Mar 28th 2018

The Threat to Western Democracy Starts at Home

MADRID – Four days before the United Kingdom’s 1924 election, the Daily Mail published a letter purportedly written by Comintern Chairman Grigori Zinoviev, calling on British Communists to mobilize “sympathetic forces” in the Labour Party to support an Anglo-Soviet treaty and to encourage “agitation-propaganda” in the armed forces. The letter was found to be fake – forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians or perhaps Britain’s own secret service – but not before it caused the defeat of the UK’s first Labour government.

Today’s Russian disinformation campaigns, part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war against Western democracies, seem to have much in common with the infamous Zinoviev letter. But is their impact really comparable? Would Western democracies really look different today without Russian subterfuge?

According to Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, Russian electoral interference and manipulation, if left unchecked, could pose an “existential threat” to Western democracies. In other words, an autocrat ruling over an impoverished country with an oil-addicted economy smaller than that of Brazil is supposed to be capable of bringing down the world’s major democracies.

France’s own presidential election last year seems to challenge Araud’s reading. Russia’s cyber-campaign against the centrist Emmanuel Macron – meant to aid the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen – included everything from the publication of baseless claims that Macron is gay to the diffusion of fake documents claiming that he has an offshore bank account. Yet, today, Macron is France’s president, and Le Pen is struggling to rebrand her party.

This is not to say that Russia cannot be a dangerous spoiler. Nor is it to diminish the risks of social media warping users’ view of reality by facilitating the spread of biased and even outright false news (though many experts believe that the Internet is far more effective at producing “slacktivism” than actual political mobilization).

But the Western liberal order is not in crisis because of Russia. Western democracies must take responsibility for a crisis that, ultimately, is homegrown – nurtured by its leaders’ own failure to confront effectively the challenges of globalization.

The most worrying feature of the 2016 US presidential election was not the Russian trolls and bots that attempted to sow opposition to Hillary Clinton. Rather, it was that 61 million American citizens blindly believed the flagrant lies of Donald Trump, the most uneducated and mendacious presidential candidate in US history. It did not help, of course, that Clinton – enabled by an obstinate Democratic Party establishment – ran a weak and visionless campaign that ignored the mounting anger of millions of voters who felt left behind by globalization.

Moreover, it was not Russian President Vladimir Putin who created the ethical crisis afflicting Western capitalism. That was achieved by US bankers, who, taking advantage of deregulation and financial interconnectedness, misguided the global economy to the 2008 financial meltdown. US politicians then refused to implement adequate new banking regulations, much less punish those who had caused the crisis and profited handsomely along the way. In Europe, similar ethical and political failures in response to globalization have fueled widespread support for populists of the right and left.

Populist parties once confined to the political fringe did not win nearly half the vote in Italy’s recent election because of Russian disinformation campaigns. They won because of mounting anger toward a corrupt political establishment that has failed to address major economic problems, from financial instability to high youth unemployment. Italy’s persistent regional inequalities were also on vivid display: whereas the prosperous north favored the anti-immigrant League party, the more populist Five Star Movement received most of its support in the poorer south.

Putin may benefit from such electoral outcomes, but that doesn’t make him responsible for them. National politicians – from the Brexiteers to Trump – are the ones espousing divisive policies, refusing to acknowledge the importance of cooperation and ethics in policymaking, lambasting traditional elites and state institutions, and praising autocrats, including Putin himself. The campaign slogan of Italy’s League party – “Italians first” – could not be a more direct tribute to Trump’s nationalist approach.

Media have served to reinforce these narratives. Yes, Russians have been found to be behind some of the “fake news” spread via social media. But in the UK, for example, tabloids owned by Rupert Murdoch and Jonathan Harmsworth, better known as Lord Rothermere, did much more to sow opposition to the European Union before the Brexit vote.

History, too, has played a role. The Euroskepticism of Eastern Europe’s “illiberal democracies” reflects deep-seated religious and authoritarian traditions, which have impeded these societies’ internalization of the EU’s post-modern culture of secular tolerance and universal values. Poland’s combination of fierce anti-Russian sentiment and extreme religious nationalism illustrates this dynamic.

The fact is that the West is beset by deep social inequalities, reinforced in recent decades by poorly managed globalization. At the same time, its political establishment has become increasingly disconnected from the public, much as it did in interwar Europe – a development that fueled the rise of fascism and populist authoritarianism. This dynamic is particularly apparent in the EU, where many decisions are in the hands of a distant and unaccountable bureaucracy lacking in sufficient democratic legitimacy.

Russia does not pose an existential threat to Western democracy. The Soviet Union represented a far more formidable challenge, and it ended up collapsing under the weight of its own economic failure. Russia’s internal problems – not just economic stagnation, but also demographic decline – are of a similar scale.

But this does not mean that Western democracy is safe. To protect it, Western leaders must confront their own shortcomings. That means upgrading institutions, improving democratic accountability, reducing economic and social inequality, and striving to ensure that globalization works for all.


Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Aug 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "James Murdoch is not the most obvious candidate for editorial heroism. His route to resigning from the News Corp board because of “disagreements over certain editorial content” has been circuitous and colourful."
Aug 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Say what you will about the slippery slope the US government has been on since Trump came to power, America has a rich history of promoting creative thought, running head-first into particularly uncomfortable subjects, and encouraging robust debate internally and among its allies and partners. Once Trump leaves the scene, America is sure to be perceived as having briefly lost its senses and will come charging back into the mainstream of global thought, debate, and engagement. China has entered the global arena crippled by its own ideology. Ultimately, the US is better equipped to lead the world. It knows that, and so does most of the rest of the world. Someone had better tell Beijing."
Jul 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Chinese government has for years argued that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. "
Jul 23rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "Like many, I have long been critical of Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union as a dysfunctional currency area. Notwithstanding a strong political commitment to European unification as the antidote to a century of war and devastating bloodshed, there was always a critical leg missing from the EMU stool: fiscal union. Not anymore. The historic agreement reached on July 21 on a €750 billion ($868 billion) European Union recovery fund, dubbed Next Generation EU, changes that.................Unlike the United States, which appears to be squandering the opportunities presented by the epic COVID-19 crisis, Europe has risen to the occasion – and not for the first time."
Jul 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "I cannot recommend strongly enough Anne Applebaum’s recent book Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. Advancing her arguments with eloquence and personal testimony, Applebaum passionately decries the corrosion of liberal, open-society values in the last three decades. Her book is a practical reminder of what all democrats should have learned from reading Karl Popper’s magisterial The Open Society and Its Enemies, itself written in liberal democracy’s darkest hours during WWII."
Jul 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Political motivations aside, Macron has said aloud what few others have acknowledged: NATO is experiencing “brain death,” owing to Trump’s dubious commitment to defend America’s allies. Given that the US drift away from NATO began well before Trump, there is little reason to believe that this trend will be reversed, though it may be slowed if he loses the November election. Unless Europe begins thinking of itself as a geopolitical power and takes responsibility for its own security, Macron argues, it will “no longer be in control of [its] destiny.”
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Uighur women in China’s Xinjiang province who have more than the approved number of children are being forcibly sterilised, forced to have abortions or having intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) inserted without their consent, according to reports that have emerged in recent weeks. The birth rate for Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim minority, has decreased significantly, according to a recent research report. These alleged practices are egregious violations of the human rights of Uighur women, and in my opinion, constitute genocide of the Uighur people."
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The genetic makeup or “genome” of SARS-CoV-2 has been sequenced and publicly shared thousands of times by scientists all over the world. If the virus had been genetically engineered in a lab there would be signs of manipulation in the genome data. This would include evidence of an existing viral sequence as the backbone for the new virus, and obvious, targeted inserted (or deleted) genetic elements. But no such evidence exists. It is very unlikely that any techniques used to genetically engineer the virus would not leave a genetic signature, like specific identifiable pieces of DNA code."
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The greater lack of transparency that we can now expect will only serve to make Americans pay a greater price for the president’s worst characteristics. Trump has failed our country, utterly and contemptibly. He has spread lies and misinformation. He has displayed a stunning lack of empathy or concern. He has put his personal interests before those of the nation and has revealed an abject lack of leadership. "
Jul 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "The two-state solution is dead and buried. Whatever “solution” may be found in the future will emerge not from an orderly peace process, but from chaos, the precise nature of which is impossible to predict. It could be unilateral annexation. It could be a sudden violent Israeli disengagement from parts of the West Bank. Or it could be direct conflict. This is the iron law of unintended consequences at work."
Jul 15th 2020
EXTRACT: ".........countries such as China and South Korea have been able to successfully battle the virus, and why Morocco, which just started doing the same, now has a reasonable chance of beating the virus down. America is capable of doing all this but the politicization of the virus and silly interpretations of what freedom of action means under the US Constitution have prevented us from following their example. Yes, you are free to take your own health and life into your own hands by being stupid and selfish, but you are not free to do the same with someone else’s health and life. And that is what the “live free or die” movement and conspiracy theory believers among us fail to acknowledge."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "The ideas behind MMT [=Modern monetary theory] were mainly developed in the 1970s, notably by Warren Mosler, an American investment fund manager, who is also credited with doing much to popularise it. However, there are many threads that can be traced further back, for instance to an early 20th-century group called the chartalists, who were interested in explaining why currencies had value. These days, prominent supporters of MMT include L Randall Wray, who teaches regular courses on the theory at Bard college in Hudson, New York state. Another academic, Stephanie Kelton, has gained the ear of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and, more recently, Democrat US presidential candidate Joe Biden, providing theoretical justification for expanding government spending."
Jul 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So we are left with herd immunity and viable treatments as the world’s only realistic near term solution. Sweden has been roundly criticized and shunned by its neighbors for embracing herd immunity at the outset of the pandemic. It has paid a price for having done so based on accelerated infection and death rates. But while the jury will remain out for some time to come about the wisdom of having done so, Sweden may prove to have been ahead of the curve in its approach. Herd immunity is an option that should be seriously considered by the world’s governments, for a safe and effective vaccine could be many years away, and may not be achieved at all. PICTURE: Daniel Wagner.
Jul 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "The war on Yemen begun in 2015 by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been a failure militarily and a vast drain on resources that, in the age of Covid-19, neither country can any longer afford. Not only has the war been Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, it has inflicted untold human damage on Yemenis. UNICEF has a new report out warning that millions of Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation. Yemen, with a population of about 28 million (think Texas), is one of the poorest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, with a citizen population of some 21 million, is one of the richest. The United Arab Emirates, with a citizen population of a little over 1 million, is likewise very rich. Both have waged a high-tech air war on the indigenous Yemeni Houthis, but in the past year have pitched their Sunni proxies against one another."
Jun 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The facts are clear: the wealthiest 0.54%, about 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of income earners, almost 4 billion people, only emit around 10%. The world’s top 10% income earners are responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact. Most people living in developed countries would fit into this category, meaning you don’t have to consider yourself rich in order to be globally affluent. Even many poorer people in wealthy countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the global average."
Jun 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "To be sure, the American Dream was always more aspiration than reality. Economic, social, and intergenerational mobility have always fallen short of what the myth of the self-made man or woman would lead one to expect. But with social mobility now declining as inequality rises, today’s young people are right to be angry."
Jun 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "There is only one way to repair America’s reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump’s disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. This is in line with the vision advanced in 2011 by two military strategists, Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby, using the pseudonym “Mr. Y.” Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also – and perhaps more important – on the “application of credible influence and strength.” That influence, in turn, depends on America’s success in providing a “pathway of promise” for US citizens – and a model for the world."
Jun 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "The most critical question then is not how far Trump will go to promote his treasonous agenda, but for how long Republican leaders will silently accept and subserviently enable Trump to destroy the basic moral tenets and values on which this Union was founded, and which they swore to uphold and protect...............Of course, shame on us if we continue to be surprised by Republicans’ continuing silence, because as we all know, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that Trump committed crimes against the American people, Trump’s Republican stooges in the Senate exonerated him following impeachment almost unanimously...................The Republican leadership, to be sure, has made its bed. It has committed moral suicide. History will judge them harshly for their treason and betrayal of the nation, including all of those who have lived and died throughout our history to foster and protect our safety, integrity, and freedom."
Jun 9th 2020
EXTRACT: " Governments can do nothing about the quotidian offenses of living as a black person in America – the empty taxis that refuse to stop, being mistaken for employees in supermarkets, the myriad intentional and unintentional insults. Many now in the streets won’t be satisfied unless the result of this national spasm is improved schools, health care, and job opportunities for minorities – a fair shake for black people. What will happen when America once again falls short of honoring its professed values?."
Jun 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should be apparent to most observers of international relations that the Chinese government wants the world to play by its own set of rules. Beijing appears to believe that China’s rise and its assumption of global leadership positions are an inevitable extension of earlier periods in its history, when it was the world’s most powerful country. This is often at odds with the global norms that have been established – with China’s participation, it is worth adding – since the 1940s. While this is clearly the Chinese century, few outside of China would agree that Beijing’s global leadership is either inevitable or necessarily desired – certainly not on the Chinese government’s terms."