Sep 07, 2023

Universalism and Its Discontents

The West should give up its messianism, but not its norms and principles when interacting with the Global South.

US President Joe Biden and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stand together onstage looking out towards the Washington Monument during the playing of their national anthems during an official State Arrival Ceremony at the start of Modi's visit to the White House in Washington, DC, June 22, 2023.
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Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the West has been urging the countries of the Global South to speak out about Russia’s aggression, its war crimes, its violation of the basic principles of the UN Charter. While such pressure has not been received well in many places in the Global South, the Southern reluctance to call a spade a spade has created consternation in the West: Why aren’t even some of the larger democracies of the Global South more openly with “us”? Why such reticence to condemn the aggression and such hesitation to join the sanctions? Why such artful equidistance? Why all this hedging and the occasional sympathy for the aggressor bordering on reversal of guilt? Why such readiness to buy into the Sino-Russian narrative? Has the experience of living through European colonialism in the past made it difficult for some in the Global South to identify the sources of present-day colonialism?

Many in the Global South have not been shy or defensive about their position. In fact, the longer the war lasts, the more they are turning the tables on the West. The summer issue of Internationale Politik Quarterly offers a perfect illustration: The authors represented there, taking positions for the Global South,, accuse the West variously of “hypocrisy,” ”double standards,” and “sanctimoniousness,” as well as “lecturing.”

According to this narrative, the West has been pursuing an egocentric policy for decades that regularly ignores the interests of the Global South; it invokes the norms of international law only when it suits the West, and it ignores its own violations of these very norms. All the nice-sounding normative vocabulary serves only to package the West’s own realpolitik nicely while denying the Global South the right to pursue its own interests.

No one has been as blunt as Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar when accusing Europeans of double standards. “If I were to take Europe collectively, which has been singularly silent on many things which were happening, for example in Asia, you could ask why would anybody in Asia trust Europe on anything at all. … I can give you many instances of countries [that] have violated the sovereignty of another country. If I were to ask where Europe stood on a lot of those, I am afraid I’ll get a long silence,” he said.

What Should Europe Do?

It is hard to deny that Europe has been a regional actor with a universal claim. Uneven application of principles is an allegation that would even pertain to the United States with its global ambition. But what is the consequence? Toughen up and always do what you say to avoid hypocrisy, thus making it harder for countries from the Global South to cloak their own hesitancy in moralism? Or, alternatively, abandon those pesky universal principles altogether and replace them with some kind of primal realism?

Quite a few, including Gyula Csurgai, director of the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies, writing in [German] Internationale Politik, suggest the latter. If the West consists of political values with a universalist core, Csurgai recommends a meltdown of this core. Universalism, he writes, limits the West geopolitically, constrains its strategic foresight, and hinders it from deciphering the multipolar character of the current international system. In this reading, the rules-based order is nothing but an increasingly ineffective instrument of coercion for the enforcement of Western hegemony. People in non-Western societies must, against their will, “function” according to Western norms, values, and structures. In order to transcend its own cultural sphere, the West should instead turn to geopolitics, i.e., power politics as defined by territory.

This thinking sounds familiar. With their “zone of influence” logic, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have adopted their own versions of it. Cultural relativism is the inevitable consequence.

An Eternally Unfinished Project

The suggestion of Western self-abandonment is not likely to gain much traction. To throw the universalist legacy of the transatlantic revolutions of 1776 and 1789 in America and France overboard—that is, human rights, rule of law, separation of powers, and representative democracy—is a lot to ask just to supposedly better understand the age of a rising Global South with the help of the analytical tools that geopolitics offers.

Yet, the widespread critique of a hypocritical universalism, especially when coming from the Global South, cannot simply be dismissed. That the political West suffers from intermittent disregard of its own principles has long been known to be its Achilles’ heel. It has been evident since Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, became the (co-)author of the language of human rights, which we so readily quote today.

But the gap that exists between aspiration and reality sets the West apart only from those political projects that do not expect themselves to be guided by norms in the first place. While the West will eternally remain an unfinished project, it would be a dark world in which the ideals of the West did not even exist. In such a world, the cynicism of power would reign supreme.

The challenge for the political West is that any deviation of normative axioms from political practice should not be permanent or severe. Otherwise, support will erode within Western countries, and cultural relativists will have a field day and every reason to joyfully play with the cudgel of hypocrisy. This is exactly what some in the Global South are doing when they accuse the West of sanctimoniousness on the occasion of Putin’s land grab in Ukraine.

Optimistic and Pessimistic Liberalism

The idea to nix universalism wholesale overlooks, among other things, that in Western intellectual tradition, universalism comes in two different varieties. They differ significantly from each other regarding their goals and their exposure to the accusation of double standards.

For decades, a debate has been raging within Western liberalism between the “optimists” and the “pessimists.” Both camps agree on the value of universalism. But the optimists take a forward leaning and expansive posture. Their most important intellectual, the philosopher John Rawls, stands for a liberalism that strives for a summum bonum, an ultimate good, i.e., an end to hatred, xenophobia, violence, persecution, and intolerance in the world. If the just life on earth is at least conceivable, the attempt must be made to reach this goal.

The pessimists who might better be called “let-live-liberals” or “modus vivendi liberals,” put forward a more modest claim. They believe realism demands a focus on preventing the worst, not achieving the best. They want to avert the ultimate evil, a summum malum, instead of chasing a summum bonum. They wish to avoid fear and cruelty rather than seek justice and salvation. They are about the limits of liberalism, not its maximum expansion.

At the center of their thinking is a theory of freedom coined by political theorist Isaiah Berlin. The key concept is “negative freedom,” the freedom “from something”—freedom from fear and freedom from external, usually state, coercion. The optimists have always called out “modus vivendi liberals” for their presumed half-heartedness, their lack of ambition and of vision. And it is true: Expansive liberalism with its far-reaching universalism seemed to fit well with the spirit of 1990, the spirit of the spring of nations. The final victory of liberal values and thus the end of history seemed to be only a question of time. The people wanted it, the peoples wanted it, and Western optimists could offer a helping hand.

Thus was born an expansionary, even missionary liberalism whose sword was universalism. It presented itself in a right-of-center American version and a left-of-center European variety. The latter was a globalist unification fantasy, according to which supranational institutions should ensure world peace. Borders would become permeable and global migration would be increasingly possible without barriers. A common idea of social justice would allow for global redistribution.

The right-of-center American variety was rooted in the conviction that the United States was a force for good, a benevolent superpower that had ample support for the project of spreading democracy around the world—by force if necessary, and when the obligation to protect human rights seemed to leave no choice. Of course, both groups competed with each other. Initially, no one would have dreamt of describing them as variants of the same school of thought. But over time, their fundamental commonality has become evident: the idea of democratic expansionism.

A Misguided “Search for Perfection”

Thirty years on, this missionary project can confidently be called a failure—threatened by hubris, undermined by a lack of domestic support, resisted by authoritarianism and nationalism, and thwarted by postcolonial mistrust from the Global South.

It has always been the optimist’s expansive ambitions that “modus vivendi liberals” have considered to be misguided, even dangerous. For Isaiah Berlin, “the search for perfection” was “a recipe for bloodshed, no better even if it is demanded by the sincerest of idealists.” While optimists and pessimists will eternally remain allies, who, anywhere in the world, strive for democracy and human rights, the limits of external engagement have become painfully obvious.

Those who wish to defend universalism against its discontents will need to end and replace the liberal overextension of the past decades. While such moderation will include continued insistence on the principles of liberty and stepped-up defense against the illiberal threat, it will also mean an end to liberalism’s proselytizing zeal. This will not be an amputated liberalism but a “right sized” and robust one.

With more modest and more realistic claims, action could be more consistent and less contradictory. Promising less means being able to deliver more. From self-limitation, new self-confidence and new persuasive power can be generated. Thus, the scope for double standards will be reduced and policy based on values will be better immunized against the critique of those who do not like the human rights and minority focus in the first place. When missionary liberalism transforms into exemplary liberalism, “values-based foreign policy” will get a new lease of life.

When US President Woodrow Wilson, in 1917, called for the world to “be made safe for democracy,” his famous rallying cry was long interpreted to be an idealist appeal to spread democracy worldwide. But as eminent international relations scholar John Ikenberry reminds us, it should rather be understood literally. Wilson, speaking to the US Congress, declared war on Imperial Germany. His was a call for safety, a call to confront the dangers that imperil the survival of Western liberal democracy, not a plea to proselytize peoples on distant shores. In that sense, today’s impending moderation of liberalism will be a homecoming.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the Guido Goldman Distinguished Scholar for Geostrategy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, based in Berlin.

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