By Yehuda Bauer
The evil wind of a struggle against the values of liberalism is blowing throughout the world. For our purposes here, liberalism means the rights of the individual; freedom of expression, opinion and association; a democratic regime that means not just free elections and majority rule, but a situation that allows the minority to become the majority; protection of minorities; gender equality; an independent judicial system with the right of oversight of other branches; and the aspiration to find solutions to conflicts through peaceful means.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seemed as if the forces of liberalism were gradually taking over most of the world. This trend has been reversed. Economic imperialism rules China, based on a single-party dictatorship whose connection to communism disappeared long ago. China is now attempting to prove that it is possible to promote predatory modern capitalism – China has more millionaires than the United States – under the auspices of a nationalist dictatorship.
Thailand has a military dictatorship. Nationalist autocracy with faux, external signs of democracy rules in Russia. In Africa, a number of countries – such as Ethiopia, Eritrea and Togo – are in flux between autocracy and dictatorship. In South America, the antidemocratic regime of the president of Venezuela clings to power there; and Honduras and Nicaragua in Central America are not far behind. It is possible to go through more continents and nations and see similar developments.
And now, tens of millions of decent U.S. citizens, of their own volition, elected an ignorant, racist, sexist, exploitative and extremely nationalist populist to the most important political position in the world; a role that gives him access to weapons that could destroy the entire world.
In the Middle East, from Pakistan and Iran via Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, through to Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza, they have abandoned – in those places where they ever existed – values similar to liberalism. They certainly do not have any chance in places where genocide is being committed, or where there is a danger of such acts: from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya, all the way to Western Africa and Nigeria.
In some countries, a conservative, nationalist, antiliberal government is developing that preserves some semblance of the democratic framework. This is true for India, where a nationalist Hindi party is in power and trying to harm the rights of Muslims. It is true, too, for Malaysia, where a form of radical Islam is taking control, albeit within a framework that is still democratic; it is true for Eastern Europe, mostly in Poland and Hungary, where nationalist and conservative forces have risen to power.
It is also true of Israel, where democratic rule is in real danger of an antiliberal takeover, based on the military rule of another people – a situation that is unique in the world. It’s no surprise that an alliance between countries with similar interests is developing: the new United States with Russia (and the regime of “the butcher” in Damascus), maybe Poland and Hungary, and a nationalist European right with Israel and America.
Disappointment over globalization and the promises of liberalism, which has not succeeded in solving the existential problems of the masses, has led to a kind of anarchy – not leftist as classic anarchism was, but a revolt against all centers of power. This reality leads directly to its opposite: a quest for absolutes, strong leaders and ersatz social cohesion. This is also one of the roots for the renewed rise of radical religion in the form of fundamentalist Islam, which is a threat to human civilization in general.
However, because human developments are usually dialectical, an opposite process also exists: in other words, attempts to stand firm against the wave of antiliberalism. The old terms we have become accustomed to – right and left – still have meaning in this situation, but their importance is in decline. This is how Angela Merkel, the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party in Germany, stands at the head of the liberal camp in Europe, and the differences between her and her social-democratic partners can only be discerned by a magnifying glass.
A weak social-democratic party is leading liberal France, and its counterpart in Britain is the Conservative Party. Australia has a conservative Liberal government, while the attempt to impose an advanced democracy in Burma is impossible to label a success. By contrast, the Liberal government in Canada excels with its clear left-wing tendencies, while in Scandinavia there are welfare states and the question of whether the governments are conservative or social democratic is completely irrelevant.
So the world is locked in a fierce struggle in which the antiliberal ideology is expressed in extreme nationalism or in devastating religious extremism. The global liberal side still has a chance, despite recent defeats. Facing the United States of racism, nationalism, violence and voracious capitalism stands the United States of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. A revolutionary, antigovernment legacy exists in Russia, and in China the memory of founding father Sun Yat-sen still lingers.
In Israel, too, a different tradition exists other than that of the prime minister and his culture and justice ministers: there is the tradition of Aharon Barak, Yitzhak Rabin and Amos Oz. Fear of the future is completely justified, but despair isn’t. The writer is a Holocaust historian.