Get Updates

Sir John Mandeville by Mechanical Curator's Cuttings via Flickr Creative Commons, Copyright CC BY 2.0

Men without chests

As US President-elect Joe Biden names his foreign policy team, it is fitting to reflect on the state of liberal democracy and the kind of citizens it produces. As we will see, this leaves us with two problems, one larger than the other.

The first problem is that democracies remain a minority in the world. A look at the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit confirms that. In 2019, out of 167 countries tracked by the EIU, 75 were considered full or flawed democracies (flawed being the majority, or 53), with the rest being what the EIU calls “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes.

So if you sometimes feel like the enemies of liberal democracy gain the upper hand is because they do. The leaders of Russia, North Korea, Iran, and China (not to mention places like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba), do what they do because they can. Why is that? This leads us to the second, and bigger, problem: It’s us. The problem with flourishing, economically prosperous, democracies is that they cultivate citizens who believe in rights, and respect laws, but become unprepared to assertively defend democracy from rogue actors.

C.S. Lewis (yes, the author of the Narnia Chronicles) famously referred to the problem of how we educate our citizens in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man:

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise”.

In fairness, Friedrich Nietzsche voiced the same concern earlier, but his quote is not as good. Or as Francis Fukuyama points out in his book The End of History:

“Good health and self-satisfaction are liabilities”. 

What these thinkers were saying was that we cultivate citizens who lack the heart, the courage, and even the credibility to push back on bad actors, if necessary forcefully. Let’s face it. Living in societies with ample abundance makes us comfortable. In our societies we (rightly) consider human rights and (less rightly) even the feelings of others, as absolute values. This makes us decent but soft, which leaves us unprepared as nations to assertively deal with those who trample on others’ rights.

This means we often – not always – allow the world to become a playground for illiberal forces. Or as Maria Konnikova says in her book The Confidence Game, about con artists:

“If the vast majority of the people who surround you are basically decent, you can lie, cheat and steal all you want and get on famously.” 

Robert D Kaplan in his book Warrior Politics touches on this issue when discussing Machiavelli:

“Machiavelli believed that because Christianity glorified the meek, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked.”

Illiberal political leaders can smell our weakness half a world away. That doesn’t mean we need to act forcefully against every leader that diverges from what we consider acceptable political behavior. But it does mean we need to appear committed and credible enough to discourage abuse. If Russia feels it can fiddle with the elections of the world’s superpower, and poison dissenters around the world, it simply means it doesn’t fear the consequences. North Korea also feels it can continue to develop increasingly sophisticated weapons systems. And China can assert itself over Hong Kong and the rest of Asia. Let’s not even talk about Cuba’s 70-year dictatorship, or its “mini me” regimes Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The first piece of good news is that Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, seems to understand this. Blinken has been widely reported to have warned that “superpowers don’t bluff”, when Barack Obama was pondering involvement in Syria’s civil war. That’s an important rule of thumb. Wagging the finger at autocrats and doing nothing is not a sustainable policy, not if the idea is to preserve democracies around the world.

The second piece of good news is that liberal democracy is not quite doomed for the trash heap of history, yet. It will likely stick around longer, but how long will depend on our ability to take its preservation seriously. How we handle our relationship with bad political actors will vary depending on the case. But what we need to do is educate new generations to understand that being decent doesn’t mean being pushovers.

What I’m (Re) Reading 

I was going through this delightful book the other day looking for some quotes, and I think it counterbalances nicely today’s rather hawkish post. Economist Russ Roberts does a fantastic job in his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (Penguin, 2014), delivering Smith’s wisdom regarding how to become better people.

Roberts examines Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he argues that we need to value our actions by thinking beforehand what an “impartial spectator” would think about what we are doing. Smith also argues for decency and respect for others. He correctly points out that civilization ultimately hinges on whether we act in a civilized way.

As Roberts points out: “We never stop to think about how it has come to pass that we live in a world that is fairly decent, a civilized world.” In all fairness, he is talking about liberal democratic nations like the US, where most of the readers for this book happen to live. In these nations, laws and the security forces effectively punish wrongdoers, but there is also the issue of our desire to simply be decent.

Roberts interprets Smith as saying: “When we act poorly, when we take advantage of someone else, when we are cruel, we make the world a little less civilized.” Of course, all this does not mean that we allow bad actors to take advantage of us. I think that is probably one of the most important lessons we can take away (at I least I hope we do) from the Trump years. We need to be decent, and we need to be prepared to defend the integrity of our institutions.