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Failed government is the problem, not liberalism

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Failed government is the problem, not liberalism
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in  an April image released by the North Korean official news service. File Photo courtesy of KCNA


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Vladimir Putin weaponized Karl Marx's warning that a "specter is haunting Europe" and sent it into political battle. Putin's specter is "liberalism." And as President Putin told the Financial Times last week, liberalism is failing.

Supporting Putin's warning and passing for conventional wisdom is the trope that autocracies are in the ascent as the liberal order appears to be crumbling. The evidence is that the two foremost liberal democracies of the past century, the United Kingdom and the United States, are struggling. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the leading candidate for Britain's prime ministership, are symptoms and causes of this decline.

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But Putin is wrong. The issue is not liberalism's failure. The failure is governments' inability -- in this case, democracies -- to provide what their public needs in terms of adequate governance. Putin would be more correct if he used Lenin and not Marx as his guide.

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Lenin famously observed, "There are contradictions, comrades," contradictions to be exploited. The contradictions in the foundations of democracies are producing these failures of government, not their liberal basis of freedom and rule of law. In the case of the United States, Thomas Jefferson may have been correct in advocating a rewrite of the Constitution every generation.

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In America, checks and balances and divided government only work under certain conditions. One party controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. A crisis mandates bipartisan action. Or compromise and civility are sustainable. None of these conditions applies today. And it is unlikely any will for the foreseeable future.

In the United Kingdom, without a written constitution, a parliamentary system only works when one party has a substantial majority of 50 or more seats or a crisis such as World War II allows a coalition to govern. The Conservative Party is irreversibly divided three ways among hard Brexiters and Remainers and moderates on both sides. Similarly, Labor is becoming non-relevant and new parties, especially Nigel Farage's, are gaining traction.

The consequence in both countries is a failure to govern. Similar contradictions confront other Western democracies. Autocracies, particularly Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, appear to be more stable and in control, irrespective of flagrant human rights abuses and people who have no say in governance. But each of these states has major contradictions, too.

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Russia's economy depends on energy and arms sales. The irrational and dysfunctional nature of the Soviet economy has not been modernized by the Russian Federation. Oligarchs, corruption, declining health and longevity and the lack of any economic stimulus are not easily overcome. Putin raised the retirement age and has directed more money from defense to consumption to compensate. However, these are serious anchors impeding Russia emerging as a genuine power beyond its foreign policy and military strength.

China has an underclass of nearly half a billion. To maintain political stability, code words for preventing a popular revolt, annual real economic growth, is unlikely to match that need. Chinese debt is growing, as is a real estate bubble. A tariff war with America, likewise, could derail economic growth and ultimately political stability.

Of North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, only the last country appears to be on a steady growth track with a seemingly satisfied public. Both the Kims and the House of Saud rule with absolute power, keeping its populations under firm control. But Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons, and King Salman huge oil reserves to underwrite both regimes.

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The critical issue for liberal democracies is whether the contradictions that have produced gridlock and failed government can be resolved; not when, as no automatic self-righting force is yet apparent. In the United States, where a small majority of Americans disapprove of the president and a larger number reject his conduct, even if Democrats were to sweep the 2020 elections, there is no clear path to assuring a successful government. Democrats are being swept to the left. And the Republican Party is now Trump's.

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Brexit may achieve what Hitler failed: Ending Britain as a global and even significant power. No single British political party has emerged with even a significant plurality of support. A hard landing, that looks increasingly likely, only exacerbates Britain's dilemmas because all the rules and agreements with its European trading partners no longer apply.

Putin could argue that these contradictions reinforce the end or decline of the liberal era. The flaw in his case is that an open society with the rule of law and pluralism remain the best foundations for most societies and surely principles and aims to be pursued. Yet, unless the U.S. and U.K. governments recover, Putin could win the argument for the wrong reasons.

Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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