Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Rebuild Western Democracy to Overcome a World of Uncertainties

People talk about a multipolar world of uncertainties, as the rise of isolationism in the United States is leading the public less willing to support the role of the world policeman. There is no denying that Russia and China are increasingly self-assertive, as they see that America and its Western allies are less interested in engaging with the liberal world order, and Western hard power is in relative decline. But it seems to me that people focus too much on raw power aspects, and dismiss much more worrisome trends, which is the decline of Western democracy. When people lose confidence in democracy, autocratic nations and demagogues are emboldened. This makes the world increasingly unstable and unpredictable.

Let me talk about the general background of democracy in crisis today. The rise of populism in an age of uncertainties is found everywhere in the world. Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard University presented an overview of this at the Barclays Asia Forum in Singapore on October 20. As seen in Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, antipathy to immigration, free trade, and “corrupt establishment has become more virulent in developed economies, as a result of the financial crisis. On the other hand, people in emerging economies crave for strongman leadership to satisfy their nationalist sentiment, which weakens checks and balances, and also transparency in those countries. See the video below.




How populism deteriorates democracy? A Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt warned about “terrible simplifier” in a letter to his friend Friedrich von Preen in 1889 that “ruffian” leaders would assume their omnipotence to resolve complicated national issues, which would ultimately deny the rule of law. Today, bills and treaties have become extremely lengthy and complicated, compared with those in the past. While historical documents like the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence were just a few sheets of papers, the draft of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) totals 5,554 pages and the Obama care does 961 pages (“Simplifiers v. complicators”; Boston Globe; October 3, 2016). In a circumstance like this, politicians are liable to debate trivial details each other, without sufficiently understanding the overview of the issue. As élites are confused like this, people are increasingly defiant to their “preaches”, and driven by ugly emotion (“It’s Time for Elites to Rise up against Ignorant Masses”; Foreign Policy; June 28, 2016). People today are more susceptible to “ruffian leaders” than those in the Burckhardt days.

Donald Trump is the most notable “terrible simplifier" today, who could discredit Western democracy and destabilize the world. Nevertheless, he is a savior for anti-establishment working class. Not only does Trump disdain economic freedom of choice in his support of protectionism and government controls, but also belittle democratic procedure as shown in his remark “I alone can fix the problem”. Referring to Max Weber’s analysis on charismatic authority, Washington Post columnist George Will argues that popular crave for Trump’s charisma implies that Americans are unprecedentedly receptive and credulous to a magical savior. It is such changes in social norms and national character that helps the rise of a demagogue (“If Trump wins, the Republican party will no longer be the party of conservativism.”; National Review; September 28, 2016). Furthermore, I would argue that Trump’s lifetime career as a family business owner does not match well with checks and balance requirements of governmental administrator. Like employed management professionals, presidents and prime ministers are hired by the state. Trump’s “business acumen” is more adaptable to dictatorship rather than democracy.

Democracy decline in the West emboldens autocratic great powers. This is typically seen in the US presidential election this year, which has fallen into vulgar blame games between the Democrats and the Republican candidates, rather than serious exchanges of policies. The global public is disillusioned with American democracy, which was an exemplar of good governance. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton showed her superiority in policy common sense to Donald Trump in all presidential debates. Her victory would lessen deleterious impacts of “ruffian” populism that nurtures nativism, racism, misogynism, and isolationism. No wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin meddles into the election to boost Trump. The global public already knows vulgar and anti-intellectual nature of populism in Trumpism, Brexit, and far right surges in Continental Europe. Ironically, NIMBY xenophobia among those self-assumed patriots simply harms the reputation and international standings of major Western powers.

How should policy élites reinvigorate liberal, open and rational democracy? There is no simple answer to this question, but at least, I would argue that they should not compromise with popular nativism. For example, the Obama administration cut democracy promotion budget through the USAID during their terms, as the American public loses interest in it. According to the Pew survey in 2013, only 18% of Americans regard democracy promotion as a foreign policy priority, and 80% of them say the government focus more on nation building at home rather than overseas intervention. However, such disengagement trend puts critical dangers to US national security. They should remember Western indifference to Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal was so fatal as to cause 9-11 attacks. The rise of far right movements like Trumpism and Brexit is the consequence of élites’ failure to educate the nation to the right direction.

But not everything is pessimistic to Western democracy. Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution maintains that slowing economic growth is eroding the legitimacy of autocracy in China and Russia. Democracy is not perfect, but it is less violent, more respectful to human rights, and more likely to develop the market economy, as he says. Alt-right ideals are not so open and liberal, and completely the opposite. They are more like those of national socialism. Regarding implication of democracy in global security, we have to recall a comment by Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, “Not every democracy in the world was or is a close ally of the United States, but no democracy in the world has been or is an American enemy. And all of America’s most enduring allies have been and remain democracies” (“Democracy in Decline”; Foreign Affairs; July/August 2016). Ironically, malfunctioned democracy at home poses threats to the free world as dreadful as external threats. Therefore, it is necessary to rebuild our domestic democracy and revitalize our effort for democracy promotion, to restore the stable world order that we rest on.