The crisis of liberal democracy and what it means for the Global South

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Anchalee Rueland is a Ph.D. candidate in SPS. She spent 8 months in Southeast Asia carrying out fieldwork on norm conflicts, and is currently writing a thesis entitled ‘Norms In Conflict: Non-interference vs Protection of Human Rights in Southeast Asia.’

Europe and the US have long held themselves as beacons for developing democracies around the world. They derived their moral authority from leading by example and setting standards of good governance, centring on liberal values such as democracy, universal human rights and the rule of law, within their own domestic domains. And while never uncontested, in doing so, Western ‘soft power,’ indeed radiated far beyond the so-called ‘West.’

But recent EU and US failures (immigration crises, border closings, racially-biased police violence, inequality, Brexit, etc.) are discouraging young democracies’ pursuit of liberal democratic institutions, and these developing countries are growing impatient with what they see as hypocritical preaching from the democratic ‘West’.

Anchalee Rueland

Anchalee Rueland

In interviews with senior Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian foreign policy officials about worsening human rights records in several ASEAN member states, as well as the regional Rohingya refugee crisis, a common theme emerged in their musings on the West: the West is failing to lead by example and in doing so it has deprived itself of any right to lecture ‘us’ – the rest of the world – on how to go about our business.

‘Why is it always us – the “non-western” – who are in the spotlight of international shaming?’ they asked. After all, the US President-elect rode to victory following a campaign in which he repeatedly demonstrated a lack of respect for women, immigrants, and religious and ethnic minorities of every kind.

‘Why do Western governments think they can tell us how to deal with humanitarian crisis and how to treat our populations?’ they asked further. After all, ‘the West’ has not been doing any better: recall the European failure to respond to the refugee crisis.

Indeed, the EU’s handling of its own refugee crises was cited numerous times in arguments against refugees and the right to asylum. The Rohingya people, who have been fleeing from persecution in Myanmar and Bangladesh, are not particularly welcome in their destination countries Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia, and face the same sorts of stigma and resistance encountered by the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Europe.

Former Thai Ambassador, Surapong Jayanama pointed out the double standard in the US and EU’s appeal to ASEAN, asking its leaders to set up temporary camps for the Rohingya. ‘We know what this implies – and so does the West. It is never temporarily. The refugees stay and burden our economies. That is why the EU countries closed their borders. But we are supposed to let them in?’

Similarly Brexit did little good in strengthening the region’s trust in supra-national institutions. Having long been compared to the European Union, most assessments unflatteringly described the regional organisation ASEAN as inferior in its inter-governmental design. Even strong supporters of ASEAN democratization, such as former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan could barely hide a certain delayed gratitude in light of Brexit, seen as the precursor of a failed European project. Many others did not even try to hide their ‘Schadenfreude.’ Convincing these governments to cede sovereignty to, for example, supra-national human rights bodies with genuine powers will only become harder now.

Western presumptuousness vis-à-vis the rest of the world has never been a solution. But a lack of leadership and failing to defend liberal values by first and foremost living up to our own standards cannot be either. Doing so sets bad precedent and allows governments all around the world to justify behaviour that should be considered illegitimate by any means.

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