The global order is undergoing a tectonic shift. The Cold War and the subsequent unipolar moment of United States heralded the rise of liberalism-humanitarian agenda. Although fraught with challenges, the very promise of greater priority to human rights and socio-economic freedoms seemed enticing. Ironically, however, the promise has lately been eclipsed by hardcore realism. The European Union is fracturing due to internal rifts over border control and humanitarian policies. Danish legislators recently promulgated a controversial law to confiscate valuables from refugees – which, ironically, could be a $100 Chinese smartphone. United States, a self-styled champion of human rights, has conveniently ignored the deaths of 470,000 Syrians to shake hands with a regime directly responsible for the carnage. The global economy is teetering on the brink and human security is in limbo.
Self-interest reigns supreme in an anarchic world and states are power maximizers, as the famous realist Hans Morgenthau postulated in his seminal work Politics Among Nations (1948). The détente between the U.S. and USSR resulted in the ascendance of the political/economic liberalism, which encapsulated everything from economic integration to visa-free regimes. The European Union is the ultimate manifestation of that era. The World Trade Organization is another one.
Intrinsically linked with liberalism was the growing importance of human rights and freedoms. The world has come a long way since with women and sexual minorities gaining significant liberties. Sanctity of human life, freedom of speech and association, environmental activism and global linkages also emerged as key tenets of the era. NATO victory over the USSR and strengthening of the EU cemented these notions. The hunky-dory prospects of a shared global future were but an illusion. There was no End of History as Francis Fukuyama predicted but a Clash of Civilization as envisaged by Samuel Huntington; 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are living exhibits.
Despite the pitfalls — and the massive economic recession of 2007-08 — the agenda still had a chance. The Responsibility to Protect was a novel concept flouted by the United Nations in 2005 , urging the global community to protect human life if the state they live in turns into a monster. It was hailed as a victory for the liberal-humanitarian nexus. The failure of the Arab Spring — and the Western inaction on Syrian carnage — proved to be the iconic death knell. The increasing U.S. collusion with perpetrators of the worst carnage in modern history – and the support it gets from the so-called liberals – is a glaring example. No other event in modern history can explain the rot in the liberal agenda than the Syrian crisis.
The glib talk on the days of the barbaric regime being numbered and threats of military strikes is a case in point. The inaction led to the strengthening of the regime – with support from Hezbollah, Shiite militias, Iran and Russia. ISIS later emerged as a barbaric counterforce. The liberals, cowering under the real or perceived threat of an ISIS invasion, have chosen to jettison their ideals. They find it more pragmatic to appease the barrel bombers, gravely ignoring their symbiotic relationship with ISIS terrorists. All they could cheer about is a fragile ceasefire, which has slim chances of holding. In the meanwhile, the so-called moderates in Iran are busy violating the nuclear accord by firing ballistic missiles.
The détente with Iran came on the heels of the very stifling of this agenda. Here was a regime that had long been an accomplice and enabler of the genocidal dictator. Let’s not forget Iraq either where Iran-backed Shiite militias unleashed a wave of terror, giving rise to ISIS. Then entered the Russians, who only exploited the vacuum left by the West and unleashed a new wave of brutalities on Syrians. Obama found it easier to cozy up to Vladimir Putin, even if meant jeopardizing U.S. national interests.
Political realism is all about states prioritizing their national interests. It is the waning of the liberal-humanitarian thought in practice that needs to be bemoaned. Strangely enough, the liberals in the West have chosen to adopt a very realist policy but are not eager to acknowledge their faltering. Wrapping it up in pragmatism won’t do. There appears to be a long winter setting in for liberalism. Earlier, they used to decry the fierce opposition from heartless, rationalist conservatives. This time, they are themselves to blame.