The US, Europe, and the Erosion of Liberal Democracy

By Colin Wolfgang


In an impromptu press conference held following the NATO summit, President Trump announced that NATO members had agreed to an increase in defense spending, up to 4 percent of GDP. Over the next several hours, NATO aides told reporters that this was false before French President Macron said on the record at a press conference that no such agreement had been made. The discord could not be more stark: this decades-old western alliance was on unstable ground.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, many looked at liberal democracy — and the countries that espoused its values — as the obvious path forward for states seeking liberty, prosperity, and most of all, peace.


The collaborative effort of states throughout Europe and North America in establishing institutions that bound them together through common interests was critical to this widespread embrace of democracy. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), established in 1949, sought to unite Western Europe and North America in order to diminish the likelihood of yet another massive global conflict. Similarly, the European Union (EU) and its predecessor the European Economic Council was a commitment made by much of Europe to use their common economic, military, and democratic values to join together for the greater good of the individual states. Today NATO counts 29 member states and the EU 28.


These are of course just two examples of institutions that perpetuate the notion that globalization is not a zero-sum game and states generally benefit when working together. For instance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has existed about as long as NATO and fosters economic cooperation amongst much of the world. Similarly, the more recent World Trade Organization (WTO) helps resolve trade disputes that arise.


Collectively, these institutions represent important values that emerged after World War II. For more than a decade, the promotion of liberal democracy — largely through these institutions — was a common-sense foreign policy measure that appeared to be leading the world into an era of greater prosperity. According to the World Bank, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 more than 35 percent of the world population lived in poverty; by 2014, it was just below 11 percent.


Which is why it is all the more alarming that these institutions seem to be collapsing in today’s world. Virulent nationalism and political tribalism has swept through Western Europe and the United States so quickly that traditional politics is struggling to keep up. The result thus far has been the gradual deterioration of the cooperation that has been not just the norm, but the example proudly set for much of the developing world. But before we can address it, we must first understand it.


So what exactly is happening? There are a number of factors — most notably the collision of nationalism and an influx of migration to western nations that has been met with criticism from the far-right, which throughout the west has used immigration to stoke fear in the public and push nationalist agendas that do nothing but increase tensions within and among democratic nations.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to mark her legacy several years ago by allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany and suffered such a vicious backlash from other politicians and the German public that she just recently compromised and is building border camps for asylum seekers in order to appease the right.


Italy’s far-right Interior Minister recently turned away a rescue boat carrying more than 200 refugees, going as far as to say that the refugees would only be seeing the country “on a postcard”.


And most disturbing is the latest policy in the United States in which young children are being separated from their parents and sent to make-shift camps across the country. The absurdity does not stop there: children as young as three are being forced to represent themselves in deportation court without their parents — lawyers have provided anecdotes of children climbing up onto tables in the middle of hearings.


Thus, a new way of thinking is emerging: the notion that increasingly isolationist policies in a zero-sum world overrun by globalization is the only way for a country to guarantee its citizens prosperity and peace. President Trump started off the annual NATO summit by suggesting our European counterparts are not paying enough and suggesting Germany is “captive” to Russia because of a longstanding energy deal. Trump’s trade war with China that may be a harbinger of what’s to come with the EU and other allies. And let’s not forget the UK’s decision to leave the EU.


What does this mean for liberal democracy and the current world order? It’s hard to say just yet, but several things are certain. First, increasing tensions amongst western countries is something Russia is sure to exploit. The Cold War may have ended decades ago but following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008,its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and ongoing meddling in elections in the U.S. and Europe, Russia’s relationship with the West remains tenuous. Erosion of the ties that bind Western Europe will be an advantage to Russia, who will look to bolster their influence in the region. Moscow is already dissuading Balkan countries from joining NATO.


The other potential repercussion is the changing perception that perhaps liberal democracy is not the guarantor of all things good. Existing global order may very well come to an end should things worsen (i.e. the United States leaving the WTO or other European nations leaving the EU). Strength in numbers is precisely that; once the developing world sees that rock-solid western alliances can fall apart, it will be hard to suggest that the rest of the world should follow in their footsteps. Like Russia, China could see an increased role in shaping the global order going forward.


President Trump will be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, and there’s a very real possibility that he breaks longstanding protocol and treats our NATO allies worse than he treats the president of a country that has been proven to actively undermine the democratic values on which the US was founded. This will only be the latest in a long list of instances where western nations find themselves rejecting the principles that have for decades defined the international political order. The question that remains is how many more similar instances it will take before irreparable damage has been done to that order and the shift of influence becomes the new norm.


Colin Wolfgang is a public affairs and communications consultant in the New York City area and Communications Director of the New York chapter of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.