Excerpts From
The strongmen strike back
Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. And we have no idea how to confront it. by Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, March 14, 2019

"Today, authoritarianism has emerged as the greatest challenge facing the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. ... We in the liberal world have yet to comprehend the magnitude and coherence of the challenge. We do not know how to manage the new technologies that put liberalism at a disadvantage in the struggle. ... "

We don't remember what life was like before the liberal idea. ... Average people had little control of their destiny. They were imprisoned by the rigid hierarchies of traditional society — maintained by brute force when necessary — that locked them into the station to which they were born. ...

"Only with the advent of Enlightenment liberalism did people begin to believe that the individual conscience, as well as the individual's body, should be inviolate and protected from the intrusions of state and church. ... The American revolutionaries founded their new nation on what, at the time, were regarded as radical liberal principles, set forth most clearly by the 17th-century Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, that all humans were endowed with 'natural rights' and that government existed to protect those rights. If it did not, the people had a right to overthrow it. ... [F]or those who fought [World War I], on both sides, it was very much a war between liberalism and authoritarianism."

"In the brief era of liberal hegemony that followed the end of the Cold War, we did not worry, because we did not notice, as authoritarianism gradually regained its power and its voice as liberalism's most enduring and formidable challenge. ... The examples of autocracies such as Russia and China successfully resisting liberal pressures gave hope to others that the liberal storm could be weathered. By the end of the 2000s ... [a]n authoritarian 'backlash' spread globally."

"The authoritarians now have regained their confidence and found their voice ... Their anti-liberal critique is ... powerful [and it] is a full-blown indictment of what many regard as the failings of liberal society, and it has broad appeal."

"Humans do not yearn only for freedom. They also seek security — not only physical security against attack but also the security that comes from family, tribe, race and culture. Often, people welcome a strong, charismatic leader who can provide that kind of protection."

"[L]iberalism's main purpose was never to provide the kind of security that people find in tribe or family. It has been concerned with the security of the individual and with treating all individuals equally regardless of where they come from, what gods they worship, or who their parents are."

"From the early 19th century onward, a consistent theme in American history has been the fear that an Anglo-Saxon Protestant United States was being threatened both from within and from without — from within by the calls for the liberation and enfranchisement of African Americans, and from without by the influx of non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Protestant immigrants from Ireland, from Japan and China, from southern, eastern and central Europe, and later from Latin America and the Middle East. This remains a theme of modern conservatism."

"Nor should we be surprised that there has been a foreign-policy dimension to this backlash. Debates about U.S. foreign policy are also debates about American identity."

"[S]ome American conservatives find themselves in sympathy with the world's staunchest anti-American leaders, precisely because those leaders have raised the challenge to American liberalism. In 2013, Putin warned that the 'Euro-Atlantic countries' were 'rejecting their roots,' which included the 'Christian values' that were the 'basis of Western civilization.' They were 'denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual. Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan responded by calling Putin the voice of 'conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries' who were standing up against 'the cultural and ideological imperialism of ... a decadent West.'"

"If such views were confined to a few intellectuals on the fringe of that broad and variegated phenomenon we call American conservatism, it would matter less. But such thinking can be found at the highest reaches of the Trump administration, and it is shaping U.S. foreign policy today."

"For the past seven-plus decades since the end of World War II and the beginning of the U.S.-led liberal world order, authoritarian regimes faced many disincentives to deprive their people of individual rights. In a world dominated by liberal powers ... [r]egimes that went too far often paid a price eventually. ... But the structure of incentives and disincentives is now changing, because the structure of power in the international system is changing."

"The revolutions in communications technologies, the Internet and social media, data collection and artificial intelligence have reshaped the competition between liberalism and anti-liberalism in ways that have only recently become clear, and which do not bode well for liberalism."

"Developments in China offer the clearest glimpse of the future. Through the domination of cyberspace, the control of social media, the collection and use of Big Data and artificial intelligence, the government in Beijing has created a more sophisticated, all-encompassing and efficient means of control over its people than Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler or even George Orwell could have imagined."

"The world is now being divided into two sectors: one in which social media and data are controlled by governments and citizens live in surveillance states; and one in which individuals still have some protection against government abuse. And the trend is clear — the surveillance-state sector is expanding and the protected space is shrinking."

"The enormous progress of the past seven-plus decades was not some natural evolution of humanity; it was the product of liberalismb s unprecedented power and influence in the international system. Until the second half of the 20th century, humanity was moving in the other direction. We err in thinking that the horrors perpetrated against Ukrainians and Chinese during the 1930s, and against Jews during the 1940s, were bizarre aberrations."

"We seem to have lost sight of a simple and very practical reality: that whatever we may think about the persistent problems of our lives, about the appropriate balance between rights and traditions, between prosperity and equality, between faith and reason, only liberalism ensures our right to hold and express those thoughts and to battle over them in the public arena. Liberalism is all that keeps us, and has ever kept us, from being burned at the stake for what we believe."