The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

76 MARCH 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL What Happened to the “Inevitable” March of Liberal Democracy? The Light that Failed: A Reckoning Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, Allen Lane (UK Edition), 2019, £20/hardcover, 256 pages. Reviewed by Eric Green This wasn’t the plan. The collapse of communism in 1989 was supposed to spur the inexorable march of liberal democracy in Central Europe and beyond. That euphoria is now being supplanted with soul-searching and despair as the liberal order that seemed unstoppable 30 years ago is receding in the face of authoritarian populism. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, the authors of The Light that Failed , approach the question of “What happened?” with uncommon humility and erudition. Krastev, a Bulgaria-born scholar who runs the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and Holmes, a law professor at New York University, use the notion of “imitation” as a device to examine three phenomena: democratic backsliding in Central Europe; Russia’s aggression against the West; and the revolt in the United States against globalization. The authors believe the assumption that liberalism had gained an ideologi- cal monopoly in Central Europe that mandated newly free countries to adopt it—the “Imitation Imperative”—engen- dered feelings of inferiority and resent- ment among large segments of the population. In particular, people outside urban centers felt many of the values espoused by the European Union, such as equal rights for gay people, offended their traditions. Focusing on Poland and Hungary, the authors zero in on their fraught relations with Germany, which earned its privi- leged status within Europe by embracing a postnationalist ethos as atonement for the crimes of World War II. Not surpris- ingly, political entrepreneurs in Poland and elsewhere found opposing European Union (particularly German) meddling and embracing nationalism to be a plat- form to defeat technocrats they portrayed as lackeys of Brussels. The authors probably overplay the East-West divisions in the E.U. While some Western Europeans undoubtedly condescend toward their formerly com- munist neighbors, it’s important to remember that income and cul- tural differences within the bloc predated its eastern expansion, and earlier E.U. entrants and their citizens undoubtedly felt bulldozed by the established mem- bers of the club. Moreover, the revolt against the perception of liberalism’s hegemony is not confined to the former communist countries. Regarding Russia, Krastev and Holmes believe its authoritarian tradi- tions and superpower pretensions meant that genuine integration with the West was never in the cards. But, they argue, in the 1990s the Russian elite temporarily imitated democracy to appease the West while Moscow struggled to overcome its weakness, and its elite appropriated valuable state- owned property. Because the 1990s were so traumatic, both bandit capitalism and democracy were widely discredited. Cue to a shirt- less former KGB agent on horseback. By 2011-2012, Putin had lost all interest in even democratic charades and transitioned from insincere imitating to “mirroring,” wherein Russia overtly mim- ics allegedly perfidious American behavior such as election interference or military intervention. As any viewer of RT televi- sion can attest, the goal of this mimicry is to stoke disharmony and doubt in the West, rather than to advance any discernible Russian national interest. The authors portray the seemingly chronic tensions as all but inevitable given the West’s naivete and Russia’s entrenched pathologies. But, as an optimistic Russia hand, I can attest that we and our European partners made numerous good-faith efforts to create win-win outcomes for both sides. This became progressively harder, however, as Moscow came to view the relation- ship as a zero-sum contest. Turning to the United States, Krastev and Holmes seek to explain why so many Americans now reject globaliza- tion—i.e., their own country’s decades- BOOKS A more profound question raised by the authors is whether liberal democracy’s strength is atrophying in the absence of its former sparring partner, Soviet communism.