What just happened?

When time devours its children

Peter Harling

The past few years have left us baffled and beaten: What happened to the world as we knew it? How could it unravel so fast? What triggered this wave of popular mobilization and populist leadership? The easiest explanation is deceptively soothing: The liberal order is buffeted by external forces, from Russian hacking to Orwellian technological advances, unavoidable inequalities, and an ugly jingoism spilling over from the far right. A less self-serving theory reveals how liberalism has been attacking itself, eroding its very foundations to the point of collapse. 

Liberalism originally developed in Europe and America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as a dynamic line of political thought, but the term is generally misunderstood today. In the United States, it is associated with the Democratic Party. In France, the term evokes so-called “ultraliberalism,” namely unregulated private enrichment. Liberalism is in fact an intellectual middle ground, conceived as an alternative to various extremes: plutocratic capitalism, statist socialism, shambolic anarchism, and regressive fascism. At its best, it bound together progressive values, economic growth, rising living standards, representative government, and discerning state interventions in a virtuous cycle advancing common interests. 

Virtually all mainstream Western parties are rooted in this vision. Over two centuries, liberalism evolved into various iterations as continuous debate and a few existential crises, notably in response to world wars, provoked transformation. Yet it reliably bounced back as a structuring force, precisely because it never lost its vibrancy, internal diversity, capacity for self-criticism, and unifying sense of purpose. As such, it shaped much of the Western sphere and, just ten years ago, seemed poised to define a new global era—an increasingly democratic and “rules-based” world order.

To be sure, the world wasn’t perfect. In many ways, the liberal order was already cracking


The late 2000s could indeed pass off as a liberal heyday. The US elected a black president, who vowed to end his predecessor’s legacy of pointless wars, unilateralism, and loose interpretation of human rights. Canada and Australia formally apologized to indigenous populations. Progressive norms continued to crystallize via multilateral institutions, with a signature convention on cluster munitions and breakthroughs for international criminal justice in Serbia and Rwanda. New powers shined in a comforting light: Brazil stood as one of several inspiring stories of political and economic maturation, while the Beijing Olympics punctuated China’s expanding—and seemingly cooperative—global role. The internet and social media appeared to promise positive change in an era of democratised information. 

To be sure, the world wasn’t perfect. In many ways, the liberal order was already cracking. The global economy reeled from a man-made crisis, illuminating a system perfectly at odds with true liberalism: As banks speculated wildly and governments abdicated their regulatory functions, crushing costs ultimately landed with ordinary taxpayers. Meanwhile, mounting ecological stress called for the overhaul of established systems of production and consumption. In a sign of things to come, traditional parties in Western countries strained against mounting popular frustrations—a trend that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign capitalized on. Globally, liberalism’s promise of a fairer international system was fatally bound up with a powerful strain of post-Cold War hubris.

Yet those were nonetheless hopeful times, compared with today. Despite daunting problems, some faith remained in a set of guiding principles that would lead toward solutions: open polities and economies, states ensuring a baseline of redistribution, greater international cooperation, and scientific innovation to the benefit of all. Such liberal premises now evoke more skepticism than hope, in part because liberal governments have taken the lead in hollowing them out. Traditional parties have dumbed down their intellectual inheritance, converting ideals into incessantly repeated and rarely implemented slogans. Worse still, they have actively contradicted themselves, not least by rolling back civil liberties, indulging in xenophobic politics, and forging symbiotic ties with the most obscenely wealthy rungs of the private sector.

Liberal premises evoke skepticism because liberal governments have taken the lead in hollowing them out


Liberalism’s ambitions have been reduced to rehashing aspects of a worn-out status quo, rather than articulating elements of a new vision. But cannibalizing the past for fear of the future is antithetical to an ideological paradigm whose force has always flowed from imagination and reinvention. Reversing this trend will first require grappling with its extent and evolution. 

The turning point

The 2011 Arab uprisings marked an integral—if easily overlooked—chapter in liberalism’s self-inflicted failure. As popular protests stirred a stagnant Arab world, the dominant liberal order faced a rare opportunity. Stunning numbers of ordinary people took to the streets, braved repression, and demanded precisely what liberalism originally promoted: economic redistribution, political representation, and the rule of law. More than a new ideological paradigm, Arab societies yearned for more equitable states. Liberalism itself grew out of similar aspirations in the late 18th century, when restive populations in the US and Europe drove revolutionary change.

Faced with such an endorsement of their own ideology, liberal governments foundered. While Western capitals occasionally denounced repression, they also abetted it in the name of counterterrorism. When they didn’t strive to topple a reviled regime, they embraced a hated one, professing ever-so-gradual reform for the sake of stability. 

Such contradictions cannot be explained through the traditional double standards applied to friend and foe. Liberal governments waged war on a Libyan tyrant they had reconciled with, and eased out of power a long serving Egyptian ally. A defiant Syria, by contrast, prompted half-hearted and aimless meddling that helped destroy the country while preserving the regime. Such randomness arguably relates, at some level, to Western states’ shortsightedness under the heavy influence of media cycles. But deeper and darker factors underpinned Western policymaking across the region, creating elements of consistency fundamentally at odds with liberal tenets.

Faced with such an endorsement of their own ideology, liberal governments foundered


First and foremost is a profound contempt for the complexity of societies. Liberal politicians and commentators mostly dealt with the uprisings and their aftermath through essentializing clichés—a nebulous youth, lurking Islamists, a radicalized underclass, sympathetic minorities, and secular elites. Such labelling opposed the liberal conception of social conflict as the natural expression of nuanced and meaningful divisions, which politics are designed to regulate and resolve. Ignoring this premise, contemporary liberals romanticized some neat and instantaneous ideal of revolutionary change. Soon, Western officials recoiled at the messiness of civil strife, adversarial politics, free expression, and their consequences: spreading violence, disunited opposition parties, conflicting narratives, and an outburst of civic initiatives too disorderly for comfort.

Washington, Paris, London, and Brussels seemed to evince a visceral distaste for the confusion and uncertainty of a truly open public space. Democratic elections—a pillar of liberal thinking—elicited more fear at their unpredictable outcomes than trust in their unassailable necessity. Liberal governments sacrificed other core principles, such as the imperative of justice, treated as second to an elusive quest for stability, glossing over a nightmarish accumulation of crimes across the Middle East. More broadly, they increasingly disdained the defense and promotion of fundamental rights as an outdated luxury or colonial holdover. The fervent 2018 commemoration of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a cornerstone of the post-World War II liberal order—only accentuated the document’s growing practical irrelevance. 

Such abandonment of liberal values has an obvious flipside: a penchant for illiberal solutions. With few exceptions, liberal parties have indeed converged around the same reductive, xenophobic, security-centric line of thinking that previously defined their far-right counterparts. Although they lament repression in the Arab world, they distinctly prefer state violence to chaos. Relatedly, many liberal politicians and commentators display an unmistakable nostalgia for the pre-2010 status quo, cast the Syrian regime as a lesser evil, and show pragmatic restraint in criticizing other dictators region-wide. A bad situation, their reasoning goes, is better than a worse one; but such lazy, tautological thinking obstructs any ambition for progress and, therefore, puts paid to liberalism’s very raison d’être.

For lack of coherent arguments consistent with their original worldview, liberal governments have resorted to emotional justifications. Most importantly, they inflate, conflate, and exploit fears of Jihadi radicalization and unsustainable immigration. In the US and most of Europe, the Arab uprisings served not to reenergize a liberal agenda, but to spark its exact opposite: anti-migrant measures (usually detached from much needed migration policy reform), a public posture nurturing distrust of outsiders, escalating domestic surveillance, and an expanding routine of overseas strikes purported to keep creeping threats at bay. Overall, liberals appeared to swap their original open society promise for boundless anxiety.

The Syrian template

Of all the Arab crises, the Syrian tragedy best encapsulates the transition away from a liberal order. This catastrophe’s most striking aspect may not be its proportions, all of which have happened before: hundreds of thousands killed, millions brutalized, and whole cities levelled. Conspicuously absent in this case—in stark contrast with the World Wars, Vietnam, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, or the invasion of Iraq—is the type of soul-searching commensurate with the calamity. 

In lieu of self-examination, Syria has lent itself to an orgy of justification and vindication. Both hawks and appeasers, unshakeably convinced of their righteousness, blame each other for a course of action that combined their views in a half-baked and poisonous mix of meddling and laissez-faire. Less than a handful of senior officials ever resigned, while others invest in idle critiques mostly serving to exonerate themselves. In a potent testament to the zeitgeist, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum would in 2017 publish, retract, and republish a report that did little but defend Obama’s approach as the only one possible.

The ongoing US debate—on whether abetting the regime from day one or going all the way to topple it would have produced more likeable outcomes—belongs to revisionist history. What is clear, however, is just how much was sacrificed to indecision: years of destructive and futile escalation, the implicit acceptance of chemical warfare, and the gradual rehabilitation of a power structure that has committed every imaginable war crime.

There has been similarly little introspection regarding the conflict’s pernicious side-effects: a vengeful Russian comeback, the travesty made of the United Nations’ mediation role, the reinforcement and expansion of destructive counterterror policies, and the scapegoating of Syrian and other migrants for homegrown Western problems. Self-criticism also eludes, for the most part, the expansive humanitarian aid industry, whose overall performance falls astonishingly short of both its own budgets and Syrians’ needs. Many in its midst are appalled by how broken the system is, but see little promise for meaningful remedies.

Conspicuously absent is the type of soul-searching commensurate with the calamity


Amid all their dithering on how to handle the Syrian conflict’s human fallout, liberal governments showed inherent resolve on issues that mattered to them. While relenting on chemical weapons, the US enforced a red line concerning the provision, to Syrian opposition groups, of portable anti-aircraft missiles—which from Washington’s vantage point are easier to deploy and thus more threatening than deadly gases. Similarly, European countries showed rare levels of coordination and efficiency in their abrupt 2015 border closures to keep out Syrians seeking asylum. The year before, the US took mere weeks to pull together a complex international coalition to fight the emerging Islamic State. The latter project became known, incidentally, as operation Inherent Resolve.

Liberal governments, in other words, acted decisively in pursuit of goals associated with a far-right definition of national interest, while lowering their ambitions on everything else. They draped their procrastination in various apparels: from hoping for the regime to transform itself to giving UN peace talks a chance, through to banking on a change of heart in Moscow. Although such avenues were predictable dead ends, they circled back in policy discussions as whimsical placeholders for an actual strategy. (In fairness, Germany staked out an unusually consistent position by refusing to dabble in proxy war, accommodate the regime, credit the Russians, or backpedal on framing Syrian refugees as a potentially valuable workforce.) 

Given the cataclysmic consequences, it would be reassuring to think of Syria as a sad exception—a bungled affair eliciting pledges to do better next time. But no lesson has been learned, no aggiornamento undertaken. Liberal governments have yet to contend with this disaster as intrinsically linked to their own decay. Rather, many liberals are tempted to avert their gaze. They shift focus, for example, to Saudi Arabia’s starvation tactics in Yemen and horrendous slaughter of a dissident journalist in Turkey—symptoms of the broader moral collapse they are eager to ignore. The disturbing truth is that Syria was no parenthesis: It set a new norm.

The disturbing truth is that Syria was no parenthesis: It set a new norm


Syria’s tale of human sacrifice and political impotence is a sobering one, epitomizing the era in macabre fashion. The conflict destroyed everything and resolved nothing. The regime remains, but as an empty shell, expected to contain its people while failing them in every other way. The country has forgone an uncertain future to salvage an infertile past—in a grim illustration of the age’s propensity to self-cannibalize. The most vulnerable are left to devise their own solutions in the face of multiple predatory players. Meanwhile, external support systems are little more than make-believe, with a flurry of “peacebuilding processes” serving a victor’s justice and “empowerment programs” that all too often pin responsibility on the weak.

A new political grammar

In the Arab uprisings’ early stages, outsiders tended to dismiss the surreal levels and forms of violence that gripped the Middle East as an aberration—particularities of a region beholden to eternal feuds between sects, tribes, and their external backers. Since, it has become clear that such trends were not the exception but possibly the rule. Authoritarian politics is creeping back where it appeared to abate, such as in Russia, China, the Philippines, and Brazil. Massacres verging on genocide have cropped up in Myanmar. And Western democracies themselves are ever more vulnerable to amorphous, inarticulate rage. The liberal sphere is far from the Arab world’s resort to barrel bombs and bone-saws. But these presumed opposites eerily share the same political grammar, which revolves around a small set of self-serving rules.

The most important of these consists in reducing politics to a false alternative: the status quo or total chaos. Arab regimes have taken this logic to extremes. As the Syrian uprising kicked off, local security forces spray-painted walls with a fitting threat: “Assad or we burn the country.” A tacit equivalent shaped the outcomes of the financial meltdown: Liberal governments almost unconditionally bailed out a banking system gone rogue, abdicated their right to seek meaningful reparation, and revived shattered economies at the expense of abysmal public debt—all in the name of an establishment too indispensable to be held accountable. 

The US presidential elections of 2016 gave another illustration of the “no alternative” argument. Hillary Clinton, bedeviled by her association with a plutocratic establishment, fell short of articulating a compelling agenda for progress—instead presenting voters with a choice between business as usual and lunacy. In 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron met les gilets jaunes with a similar argument, accompanied by minor concessions that skirted the fundamental issue at stake: austerity for all but the rich. The European Union’s response to the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” provided yet another example: confident that Brexit’s fallout would dissuade others from going the same way, Brussels never considered reforming itself to persuade them not to.

There are two corollaries to false alternative politics. The first is constant fearmongering to maintain the sense of insecurity needed to rally support. Arab regimes have long perfected this art by cultivating sectarian and ethnic fault lines, undermining citizenship, and playing up the specter of terrorism. Liberal governments have started to follow suit, through a borderless war on terror that feeds xenophobia back home. Obama thus pulled together a ludicrously outsized coalition to fight the Islamic State, and meanwhile presided over stringent restrictions to immigration. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron cozied up to British nativism, until Brexit turned it against him. EU states toughened their anti-migrant posture, hampering life-saving operations while transforming the Mediterranean into a giant moat with Africa—a liquid counterpart to Trump’s fantasised wall with Mexico.

If anything, this overall trend appears set to worsen. In his standoff with les gilets jaunes, Macron used tactics oddly reminiscent of Arab regimes’ initial instincts in dealing with the uprisings, before they turned to all-out repression: His government belittled the mobilisation as a fringe phenomenon, zoomed in on a minority of violent troublemakers, warned against civil strife, multiplied arbitrary arrests, denied access to rallying points, bemoaned the absence of legitimate representatives (whom French authorities had ignored in previous rounds of social protests), criticised the media’s bias, and appealed to the racist undertones visible in parts of the movement. If the strategy had an overall coherence, it amounted to playing French society against itself.

The second corollary is an understanding of power as divorced from responsibility. As people took to the streets, Macron disappeared for weeks before meekly reaching out. He then fell back on a vow to pursue his program unchanged: France would already be his envisioned “start-up nation” if only its pauperized middle class sorted itself out. Cameron never owned up to his role in Brexit, any more than the EU confessed to their alienating, technocratic aloofness. Obama’s legacy likewise would have been stellar had the banks behaved, had Syria not occurred, and had republicans not obstructed him once he lost his majority in Congress. 

Liberal governments routinely argue that they mean well, but tough realities dictate


Arab regimes, of course, take self-indulgence the extra mile. In Bashar Assad’s case, all would have gone well if everyone else had fulfilled their responsibilities: the regime he built by being more efficient, his people more tolerant, and his enemies more accommodating. But his smugness taps the same source as liberal righteousness: When a system is assumed to be, for all its shortcomings, the best conceivable, why would its leaders pursue fundamental change? Minor reforms become major achievements, while failure to reinvent broken systems is blamed on uncooperative partners and opponents. Liberal governments now routinely argue that they mean well, but tough realities dictate. In doing so, they renounce politics as liberalism originally viewed it—the art of peacefully overcoming the inevitable hurdles on the path to progress.

Liberal apparatchiks

The new political grammar includes several other aspects in perfect contradiction with liberalism’s original conception. The first is a spectacular reframing of the state. Liberal thinkers initially saw the latter as fulfilling a simple but essential function: ensuring that economic wealth contributed enough to social welfare to guarantee stability. Various schools of thought debated the state’s optimal size and regulatory powers, but agreed on this clear-cut raison d’etre. Today, liberal governments embrace a more conservative logic: As a rule, they prioritise fostering big business, while downsizing public policies to match dwindling budgets even as they ratchet up coercion. 

Liberals have also transferred the very notion of progress, originally vested in the state, to the private sector—through job creation, innovation, and philanthropy allegedly serving the common interest more efficiently than redistributive taxation. Even as the state continues to bear the costs of making societies productive through essential infrastructure, basic services, social housing, subsidies (not least to education and innovation), and national security, it is increasingly derided as a cumbersome intermediary between society and business. Large corporations owe much to the levies they abhor, in a context increasingly marked by a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector through tax breaks, bank bailouts, imbalanced “public private partnerships,” and the sale of undervalued state assets.

Second, liberal politicians have taken the lead in devaluing key democratic levers of power. Obama inaugurated the ongoing drift toward hyper-personalized politics in lieu of traditional parties. Brexit occurred when Cameron used a crucial mechanism for public consultation—a referendum—as a mere instrument of petty politicking. While unions—another essential intermediary between the people and the state—shriveled from popular disaffection, liberal governments chose to snub or suppress spontaneous protests too. The anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s, Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados, and the ancestor of les gilets jaunes, Nuit Debout, were met with political contempt—alongside extravagant police deployments.

Third, and consequently, liberal politicians have made up for the shrinking space allotted to genuine politics by overinvesting in the pomp of power. Obama, Cameron, Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all made extensive use of personal charisma derived from photogenic youth, rousing speeches, and an air of cosmopolitanism. Such qualities garnered accolades strangely disconnected from concrete progress: Obama received the Nobel peace prize within months of taking office, and the UN knighted Macron “champion of the earth” just as his own minister for ecology resigned for lack of action.

As liberal policies fall short on such urgent issues as climate change and inequalities, an explosion of concepts, conferences, and processes seems designed to compensate for lagging performance. The “sustainable development goals” and other such frameworks have produced an expansive cohort of “goal keepers,” “young leaders,” “global shapers,” and “change makers” who fly around the globe at a pace entirely divorced from tangible outcomes. The inflation of feel-good initiatives drives all sorts of institutions—government branches, international organizations, and billionaire-run foundations to name a few—to create comfortable jobs with enigmatic mandates and results. Large NGOs have developed a standard of paying their leaders over half a million dollars per year, while often struggling to demonstrate impact.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, liberalism has by-and-large become narrow-minded and unimaginative, abandoning its own track record of fertile debate. Establishment liberals in the US indulge in Trump-bashing as a matter of course and consensus, leaving it to a budding far left to tackle the causes of his ascent. Meanwhile, Obama purports to shape the debate on inequalities even as he entertains the banking sector with speeches invoiced at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, liberals in Europe fail to grapple with what is threatening to tear their continent apart. Rather than fight, they surrender to the myth of a massive onslaught of migrants. Instead of reforming what was once a visionary EU, they defend it meekly as the devil we know. Where a new social compact is needed, they promote austerity, attenuated only by the long-debunked “trickle down” effect of private enrichment. 

Liberalism’s shrinking intellectual horizon is manifest in foreign policy, too. Hard-fought global norms, once a totem of the liberal order, have always been challenged by populists and authoritarians. But they only truly lost ground when their original champions renounced them: Liberal governments now strike expedient deals with any partner they believe can help pin down Jihadis or migrants. For the most part, the era of lasting alliances is gone, as is the belief that political reform and economic development present the best chances for stability. More than ever, the spooks are at the forefront of diplomacy. Military outposts, drone strikes, arms deals, and “capacity building” in the security sector have become paramount in the foreign policy toolbox.

A liberal establishment isn’t a promise of renewal or a voice of moderation: It’s an oxymoron


* * *

Liberal governance increasingly evokes all the images it was conceived to oppose: bloated and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, entitled and detached elites, empty words obscuring lack of vision, and political impotence in the face of predatory economics. Liberalism is hard to pinpoint as a school of thought precisely because it emerged as a dynamic alternative to more rigid paradigms—as the art of balancing capitalistic enterprise and social welfare, state intervention and civil liberties, public order and democratic leadership. Such juggling always entailed difficult and ambiguous tradeoffs, but today’s crisis is far more profound. The best liberals currently have on offer is a rearguard defense of some aspects of the past—a reactionary posture that contradicts their original purpose. A liberal establishment isn’t a promise of renewal, a rallying call or a voice of moderation: It’s an oxymoron. 

Absent a new vision, the ongoing cannibalization of what was leaves the world hamstrung between two equally frightening propositions for the future. On one side, there are those who fear chaos and oppose fundamental change at any cost; they hope to address increasingly dysfunctional national and global compacts with unambitious, conventional fixes. On the other, there are those who dread inertia and stand for transformation at any price, resurrecting an awkward mix of fascistic, socialist, and anarchic lines of thinking. In the 19th century, a similar split between stalwart conservatives and rowdy radicals is the reason why liberalism emerged in the first place.

Today, what used to be a middle ground sits squarely in one camp, retreating from a playing field where fringe movements are free to capitalize on mainstream frustrations and move into the center. Creativity, dynamism, and boldness find themselves almost entirely on the other side of this dangerous divide, whether in the hands of firebrand politicians or within multiplying grassroots initiatives and popular mobilizations. Liberals, rather than distrust and patronize their own societies, must join cause with them, and recognize that anti-elitism and xenophobia flow from the absence of good answers to inequity. Until liberalism takes popular outrage as a chance, not an enemy, politics are indeed up for grabs.

28 January 2019


Illustration credits: Francisco Goya Saturn devouring his son; Ivan Akimov ; Giovanni Romanelli Chronos and his child; Ivan Akimov Saturn with a scythe, sitting on a stone and cutting the wings of Cupid; Pierre Mignard Time clipping Cupid’s wings; Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi The mutilation of Uranus by Saturn by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.  

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