If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves anything, says Francis Fukuyama in the Financial Times, it’s that “we cannot take the existing liberal world order for granted”. Liberalism is a philosophy that “seeks to control violence by lowering the sights of politics”. It acknowledges that people will never agree on the most divisive topics – such as religion – but argues that they should tolerate people with different views to their own. It’s no coincidence that this open, accepting doctrine arose in 17th-century Europe, which was just emerging from 150 years of “unremitting religious warfare”. Likewise, its rebirth in the 20th century came after the horrors of the two world wars. The American-led liberal order was “institutionalised” with the formation of the EU, and received a “big shot in the arm” when communism collapsed around 1990.
But now “foundational liberal ideas” have been pushed to extremes – on both the right and the left – in ways that undermine liberalism itself. On the right, so-called neoliberals worshipped the market (and, in effect, the greed it unleashed), while demonising the state as the enemy of individual freedom. The vast inequality this produced laid the grounds “for the rise of populism in the 2010s”. On the left, individual choice and autonomy – on identity and much else besides – have been prioritised at the expense of “human community” and free speech.
Now that more than a generation has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has become totally complacent about the virtues of liberalism. No society that had “experience of real dictatorship”, for example, would compare Covid regulations to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, as some conservatives have. Into this void of apathy have stepped anti-democratic populists and authoritarian regimes. That’s why the war in Ukraine matters to everyone: it illustrates “in the most vivid way possible what the consequences of illiberal dictatorship are”.
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