I was at the UN general assembly in New York the other day and talking to the foreign minister of another country. I won’t say which one, since I must preserve my reputation for diplomacy. But let’s just say they have an economy about the size of Australia (though getting smaller, alas), plenty of snow, nuclear missiles, balalaikas, oligarchs, leader who strips to the waist… you get the picture.
After a few tense exchanges, my counterpart gave a theatrical sigh and said that any difficulties we had in our relationship were all Britain’s fault: “It was you guys who imposed democracy on us in 1990.” I was a bit startled by this, and I decided I couldn’t let it go unchallenged, and I said: “Hang on, Sergei.” I said: “Aren’t you in favour of democracy?” And then I asked for a show of hands in the room… “All those in favour of democracy please show…” I said.
And you would have thought that this was a relatively uncontroversial thing, a bit like asking Maria von Trapp whether she was in favour of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And I am proud to say that the entire UK side of the room raised their hands as one to show that democracy was indeed one of our favourite things. But much to my amazement, our opposite numbers just kept their hands on the table and gave us what we diplomats call the hairy eyeball and of course they felt I was winding them up; and there is a sense in which my question was semi-satirical.
But the exchange was also deeply serious, and revealing about the way the world has changed – or perhaps the way in which it has failed to change – since that moment of exhilaration in 1990 when the Berlin wall had come down, and the Soviet union was coming to an end, and some of us – and yes, I was one – really believed that we had come to a moment of ideological resolution.
After seven frozen and sometimes terrifying decades of communist totalitarian rule – the gulags, the oppression of eastern europe and all the things that have been conveniently forgotten by the Dave and Deirdre Sparts who were still singing about Lenin’s red flag last week at the Labour party conference – we genuinely thought that after all that misery and slaughter, we were seeing the final triumph of that conglomerate of western liberal values and ideals that unite the people in this room. Not just free markets, but all the things that we then believed, in that brief shining moment, were the essential concomitants of free-market capitalism: rule of law, human rights, independent judiciary, habeas corpus, equalities of race and gender and sexual orientation, the eternal and inalienable right of the media to make fun of the politicians.
We assumed, then, that this political freedom went with economic freedom – like buying a two for one ice cream snickers bar (only free markets could produce something so ingenious) and a copy of Private Eye (free speech of a kind still unknown in much of the planet), like two sides of liberty’s golden coin. And yet I have to tell you that both sides of that coin have been tarnished and devalued over the last two decades.
We must be humble and realistic enough to accept that, in many eyes, the notion that we could endlessly expand the realm of liberal democracy was badly damaged, alas, by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and symmetrically our model of free-market anglo-saxon capitalism as practised in London and New York was seriously discredited by the Crash of 2008, and the global suspicion of bankers and we have taken those twin blows like punches to the midriff. We have been winded and sometimes lacking in confidence in these ideals; and if you look at the course of events in the last 10 years, I am afraid you can make the case that it is partly as a result of that lack of western self-confidence – political, military, economic – that in some material ways, the world has got less safe, more dangerous, more worrying.
After a long post-war period in which the world was broadly getting more peaceful, the number of deaths in conflict has risen from 49,000 in 2010 to 167,000 last year. The global number of refugees is up by 30 per cent on 2013 to 46m and though much of this refugee crisis can be attributed to the war in Syria, it is part of a wider arc of instability that sweeps across from Iraq to Libya. This matters profoundly to our country because it is the continuing savagery of the Assad regime against the people of Aleppo and the complicity of the Russians in committing what are patently war crimes – bombing hospitals, when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals – that is making it impossible for peace negotiations to begin and that is prolonging a migration crisis that at one stage last year had overwhelmed Europe’s ability to cope.
When the violent extremism of Daesh is erupting like boils across the face of the Middle East, we are inevitably seeing the contagion spread to cities in Germany, France, Belgium – and in Britain as well. If that threat to travel continues to have a palpable, chilling effect on tourism and perhaps even on trade, then for a great trading nation like Britain, that is a matter of deep concern. There is perhaps an even more pernicious phenomenon – stemming, however unfairly, from the disastrous events in Iraq – which is the temptation of more and more governments to take this instability and insecurity as an excuse to move away from democracy.
Across Africa, you can see for the first time in decades that governments are gradually becoming more authoritarian. The number of African countries rated free or partly free has fallen from 34 to 29 in the past 10 years. There are four African presidents who are currently re-writing their national constitutions to tighten their grip on power and I am afraid there are plenty of countries large and small where the idea of multi-party representative democracy is obstinately failing to catch on.
There is a view that has gained ground over the last few years that Fukuyama was wrong, that there is no symmetry in our golden coin, and that you can have economic prosperity without political and social freedom. Indeed, there is a view now in many parts of the world that the only way to ensure prosperity and stability is to suppress freedom – to crack down on pesky NGOs and irritating journalists and independent judges and generally to deprecate the western liberal consensus about how a society should be ordered.