Leader: After the end of history

The age of liberal triumphalism has ended, but it should not be replaced by one of progressive defeatism. 

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The reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990, as the historian Robert Saunders writes later in the issue, was greeted as proof of the supremacy of the Western model. “What we may be witnessing,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, “[is] the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

But liberal globalisation’s apparent triumph proved a false dawn. The 11 September 2001 attacks and the ensuing “war on terror” destroyed the illusion of global peace; the 2008 financial crisis destroyed that of perpetual growth.

Today, the world’s three most populous countries – China, India and the United States – are ruled by authoritarian nationalists. For Germany, as our international editor Jeremy Cliffe wrote on our website on 3 October, “the subsequent 30 years have been the best in German history; peaceful, prosperous, democratically stable and mature, and marked by a lurching but undeniable progress towards a modern and open society”. But in Europe, Brexit and the rise of “illiberal democracy” in Poland and Hungary have halted the project of “ever closer union”.

In the US, Donald Trump has defined himself against multilateralism and the international, rules-based order. Should he be defeated by Democratic candidate Joe Biden in next month’s presidential election, he has repeatedly suggested that he may refuse to leave office. Far from seeking to promote democracy, Mr Trump envies and admires despots such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

Beyond the West, the assumption that economic liberalism would lead inevitably to political liberalism has proved a delusion. Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao, has positioned himself as ruler for life and terrorised minorities such as the Uighur people. In India, by championing Hindu supremacism, Narendra Modi is destroying a once proud secular democracy. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right defender of military dictatorship, has eroded the Amazon at the fastest rate in more than a decade.

This Illiberal International is not the only force that has undermined the secular faith of progress. As our columnist Helen Thompson writes in this week's issue, we are no longer “distinguished from our ancestors by a psychological ignorance of what happens when all else is overwhelmed by disease”.

In ten months, the Covid-19 pandemic has led officially to more than a million deaths and the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression. The complacent boast by liberal optimists that each successive year is “the greatest in human history” has been silenced. The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include the eradication of poverty and improved access to education, are not expected to be met until 2092, ten years later than previously forecast.

Covid-19 is a symptom of what the Swedish academic Andreas Malm describes as a new era of “chronic emergency”. In advance of the pandemic, scientists had warned that infectious diseases were emerging at an unprecedented rate. The climate crisis is intensifying the threat, for example by forcing viral hosts such as bats from their natural habitats. A paper by the US National Academy of Sciences projects that the number of “emerging infectious disease events” in the world will rise by more than five per year.

In this new era, as John Gray wrote in the New Statesman in 2015, “the state is returning to its primary function, which is the provision of security”. Far from merely ensuring the efficient functioning of the market, governments will be forced to undertake ever greater responsibility for their citizens’ security and material well-being.

But global cooperation remains indispensable. Faced with Covid-19, states have retreated into self-defeating nationalism. Yet in an era of global emergencies, splendid isolation is an illusion. The security of each country depends upon the security of all. The age of liberal triumphalism has ended, but it should not be replaced by one of progressive defeatism. 

This article appears in the 09 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid

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