Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, there has been a distinct shift away from a liberal international order based on supranational organizations supporting human rights, freedom and equality towards the primacy of the nation-state. Moreover, sentiments of fear and resentment are overwhelming those of solidarity and cooperation. In the Munich Security Report of 2017, the conference themes were post-truth, post-west and post-order. The opening to the report underscored the consequences of abandoning a ‘liberal international order’:

“The international security environment is arguably more volatile today than at any point since World War II. Some of the most fundamental pillars of the West and of the liberal international order are weakening. Adversaries of open societies are on the offensive. Liberal democracies have proven to be vulnerable to disinformation campaigns in post-truth international politics. Citizens of democracies believe less and less that their systems are able to deliver positive outcomes for them and increasingly favor national solutions and closed borders over globalism and openness. Illiberal regimes, on the other hand, seem to be on solid footing and act with assertiveness, while the willingness and ability of Western democracies to shape international affairs and to defend the rules-based liberal order are declining.”

From the founding of the United Nations in 1945 through that of NATO in 1949 and the European Economic Community in 1957, nations linked themselves with one another in unprecedented supranational organizations and international agreements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948 and the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol enshrined binding mechanisms to help refugees fleeing war and violence. Both documents were written in the aftermath of two world wars and, like the creation of NATO, the UN and the EU, expressed a burning desire to forge a liberal international order beyond the borders of the nation-state. 2017 demonstrates that a dramatic reversal is underway. The UK is turning inward in its messy divorce from the European Union. In his first year as President, Donald Trump intends to remove the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO and the UN’s Global Compact on Migration. In addition to the removal of the US from international agreements, Trump has also signed a Muslim Ban on seven countries and plans to rescind the DACA program, which enables children of illegal immigrants in the US to obtain work permits.

While much has been helpfully written on populism and illiberal democracy (Jan-Werner Müller, Cas Mudde, Andrew AratoJeffrey Isaac), both political phenomena are part of larger geopolitical shifts that arguably began with the War on Terror after 9/11. If the post-war liberal international order attempted to harness the excesses of the nation, memories of two world wars and their aftermath have faded sufficiently to allow for its robust return. For example, the AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) entered the German Bundestag in 2017 with 94 seats and the new Austrian government is comprised of a coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). In 2000, when those same two parties formed a government, it resulted in diplomatic sanctions and international outcry. In 2017, it barely registered. Such a normalization of nationalist tendencies visible in right-wing populist parties entering into government is part of two larger changes: (1) a shift from collective memory to history and (2) a reversal of the third wave of democratization.

Shift from collective memory to ‘borrowed memories’

The historical conditions in which the international framework of the UN, NATO and the EU were created are fading and being consigned to history. Such amnesia is most evident in the timing of Trump’s first Muslim Ban, which was announced on Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27, 2017). Likewise, Victor Orban’s pronouncement of an illiberal democracy in 2014 and the building of a razor wire fence to deter refugees in 2015 demonstrate the forgotten plight of Hungarians when they themselves were refugees during World War II and the Hungarian Uprising in 1957.

Instead, resentment towards international agreements that are intended to bind and harness the nation-state is bursting forth as populist parties argue for national primacy against liberal values of freedom, pluralism and tolerance. Moreover, those in older liberal democracies openly scorn cosmopolitan aims; Theresa May boldly proclaimed in 2016: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Much of the international post-war order was an attempt to supplement the nation-state with a new framework that could rein in the excesses of this mythical somewhere. Rather than arguing from a position of ‘nowhere’, founders of the EU and drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were rethinking a new ‘somewhere’ as the fragile space in between nations.

In his posthumous book, The Collective Memory (1950), Maurice Halbwachs argued that historical memories are external to collective ones that are bound by three generations.

“During my life, my national society has been theater for a number of events that I say ‘I remember,’ events that I know about only from newspapers or the testimony of those directly involved… I carry a baggage load of historical remembrances that I can increase through conversation and reading. But it remains a borrowed memory, not my own.” (1950, 51)

For those individuals, who founded what is today the European Union, the United Nations and NATO, Europe in ashes was a lived memory not to be repeated in the future. Although World War II is often remembered in Eastern Europe through the lens of national victimhood, the reasons for the creation of the EU, NATO and the UN during the immediate post-war years are increasingly forgotten. Memories of the aftermath of World War II are shifting towards a ‘borrowed memory’ that is commemorated on ritual occasions and written into history books. Without arguing that one should remain chained to the past, recognition of the global peace that the post-war liberal international order achieved shouldn’t be trumped by a return to the recklessness of nationalism.

The receding third wave of democratization

Does the current shift away from liberal democracy portend that democracy as a form of government is in decline or are we witnessing the recession of what Samuel Huntington describes as the “third wave of democracy?” After all, as he underscored, each historical advance in global democratization has been followed by corresponding periods of regression and readjustment. Huntington argues that although the first long wave of democratization (1828-1926) had its roots in the American and French Revolutions, it really began in 1828 when 50 percent of adult American males were eligible to vote and a “responsible executive” was elected in popular elections. The first reverse wave began in 1922 with Mussolini’s March on Rome and continued until 1942. The reversal occurred largely in countries that had recently become democratic after World War I. The second short wave of democratization began in 1943 and ended in 1962. This period included decolonization and Allied promotion of democratization in occupied countries. The second reverse wave (1958-1975) is characterized by democracy “exhausting itself.” (1991, 19) The third wave of democratization began with the coup d’état in Portugal in 1974 and effected Southern Europe, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe and South Africa. As Huntington emphasised: “In one sense, the democratization waves and the reverse waves suggest a two-step-forward, one-step-backward pattern.” (1991, 25) Hence the metaphor of the wave that lurches forward and withdraws.

If Tocqueville foresaw democracy as the inevitable future, Huntington understood the process of democratization in old and new democracies as a back and forth with advances and regressions. Perhaps, we are now in the midst of the third reverse wave? If the post-war international world order is rooted in the recognition that the nation-state needs to be interlocked into a liberal international framework, Huntington’s waves of democratization remind us that the way forward has regressions and reversals. At this current juncture, what is most troubling about populism and pleas for illiberal democracy is a concept of the political that envisions the world based on an antagonistic relationship between friend and enemy.

Antagonism or solidarity?

In an age of social media and alternative facts, the very reality that we share seems to be splintering into parallel echo chambers. In order to glean a deeper understanding of the discontent driving voters in liberal democracies towards populism and open rejection of pluralism and human rights, one needs to confront the nature of the political lying beneath calls for illiberal democracy and what Jan-Werner Müller refers to as “a degraded form of democracy”; namely, populism. (2016, 6) Indeed, those who criticize pluralism, the rule of law, and parliamentary democracy share an understanding of the political that Carl Schmitt outlined during the 1920s and 1930s. For him, the concept of the political is an existential and antagonistic relationship between friend and enemy, pitting life against death. “The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation.” (1996, 26)

Perhaps, the second decade of the twenty-first century shares more in common with the second decade of the twentieth than we care to admit: disdain for representative elites, weakened parliaments, attraction to strong charismatic leaders who brazenly flout national and international law, threats of terrorist violence and political extremism. If one adds waves of refugees and undocumented migrants to this list, the discontent of the electorate increases. At the very core of Schmitt’s concept of the political lies the perceived threat of ‘enemies’ who threaten ‘our’ way of life. Schmitt understood the power of resentment that voters feel towards elected officials who have consistently ignored their plight. It is for that reason that understanding what populism and illiberal democracy are and why they are reappearing at this particular historical juncture demands a rethinking of how the post-war liberal international order emphasized solidarity over antagonism – even during that strongest antagonism of the Cold War. If the political is perceived as an existential antagonism between friend and enemy, pluralism and solidarity among nation-states who share the world are rejected. If, however, the concept of the political is understood as the space between people and as freedom, as Hannah Arendt envisioned, there is room for difference and plurality. Moreover, given our depleting natural resources and capacity for global destruction, we no longer have the luxury of thinking within national fortresses. To be a citizen of the world is to take care of it for the next generation. As Immanuel Kant reminds us in his Perpetual Peace, we are not asked to love one another; the earth is a round sphere that we share, and, if we wish to remain on this shared and finite space, we have no choice but to finally tolerate one another. To that end, although Theresa May categorized a cosmopolitan as a citizen of nowhere, this worldly ‘nowhere’ is integral to the interlocking of nation-states for the sake of global peace and solidarity.

Siobhan Kattago is a graduate of the New School for Social Research and is currently a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Tartu in Estonia.