Let’s stop pretending democracies keep the world safe

Populism is eroding the moral high-ground of liberal democracy

Isaac Kfir

International relations, National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Southeast Asia, The World

20 March 2018

Populist leaders in the West are exploiting history to challenge liberal democratic norms. Pretending they do otherwise is the real threat to international peace and security, Isaac Kfir writes.

During the Cold War, liberal democracy was presented as morally superior to any other political system.

This was based on three principal claims. First, because liberal democracies share similar values, they don’t go to war with one another. Second, they prefer to resolve conflict peacefully. Third, liberal democratic values encourage innovation and technological advances, ensuring the triumph of liberal democracies over non-democratic states.

The 2018 US National Defense Strategy promotes that narrative, emphasising that Western liberal democracies have the moral high ground.

The strategy makes several startling admissions.

First, it states that America’s competitive military advantage has been ‘eroding’. This is a surprising statement, considering that in 2017 US defence spending was over US $600 billion – more than defence expenditure by China, France, India, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UK combined. And yet, 40 million people in the US live in poverty, and the US is ranked 35th out of 37 OECD countries for poverty and inequality.

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Second, according to the strategy, global disorder is on the rise in part because of the ‘decline in the long-standing rules-based international order’. And yet, unsurprisingly there is no mention of the role that the US has played in weakening international norms through its expansive definition of ‘national security’; its unabated use of drones and other forces particularly in countering terrorism; its rejection of a slew of international treaties; and its challenge to the Iran nuclear deal.

Third, the strategy says that ‘Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.’ It stresses that the US sees China as a ‘strategic competitor’, that Russia has a dual goal of shattering NATO and changing security structures in its favour, and that China and Russia ‘want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model’.

What the strategy lacks is a nuanced understanding of how populist leaders, particularly in the West, are exploiting history to challenge liberal democratic norms.

The election of Donald Trump as America’s 44th president highlights deep flaws in the democratic process that the US Founding Fathers had warned about.

In 1814, John Adams declared that democracy “soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.” Trump’s victory underscores this truism, as he relied on his reality TV stardom and the US Electoral College system to gain office, and not the popular vote.

In the US, the Republican Party controls all three branches of government, placing American democratic institutions under recurring assault. Republicans have used a procedural vote to elect a Supreme Court justice, revised the tax code by a simple majority, approved unqualified people such as Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson and Rick Perry as departmental secretaries, and ignored Trump’s continuing assault on the Fourth Estate.

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The situation in Europe isn’t much better. Democracy has allowed populist Viktor Orbán to get firm control over Hungary. Poland is led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has been undermining key democratic values. Italy’s democratic process allowed Silvio Berlusconi, a man convicted of tax evasion and accused of having sex with an underage prostitute, to return to politics by leading a centre-right alliance composed of Forza Italia, the far-right Lega Nord and the further-right Fratelli d’Italia.

America’s National Defense Strategy should be read as an indication that US strategic planners, like many others in liberal democracies, remain trapped in a Cold War binary world of international relations, in which tensions are seen through the simple lens of democracy versus authoritarianism.

This is unsurprising, as far too often we seem to hark back to experiences during the Second World War and the Cold War, which we consider a golden age of liberal democracy. Of course, in doing so we ignore many of the abuses committed by the Allies during those conflicts, focusing only on the wrongdoings of the Axis powers and the Soviet Union.

The 21st-century world is more complex, especially when we look at it through the lens of liberal democracy, which currently doesn’t seem to provide effective and honest representation of the people. In countries that used to be bastions of liberal democratic values and institutions, right-wing populism is creeping in, bringing about unsavoury changes not only to their bodies politic, but also to their moral compasses, which used to link their democratic values to their humanitas.

Hubris led some to assume that history, and with it ideology, ended in 1989. In fact, what took place was a readjustment, as socialism and communism gave way to populism and authoritarianism, which now pose the main threats to liberal democratic values.

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Leaders such as Trump, Erdogan, Orbán and Duterte are using the democratic process to threaten international peace and security as they seek to institute an imagined golden age.

The lesson for Australia, and its national security strategy, is twofold. First, the key threat to international peace and security is the illusion that it is liberal democracies that keep the world safe from war. Second, we cannot argue for liberal democratic values while seeking economic or security ties with illegitimate regimes.

This became abundantly obvious during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, when Prime Minister Turnbull met with Thai premier General Prayut Chan-o-cha to explore Australian-Thai economic relations, ignoring the poor human rights record of the Thai government. There were also no open discussions over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, nor a government criticism of Prime Minister’s Hun Sen threat to beat up protesters.

As a liberal democracy, Australia has a choice. It can stand for its values, which means criticising the behaviour of other countries when needed, including important economic partners like China. Alternatively, it can stop moralising.

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