The birth and death of democracy

| May 11, 2024

Do we need another book on the problems facing liberal international order? Apparently so. In their well-written, carefully crafted book on the subject, Peter Trubowitz and Brian Burgoon enter well-trodden ground. But they do so via an unusual route, arguing that, for Western states, their geopolitical predicament is premised on their domestic politics.

Trubowitz and Burgoon see liberal international order as a post-World War Two project containing two regional axes: the first in the Atlantic, the second in the Pacific. For roughly half a century after its post-war origins, they argue, liberal international order combined largely consensual societies at home, integrated through mass political parties, with economic interdependence and collective security overseas.

During this period, Trubowitz and Burgoon write, “geopolitics and social democracy were self-reinforcing.” At the end of the Cold War, things started to go awry, for two reasons: first, the pursuit of global markets in a context unrestrained by the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War; and second, attempts to deepen sovereignty at a supranational level. These international projects took precedence over domestic concerns, generating tensions around the provision of “inclusive growth” and “economic security” through welfare programs and other forms of “social protection.”

The result was an imbalance between the international and domestic components of liberalism as the former took precedence over the latter, generating what Trubowitz and Burgoon call a “solvency gap.” This gap was filled by “ideological extremism,” such as populism, which took root in Western societies, in turn hastening public distrust in mainstream political parties at home and liberalisation abroad.

The authors track this gap between foreign policy ambition and domestic political foundations via extensive empirical data – the appendices to the book run to over 40 pages. They operationalise their argument via two mega-categories: “power,” understood primarily as military spending; and “partnership,” which is associated with support for trade liberalisation, multilateralism, and global governance. This is used to break down foreign policy making into four main strategies: “globalists” favour partnerships over power, “nationalists” favour power over partnerships, “liberal internationalists” align high partnerships with high power, “isolationists” support neither.

The problem, as the authors see it, is the shift from “liberal internationalism” to “globalism” in the 1990s, which championed international partnerships even as public support for these policies declined. This disconnect between international and domestic politics was filled by “isolationist” and “nationalist” movements in a ”backlash” that weakened liberalism as a political project, both at home and abroad.

The solution offered by Trubowitz and Burgoon to the “overreach” of liberal foreign policy making is a reinvigoration of social democracy and the party system within Western democracies. Once these foundations have been re-secured, they argue, public support for liberal internationalism will have a sturdier basis. For Western states, geopolitical ends arise from social democratic means.

This is an interesting book on an important topic. It is also quite short, which is a virtue in many ways, but also means that a number of issues do not, perhaps, receive the depth of discussion they warrant. For me, three stand out.

The first concerns wrinkles with the book’s central narrative. Take the decline in mainstream political parties. This decline is part of a wider waning in trust in long-established institutions: the police, the courts, the media, and so on. One of the causes of this hollowing-out of trust is liberalism, in particular the individualisation of rights and responsibilities that liberalism supports. To me, it is curious to suggest a treatment for a malady that is simultaneously its cause. It is also a strategy I find implausible. Given the extent of the decline in support for mainstream parties in much of the West, it seems unlikely that these parties can be resuscitated.

So, what will a reanimated party politics look like? A competently managed neoliberalism a la Anthony Albanese or Olaf Scholz? A charismatic centrism along the lines of Emmanuel Macron? Neither fills me with much social democratic hope. The same goes, in reverse, for populism. As Sidney Tarrow has shown, a phenomenon like Trumpism is the crystallisation of a multi-headed movement that goes back several decades. If that’s right, then populism is not a “backlash” caused by the failures of liberalism, but an organic movement of movements that has been many decades in the making.

This is the dual operating environment in which advocates of social democracy must mobilise: a secular decline in trust in mainstream institutions and the rise of the global right. It is difficult for me to see how the filaments of a rebooted Third Way can coalesce effectively in this landscape.

Second, I found the book’s conceptual apparatus a bit too neat. Both “social democracy” and “the West,” for example, are multi-faceted rather than singular, and both change over time. On the former, I am unclear how many Western countries, including the United States, can be described as social democratic during the period the book covers – there is good reason why the “varieties of capitalism” scholarship has emphasised differences in how these states embed liberal markets.

At the same time, the centre of political gravity has moved so much to the right over the past generation that even mild expressions of social democracy, such as those proposed by the Biden administration in the US and the Albanese government in Australia, are met by hostile accusations of “radical socialism.” Social democracy, in other words, is not a single thing.

Nor is the West. During the period Trubowitz and Burgoon examine, the West has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable, morphing to include West Germany and Japan in the post-war period, the previously authoritarian states of southern Europe, and the democratising (in some cases) “Asian Tigers” in the 1980s, former socialist European states in the 1990s, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Ukraine over the past two years.

Yet in the book, the West appears as a static unit of analysis rather than a malleable, expansive, often contested project. There is no discussion of the liminal – both inside and outside the West – status of some Latin American countries. Trubowitz and Burgoon do not mention India at all; the Indo-Pacific receives a single mention. Nor is there any discussion of Israel, which seems especially anomalous given the centrality of the country to notions of the West over the decades leading up the war in Gaza. As with social democracy, the West is not a single thing. The smoothness of the assumptions underlying the book give me concerns about its conceptual scaffolding.

Third, and linked, I found the historical account sustained in the book a simplification too far. If it is right to say that publics in the West today are dissatisfied and unruly, this is hardly the first time this has happened since World War Two. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed huge protest movements in the West and, in a number of states, armed terrorist movements. Some of these movements claimed self-determination, others advocated civil rights. In both instances, these movements condemned Western wars, foreign interventionism, and, in some cases, Western imperialism.

This illustrates thatdomestic and international politics have long been linked by Western publics. It is, therefore, curious to me that, by the measures Trubowitz and Bulgoon use, one of the highpoints of Western integration and support for liberal internationalism was the first half of the 1970s, just as the postwar consensus was breaking down, whether as a result of rising inflation, the oil crisis, Vietnam, the cultural revolution, and more. These dynamics – contention at home linked to Western interventionism abroad – could, I think, have done with a more fine-grained treatment.

For me, these submerged or sparsely discussed plotlines need a fuller accounting if the book’s central argument is to be fully supported. As it is, Trubowitz and Burgoon have provided a stimulating way into the interrogation of the huge set of issues that surround the relationship between domestic and international liberalism.

This review of Peter Trubowitz and Brian Burgoon’s “Geopolitics and Democracy: The Western Liberal Order from Foundation to Fracture” was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.