Liberalism runs into national populism

Krishnan Srinivasan  

Just before the G-20 meeting in Osaka in June this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines in the world media with an interview to the Financial Times in which he stated that liberalism had “become obsolete”. He went on to say that liberal ideas about refugees, migration and LGBTQ issues were now opposed by “the overwhelming majority of the population”. Even some western nations, he went on, had privately admitted that multiculturalism was “no longer tenable”. There was a swift and critical response from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk: “Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete.” This was in fact not what Mr. Putin had alleged, but the wider question is why the Russian President is saying this now and whether he had a point.

Defining liberalism?

To start with, since liberalism means different things to Mr. Putin and Mr. Tusk, what is liberalism? This complex term, much used in India today in various contexts of opposition to the present Union government — and used in a derogatory sense by supporters of the government in respect of its detractors — might broadly encompass three definitions. There is economic liberalism, which ‘emphasises free competition and the self-regulating market, and which is commonly associated with globalisation and minimal state intervention in the economy’. There is political liberalism, which for most commentators is founded on ‘belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human being, the autonomy of the individual, and standing for political and civil liberties’ as laid out in various United Nations Covenants. And then there is social liberalism, ‘linked to the protection of minority groups, and such issues as LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage’.

Mr. Putin appeared critical of the ‘approach of some western governments by specifically mentioning immigration, multiculturalism and LGBTQ issues, and therefore seemed to focus on social and political liberalism’. By no means is Mr. Putin the only world leader who dislikes this aspect of liberalism. The leaders of India, China, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines and several others, even in Europe, believe highly centralised political systems work better for political stability and economic progress than western liberal democracies.

Nevertheless, liberalism has been the dominant socio-political ideology in the West since the end of the Second World War, where it has been regarded as the norm until recently. However, many even in the West now believe it could be in decline, as evidenced by support for Brexit in the United Kingdom, or support for populist leaders such as President Donald Trump in the U.S., Hungarian President Viktor Orbán or (former) Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge, contends that voters everywhere increasingly dislike and distrust elected representatives because western democracy has ceased to work and failed to deliver, and is headed for a long-drawn-out demise. The financial downturn in 2008 marked a major turning point, with impunity for corrupt bankers and an attempt to return to status quo globalisation that allowed markets to determine everything and led to major questions of identity and culture. Now globalisation is heading for a backlash, leading to protection, local solutions and stronger nation states, and the growing conclusion that liberalism needs urgently to justify itself by addressing issues of inequality and the loss of a sense of community.

Against migrants

Mr. Putin said Germany made a mistake by admitting more than one million refugees. He said: “This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done…because their rights as migrants have to be protected… It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” There is little doubt that Mr. Trump in America uses the immigration and minority issues, with their racial undertones, to bolster his core support. In European countries such as Greece, Germany and Italy that have been entry points for the recent wave of asylum seekers, attitudes towards immigrants have hardened since 2014. Poland and Hungary do not favour the admission of refugees even fleeing from violence and war, and nearly all European Union members are convinced that the EU has badly mismanaged the question of admission of refugees, which in turn has led to questioning the very basis of Europe’s integration project.

Mr. Putin also deplored liberal governments dictating LGBTQ values that “millions of people making up the core population” opposed. “We have no problem with LGBT persons… but some things do appear excessive to us,” he stated. Gender parity issues are strongly promoted in the British media and entertainment industry, and a storm arose in England recently over the teaching in primary schools of same sex relationships and gender identity. Boycotts of various kinds, including of major sporting events, have been threatened because of alleged anti-gay sentiments or legal restrictions. Nevertheless, same sex marriage is recognised only in some countries, others have the death penalty for homosexuality, and laws regarding LGBTQ rights vary widely across jurisdictions. As a generality, it can be stated that they are disfavoured in the vast majority of the non-western non-secularised world.

Liberty vs. protest

Why has Mr. Putin expressed his opinions now to a newspaper considered a flag-bearer of liberalism? The Russian President’s position is that ‘his country has a specific and different kind of civilisation, where sovereignty trumps democracy and national unity, and stability trumps human rights’. Western-style liberalism that prioritises individual rights over those of society is regarded as a ‘challenge to his style of government’, which presents an alternative model. The same view is shared by China. The desire for liberty is recognised as universal, but the freedom to protest in unauthorised demonstrations and wilfully shatter the economy and tourism as in Hong Kong, or the freedom to blaspheme and outrage the sentiments of the devout, as in the French Charlie Hebdo case, or the freedom to bear arms as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, are only random examples that show that liberty has limitations, even if they are self-imposed. Russia and China, with good reason, believe that unauthorised demonstrations open the way to foreign interference and ‘colour revolutions’. No country has found the golden mean between free-range liberalism and statism. When liberal government and liberal models are under pressure even in the flagship West, it is probably ‘as good a time as any for Mr. Putin to make his case’.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary