Written by: Gustav Opsahl
One could argue that the liberal peace ideal of our western society is facing a greater challenge than it did after the league of nations fall and the beginning of the second world war. The far-right movements are gaining an increased foothold both in European politics, and also in the US under President Trump. As ISIS terrorised several metropoles across the world to spread their extremist ideology, the political agenda of nationalistic political parties is almost as appealing as it was in the 1930s. At the same time, human rights have never been more important and the fight for equality between genders, ethnicity and social classes all over the world is central topics in the current debate. This goes to show that it is not as one-sided as it first may seem.
A resurrection of nationalism?
Values such as freedom, equality, democracy, transparency and of course human rights is central to the modern western world. You could say it started as far back as Immanuel Kant’s On Perpetual Peace and has since then evolved through Woodrow Wilsons League of Nations and into today’s UN and EU. All through this, the very idea of a liberal ideal has faced one challenge after another. The liberal based normative order is not easy to uphold.
As mentioned one can see an increase in nationalistic rhetoric in global politics. It grows stronger through fear, and we have never been more afraid. It is us against them, them being mainly the refugees and terrorist from the Middle-East but also foreign workers and immigrants. The most appealing answer to these challenges seems to be a reactive protectionist policy.
President Trumps famous wall on the border of Mexico is probably the most figurative symbol of this yet. A more literal example is his repeated attempts of making the “Muslim-ban” a reality or the US’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that aimed to lower the global trade barriers. In France Le Front National, a far-right nationalist party, almost won the president election and thereby established itself a substantial political force both in France and Europe. In Germany the nationalistic and arguably neo-Nazi party Alternative for Germany has become Germanys third largest party. The same tendencies can be seen in The Netherlands with Gert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.
All of these political developments represent a shift in global politics. The previously mentioned values of freedom, equality and human rights is for these parties more important for citizens of specific states, than for the citizens of the globe itself. More than anything it represents a change on the actor-level; this type of thinking is no longer the thoughts of small isolated groups, but of big political parties. I would not go as far as to say it is the norm, but it may very well be the start of one.
Same message, new platform
On the other hand, we have seen a substantial development in humanitarian work and focus on civil rights. Challenges directly linked to core values of the liberal peace tradition is getting more attention than ever before. With the emergence of social media and an increased availability of news it is easy to be kept date on current affairs. Organizations and groups are able to portray their message to a broader audience and thereby engage more people.
A great example of this is the human rights movement in the US. This is a movement that has been considerable force for many years, but in the last four to five years we have seen an increased engagement and focus all the way to Capitol Hill. After the shooting of Mike Brown in 2014 it took only a day before mass protest against police brutality and racism started. This lead to major focus on these specific problems and the movement for black rights have not been greater since the days of Dr. Martin Luther King. The massive corporate and private media coverage of said case and civil rights in general should be given a lot of credit for the engagement that ensued.
On a more global scale the Me Too campaign which started in the US, has now spread to every corner of the Western world. The campaign is obviously about men in power positions taking advantage of women, but it is also so much more than that. Values like freedom and equality are central in this discussion. It is a case which has united people of all genders, races and nationality to stand up together for a better world. This might not have been possible if it were not for the spotlight social media and constant media coverage provided.
The point of these examples is not to argue that social media and media in general is the key to keeping western liberal values. But it is a tool which we did not have 20 years ago at the level we have today. This tool enables organisations and group to reach more people and make them aware of both violations and challenges in the world. And this is the fuel that keeps the liberal engine running; awareness and engagement - none of which are currently absent in the global society.
Balance in the force
The fact of the matter is that liberal peace ideals have been under threat from the very beginning. All the way back to the feudal systems of which prompted the creation of works such as Immanuel Kant’s On Perpetual Peace and the liberal movement itself, and all the way to present. These visions and ideas of liberal peace have been a target for reactionaries. At the same time, the reactionary forces have also been under constant pressure to change.
The movement for liberal peace and all the values that goes with is very much alive and strong as ever, all the while the alt-right and nationalistic movements is gaining ground and is challenging these very norms and values. This is a game of weight/counter-weight, where there always will be an opposition ready to fight for either side. As the late liberal-idealist Woodrow Wilson once said: “The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”
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