The only world order compatible with humanity’s diversity resembles a mosaic of political systems – not the universal imposition of liberal democracy.
Imagine a Muslim country backing Islamist elements in a non-Muslim European country. It funds social groups and NGOs who frequently protest against the ‘decadent’ political system of the West, demanding the imposition of a Sharia-based constitution. To them, an ideal world is based on universal equality, social justice and egalitarianism, and can only be established under an Islamic political system.
Now take this thought process further and imagine another scenario in which a communist regime provides covert support to proxy elements in democratic countries. They frequently fan the flames of social discontent by highlighting and exaggerating injustices of the existing system while promoting themselves as a much-needed alternative.
One need not look further than the recent past to understand that these scenarios have not been seen in a favourable light by Western liberal democracies.
Over the previous decade, France has led the charge against so-called Islamic separatism by adopting legislations that quell the rise of political Islam and ban the display of Islamic symbols in public. And during the Cold War, the US response to domestic communist elements was nothing short of a witch-hunt, with figures like Senator Joseph McCarthy leading the charge.
Now take the previous two thought experiments again and replace the ideas of spreading Islam or communism with spreading democracy. All of a sudden, what was previously perceived as a forced imposition of values now seems to be a morally righteous endeavour.
With its popular sovereignty, accountability and individual rights, democracy has some valuable ideals to offer. Yet, in reality, leading democracies today are struggling to reap the rewards of their own system. Right-wing populism and polarised politics have tainted the image of democracy, eroding trust in its efficacy.
Given its own dismal state, one wonders: what moral high ground does a democratic country have when it talks of spreading democracy abroad?
In his inaugural address, US President Joe Biden claimed that: “We’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but the power of our example.” While one can acknowledge that his words are righteous, his claims are divorced from reality.
The US has a notorious record of leading by the example of its power, especially when that power is threatened. And as for the power of its example, right-wing militias, racism, police brutality, and forever wars do not project the US as an example to be followed.
However, the flaws in the US democratic system are not the issue at hand. The issue is the sheer hubris with which it promotes democracy globally as the only legitimate political system despite its own domestic shortcomings.
This pursuit of spreading democracy is part of a larger goal of establishing a liberal world order. The premise being that since liberal values are universal and absolute, they provide the only path to progress and should be adopted by all nations.
Liberals claim that such a world order would achieve progress through welfare, cooperation, and interdependence, and place an emphasis on freedom of thought and diversity of opinion. According to them, these qualities make liberal democracy the best path forward – and other systems redundant.
Yet, this rationale for proliferating liberal democracy suffers from a logical paradox. It sets up liberal democracy as an antithesis to all other political systems and conveniently deems them illiberal.
But if liberalism promotes diversity of thought, should it not accept other systems as legitimate instead of labelling them as oppressive and invalid? Furthermore, if advocates of liberal democracy reject the viability of other systems, does it not make them restrictive and illiberal?
Of course, this situation bears resemblance to Karl Popper’s ‘paradox of tolerance’. According to Popper, a tolerant society can only exist by being intolerant towards intolerance. The same analogy can be used to justify the pursuit of a liberal world order. One must draw the proverbial line somewhere in order to differentiate right from wrong. Yet, the notion that this line must project liberal democracy as the only morally acceptable system uncovers some underlying flaws in how liberal democracies perceive the world.
Originating with John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, modern liberal ideology inspired the American and French Revolutions. Later, in the aftermath of World War I, liberal internationalism started taking root and liberalism became a primary theory in international relations. The post-Cold War period marked liberal thought’s evolution into a dominant global political ideology with the US actively spearheading its proliferation in its quest of establishing a new world order.
However, just because it became the dominant global political ideology does not mean that liberalism is global in its nature, nor is it absolute. The events that gave rise to liberal thought were Western in origin. The theories that were formulated to explain these events were predominantly inspired by Enlightenment-era philosophy.
With its origin and evolution restricted to a limited territory, how can one expect it to be embraced by the entire world?
‘The power to define’
To call for the establishment of a liberal world order is to standardise the world along the Western experience. To expect the world to adhere to a system that took centuries to take root in the West itself – and whose efficacy is now in question – is to ignore the fact that humanity is not a monolith but a diverse set of cultures and values, incompatible with an externally imposed political system.
This is the reason why US efforts to install democratic governments overseas fail more often than not. Liberalism is not a one-size-fits-all global ideology, but just one of many ideas that have originated in one of many regions in the world.
While it is unlikely that a truly liberal world order would ever come into existence in a multicultural world, its propagation does serve the interests of liberal democratic states.
Postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault have rightly pointed out that there exists a nexus between knowledge and power, whereby knowledge and power reinforce each other. By setting up their system as an ideal standard, democratic countries create international norms that put them at an advantageous position, under which non-democratic countries are perpetually playing catch up.
Imagine Iran sanctioning the US for its racial discrimination record, citing that it is against Iran’s Islamic system. While this thought seems far-fetched, the US has often sanctioned countries based on similar reasoning.
In his book Orientalism, Ziauddin Sardar aptly observes that: “The real power of the West is not located in its economic muscles and technological might. Rather, it resides in the power to define. The West defines what is, for example, freedom, progress and civil behavior; law, tradition and community; reason, mathematics and science; what is real and what it means to be human. The non-Western civilizations have simply to accept these definitions or be defined out of existence.”
Given that the global proliferation of liberal values provides the West with the power to dictate norms, the call for a liberal world order becomes nothing more than a realist exercise in promoting Western interests cloaked in moral concern.
Understanding that the notion of a liberal world order is based on a false premise, states around the world are now aware that they have to chart out their own political course based on their local realities. The only world order compatible with humanity’s immense diversity resembles a mosaic of disparate political thoughts, not a white canvas of imposed ideals.
Proponents of liberal democracy can either adapt to global changes by embracing the reality of multiculturalism, or they can continue pursuing their flawed goal of shaping the world in their own image.
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