The contemporary political environment has seen a paradoxical hijacking of key liberal peace and security concepts which helped to secure the post-Cold War era. With key concepts like human security undermined, what will come next? The following is an initial reflection as my colleague, and I embark on a larger study of how the emergence of right-wing populist nationalism has become a significant global phenomenon and what impact it has had for dominant theories of security in the post-World War II liberal international system. From the challenges to the NATO alliance to questioning the link between poverty and violence, the peace, security and development agenda has been radically transformed in a few short years, with trust between former allies eroding and the moderate level of predictability in the liberal international system being shaken.
The Balkans was best known for minority problems. Today, the most bitter conflicts are between parties that appeal to majority ethnic communities. As recent turbulence in Macedonia shows, Eastern Europe could face new dangers if majority populism ends the current stigma against separatism for oppressed small groups.
The trouble in the Balkans today is not Russian meddling, though there is some of that, but a special case of the malaise afflicting Eastern Europe: unchecked executive power, erosion of the rule of law, xenophobia directed at neighbours and migrants and pervasive economic insecurity. The pattern varies from country to country but is palpable from Szczecin on the Baltic to Istanbul on the Bosporus. The countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – have long tended to follow patterns set by their larger, more powerful neighbours. They are doing it again.
The ability of the European Union (EU) to fix problems in the Balkans is hamstrung when the same troubles persist within its own borders, sometimes in more acute form. Take erosion of democratic norms: Hungary over the past decade has slid from 2.14 to 3.54 on Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit” democracy score (lower is better). Poland’s decline is more recent but equally steep. Croatia is also backsliding. Almost all the Western Balkan states are declining, too, but more slowly.
Why has Europe failed to inspire its citizens in a similar way to other ideas such as the nation, socialism or human rights? Here are some answers and some solutions.
In 2002, Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck celebrated the great successes of the European Union: the re-unification of Germany, the expansion to the East, the successful introduction of the Euro. Old enmities had been left behind and former enemies collaborated in peaceful competition creating the most successful economic region in the world. Europe was becoming the model for the future of humanity.
The reality is different today. Europe is a dysfunctional entity that has betrayed its foundational values. Politicians, commentators and mainstream academics were aghast at the victories of Brexit and Trump. ‘Politics has gone mad’ said many. ‘The world is crumbling before our eyes’ intoned the French Ambassador to America.
Yet the rise of right wing populism and euroscepticism was not unpredictable. The economic, political and cultural trends leading to Brexit, Trump and the rise of the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing are similar and well-known. They did not seem to worry the European elites until recently.
The world is sick. Un/fortunately, while advocates of Brexit and other populists have correctly identified the symptoms of broad societal illness—overpowering anxiety about the present and the future; a loss of control of the self, the family, the community and the nation itself—they have misdiagnosed the primary cause of our infirmity and their efforts to cure the patient are therefore doomed to fail.
The palliative narrative offered by Leavers is a simple one. In their view, a nefarious cabal of ‘globalists’ are far removed from the everyday realities of regular people. Yet they have somehow wrested authority from local representatives (since globalism and national interest are inherently at odds), and thereby have undermined the democratic character and unique identities of individual countries. Leavers now suggest that a ream of new barriers and other protectionist measures will seal and heal the punctured state and allow people to “take back control” of their countr(ies).