Newspaper article International New York Times

Did Liberalism Win? It's Not Clear ; for Some Nations, Values of Democracy Take Back Seat to Mercantilist Goals

Newspaper article International New York Times

Did Liberalism Win? It's Not Clear ; for Some Nations, Values of Democracy Take Back Seat to Mercantilist Goals

Article excerpt

After communism's fall, liberalism's presumed triumph was short- lived.

The West is suddenly suffused with self-doubt.

Centuries of superiority and global reach seemed to reach a new summit with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the countries, values and civilization of the West appeared to have won the dark, difficult battle with communism.

That victory seemed especially sweet with the turn of China toward capitalism, which many thought presaged a slow evolution toward middle-class demands for individual rights and transparent justice -- toward a form of democracy.

But is the embrace of Western values inevitable? Are Western values, essentially Judeo-Christian ones, truly universal?

The history of the last decade is a bracing antidote to such easy thinking. The rise of authoritarian capitalism has been a blow to assumptions, made popular by Francis Fukuyama, that liberal democracy has proved to be the most reliable and lasting political system.

With the collapse of communism, "what we may be witnessing," Mr. Fukuyama wrote hopefully in 1989, "is the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

But couple the tightening of Chinese authoritarianism with Russia's turn toward revanchism and dictatorship, and then add the rise of radical Islam, with its violent intolerance, and the grand victory of Western liberalism can seem hollow, its values under threat even within its own societies.

"1989 was perceived as the victory of universalism, the end of history, but for all the others in the world it wasn't a post-Cold War world but a postcolonial one," said Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.

It seemed to many in Asia and Africa to be the end of Western ideological supremacy, given that both liberalism and communism are Western creations with universal ambitions.

After all, Mr. Krastev noted, "both liberalism and communism were dominated and shaped by the West -- but who is the legitimate son of the Enlightenment and who is the bastard one?"

Many of the emerging powerhouses of globalization, like Brazil, are interested in democracy and the rule of law, but not in the preachments of the West, which they regard as laced with hypocrisy. The United States' criticism of Venezuela, for instance, is simply seen as a reflection of geopolitics, not morality.

Even Russia argues both for exceptionalism ("the third Rome") and for its own, more perfect representation of Western civilization, claiming that the West is self-interested, decadent and hypocritical, defending universal values but freely ignoring them when it pleases.

The fight over values is not limited to democracy, Mr. Krastev argues, seeing deep disagreements over gender politics. "We think the world is divided by individualism and democracy, but it's the sexual divide," he said -- with radical disagreements over the proper place of women and the rights of gay people.

Many in the West may consider gender equality and sexual freedom as basic human rights, but they are clearly not universally held.

Conservative Russia, in its rejection of Western liberal values of sexual equality and choice, finds common cause with many in Africa and with the religious teachings of Islam, the Vatican, fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews.

Extreme interpretations of religion, especially in areas of great instability and insecurity, can be a comforting or inspiring response to the confusions of modern life, and they can soon become an enemy to religious freedom and tolerance for others, notes Robert Cooper. A British diplomat who helped build a European foreign policy in Brussels, he defined the problem of failed and postmodern states in his book "The Breaking of Nations."

A quick look at anthropology shows us that "what we consider universal values are not so universal," he said. …

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