This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum in association with The New York Times.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was celebrated in the West as a victory of liberal democracy over authoritarian communism, prompting discussion back then that the world had reached the so-called end of history, the view that for better or worse, liberal democracy was the default setting for a better life for most.
The values of liberal democracy — which emphasize individual rights and freedoms for all people — are enshrined by the United Nations and were celebrated as truths we hold “to be self-evident,” in the words of the American Declaration of Independence. In other words, so widely accepted as to require no proof.
But are they really? The question is taking on more importance now, as liberal democracy, especially in the United States, which is seen globally as a model, seems to be degrading into fierce polarization over cultural, religious and racial questions.
“Cultural polarization is a big deal, but democracy is failing to deliver,” said Ms. Thornton, who will be one of the speakers at the Athens Democracy Forum in Greece this week in association with The New York Times. “People feel the system is corrupt, money has too much influence, there is elite capture — that the system doesn’t advance the individual,” or no longer does.
And the world’s authoritarian leaders, no matter how self-serving, argue that a more tightly controlled and “communitarian” system provides more and faster development, with better benefits to ordinary people, even if their individual rights and voices are subsumed to the greater, collective good.
Authoritarian leaders and far-right politicians, whether in Russia, China or parts of Africa and even Europe, can argue that “today it seems democracy is a mess, it’s not efficient, it doesn’t deliver economic growth,” Ms. Thornton said. “They argue they need authoritarian government to bring people out of poverty, and that they value the health and growth and prosperity of the community over the rights of the individual.”
So geopolitics is back, especially as Washington’s hegemony is increasingly challenged.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate professor of economics at Columbia University, said recently that the economic theories pushed by Western democracies “that are the basis of globalization and underlie the World Trade Organization have been totally discredited” and led to enormous inequalities.
Democracy is not mentioned in either the U.N. Charter or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the U.N. Charter does describe universal values, noted Guntram Wolff, an economist who is director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, even if the authoritarians insist that liberty and human rights should be understood more collectively. “Democracy is probably a Western concept,” he said. “But it is also one that many people in the East, if not most of them, would love to have.”
It’s one thing to debate the grievances of the Global South of developing and underdeveloped countries, which are largely economic, he added. “But the debate is also used by some dictators who want to preserve their power and avoid confronting a domestic population that strives for liberty.”
Even the events of 1989 have been interpreted incompletely and even arrogantly, wrote Thomas Bagger, a senior German diplomat, in an important essay in The Washington Quarterly. That year also represented a return to sovereignty for post-Soviet states, which meant their ability to create values for themselves or to dissent from those accepted in liberal democratic states.
In Hungary, for instance, the embrace of “illiberal democracy” has created major challenges to the rule of law and judicial independence, let alone to the supremacy of European Union decisions. Poland, too, has rejected the effort of an increasingly secular Brussels to define European values, arguing that traditional values founded in the main religious traditions are more important — to cite one obvious example, the conviction that marriage must be only between a man and a woman.
That is an argument advanced sharply by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in their book, “The Light that Failed,” in which they describe how new democratic leaders, having just been freed from decades of Soviet ideological imposition, were guilty of “copycat Westernization.” The result, they argue, has been a wide political resentment, a reassertion of national identity and dignity and a deep backlash against liberal democracy and the perceived imposition of “universal” values.
In 1989, too, there was a widespread assumption in the West that a more prosperous China would move toward more democratic liberalism, that it could maintain its miraculous economic growth only if it allowed more individual and corporate freedom. That assumption now seems badly judged — certainly premature.
In reaction, Lee Kuan Yew, who served as the founding prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, argued against the idea of universal values, asserting that Asian or “Confucian” values emphasized family and community more than individual rights and were just as valid. His argument was seen by some as a way to justify what was widely viewed as Singapore’s paternalistic and heavy-handed government. But it was also a response to what many saw as Western cultural imperialism, an extension of the older missionary effort to convert the world to Christianity.
Mahathir Mohamad, the longtime authoritarian leader of Malaysia, liked to say that “universal values” were Western values, while Asian values were truly universal.
That is an argument taken up avidly by China, which has increasingly repressed individual rights to freedom of speech, assembly and even movement in the name of security and the collective good, as defined by the Communist Party and its supreme leader, Xi Jinping.
In addition to the clear rivalry with the West and China’s effort to reshape international institutions, there is significant emotional resentment involved as well, said Dominique Moïsi of the Institut Montaigne, an independent think-tank in Paris. When the South Korean and Japanese leaders met with President Biden at Camp David, he said in an interview, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, told a group in China, “No matter how yellow you dye your hair or how sharp you make your nose, you’ll never turn into a European or American; you’ll never turn into a Westerner.”
Mr. Wang said that Westerners could not tell one Asian from another and admonished, “One needs to know where one’s roots are.” He urged Japan and Korea, both democracies, to cooperate with China, saying, “It would not only suit the interests of our three countries, but also the wishes of our peoples, and together we can prosper, revitalize East Asia and enrich the world.”
For Mr. Moïsi, the Chinese are arguing for “the values of geography” against “the geography of values,” whereby Japan and South Korea represent the Asian West.
The cultural argument is less prevalent now than the efficiency argument, said Philippe Le Corre, a China expert at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that explores closer ties to Asia. The Chinese like to argue lately that they even have their own form of democracy, whereby the party picks the best leaders and in that way avoids situations where “countries vote for Brexit or elect Donald Trump or go to the far right or left,” he said.
“They argue that this way they have responsible leaders who know how to run things,” Mr. Le Corre said. But lately, the Chinese system seems more fragile, with an economic slowdown, criticism of its Covid policies and sudden, unexplained changes within the party leadership. “Our democracies are not perfect, but we at least have transparency,” he said. Autocracies like Russia and China “have none.”
The Chinese and prominent Asian intellectuals like Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore have regularly accused their critics of using human rights as a kind of cudgel, pretending to be arguing for freedom and universal values while in reality pursuing their own political and economic agendas.
That is an argument now more widely shared in the Global South, which is heterogeneous but wants the current, post-World War II, Western-dominated multilateral global order to be replaced by a more diverse, open system — one that recognizes that the world has changed and new powers have risen.
The Ukraine war has exacerbated the criticism, as poorer countries have been hit with higher food and energy prices. As an Indian diplomat, Shivshankar Menon, wrote this February in Foreign Affairs: “Alienated and resentful, many developing countries see the war in Ukraine and the West’s rivalry with China as distracting from urgent issues such as debt, climate change and the effects of the pandemic.”
The recent decision of the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — to invite six new members from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America is a good indication of the strength of this dissatisfaction. At its heart is frustration with the dominance of the United States, and in particular, of the U.S. dollar, which allows Washington to exercise enormous power through trade sanctions.
The expansion of the BRICS may be largely symbolic for now, but if these six states join, the group will encompass 3.7 billion people and a large share of the global economy. It will also become significantly less democratic — dominated by China but embracing Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Altogether it will comprise six democracies, two authoritarian states, two autocratic monarchies and a theocracy.
Even if their financial clout beyond China is comparatively small, these countries see themselves as a potential alliance against the United States, the West more generally, and the Western interpretation of how states should behave — against the Western view of universal values.
“The enthusiasm of many developing countries to join BRICS reflects not only the appeal of China’s values-neutral globalization but also the failure of Western countries to build a more inclusive international order,” said Neil Thomas of the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis in an email.
Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament and an expert on China, said that “China’s dominance will increase and BRICS will become a clearly authoritarian-oriented group” and “more confrontational.”
Such expansion, he said in an interview, “means a massive challenge” for the United States and the European Union. “We don’t have many years to prove that Europe wants to be a credible, reliable, and fair partner for poor and developing countries,” he said. “If that doesn’t succeed, BRICS might become the focal point for many of these countries.”
Ms. Thornton of the Alliance for Securing Democracy noted that there have been other eras of sharp division, but “older democracies like ours are calcified,” she said, referring to those in North America and Western Europe. “They don’t innovate; they are stuck in practices and processes of centuries ago, with political parties, the gatekeepers to power,” increasingly unrepresentative in a diverse society.
For Mr. Moïsi, the argument over values has a much sharper resonance now.
“What makes the subject more topical than ever is the crisis of democracy, especially in the U.S.,” he said. “In France, we are polarized and divided, and in Europe, there are illiberal democracies like Hungary, Poland and Italy, but nothing like you. In a way it’s frightening. It’s the challenge and it may be the opportunity for Europeans to get their act together. We have no other choice.”