Book Review: “The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy”

In a two-part piece series, second-year IR students and IR Today staff writers Sebastian Beyenburg and Maximilian Tkocz critically evaluate the deeply insightful book: ”The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy”

Part 1

To many, the coronavirus pandemic has laid open the faults and issues in our system. While most of these concerns have been bubbling under the surface for years, they are now being exposed by the virus. Coronavirus has led us to ask many questions. How can it be that the United States, which is still often perceived as the beacon of democracy and a leader in many fields, records the highest number of deaths in an ailing healthcare system under a President who provides little to no guidance or leadership? Why does the European Union seem unable to espouse the kind of solidarity it is based on? Eurosceptics see their beliefs confirmed by the lack of solidarity among member states, which has been particularly highlighted by the discussion about ‘corona bonds’. Conspiracy theorists, deprived of any sense for facts or science, protest against what is thought to be a violation of their personal freedom, Liberalism’s most famous attribute.

While “The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy”, published in late 2019, has nothing to do with the current crisis, the book does identify the many underlying issues in our liberal democratic systems of governance, made undeniably evident by the pandemic. Written by Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian-born political scientist and his American colleague, Stephen Holmes, the book provides creative and convincing food for thought regarding questions that not only academics but also citizens have been grappling with for years. In this week’s part, we will look at what their analysis tells us about the strength of liberalism in countries of the former Soviet Union.

Evolving around what is described as the “Age of Imitation” after the “end of Communism” in 1991, the authors set out to explain the rise and beginning erosion of the enthusiasm for the liberal idea: from declarations of the “End of History”, to Eastern European countries which seek to adopt an arguably superior model to unchain themselves from its communist past. This piece of political history succinctly illustrates how the current upheaval against “the West” in Eastern Europe stems from a deep frustration about the interplay between western demands for liberalisation and the aspirations in those countries to do so at the expense of what is perceived to be the cultural heritage of a homogenous society. The authors point out western arrogance, which may also be seen as western naivety, which made us assume that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Liberalism would prevail for centuries to come. Holmes and Krastev question why we now seem so perplexed, facing a reality that looks very different from the one envisaged in the 1990s.

While many current and past accounts of the above try to capture the story of “the expansion” of the liberal order, Holmes and Krastev’s account is a remarkable attempt to capture the subtleties of a very complex theme in international relations often simply generalised as the “the crisis of modern liberalism”. For instance, it succeeds in explaining why “Europeanisation” is both challenged and still somewhat cherished in countries like Hungary. While standards of living are significantly higher today than during the Cold War era, leaders like Viktor Orban blame the European Union and western Europe for the exodus of the well-educated population that occurred in the 1990s, leaving Hungary for “more promising opportunities” in the democratic West. Slowly but surely, a breeding ground for populists like Orban was created, who pins Hungary’s disillusionment with the European Union and the values for which it stands on the West’s arrogance and its “stealing” of those people that could have brought Hungary forward. Krastev and Holmes’ analysis of this issue is neatly tied to Hungary’s fear of “Islamisation”. Their analysis goes beyond often cited reasons of natives’ fear of “getting their jobs stolen by immigrants”. The authors contend that while this is an important problem, populists like Orban believe that migration, which he blames on the West’s policies, causes the loss of national heritage and traditions. Hence, Orban articulates that Hungary cannot, nor wants, to be overwhelmed by what is an illusionary “wave of migration”. By using the example of Hungary, the authors illustrate persuasively “the fear of the other” or the fear of the erosion of one’s own identity. This fear has been described by constructivist scholars as so-called “ontological insecurity” (Mitzen, 2006). Thus, what is seen by former Soviet states as remedy for the current crisis could also be seen as an attempt to “return” to the country’s “traditional identity”. This shows that the search for national unity and a stable community identity is interrelated with the crisis and subsequent rebellion against the “copycat” behaviour of the 1990s.

The theme of “imitation” continues in the authors’ analysis of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. In contrast to former Soviet satellite states, the authors argue that Russia never attempted to truthfully imitate the West. Putin, who above all feels betrayed by what he regards as western “promises”, including in relation to NATO expansion, imitates Liberalism in a cynical manner in order to discredit its legitimacy. The most striking example of this is what Holmes and Krastev claim to be the intentional rigging of elections. Russia’s democracy is hypocritical. By faking and rigging supposedly democratic elections, Putin asserts his power over Russians by showing that he can do so without any consequences. Interestingly, the authors argue that this can be partly explained by Russia’s history. Russians, they contend, were never introduced to the idea of politicians being held accountable or being truthful. Such was never the intention of leaders in the USSR. Consequently, Putin dismantles international law and Liberalism by highlighting the West’s own hypocrisy. To Putin, international law is a western construct, continuously violated by the West itself. Thus, invading and annexing Crimea is not illegal under international law as, according to him, the US did just the same in Iraq and Afghanistan or NATO in Libya.

Ultimately, the book tells us a lot about the reasons why the wave of enthusiasm for Western ideals led to the current challenge in the former Soviet sphere. Yet, one part of the story remains unanswered. The question remains why this backlash can also be seen in some Western countries. Why does Donald Trump challenge the very order that American hegemony is built on? And why does he still enjoy considerable support despite this? Krastev and Holmes have an answer for that. Stay tuned for the second part which will be published next week.


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