Liberal democratic institutions and states are under sustained pressure, from outside and from within. The question now is how well liberal and democratic defenses can withstand the onslaught.
In the past several months, three leading liberal figures, each with international reputations, have given speeches in defense of liberal values and practice. Two of these – the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros and the French President Emmanuel Macron – have addressed the EU’s present travails and likely future. The third, former U.S. President Barack Obama, as befitted a former leader of the still-hegemonic world power, addressed more global issues.
Soros, at 87, was the least optimistic. His Open Society Foundations, to which he last year bequeathed another $18 billion of his vast fortune (leaving him to scrape along on $8 billion) have supported European Union initiatives in every way they could – especially the well-funded policy institute, the European Council on Foreign Relations, which he addressed in May. Soros’ opening words were like the tolling of a funeral bell. “The European Union is in an existential crisis. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”
Europe’s existential danger is “no longer a figure of speech… it is the harsh reality,” said Soros. A passion for austerity had turned the rich countries (especially Germany) into creditors, and the struggling (notably Greece and Italy) into debtors – creating “a relationship that is neither voluntary nor equal.” The Hungarian-born Soros, reviled in his birth country by the government led by rightwing nationalist Viktor Orban (who, in his student days, benefited from Soros’ largesse) is rendered especially pessimistic by the drift towards authoritarian rule of the Central European states, particularly Hungary and Poland. It’s a drift which runs directly counter to Soros’ earlier optimism that, with some assistance, the peoples of the former communist states of Central Europe could become citizens with the same civic and democratic rights as in the Western European countries.
Macron, less than half Soros’ age, is able to be bouncier, but still spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in April of a context “where a sort of European civil war is reappearing, where… our national egoisms appear more important than what unites us…where fascination with illiberalism… is growing by the day… where geopolitical threats… give Europe a responsibility which grows day by day.”
The urgency of Macron’s conviction that the Union must integrate or disintegrate has found few enthusiastic takers in the EU. Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said d that the EU could fulfil its basic promise only if individual member states are strong and able to maintain their own identity. In Germany, where voters are concerned about issues like the cost of Macron’s euro zone reform plans, Chancellor Angela Merkel – much damaged by her party’s loss of support in this year’s elections and a quarrel with her main coalition partner, the Christian Social Union – has to be even more cautious than usual.
Obama, in the South African financial hub of Johannesburg, was there to honor Nelson Mandela on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And honor him fulsomely he did. “He came,” said Obama of South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, “to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.”
Mandela had been born to oppression, which he fought, and in a world where such oppression and prejudice was common, a burden he lightened. That movement went wide and far beyond Mandela, said Obama: “An entire generation has grown up in a world that by most measures has gotten steadily freer and healthier and wealthier and less violent and more tolerant during the course of their lifetimes.” At this stage in Obama’s speech, you felt a “but” approaching: and it came, with a thump. The promise of a better world, he said, real as it is, is now diminishing. “We now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.”
Poverty, discrimination, violence all remain, sometimes growing – as does inequality. Elites are more closed off from the mass of the people; solidarity in nations wilts; the reckless behavior which precipitated the 2008 banking crisis prompted spikes of mistrust in every kind of leadership – political, financial, corporate. Then there’s politics. “Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth,” said Obama. “People just make stuff up.” The former president did not mention the name of America’s current president, but few doubt that he was referring to Donald Trump when he mentioned “the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.”
So what to do, if not despair? Invoking Mandela’s view that young people are capable of bringing down oppression and raising the banners of freedom, Obama called upon his audience to “keep believing, keep marching, keep building, keep raising your voice.” Now is a good time to be aroused, he declared, but also to remember that, as Mandela said, “love comes more naturally to the human heart.”
It was a fine flourish with which to end, and to be cheered and applauded out of the Johannesburg stadium. Yet in Europe, where disintegration is, as both Macron and Soros tell us, a stark possibility, a geopolitical catastrophe looms – breaking links of cooperation and joint projects, fragmenting NATO and thus encouraging Russian and Chinese expansionism and subversion, ruining economies forced to return to previous national currencies, causing investment, wages and pensions to plunge.
The warnings from the three liberal prophets of doom are meant to shift public consciousness from a default belief – reasonable enough in the wealthier post-war democracies – that those in power will ensure we continue to live and work in peace and relative prosperity. Their prophesies serve to warn us it isn’t like that now.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. His books include “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “The Power and the Story.” He is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.