By Constanze Stelzenmüller

TOKYO/SINGAPORE—“Bull—!“: this was the blunt rejoinder of one Japanese policymaker in Tokyo to the question whether the “rise of the rest” marks the demise of the Western liberal order. Indeed, he has a point. As he and others are quick to note, while China or Russia may act as retardants or spoilers on some international issues (e.g. Syria), they generally stick to the rules in multilateral organizations such as the WTO. The rising powers have mostly declined to accept the notion that they ought to become responsible stakeholders in global governance—but neither have they succeeded in their efforts to establish alternative institutions, processes or norms.

Some of them continue to prod and probe their neighbors and competitors for weak spots and chinks in their protection; at the same time, they are palpably conscious of their own internal vulnerabilities, as well as of their increasing exposure to a volatile world economy. Most importantly, the Japanese bureaucrat said, the attempts of China and others at suasion or coercion only go so far; “they have no soft power.” The “rising rest” may try to lead (or push), but they have very few followers.

Nor is it remotely accurate to say that the West is in decline, or liberal democracy on its way out. On the contrary. All the historical evidence argues that Western-style democracies are better at weathering crises in the long run, because they are more flexible and resilient; whereas the fragile underpinnings of Russian and Chinese authoritarian power are currently on public display. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has turned into a long, hot and potentially explosive summer, and the unprecedented protests against Vladimir Putin’s self-re-election may yet wither away in yet another interminable winter of Russian politics. All the same, the message at the heart of both events is one of progress: the protesters want not just safety and prosperity, but participation and accountable government as well—and are no longer too terrified to say so.

So liberal democracy is neither dead nor in terminal decline; it remains the model of self-governance aspired to by people living under authoritarian rule all over the globe. Still, that does not mean the existing liberal international order is alive and well. There may be fewer wars and more voters in the world today than twenty or fifty years ago, but the polarization and dysfunctionality of many democracies in the West and elsewhere (including Japan) is hard to deny. There is a pervasive sense that while globalization and integration have made the work of policymakers ever more complex, the world-wide financial crisis has reduced the operating margins for formulating and implementing foreign and security policy to near-zero. It has rendered collective action almost impossible, except on the most urgent issues of crisis management.

A European writer cannot but acknowledge that this is dramatically true for the European Union. Unfortunately, it also holds for Europe’s member states, and even for strong member states like the UK, France, or Germany. Worse, these troubles are not merely cyclical, and we should not rely on the next economic upswing to sweep them away. They are structural; more precisely, they stem from a failure to adapt our systems to deal with the new challenges. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Charles Kupchan, among others, have extensively catalogued the fields in which Western democracies need to repair their machinery or improve their performance, from infrastructure to education to innovation, strategic planning, and foresight capabilities. Yet the real issue is even larger.

The fundamental challenge of collective action and sovereign power under conditions of ever-deeper global integration is the preservation of state legitimacy and effectiveness: meaning a functioning representative democracy which is able to act as the guardian of a decent society. It is neither alarmist nor “declinist” to suggest that all of us, including we Europeans, have work to do here. It is, in fact, the task by which our generation will be judged.

As we do so, it ought to make us optimistic that Asia’s citizens, rather than espousing the collectivist “Asian values” (decreed a decade ago as the only model suitable for the region by Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew), are more and more demanding genuine participatory, rule-based and rights-regarding democracy from their rulers. At this weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono compared his own country’s democratic reforms to the Arab Spring, noting that there too “things got worse before they got better”—but he made it very clear that Indonesians are “much better off today.” It was clear that this was also meant as an encouragement for other neighbors in the region—and not just Myanmar.

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a Berlin-based Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.