Global Challenges to European, Western, Liberal Values

by Professor Richard Higgott, Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick, and Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at Vesalius College at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Co-authored by Sarah Coolican, LSE IDEAS

Values often attributed to Europe—and frequently referred to interchangeably if not always precisely as ‘universal’ values, ‘liberal’ values or ‘western’ values (hereafter EWLV)—are increasingly contested both inside and outside Europe. Therefore, the title of this blog is problematic and begs several questions. Notably:

(i) Are there values that are exclusively European? If so, what are they?
(ii) Assuming we can identify core European values, what are the challenges that Europe faces in both defending them within its own polities and sustaining them in the wider global context in the current era?
(iii) Is an accommodation possible between what we think of as European values and contrasting values advanced by other major international actors?
(iv) If we are going to see a peaceful and constructive reform of world order, what place will there be for European values in that new order? What are the prospects of a reformed international order in which so-called European values can be usefully sustained?

Some of these so-called values have been around in one form or another from the time of the Greco-Roman world. But for a period, dating back somewhat imprecisely to the Enlightenment and the Peace of Westphalia, they have had a preponderant influence on Europe’s relations with the rest of the world. For much of the last 400, or so, years they have evolved further and remained largely assumed and unchallenged. The onset of the twenty-first century, however, was the tipping point at which the preponderant influence of these values became increasingly contested. European values and principles have evolved over time. They are contested concepts, especially with regards to the international application of such values and principles, and whether they might be, or indeed should be, spread. As a political philosophy, EWLV probably face greater challenges now, than at any time in their history. Challenges are found at all levels of society from critiques of liberal pedagogy in the school system, through to the growing international contest between liberal values and the drift away from a liberal world order. The idea of a liberal world order was always seen by many as simply the extension to international relations of liberal western ‘white privilege’. As global political awareness has matured, the links between liberalism and imperial and colonial expansion have been a significant factor contributing to the growing resistance to the idea of the universal nature of many EWLV.

While the political critiques of a liberal international order emanate from both left and right, it is the populist nationalist agenda that has carried the day. It has succeeded, not without some foundation in fact it must be said, in identifying globalisation—or what it pejoratively refers to as globalism —as the principal vehicle for the material benefit of international global cosmopolitan elites at the expense of the growing immiseration, or at the very least stagnation, of the traditional industrial middle classes of the developed world, especially in the US. This is to be contrasted with the billion or so people lifted out of poverty in the developing world, especially in states like China and to a lesser extent India and some of the regional states of Southeast Asia.

As we depart the era of liberal hegemony, the distinction between a system built on states and a system that includes states that see themselves also as civilisations is becoming increasingly pronounced. The essence of the distinction is to be found in how we treat the role of human values, beliefs and, importantly, the practices built on those beliefs. Part of the problem is the confused relationship between values, norms and culture and how to make a distinction between values and norms on the one hand, and the impact of cultural difference in how states practice their values on the other. The notion of a civilisation, by implication, rejects the universalism implicit in many EWLV; such as freedom, toleration, individualism, secularism, pluralism, democracy and equality. These values have underpinned the way in which Western democracies have understood the world order, at least for the 70 years after the Second World War. For civilisation states, there are no universal political truths, only particularistic civilisational truths; usually based on history, race, identity and culture.

The Chinese would argue that, in contrast to EWLV, their value system pursues developments in balance, be it between freedom and responsibility, rights and obligations or individuality and community. To identify these ideas doesn’t mean they have been perfectly realised or that they only belong to China. Instead, they are seen as unfinished ideals that call for common effort from the whole of humanity. To transform instrumental rationality into all round rationality will help balance human civilisation, such that hearts and minds finally meet. China is not alone in wanting to see the emergence of a different way of explaining what we might call the ‘cultural-values dynamic’ in international relations. We can see similar strands of resistance to EWLV in the history, political thought and modern-day practice of other states such as Russia, India, Turkey and the states of Southeast Asia. Many Russian thinkers articulate cultural–historical theories of society different from EWLV. Borrowing from Kipling’s Ballad of East and West (‘east is east, west is west and never the twain shall meet) and Dostoevsky (‘In Europe we are Tatars and in Asia we are Europeans’). Russia has historically occupied an inter-civilisational location between the Judeo-Christian west, China to the east and the Muslim south. This was the case in the pre-Soviet Union era and is again so in the post-Soviet era. In a ‘back to the future’ moment, post-Soviet Russian civilisational identity seems to have turned on itself. Social identity once again lies, in Kiplingesque terms, somewhere between Atlanticism and Eurasianism. The ‘us-versus-them’ dichotomy has re-emerged as an essential component of what we might call Russia’s civilisational architecture and value system, as it struggles to maintain its identity. As such, resentful and moody, and lacking the sophistication of China’s well thought out position, it has set its face against accommodation with an international order based on an European Liberal value system.

In the search for global order, there is always a tension between the pursuit of material economic and politico-security goals on the one hand and moral and cultural-normative values on the other. Given the events of the last few months, political security issues seem confirmed as the principal factors. The manner of the US exit from Afghanistan would appear to be confirmation of the long-anticipated end of the American-led liberal order. In the short run this may indeed be the case. But for many, as I have tried to suggest, in the longer term, shared values and ideas can also shape the interests and practices of states as much as material forces. It is the idea of ‘shared meaning’ in the norms, values and principles that make action in international relations understandable, noting that norms, values and principles can never be perfectly defined or universally agreed.

So, finishing with a question rather than an answer we need to ask if a dialogue, or at least a minimum peacefully contested negotiation, between Western and non-Western ‘civilisations’ — in effect between the US and China – is possible, or is a conflict between liberal internationalism on the one hand and cultural or civilisational nationalism on the other inevitable?

To hear the full speech of Professor Richard Higgott on European Values, and other panel discussions concerning the challenges facing global democracy, click here to get your tickets to The Ratiu Dialogues on Democracy event on 13-14 September in Cluj and Turda, Romania.

Prof. Richard Higgott, PhD, FRSA, FAcSS is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick where he founded and directed the UK/ESRC Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation. He is currently Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies and Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at Vesalius College at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel working on an H2020 project on European cultural and science diplomacy. He has been Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Foreign Affairs and Trade at the Australian National University and Professor of Government at the University of Manchester. Between 2006 and 2014 he held senior administrative appointments as Pro Vice Chancellor (Research) at Warwick and as Vice Chancellor of Murdoch University in Western Australia.