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”
Read the first installation here:
Last week- in the first part of our book review- we looked at Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’ analysis of the crisis of modern liberalism. We focused on what Krastev and Holmes call the “Age of Imitation” in the former Soviet countries in the 1990s. Indeed, the book, which was published in late 2019, tells us a lot about the reasons why the wave of enthusiasm for Western ideals caused an identity-related crisis and led to the current challenge: the challenge of the European Union by Eastern European countries, for example, or the challenge of American exceptionalism by Putin. Yet, this is only half of the story. In fact, 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 provide one possible answer to this paradox. Thus, the second part of our book review will discuss the paradox of Donald Trump and populism in the US. Moreover, we will engage with some themes and ideas that particularly struck us when we were reading “The Light That Failed”.
America’s founding fathers introduced the idea of “no one is above the law”. Trump, however, does not even attempt to hide his disrespect for the rule of law and the American constitution. When it comes to Trump, countless accounts have tried to explain why the beacon of democracy, the shining “city upon a hill” has turned inward, unilateralist, and away from western, liberal ideals. Trump takes pleasure in mingling with Putin and Orban and, indeed, does all in his power to distance himself from the previous governing ideals. Krastev and Holmes convincingly argue that Trump’s goal is to do away with the idea of “American exceptionalism”. At first, this seems contradictory as one might think that the goal of “Making America Great Again” is to restore American exceptionalism. The authors, however, contend that Trump’s “America First” is not aimed at defending America’s position as the hegemon in the world but to do the exact opposite. Consequently, Trump has fought a war on the American foreign service and long-standing alliances with the goal of rolling back the role the US has so far played in the international system. In practice, Trump’s comments on NATO, the WTO or the WHO or his recent threat to cut off relations with China entirely are only some of the manifestations of these aspirations.
Ultimately, “The Light That Failed” is a reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of today’s issues. The “crisis of modern liberalism” is multifaceted and despite what populists want us to believe, there are no simple answers. As students of a generation that can look back at the “Age of Imitation” with the power of hindsight, it is easy to frown at the arguably arrogant enthusiasm that prevailed at the end of the Cold War. It has certainly become fashionable to criticise “western expansionism”, “the lost opportunity of 1990” and “the neo-colonial nature of liberalism” not only in university essays, but generally in political discourse. In the words of political science professor Robert Jervis (1976): “Scholars often have been unsympathetic with people whom history has proven wrong”. More often than not, we tend to paint a pessimistic picture of the future of the EU, the liberal order, and American hegemony. In his 2017 book “Aftershock”, American journalist John Feffer travels back to Eastern Europe to talk to the same people that shared their hopes in interviews with him 20 years earlier. Now, many tell a story of broken dreams.
Should the policymakers of the 1990s have ignored calls for more liberalism within the former Soviet sphere? Should observers have foreseen that the “abandoning of pluralism” was going to become “a stimulus to revolt”? Had it been possible to somehow overcome differences in culture and ideology or was the “light” of modern liberalism destined to fail? Has it failed at all?
While this review is not intended to provide answers to these questions, there is no doubt that people are always prisoners of their surroundings, their beliefs and experiences. We tend to “preserve [our] images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary” (Jervis, 1976). Thus, one should attempt to understand the post-1990 “Zeitgeist”, the spirit of the time. Indeed, it seems that in writing “The Light That Failed” the authors were driven by the desire to examine the failed “illusion” of a generation that they were themselves part of. This they describe as: “The illusion that the end of the Cold War was the beginning of an Age of Liberalism and Democracy was our illusion too”. But is it not humane to always wish for a better future and world? Krastev and Holmes conclude by painting a rather pessimistic picture. This certainly seems accurate given the current state of affairs. However, it is our generation’s task not to fall into the hands of populism, the consequences of which are so well-detailed in the “The Light That Failed”. All of this makes Krastev and Holmes’ book a thought-provoking account of our time which is absolutely worth reading.
Jervis, Robert. “Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ.” Press: Princeton (1976).
Mitzen, Jennifer. “Ontological security in world politics: State identity and the security dilemma.” European journal of international relations 12.3 (2006): 341-370.