By Dhruva Jaishankar
Glance at most newspapers or current affairs magazines today and you would not be blamed for thinking that the fabric of the liberal order – marked by democratic governance, liberal values, free markets, stable peace, and strong institutions – is inexorably fraying.
The U.S. and European economies appear caught in a vicious cycle of burdensome entitlements, high unemployment, slow growth, spiraling debt, and political gridlock. China is thought to be successfully advancing an alternative model of governance marked by single-party leadership and state-led, market-driven growth. Russia continues its reversion to authoritarianism. The Middle East is experiencing unprecedented political upheaval, primarily to the benefit of the region’s Islamists. Iran and North Korea are seeking the ability to annihilate their neighbors with nuclear weapons. India and Japan, the largest and wealthiest non-Western democracies, are beset by political stasis and economic stagnation. And international institutions – whether the United Nations, European Union, World Trade Organization, or International Atomic Energy Agency – appear increasingly impotent. It is little wonder then that thoughtful commentators and leading policy intellectuals are predicting a de facto G-2 (or “G-Zero”), a “Zero-Sum World”, or the “Return of History”. “That Used to Be Us,” “Time to Start Thinking,” and “It’s Even Worse than it Looks,” other declinists note ruefully in the titles of several recent books.
Such pessimism also has popular resonance. Today, two-thirds of Americans believe their children’s employment will be worse than their own. Most already think that China’s economy is larger than that of the United States, when in fact it is still less than half its size. A Pew survey last year showed that citizens of the former Soviet Union (including the Baltic states) were far less enthusiastic about their countries’ shifts to democracy and market economies than they were at the end of the Cold War. And faith in the European project is dissipating rapidly across the continent. Meanwhile, institution-building as it pertains to world trade, climate change, and nuclear disarmament appears to have stalled.
And yet the first drafts of history are often destined for the rubbish bin. Predicting the decline of the liberal order (often inextricably linked to narratives about the future of democracy, liberalism, free markets, peace, and global institutions) is an age-old pastime. Whether Sputnik, the 1973 oil shock, major terrorist attacks, or post-colonial wars, a wealth of supporting evidence has been used to prophesize the end of the free world. In fact, the picture is far rosier than one might infer from the torrent of pessimism currently emanating from the Western commentariat. Consider the following:
- Democracy is advancing. 65% of countries evaluated by Freedom House can be counted as electoral democracies, a slight increase since 1995 and a significant increase since 1990. However, a higher proportion of people (53%) are living in electoral democracies today than at any other time in history. And of those 3.75 billion people, 70% now reside in the developing world.
- Liberal values are spreading gradually. 76% of independent countries today are considered free or partly free by Freedom House, an improvement over 72% in 1995 and 63% in 1990. The standards of acceptable behavior concerning the treatment of marginalized groups – whether ethnic or religious minorities, women, or the economically disadvantaged – have also risen across the board.
- Market liberalization is progressing, if fitfully. Although the overall quality of world economic freedom, as measured by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, has declined slightly since 2008, the figures have improved for every region outside the United States and Europe.
- Trade is booming. After a slump in 2009, global trade rebounded strongly with 14.5% growth in 2010 followed by 6.5% growth in 2011 according to figures compiled by the World Trade Organization.
- Liberal democracies are delivering. According to the UNDP, every country for which data is available – both democratic and non-democratic – has experienced improvements in human development (health, education, and income) since 2000. Developing non-democracies marginally outperformed developing democracies over this period (1.28% as compared to 0.91% per annum), but the apparent ‘democracy tax’ is chimerical given non-democracies’ lower bases, their resource exports, and – in some especially egregious cases such as North Korea and Somalia – inadequate data. It should also be noted that in terms of human development the likes of Ghana, India, Bangladesh, and Mongolia have outperformed China, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Iran over the past decade.
- The world is becoming more stable and peaceful. Violence – whether interstate wars, civil wars, political disturbances, or organized crime – has dropped steadily since 1991. Deaths resulting from war-related violence have fallen 45% since the 1990s, and 70% since the Cold War, according to figures compiled by the Peace Research Institute-Oslo. Crime-related fatalities have also declined in roughly three-quarters of all countries over the last decade.
Taken together, these trends augur well for the future of the liberal order as the West declines and the ‘rest’ rise. And anecdotal evidence suggests things might only get better. Burma and Egypt are experiencing historical elections. Political intrigue and infighting in China, coupled with decelerating growth, have led to serious questions the world over about the viability of the Beijing model. Vladimir Putin faces popular protests in Russia, while Bashar al-Assad might not be leading Syria by the end of the year. The leaders of major countries meet more regularly and discuss a wider range of issues than ever before. And while details and implementation remain problematic, all the world’s major powers are in agreement about the challenges the global order faces, from economic protectionism and weapons of mass destruction to climate change.
Optimism should always be tempered by caution, and none of these realities should engender hubris, but the underlying basis of the liberal order is certainly alive and well. The only difference is that the West may no longer be able to claim ownership over it.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a Transatlantic Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.