As he left the White House, Barack Obama had one question on his mind: “What if we were wrong?” According to his aide Ben Rhodes, Obama was concerned that the liberal-democratic West had misread the post-Cold War landscape. But where had they erred, and what were the consequences?
The Cold War was an ideological struggle that divided the world. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West declared victory. Liberalism, capitalism, and democracy had triumphed over the oppressive, totalitarian “Evil Empire”.
Three ideas about the post-Cold War world took shape. The first was that liberal democracy was the only legitimate form of government. The second was any nation could improve its lot by adopting Western systems and norms. Finally, every nation would (eventually) adopt those systems and norms.
The first idea was a byproduct of the West’s euphoric victory. Communism had been exposed as incapable of competing with liberal democracies long-term. Communist regimes still existed in China, Cuba, and North Korea, but its prestige had suffered mightily. This notion was reinforced by former Warsaw Pact members’ desire to join institutions like N.A.T.O. and the E.U.
The second idea traced its roots to the end of World War Two. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan waged a ruthless campaign to destroy and remake the Anglo-American world order. By the end of 1945, each of these totalitarian states had been crushed. In the years that followed, they were gradually rehabilitated and integrated into the Western camp. Liberal-democratic institutions were established, loans were provided, and membership in multilateral organizations was offered and accepted. These former adversaries were transformed into modern, wealthy democracies. The same could now be done in places like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. All they had to do was mimic the West.
The third idea was the logical conclusion of the first and second. The West had won the Cold War, converted three staunch opponents to its cause, and was now working to bring Central and Eastern Europe into the fold. It became a question of when not if Russia, China, and other holdouts would see the light and come in from the cold.
These beliefs spurred the West on. For a few years, everything went to plan. Liberal-democratic institutions were erected throughout Central and Eastern Europe. N.A.T.O. and the E.U. welcomed new members from the Baltics to the Balkans while edging closer to Moscow. The Russians held elections throughout the 1990s, and receptive to the idea of cooperation.
Things began to falter a decade after the end of the Cold War. The West had misread the lay of the land. The consequences of its flawed assumptions continue to unfold today.
With communism vanquished, the West was without peer. While championing its institutions and values in Central and Eastern Europe, it overlooked an important truth. These nations had lived under Soviet rule for over four decades. They were told that communism, a foreign ideology, was the only legitimate form of government. Now, having regained their independence, they were again being told how to organize their governments, economies, and societies by external forces. People began to resent calls to copy the West, especially when doing so compromised their traditional values. These were the first rumblings of discontent.
Central and Eastern European nations had embraced liberal-democracy because it promised to improve their quality of life. Adopting Western institutions did raise living standards, but also brought unforeseen consequences like unemployment and inequality. The centre and east remained poorer than their Western counterparts. Rather than wait for their countries to catch-up, millions simply moved west in search of a better life. The resulting brain-drain hindered development and widened the gap. Adopting liberal-democracy had not delivered the anticipated results. Disappointed, more and more citizens turned towards nationalist figures who claimed to speak on their behalf. It’s telling that Poland, despite years of strong GDP growth, is ruled by the populist Law and Justice Party.
Further east, more harsh realities was brewing. Since its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia has shown it has no intention of adopting Western values and institutions. It has annexed Crimea, invaded Eastern Ukraine, intervened in the Syrian Civil War, and meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. These unilateral actions have reinforced Russia’s position as a world power despite its autocratic regime. By openly violating international law, it has also undermined the credibly of the Western democracies who are unwilling or unable to mount a collective challenge.
China’s rise also provided a damning indictment of the liberal-democratic project. China imported the West’s economic institutions and technology while retaining its political system and values. In doing so, it has become an economic superpower that trades and competes with the West on an equal footing. It has become rich and powerful despite being autocratic, and there are no indications this will change. Nowhere did the liberal-democrats err more in their judgement than China.
Conditions in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and China prove that Obama was right to worry. Western liberal-democracy won the Cold War, but it’s losing battles across Eurasia. Equally alarming are the current conditions within the West’s epicentre, the United States. The election of Donald Trump was in many ways a backlash against the post-Cold War order which has left many Americans feeling unhappy and unheard. In short, liberal-democracy has shown it’s not a one size fits all solution to the world’s problems. The West needs to adjust its approach to others to retain its prominence in an increasingly competitive 21st century.