Times of trial have a way of revealing essential truths about the human condition. The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the ferocious appetite among people everywhere not only for freedom but for order and the common good.
Our present global crisis offers an opportunity to come to grips with the uncomfortable truth that our current social order is unsustainable. At risk is the postwar order as we know it–characterized by the ascent of democracy, the spread of market economics, and the suppression of geopolitical competition.
It has rightly been said that the underlying societal danger of this moment lies not so much in the coronavirus outbreak as what it may trigger: a new Great Depression, and a corresponding surge in political radicalism. An acute risk is that escalating public distrust in the democratic system engenders belief in the technocratic skill and general prestige of authoritarian rule. Such a development could in turn incite a reversion to an era of bitter ideological struggle.
Of course, for politically engaged citizens the breathtaking corruption, official deceit, and malign ineptitude of authoritarian powers has exposed the yawning chasm between the supposed aura of arbitrary rule and the unpleasant reality of a system that brooks no dissent and does not submit to democratic audit. Nonetheless, it is clear that the People’s Republic of China has sought, thus far with some success, to exploit the rampant insecurity bred by a lethal virus that it unleashed on the world.
The potential for the PRC and other authoritarian powers to shift the global equilibrium and put the liberal order under siege is evident in their conduct during this crisis. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the world have implemented stringent measures to arrest the spread of the virus. However effective these techniques of surveillance and quarantine orders are at blocking vectors for the virus, authoritarian regimes and ruling parties in immature democracies have often followed Beijing’s lead and used these emergency powers as a pretext to consolidate power. This continues a pattern of authoritarian advance and democratic retreat that has been pronounced for more than a decade.
The democratic world is increasingly left supine before this severe authoritarian challenge. If it remains disengaged, disunited, and paralyzed, the assertiveness of the authoritarians could serve, as Daniel Twining notes, as a “springboard for global contestation” that may beget a terminal crisis for many democracies. There is no natural law that holds the flourishing of a democratic order simply because it is superior to its alternatives. To uphold an order conducive to the finest traditions of free society, constitutional government and individual rights, it behooves us to recall the history before that order arose in the world, and apply its lessons to defend pluralist politics against the depredations of dictatorships.
In a famous anecdote that Phillip Ziegler recounts in his book Between the Wars: “At the end of 1918 an American historian began to write a history of the Great War. ‘What will you call it?’ he was asked. ‘The First World War,’ was his bleak response.”
The history of the 1930s vindicated this judgment when the international order broke down again under the combined aggression of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and fascist Italy. When the Axis Powers began to wreak havoc on their vulnerable neighbors and the fragile democratic order of the interwar years, none of the mature and powerful democracies of the day claimed any great responsibility for the world’s problems. Without a credible and committed guarantor of peace, the world system didn’t stand a chance.
The fragility of the interwar order had not been secret knowledge. Almost as soon as war had broken out in 1914, American internationalists as ideologically discrepant as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson believed that after the war––a war fought, the president famously declared, to make the world “safe for democracy”––America would not be able to secure its interests or advance its principles without taking a much more active role in the world. The international environment was too chronically hazardous, and the fears and interests and ambitions of nations too ubiquitous, to permit any nation to safely indulge in “splendid isolation.”
The world of globalization was too interconnected to shield national economies from the turbulence of overseas markets. It was simply not enough for the United States to seek only “our own defense,” Roosevelt argued. A more eminent, and more onerous, vocation loomed. Americans had to prove themselves worthy of global leadership, which meant a willingness to act in defense of others. Through the provision of essential security and welfare to the foreign world, America established a new liberal order they would also benefit from.
To create and maintain that order, America would be compelled to take its place in a consortium of great powers, an “international posse comitatus” to deter and, if necessary, punish aggression in strategic areas around the globe. This “great World League for the Peace of Righteousness,” as Roosevelt dubbed it, was not a form of international social work. Rather, it was a hard-headed calculation of national interest, rightly understood.
After the guns fell silent on the Western Front, however, the summons to global responsibility issued by Roosevelt and Wilson went unheeded by their countrymen. Such an extraordinary world-historical role for the United States, which would have entailed the deployment and exercise of power far from American shores, proved too much for Americans to countenance. The Senate rejected both the League of Nations and American participation in the Versailles Treaty. When “the League fight” ended with the United States refusing to endorse its charter or adhere to its membership, the cause of collective security was dead on arrival.
In the interwar years, Americans appeared to be weary of direct involvement in “foreign wars,” and they elected leaders who promised to look after “America First.” This “return to normalcy” helped assure that the world would return to a normalcy of its own––however shortlived. Economic nationalism and autarkic societies became the norm. With every nation going its own way, geopolitical competition flared up and eventually brought about a vast conflagration.
It was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that American leaders determined to avoid the catastrophic mistakes of their predecessors, and decided to be the harbingers of a new world. This meant eschewing a passive and accommodating approach to foreign affairs that had left so much of the earth’s surface a cratered wreck. Only the creation of a durable liberal order–featuring global organizations that promoted free trade and human rights, but ultimately backed by American power–could prevent the return of international anarchy and instability.
This ambitious internationalism was expressed in the determination, as George Marshall put it, that the American flag would be recognized “throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.” In taking on such weighty global responsibilities, Americans would lose what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the innocency of irresponsibility.” What they stood to gain was the comparatively dubious burden of responsibility for a better world, with all its attendant material and moral costs, and a measure of pride in serving an intangible sense of national honor.
This new international order gave birth to the United Nations, which continues to serve many legitimate and laudable functions, from peacekeeping to the provision of vital humanitarian supplies to communities in hours of their most urgent and pressing need. But in strategic terms the world body was always destined to have negligible affect. However noble the ideals of the U.N. Charter, the universal social contract was rendered impotent by the promiscuous interests of its most powerful member states. Ideologically, it could hardly be expected to reinforce the domain of democracy given the prevalent and perverse influence of the innumerable dictatorships nesting under its roof.
To Roosevelt and the other principal architects of the postwar order, the U.N. was nothing so utopian as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “parliament of man” in which the “battle-flags” of sovereign nations would be “furl’d” forever. Pious declarations for “outlawing war” (as the Kellogg-Briand agreement did in 1928) would be of little avail.
The stewards of American power were too grimly realistic to imagine the world body could be the linchpin of a “rules-based order” compelling nations to beat their swords into plowshares. Instead they conceived of the U.N. more as Wilson had the League of Nations, which is to say, as a forum to facilitate transnational cooperation under American leadership. There was never any pretension that international law or international institutions would obviate the need for American primacy in preserving the peace.
Today, the scale of the challenge posed by a rising and revisionist China demonstrates that the strategic engagement of America is necessary to world order but not remotely sufficient. The full strength of the democratic world will be required in this titanic struggle. Europeans must come to understand that America’s military predominance in the international system is the ultimate bulwark of freedom, including their own. Without it, the PRC would be behaving more rapaciously at home and abroad. In a similar manner, Americans must come to understand that they still have a stake in the strength and cohesion of European civilization.
In short, those who dream the U.N. Security Council might fulfill this role and provide countervailing force to an implacable threat arising from Beijing should continue slumbering.
Likewise for those who imagine that Washington can ever rally an effective global alliance under the banner of “America First.” Instead, the earth-shaking ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic should serve to revive an old but venerable proposal: a league of democracies.
The deficiencies of collective security under U.N. auspices, very often arising from an excessive deference to autocracies, have been evident for some time. The supposed benefits of sticking with the Security Council have been eclipsed by the accumulating costs of advancing authoritarianism, which has used and abused global agencies such as the WHO and WTO.
Democratic solidarity demands the creation of a new organization that is immune from authoritarian blackmail, and actually supports an open international economic system, enforces principles of international behavior, and respects human rights. Such an organization will promote the kind of world that suited Americans and those who shared their beliefs at the outset of the liberal order.
When the United States walked away from President Wilson’s project of defending the cause of democracy, a power vacuum was created that was eventually filled by aggressive totalitarian dictatorships. A league of democracies would have prevented that tragic lapse.
“The Western powers had hoped that their victory would usher in an era modeled in their own image,” writes the historian Norman Davies. In 1914, he notes, Europe was a continent of nineteen monarchies and three republics. By 1919 it had fourteen monarchies and sixteen republics. But democracy did not prove resilient on the continent. “Hardly a year passed when one country or another did not see its democratic constitution violated by one or other brand of dictator. It cannot be attributed to a single cause, save the inability of the Western powers to defend the regimes which they had inspired.”
In our time, movements and regimes inspired by liberal ideals are increasingly finding themselves on the defensive in a world increasingly vulnerable to authoritarian mischief. Although excessive centralization is not a winning strategy for states in building efficient economies and nimble responses to pandemics, the PRC already has the economic and military means to bully its neighbors, intimidate private enterprises and undermine the liberal order. A pushback must be organized and new arrangements must be formed to halt and reverse this dire trend. A league of democracies, founded on the defense of open societies and the promotion of liberal values rather than national sovereignty, is central to this mission.
Such an organization seems decidedly unlikely to materialize with an administration in Washington that has so lavishly defiled the cause of democracy and so wantonly forfeited American credibility. This impression has scarcely been altered by America’s uninspired conduct in the midst of the pandemic. So far from breaking down barriers of trust and trade with foreign partners in order to align methods to hold China to account, the Trump administration’s deplorable habit of solipsistic diplomacy––this time in the form of White House controls over foreign production by U.S. companies––has encouraged others to retaliate against American firms, seize scarce supplies and even nationalize U.S. plants abroad.
As the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt has observed, it is remarkable during a crisis of this scope that “there’s not been even a hint of an aspiration of American leadership.” It is a safe surmise that no such leadership will be on offer until the current chief executive exits office.
Whenever America comes to its senses and decides to rejoin the struggle for democracy and decency, it should begin by putting its weight behind an organization open to and supportive of the true “responsible stakeholders” of the liberal order: the nations that govern by the consent of the governed. The cause of liberty may depend on it.