Since the tumultuous geopolitical events of 2016, analysts of all stripes have been struggling to come to terms with what appears to be a general and decisive shunning of Western liberalism. Those analysts who have ventured into explanatory territory have consistently cited reasons such as (i) the chasm between the super-rich and practically everyone else; (ii) the rise of the alt-right; and (iii) external interference in the smooth functioning of democratic procedure by ‘spoiler’ authoritarian states.
All of these rationales have their merits. But there is one other catalyst behind Western liberalism’s apparently sudden decline which virtually no one seems to have seriously raised, let alone expounded upon: the disenchantment engendered by political ‘products’ which desperately failed to live up to their sales pitches.
Rewind to 2008: the world is becoming engulfed in a financial crisis of gargantuan proportions; the wildly misnamed Operation Iraqi Freedom is on its way to accounting for the deaths of over one million people; and the American working and middle classes are starting to feel material squeezes of a kind not sensed since the Second World War. Barack Obama is not perceived so much as a solution to these intractable problems as a messiah: the man who is going to resurrect the United States economy, empower the disenfranchised demographics and bring about world peace. Yet after a solid eight years of Obamadom, systemic fiscal instability, unyielding militarisation and gross inequality were at least as bad as they were on 20th January 2009, when the indubitably iconic African-American first took office.
Aung San Suu Kyi is another exemplar of the same ilk. Consistently portrayed as a secular saint for decades, she became synonymous with the very concept of human rights. Yet in power, she has spectacularly – some would say, cynically – permitted a human rights catastrophe within her own jurisdiction.
When Nobel Peace Prize laureates promise salvation in opposition but deliver infernal outcomes once inaugurated, it should come as no real surprise that the general public is less than enchanted with a system that they perceive as fundamentally broken. The deeper tragedy is that Western liberal values risk being permanently degraded – not because they are necessarily thought of as exceptionable per se, but because their purported champions are viewed as essentially fraudulent.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine threatens at best years of regional instability and at worst Europe’s bloodiest war in two decades, but there are broader geostrategic casualties, too. While news media across much of the world are rehashing clichés regarding the possibility of a mid-twentieth century-style ‘cold war’, we at Mediolana believe that the Really Important Insight emerging from this crisis is the fragility of the two largest directly interested parties: the United States and Russia.
- The US risks being exposed once again as a rapidly fading hyperpower. Its response to the crisis has been limited to threatening sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Crimea – but it is standing on shaky ground.
- The most recent Iraq War is proving problematic insofar as its legality is at best highly contentious. It involved the invasion of an internationally-recognised sovereign state that had not attacked the United States; the world being aware of both this and its dire outcome places the US in a position of questionable legitimacy.
- Economically the United States is in no position to pursue another military campaign, and is unlikely to be for the foreseeable future. Again, its much-publicised battles with its own debt ceiling have done little to instil confidence in its ability to pursue complex and costly international interventions.
- Prima facie, Russia could stand to gain territorially and in terms of regional influence from the Crimea Crisis: at the very least, one would expect the emergence of a highly autonomous Crimean region federated – de facto if not de jure – to what is already the largest country in the world by land mass.
- However, in the context of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Russia’s possible seizure of Crimea looks at best opportunistic and at worst bordering on the desperate. It is a show of military force and power at a time when the Ukrainian street has proven that it is capable of effecting political change – and could perhaps have echoes in Moscow.
- While the average Muscovite is considerably better off in many respects than their counterpart in Kiev, the Russian Federation remains a country that according to all respected international indices is corrupt and poorly-administered. It is also a country where information technology is spreading with speed – and as the Swedish author, speaker and economist Kjell A. Nordström has noted, authoritarian governments rely in part on controlling information, something that is almost certainly going to be increasingly difficult to do worldwide.