Overreaction to Islamist threats puts liberal democracies at risk

Sunday 24/07/2016

The handwriting is on many walls. Liberal democracy and the world order it has built since World War II are at risk. Equal rights, political pluralism and rule of law are being challenged from several directions.
We see it in Brexit, which aims explicitly to restore borders, reject immigrants and implicitly to end the liberal democratic establishment’s monopoly on governing power. We see it in Donald Trump, who aims at similar goals. We see it in Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who are selling the idea that concentrated power and restrictions on freedom will deliver better and more goods and services.
We see it in China, which likewise aims to maintain the Communist Party’s monopoly on national political power while allowing markets to drive growth. No need to mention Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski, Poland’s Beata Szydło and other democratically elected leaders who turn their backs on liberal democratic values once in power, in favour of religion, nationalism or ethnic identity.
Among the first victims are likely to be two bold efforts at freeing up trade and investment and promoting growth by removing barriers and encouraging globalisation: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was intended to do something similar in the Pacific basin.
Both Hillary Clinton and Trump have said they are opposed to TPP. It is hard to picture TTIP proceeding while the European Union is negotiating its divorce from Britain.
We have seen assaults on liberal democracy and its associated world order in the past. Arguably that is what World War II was about, at least in part. Nazi Germany, imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy offered fascist, autocratic responses to relatively liberal democracy in Britain, France and the United States.
The Soviet Union, which fought with the Allies against fascism, offered a communist alternative that survived the war and engaged in the Cold War standoff with liberal democracies for almost 45 years thereafter, one that involved proxy wars, Communist and anti-Communist puppets and the enormous risk of nuclear holocaust. The history of fights between liberal democracy and its antagonists is fraught with war, oppression and prolonged authoritarianism.
It wasn’t that long ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, that liberal democracy seemed overwhelmingly likely to win worldwide. The end of history did not last long. The two big challenges liberal democracy faces are Islamist extremism and capitalist authoritarianism.
These are both ideological and physical challenges. Putinism is an authoritarian style of governance that sends warplanes, naval ships and troops to harass and occupy its neighbours and adversaries. The same can be said of Xi Jinping’s China, which is making the South China Sea into its backyard and harassing its neighbours.
The Islamist extremist challenge comes above all from al- Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), which are competing with each other even as they destroy fragile states such as Libya, Yemen and Syria. Iraq appears to be winning its fight, though it is likely to face a virulent insurgency even after it ends ISIS control over parts of its territory. The outcome is unlikely to be liberal democratic. Many other states face that kind of insurgent Islamist threat: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Somalia and Tunisia, to name but a few.
The biggest threat to liberal democracy today comes from inside the liberal democracies themselves. Islamist terror has killed relatively few people, apart from 9/11. Popular overreaction to Islamist threats, immigration and globalisation could bring to power people with little commitment to liberal democratic values in the United States, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. They will seek to re-establish borders, slow or end immigration, impose draconian laws to root out terrorists and restore trade barriers in the hope of regaining lost industries.
Another challenge, peculiar to the United States, seems to be emerging: black insurgents with guns who think they are retaliating against police for abuse of black citizens. This is bound to elicit a law and order response that could bring a real threat to liberal democracy in Washington: Trump in the presidency.
The menace to liberal democracy is real. If we want pluralism, human rights and the rule of law, we are going to have to take some risks. I find it an easy choice but many of my compatriots seem inclined to lean in the other direction.