Western Liberals or Liberal Westerners?

Are we to mourn the decreases in power disparities between the liberal West and the-not-so-liberal-rest, or treat it as an opportunity to engage in genuine and open-ended conversations, for the first time, without the entanglements of grossly uneven power relations?

Very few ideas and documents are more iconic than Magna Carta. There is something universally electrifying to the image of a sovereign in a meadow being compelled to make a covenant with those inferior to him in status, and accept written limits to his power. Law as something that even the sovereign does not enjoy impunity from, and justice being dispensed by one’s peers have been called the greatest British export to the world.

I can report that we have a School of Politics in Istanbul, and Magna Carta as a key milestone is one of the first things our students are exposed to. As a part of their training, they travel to Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and inspect a copy of the document in the Hemicycle. The copy is practically illegible, and is Latin in any event, yet it is the idea of Magna Carta, that is captivating; they see past the illegible text and can still marvel the notion. This audacious idea and document, so central to political folklore, turned 800 this summer!

The norms enshrined in the Magna Carta have proved extraordinarily generative, and have gone through fateful iterations. Jefferson’s illustrious phrasing, ‘all men are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights’, may well be the most powerful sentence pronounced in English. When it was time to frame and present the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt depicted the new proclamation as the international Magna Carta.

The liberal ideas, seminal to this genealogy, have been remarkable contagious. Justice, these days, is almost always understood as being dispensed through law and the judgment of peers. Sovereigns are help to account, as seen in the recent convictions in Germany, Israel, and Peru. More than 160 constitutions enshrine the inherent dignity of human beings.

With such a balance sheet, one might be tempted to think that liberals would be confident. No such luck. One persistent temperament we have come to encounter from the likes of Timothy Garton Ash, Larry Diamond, Thomas Friedman, and Ann Marie Slaughter, is a call not to doubt the liberal creed, and to keep the faith alive. This allergy to doubt and aversion to challenge is more reminiscent of high priests of a declining paradigm, rather than a framework which has achieved near universal subscription. What we do not encounter, sadly, is genuine curiosity, which strikes me as a far more liberal temperament than a call to not doubt the received creed, and the associated reluctance to tinker with that creed.

One issue where our true colors are revealed is what to do with “the rise of the rest.” Are we to mourn the decreases in power disparities between the liberal West and the-not-so-liberal-rest, or treat it as an opportunity to engage in genuine and open-ended conversations, for the first time, without the entanglements of grossly uneven power relations? Striking number of liberals in the West seem to be more interested in halting or at least slowing down the decrease in power disparities, instead of welcoming this as an opportunity to forge a liberalism with global relevance and legitimacy. Is that because they consider liberalism a boutique affair particular to the West, and do not believe in its larger intrinsic appeal? If so, do they really think their implicit assumption would go unnoticed by friend and foe alike?

I wonder, for example, how many Western liberals lament the manner which Russia has been treated in 1990s, and worry enough about kindred spirits like Dmitri Trenin, when they observe that the West does not believe in a moral equivalence of Russia, Russians, and their legitimate concerns. Steven Walt observes a tension when Western liberals are so ready to judge others swiftly for their human rights violations, but frequently give the West a pass; if that is true and pervasive, it would constitute a gross structural weakness. There are also embarrassing silences and omissions. Readers and followers of liberal media outlets know, by now, some important details about the Western victims of the Islamic State; yet they don't know the first thing about any one of the one thousand people who have been killed in Iraq every month for the last 20 months. If we cannot bring ourselves to at least pretend to care about the rest, this conversation will never come of age.

To be sure, we in the rest have learned a great deal from liberalism and liberals in the West. Without them, potent and precious notions of liberty and human dignity would not have taken root to the extent that they did, and we will always have a debt of gratitude to them. None other than Tu Weiming, the preeminent scholar of Confucianism in China, recognizes that today we are all children of the enlightenment. Yet going forward, liberals in the West have to decide whether they are, first and foremost, Westerners who happen to be liberals, or liberals who happen to be Westerners. If former, then they may not be much use as allies, and may even be a liability at times, as we try to conceive and argue for a liberalism that makes sense for the rest. We need them to be better, bolder, less arrogant, and more curious versions of themselves. Relevance of liberal paradigm in a post-Western world will be decided primarily among the rest. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.