The International Standing of Western Liberals

Lilia Shevtsova has an essay in The American Interest arguing that American liberals, and Western liberals in general, are no longer a model for liberal reformers around the world:

The way liberal democracies are currently trying to revitalize themselves raises some concerns and doubts. There are two “cures” under discussion within the Western community. First, the West has to find ways to deal with entrenched interests and their own plutocracies while at the same time rewriting social contracts to make the welfare state economically effective again. Second, liberal democracies have to figure out how far they want their power to extend in the outside world: whether they should limit its reach in order to tackle domestic problems (as per Obama’s popular “time to focus on nation building here at home” rhetoric), or expand it….Whereas the thinking of the 1970s emphasized a normative dimension and the interdependence of domestic and foreign policy, Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo.

There’s a high ratio of sweeping diagnoses to concrete examples, but it’s an interesting read. Shevtsova is focused mainly on Russia, but this passage in particular reminded me of many parallels to discussions I had with Chinese liberals:

Hopes of a leader-reformer taking over the Kremlin and reforming Russia are dominant in Western media and literature. Even the most astute Western observers believe that Russia can be modernized from the top down. Are they aware that they are only repeating (subconsciously, I hope) Kremlin’s mantras? …There is another premise that may explain the revival of Western Realpolitik: the belief that the West is a unique civilization that emerged as a result of specific historical circumstances, and that liberal democracy can’t be replicated by other civilizations. … What are the reasons behind this determinism? A lack of understanding and awareness of what is happening outside of the Western world? An attempt to make reality fit an artificial paradigm? Frustration with the neocon era? I can tell you how it looks from the outside. It looks, first and foremost, like doubt that liberal democracy could appeal to the non-democratic world, and secondly, like a condescending attitude toward nations supposedly unable to accept liberal democratic principles.

In China, “specific historical circumstances” is a mainstay of the Communist Party’s ideological defense against Western pressure for democratic and rule-of-law reforms. What was interesting to me was the realization that while Western liberals emphasize pluralism, and so can be sympathetic to the argument that we should “let countries pick their own path,” the experience of many Chinese thinkers is that such an argument is inherently illiberal. Most of the Chinese thinkers I talked with argued that you could apply universalized ideas like rights and democracy while still respecting the Chinese context; they also pointed out that the Communist Party is itself at least nominally based on a system of thought imported from the West.

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