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Tanja and Michael, you work on the liberal script and its contestations. How do you see Russia’s war against Ukraine impacting the field of liberalism? Some, like Francis Fukuyama, seem optimistic about liberalism getting re-energized because of the war. Do you share that optimism, or are you more cautious?

Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine is not a backlash against NATO expansion encroaching on Russia’s security interests. What renders Ukraine a security threat to Putin’s regime is its progressing democratization. Putin’s demands to revoke Ukraine’s prospects for NATO membership and to unwind the country’s military, political, and economic relationships with Europe and the United States violate Ukraine’s right to collective self-determination not only regarding which allies to choose but, more fundamentally, which script to follow. The United States, the European Union, and other Western states have been united in standing up against Putin, helping Ukraine defend its freedom to choose. This Western unity has silenced contestations of the liberal script within liberal societies. However, the economic costs of the war and the sanctions against Russia are likely to fuel the grievances authoritarian populists have successfully mobilized in the past.

Precisely because the war is no strategic move to ensure Russian security but an imperial war that violates the most fundamental principles of the international order, the global phalanx of liberal democracies has closed ranks like we have not seen in 20 years. The defense of democracy and the Ukrainian people’s right to self-determination seems to take precedence over national interests. Global goods such as peace and the integrity of borders are upheld. And some of the international organizations that were thought to be moribund suddenly seem quite agitated: first and foremost: NATO, the European Union, and even the United Nations.

This Western unity has silenced contestations of the liberal script within liberal societies. However, the economic costs of the war and the sanctions against Russia are likely to fuel the grievances authoritarian populists have successfully mobilized in the past.

Finally, we see an overwhelming reaction from civil society—even the sports federations and some companies with a strong involvement in Russia are joining in. So, the liberal international order, as it is known, is still alive. The Iraq War, the annexation of Crimea, and especially the outright slaughter in Aleppo and other places in Syria have weakened this order more than the attack on Ukraine. It is fundamentally true that order, and generally any norm, is not shaken by a violation of the rule but only by the lack of an appropriate reaction to a breach of the norm. Murder does not challenge the norm that one should not kill. Only the shrugging acceptance of homicide kills the norm. In this sense, the outcome of this war may lead to a re-energizing of global governance. But it creates only a window of opportunity for that; this opportunity must also be used.

You write in your article “Contestations of the Liberal International Order” about the opposition to what you term the postnational Liberal International Order or LIO II. This is not the first time there has been a challenge to the Liberal International Order (LIO). How is opposition to LIO II different today? How would you explain the failure between the expectations of the post-Cold War era and what the LIO II has been able to deliver?

Indeed, the contestations have a lot to do with the internal problems of the global governance system that emerged after 1989. Therefore, our argument constitutes an account that centers on the endogenous dynamics of LIO contestations. We argue that the postnational features of LIO have produced their own contestations. This argument resonates with the notion of a neoliberal turn of international institutions that prompted a change in the distribution of wealth, driving the backlash against LIO by liberal states that were crucial in creating and sustaining this order. But we also see contestations by democratic and authoritarian governments of societies in both the Global North and the Global South that benefited from the global redistribution of wealth in the last decade but feel excluded from decision-making in international institutions and complain about the double standards that have characterized the implementation of the rules. It is these deficits within the LIO that have produced contestations.

While postnational liberal institutions have helped increase overall well-being globally, they worked in favor of Western societies and elites and regularly violated the principle of treating like cases alike.

More specifically, we argue that the end of the Cold War saw a systemic shift from the liberal post-Second World War international order of liberal multilateralism (LIO) to a post-Cold War international order of postnational liberalism (LIO II). LIO II has not only been rules-based but openly pursued a liberal social purpose with significant authority beyond the nation-state. While postnational liberal institutions have helped increase overall well-being globally, they worked in favor of Western societies and elites and regularly violated the principle of treating like cases alike. It is these institutional features of postnational LIO II that are contested. They led to legitimation problems, which explains both the current wave of contestations and the strategies chosen by different contestants.

In the same working paper, you describe four strategies for contesting liberalism: pushback, reform, withdrawal, and dissidence. Can you briefly explain and perhaps provide an example of each?

We argue that the strategies contestants choose are determined by a combination of two factors: their position toward liberal authority and their relative position in the contested institution. The first factor is actor preferences regarding liberalism. While some contestations are directed against the specific exercise of liberal authority (rejection of the exercise of authority), others defy the mere existence of liberal authority (rejection of authority itself). In the case of LIO II, this distinction refers to the question of whether an international authority in place is rejected as such, or whether its practices (decisions and decision making) are what is being challenged.

The second factor refers to the degree to which an actor has the power to shape the decisions of an institution that holds liberal authority. Institutional influence consists of a formal layer that refers to its material capabilities and the institutional rules an actor can draw on to affect decisions. This also involves an informal layer, which describes the extent to which the actor is part of background talks prior to decisions, or is stigmatized as a troublemaker that needs to be regulated, as opposed to an order-maker that regulates others.

The combination of preference and power leads to four different strategies. Pushback describes a strategy to reduce liberal authority from the inside. For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been contesting the liberal intrusiveness of the European peace and security order in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the Council of Europe, seeking a return to a more Westphalian order based on the equal sovereignty of states, their territorial integrity, and non-interference in domestic affairs (ironically then, Putin’s war against Ukraine violates precisely these principles).

Actors that are dissatisfied with the way authority is exercised but accept liberal authority in general should opt for reform if they can make their demands for change heard within the institution. Examples are LGBTIQ+ rights which many liberal states have introduced. In contrast, outsiders that see little chance to change how liberal authority is exercised are likely to opt for the withdrawal. This can take the form of “counter-institutionalization,” that is, the creation of new liberal authorities without necessarily leaving the existing ones. Countries with limited power like Greece opted for another form of withdrawal by simply disregarding the EU’s authority by not complying with EU laws that the country deemed too costly. Finally, we use dissidence to refer to the strategy that aims at the destruction rather than the reduction of liberal institutions because actors reject any liberal authority but lack the power to defy it. Putin’s war in Ukraine is a violent form of dissidence.

Do you see the backlash against globalization essentially as a cultural or an economic issue? How are both interrelated and feeding each other?

The backlash needs to be seen in the context of a new cleavage between liberal cosmopolitans and authoritarian nationalists (communitarians). There is a tendency to describe the GAL-TAN (Green-Alternative-Libertarian versus Traditional-Authoritarian-Nationalist) difference as the cultural dimension and the difference between Right (markets) and Left (state intervention) as the economic one in the current political landscape. This view is based on an abbreviated view of cleavage, in which economic and cultural attitudes are always interrelated. Cleavages bundle socio-economic positions, socio-cultural orientations, and political convictions so that they reproduce and reinforce each other. If these dimensions are not bundled, it is not a cleavage.

Cleavages bundle socio-economic positions, socio-cultural orientations, and political convictions so that they reproduce and reinforce each other. If these dimensions are not bundled, it is not a cleavage.

Neither can the protectionist attitude of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) voter be attributed solely to the economic positioning of the voter nor to the rejection of the foreign. Similarly, neither can the human rights commitment of a German doctor solely be attributed to her job security in the case of migration nor to her cultural openness. Only when the socio-economic, socio-cultural, and socio-political dimensions of a cleavage are considered together can we understand the new social formations that are developing.

Michael, in early 2021 you discussed the failure of the United States, and to a lesser extent the EU, to protect their citizens against the pandemic compared with the relative success of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea, and explain that difference as being due to some of the specific failings of the state in matters connected to data privacy. A year on, what does the pandemic’s latest chapter and the illiberal backlash in countries like the United States and Canada signal for the future of liberalism, especially as it relates to our relationship with Big Tech?

The financial crises in 2008 and especially the migration of millions of Syrians in 2015 have in effect strengthened the authoritarian populists. I argued that this is because crises expose the weaknesses of democracies. Two of these weaknesses are the lack of accountability of many non-majoritarian institutions, which make the relevant decisions in a crisis, and their difficulties in effectively tackling problems of global origin. The COVID and the Ukraine crises, however, weakened the authoritarian populists. On the one hand, the emphasis on the gut feeling of the leader and the rejection of expertise are responsible for many COVID deaths in Brazil in the United States. At the same time, the Ukraine war has laid bare the ideological affinity and the financial dependence of some authoritarian populist parties. In the long run, these crisis-induced chances for democracies will, however, work only if they can remedy their weaknesses. The inability to tax and regulate Big Tech is one of them.

These crisis-induced chances for democracies will, however, work only if they can remedy their weaknesses. The inability to tax and regulate Big Tech is one of them.

Tanja, in one of your papers, you explore the different strategies and responses to the view that Europe is a “Christian” continent and not a place for refugees from countries with another cultural background. When migrant-phobic policies are parroted by liberal politicians such as Hillary Clinton, when she said that the European left needed to address the concerns of right-wing fears of immigration, does that pose a threat to the larger democratic order? How can politicians and journalists avoid fanning the fires of cultural wedge issues while still addressing them?

Migration and asylum are at the core of the new cleavage, which counters liberal ideas of Europe embodied by the values of the Enlightenment, such as human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy, with nationalist and xenophobic ideas of Europe based on an essentialist interpretation of the continent’s Christian heritage.

The massive influx of refugees in 2015 made the extension of the EU’s liberal authority visible and felt in the member states. Euroskeptic populist forces on the radical right of the political spectrum have exploited this cleavage to challenge core principles of international refugee law, not only contesting the EU’s liberal authority but a constitutive part of the liberal orders of its member states. Their preferences and power divide member state governments and prevent them from agreeing on how to move forward with the common asylum and migration system.

At the same time, the member states are stuck with the status quo, as any attempt to renationalize asylum and migration or to dismantle the EU’s liberal refugee regime altogether requires unanimity. The failure of the member states to arrive at and comply with common European solutions has emboldened the calls of populists to restore the sovereignty of the member states as the most effective way to protect citizens against financial markets, migration, civil-rights activism, or terrorism. The exclusionary, anti-pluralist, and xenophobic nature of such demands poses a threat to the democratic order of liberal states.

Research shows that accommodating populist governments and parties that contest the EU and its policies by appealing to illiberal, nationalist ideas of Europe as a fortress against globalization and foreign cultures has only strengthened them. Liberal institutions have to deliver, though. To tackle the challenges of migration, the EU has to reform its common asylum and migration system. This requires unanimity, giving populist governments a veto. Amidst millions of Ukrainians seeking to escape the war, Poland might abandon its opposition to sharing responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees in the EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán will never come around. Member states that prefer national unilateralism over cooperation on and compliance with EU policies and institutions should be given the opportunity to exit parts of the EU, such as Schengen, the Eurozone, or the European Research Area. Putting a price tag on contesting the fundamentals of the EU as a liberal community of law might help unite the “reformers,” the “withdrawers,” and the “push-backers” among the member states behind principles of solidarity, liberty, and humanity against the populist “dissenters.”

Research shows that accommodating populist governments and parties that contest the EU and its policies by appealing to illiberal, nationalist ideas of Europe as a fortress against globalization and foreign cultures has only strengthened them.

And a last conceptual and terminological question: our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. Where do you see the heuristic value of the term illiberalism compared to the more widespread use of populism or far right?

Illiberalism is a good concept for bringing many different contestations of the liberal script together. For some purposes, this is certainly useful. We seek, however, to avoid the dichotomy of liberalism and illiberalism by using scripts as a generic concept that allows us to capture liberal orders in their temporal and spatial varieties as well as non- and illiberal alternatives. The value-added is threefold. First, we can understand and capture alternative scripts in their own right and not only as an antipode to the liberal script. There is a long tendency to conceptualize authoritarian regimes as the absence of democracy. We believe, however, that most political systems have their own normative foundations, whether we like them or not. Scripts allow us to grasp these foundations in an unbiased way. Second, there may be alternative scripts that combine liberal components in different ways and, therefore, cannot be labeled as illiberal. Finally, some illiberal contestations come in the name of liberal principles such as “freedom” or “the will of the people.” In the context of our project, we, therefore, seek to avoid the binary of liberal vs. illiberal.

We seek [to] avoid the dichotomy of liberalism and illiberalism by using scripts as a generic concept that allows us to capture liberal orders in their temporal and spatial varieties as well as non- and illiberal alternatives.


Tanja A. Börzel is professor of political science and holds the Chair for European Integration at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin. Together with Michael Zürn, she is the director of the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS). Börzel’s research has focused on global processes of diffusion and resulting transformational changes inside the EU and its member states. In the cluster, she investigates the contestation of liberal norms, such as academic freedom, within democratic societies. Her most publications include “The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Regionalism” (Oxford University Press 2016, co-edited with Thomas Risse), “The Oxford Handbook of Governance and Areas of Limited Statehood” (Oxford University Press 2018, co-edited with Thomas Risse and Anke Draude), “Effective Governance Under Anarchy. Institutions, Legitimacy, and Social Trust in Areas of Limited Statehood,” with Thomas Risse (Cambridge University Press 2021), and “Why Noncompliance. The Politics of Law in the European Union” (Cornell University Press 2021).

Michael Zürn is Director of the Global Governance unit at WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Professor of International Relations at Freie Universität Berlin. He is, together with Tanja A. Börzel, director of the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script” (SCRIPTS) which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and member of the Berlin–Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Academia Europaea. Previously, he served as Founding Dean of the Hertie School. His work focuses on the emergence and functioning of inter-and supranational institutions and organizations and their impact on political orders. His publications focus among else on the legitimacy and effectiveness of international institutions. In his recent work, he aims at explaining the backlash against international institutions. For instance, A Theory of Global Governance was published in 2018 with Oxford University Press and Die demokratische Regression (with Armin Schäfer) in 2021 with Suhrkamp Verlag.

Photo credits: Florian Gaertner

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.

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