Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

How to fight authoritarianism

Ever more blatantly, authoritarian states advance their interests beyond national borders. The brutal murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi showed again that dissidents are even no longer safe abroad. As authoritarian states track down dissidents, they also use trade to spread propaganda, conduct hybrid war to weaken our morale, and seal alliances with a fifth column of rightist opportunists. It is time to stop them. Of course, we can endlessly deplore the many imperfections of the Western way of life. But self-criticism should not become a pretext for doing nothing. Even if Western societies are far from perfect, we need to protect the fundamental rights and values that previous generations so painfully fought for in the past.

To do so, we need cosmopolitans again to become a true elite of their societies, not a club of mere spectators that briefly makes bold statements like in Davos and then again makes its first-class retreat into business as usual. Being an elite implies not to look down on the rest, but to lead and inspire, to understand also that freedom predominantly favours the strong, and that that it takes a great deal of effort, to empower those that feel less comfortable with openness. The elite leads, not with the expectation for the rest to be left behind, but to get stronger, and, hence, to make the entire society confident enough that freedom is more beneficial than seclusion.

Key in the fight against the authoritarian assault is education. Every citizen should be a bit of a freedom fighter. Over the last few decades, Western corporate and political influencers again and again insisted that schools primarily have to ready youngsters for the labour market, putting emphasis on IT, mathematics, and so forth. As a result, we have some good professionals among our graduates, but many poorly formed citizens. Liberty gives citizens the right to make choices; good education teaches them how to make those choices. As much as there is a need for IT and math, there is a need for ethics, philosophy, history, and even meditation. Such education, the ancient philosopher Isocrates put it, is readying the mind to receive virtue and is key to sustain a flourishing society.

But as much as we need education to empower citizens, we also need choices to be clear and transparent. Transparency was put forward by Adam Smith as a key condition for a free market and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a condition to keep citizens evolved. Today, one needs at least three PhDs to get the slightest idea of what is, for instance, the stake of trade agreements. This frightens people and makes governance look like a giant smokescreen. The more professional politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers claim that they alone are able to make sense of this complexity, the more people will lose their trust in democracy.

The example of trade is not randomly chosen, because it is through trade that we make authoritarian challengers strong. Leaders in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States thank the resilience of their regimes to decades of Western dependence on their oil and gas. China is turning dictatorship into a competitive advantage and buys influence with the billions that the West is losing as a result of its trade deficit. The West might still try to find peace of mind by insisting that trade is the best way to liberalize countries, but in all these countries we only see authoritarianism grow worse. Sometimes choices can thus be very transparent: Do we continue to strengthen our authoritarian rivals by making them rich or do we stop them? Do we continue to exhaust our private entrepreneurs in a race with state capitalism or do we reward them for contributing to a better society?

It is a stark choice, indeed. But it is an inevitable choice. Tolerating this authoritarian battle of attrition threatens globalization and the future of our own free market anyhow. Then we better save at least our own free market, render it less dependent on authoritarian states, increase is resilience, and encourage entrepreneurs to make it more competitive, inclusive sustainable and humane. Nothing is easy. There will be friction. In the short term, producers will see some of their profits decrease and consumers will see some prices go up. That’s a sacrifice that we should be willing to make. You can consider it patriotism, but were it not liberal patriots that fought authoritarianism in our own society in the past? And does one not, paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt, have to be a good patriot before one can be a good citizen of the world?

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