whom are now finally starting to catch up with the West’s material advantages, humankind’s moral progress is a question that can never be settled. History does not end. It is a timeless repetition of human folly and correction. It follows that there is no single model of how to organise society. Who, barring those of religious faith, can say that view is wrong?


But the most mortal threat to the Western idea of progress comes from within. Donald Trump, and his counterparts in Europe, did not cause the crisis of democratic liberalism. They are a symptom. This may be hard to digest, particularly for American liberals, whose worldview has been shaken by his victory yet who retain faith that things will eventually turn out fine. Many comfort themselves that Trump’s victory was an accident delivered by the dying gasp of America’s white majority—and abetted by Putin. History will resume normal business after a brief interruption. How I wish they were right. I fear they are not. Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary). In all but Tunisia, the Arab Spring was swallowed by the summer heat. Is the Western god of liberal democracy failing? ‘It is an open question whether this is a market correction in democracy, or a global depression,’ Francis Fukuyama tells me. The backlash of the West’s middle classes, who are the biggest losers in a global economy that has been rapidly converging, but still has decades to go, has been brewing since the early 1990s. In Britain we call them the ‘left-behinds’. In France, they are the ‘couches moyennes’. In America, they are the ‘squeezed middle’. A better term is the ‘precariat’—those whose lives are dominated by economic insecurity. Their weight of numbers is growing. So, too, is their impatience. Barrington Moore, the American sociologist, famously said, ‘No bourgeoisie, no democracy.’ In the coming years we will find out if he was right.

A HEALTH WARNING: journalists have a habit of labelling things, which is a trait they share with historians. While the latter take their time to brand the past—the age of steam, the rise of the West, the birth of the modern, and so on— journalists do so without drawing breath. It is in the nature of the business. We flatter ourselves that we rush out the first draft of history. My profession is thus liable to over-interpret the latest big thing. Moreover, we have an annoying habit of designating what we failed to predict as serenely inevitable in hindsight. It was destined to happen all along. I have been guilty of this. Please bear in mind that Brexit was not destined to happen. Holding the referendum was a rash throw of the dice by an instinctively tactical British prime minister. Nor was Trump’s victory somehow inevitable. If seventy-seven thousand Midwestern votes had gone the other way Hillary Clinton would now be president. But it works both ways. Should Marine Le Pen lose the French presidential election and Angela Merkel hold on to power in Germany, or indeed, Martin Shultz, the SPD leader, take over from her, the crisis of Western liberalism will not have suddenly come to an end, though I suspect many of us would broadcast it as such. It was puzzling to hear many interpret the defeat of Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential election in December as a defeat for populism. Hofer took almost 47 per cent of the vote. If the narrow defeat of a right-wing nationalist qualified as breaking the populist wave, what would surfing it look like? Nor, for that matter, would America’s future be secure if Mrs Clinton were now in the White House. The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist. Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix. Doing so means understanding exactly how we got here. It would also require a conscious effort to look at the world from unfamiliar standpoints and admit that the West has no monopoly on truth or virtue.

(This is an edited excerpt from Edward Luce's book The Retreat of Western Liberalism | Little Brown | Rs 599 | Pages 234)