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This article is reprinted with permission from the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

In 2019, Robert Kagan authored a long-form essay in the Washington Post in which he argued that the era of the strongman is back. The Brookings Institution senior fellow contends that authoritarianism is once again the greatest challenge to liberal democracy – and the beneficiaries have been authoritarian states like Russia, China, and Iran.

The historian echoed those themes in this conversation with the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie. Part of the antidote, he believes, is that people in democratic societies should remember the benefits of liberal democracy. That includes recalling how putting the rights of the individual over the rights of the state has guarded democracies from the worst impulses in human nature. He also contends that America standing up for the principles of liberal democracy will lead to a more stable world.

You wrote last year that authoritarianism has emerged as the greatest challenge facing the liberal democratic world. Assuming you think that remains true, where is the greatest resistance to the fundamentals of democracy today? Is that from state actors, non-state actors, something else?

Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest challenge to liberal democracy. When liberalism and democracy took hold, particularly after the American Revolution, the great opponents were the autocracies of Eastern Europe: Russia, Austria, and Prussia -- the so-called Holy Alliance. During the Cold War, we got used to the idea that the challenge was communism. But looking at the larger sweep of history, the communism challenge was a shorter one. The challenge from authoritarianism varies from the autocracies of the 19th century to the fascist dictatorships of the first half of the 20th century. In a way, we have returned to a more normal challenge.

As to where it is coming from, it is coming from human beings. For perfectly understandable reasons, we have gotten used to the idea that liberalism and democracy are the norms or are the products of a long process of human evolution. We don’t sufficiently realize that liberalism is a historical aberration. It is not how humans have organized themselves throughout history. 

Some aspects in liberalism challenge natural impulses in human beings: attachment to family, tribe, religious beliefs, etc. Liberalism speaks to a universality of human existence, that all humans are the same. That runs counter to a lot of basic human feeling.

What we’re seeing is a natural reaction against liberalism. I don’t mean it is therefore good. I think it’s bad. A lot of negative attributes of human nature are playing themselves out. 

If you look at what’s happening in Europe and the United States, there is a real loss of faith in liberalism. The beneficiaries have been the great authoritarian powers of Russia and China, and maybe Iran. Iran is not a great power but it’s still a power. They are more the beneficiaries than the cause of the problem. They’re exacerbating it, and taking advantage of it. But the problem goes deeper. It is a problem in our own society.

You also wrote about the primacy of the individual, which plays into what you’re talking about now. How do we reestablish the primacy of the individual over the primacy of the state?

People sort of forgot what liberalism is supposed to deliver. In the 1930s, there was a lot of criticism of liberalism and democracy for not delivering economic or spiritual wellbeing. What liberalism provides, and by “liberalism” I mean the primacy of individual rights over the rights of the state, is that the individual is protected against the power of the state in various ways. In the United States, we have our Bill of Rights, which are mostly about protecting the individual from having their rights trampled on by the state or community. 

Most societies throughout history have privileged the rights of the state over the rights of the individual. What people have forgotten is that liberalism protects them from being killed, tortured, or imprisoned by the state and having their rights trampled. Instead, they focus on the things they’re not getting out of liberalism.

We need to remind people what’s at stake. Wage stagnation is a problem, but it’s not a reason to get rid of liberalism. Many people have turned against liberalism for that reason, or they don’t like the cultural developments in our society. They lose sight of what liberalism does for them and protects them against. 

In 2018, the Bush Institute partnered with Freedom House and the Penn-Biden Center on a public opinion researchproject that looks at American attitudes towards democracy. We didn’t find an openness to other forms of government, but we did find a deep level of dissatisfaction across most demographics with how democracy is delivering. Large majorities say it is weak and getting weaker. How do you begin to restore confidence in institutions and our systems, when everything here has become so polarized?

It would be good to have political leaders who extol the basic values of liberalism and democracy without regard to partisan advantage and that our system is based on protecting these basic rights.

It’s been a while since we have made a concerted effort to educate Americans on that front. It was easier during the Cold War for Americans to see the real alternative was unappealing and unsuccessful. A lot of what inspired the civil rights efforts among white people was this sense that we needed to live up to these ideals that we were claiming in competition with communist ideals.

When the Cold War ended, we lost that set of alternatives. We haven’t looked at the authoritarian states as a potential alternative. But we are fighting over relatively minor issues and losing sight of the big issues.

It took World War II to get us out of the grave doubts Americans were having about democracy in the 1930s, partly as a result of the Depression. It doesn’t take that kind of crisis, but I don’t see a clear way forward.

Let’s return to the primacy of the individual versus the primacy of the state. Is our desire for personal freedom running up against the need for security, whether that’s being secure in a state, a nation, a tradition, or a culture?

To some extent, yes. This has been the great tension in our society going back to the founding of the republic. We have an inherent schism in our worldview, which was born with the Declaration of Independence. That universal doctrine says that all people are equal. As I was saying earlier, that’s not a normal human feeling. The normal human feeling is my people are good, I don’t know about everyone else. The desire to provide protections to people that are regarded as the other is not a normal human impulse.

Those protections are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. But during the period of slavery, for example, America’s white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant population wanted to preserve its position in society. And since the Civil War, there has been a nervousness about the loss of Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance that gets translated into nervousness about white cultural dominance.

Usually, the Declaration of Independence and its universalist definition of American nationhood has triumphed over the particularist cultural definition of American nationalism. But we’re seeing that fight being fought out again today.

Is this tension between personal freedom and the need for security in a tribe triggering a backlash against democracy around the world?

That is clearly happening in the populist national movement in Europe, particularly in places like Hungary and Poland. Viktor Orbán, the leader of Hungary, talks about a Christian democracy that privileges white Christian culture and beliefs within Hungary. That is a response to perceptions that Europe is being overrun by non-white and non-Christian peoples. 

This tension is even more stark in Europe than in the United States. The fear of Islamic culture swamping Europe is very prevalent. Of course, it’s a fear that’s been prevalent in Europe in some respects for at least five centuries. It certainly has returned with all the refugees and immigration of Muslims from the Middle East and northern Africa.

So there is this desire for cultural security, which is turning people away from the liberalism and democracy that protects the rights of all individuals universally. There is a desire to go back to privileging white Christian culture over what they regard as this invasion of other cultures, particularly Islamic cultures.

That is the kind of security an Orbán, the Law and Justice party in Poland, or Vladimir Putin is offering to particular tribes as they worry about the inundation from other tribes.

What are the consequences if the U.S. pulls back from international leadership?

The world we’ve been living in since 1945 is a world of increasing democratic government, a world of increasing liberalism, a world that has mostly avoided major wars and great power conflicts, and a world that has enjoyed historically unprecedented economic prosperity. That is all a creation of the international order the United States established after World War II.

The decision by the United States to involve itself on a permanent basis in Europe put an end to a cycle of warfare that had been going on in Europe for a long time. America’s role in Asia similarly put an end to the kind of conflicts that had existed there and that had twice sucked the United States into conflict in Europe and Asia.

 We created this peaceful, benevolent international environment because the United States made itself a European and Asian power and did not regard itself as simply a Western Hemisphere power. To the degree the United States pulls back, the world will return to the path it was on before the United States intervened and set the world on a different direction.

People are far too sanguine about what the world would look like with less American involvement, much less America pulling away from playing these security roles in Europe and Asia. People mindlessly hope Europe will stay peaceful. History suggests that is not only unlikely but probably impossible.

How do you make the case to younger Americans who support human rights for moral reasons but are less sure about supporting them for the cause of democracy in part because they may equate the spread of democracy with military power?

That has been a big problem but not a new problem. Americans have traditionally wanted to see good things happen in the world so as long the United States doesn’t have to wield power to make them happen. That is for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it doesn’t work; maybe we don’t have the capacity; and wielding power is itself a morally dubious activity.

What a lot of young people are expressing is a pretty traditional American view. We need to teach them history better, show them what happened when we didn’t play a bigger role, and help them understand good things just don’t happen. When you watch a place like Syria play out with a million dead and millions of refugees, it ought to tell people our abstention has not brought about a good outcome.

For better or worse, history suggests generations learn by what happens to them as they go through life. The generation that created the post-World War II world is the same generation that didn’t want to do anything in the 1930s. If you had asked young people in the 1930s whether the United States should be involved in the world, they would sound like young people do today. It was only the experience of World War II that led them to change their view. Events change what a generation thinks of things.

The current generation of young Americans has grown up only with “endless wars.” They have not faced a fundamental crisis nor have they seen an example of successful American power. It’s not surprising that they are skeptical. I can only hope that events will suggest otherwise to them before we reach a catastrophe.

What effect, if any, do our current democratic shortcomings have on our ability to preach and support democracy and human rights overseas?

 We are not having that problem now since we are not in fact preaching democracy and human rights overseas. We weren’t during the last administration either. The degree to which other nations and people think about the United States is not heavily influenced by whether they admire us or not. Most people basically want to know what we’re doing for them now.

The more we are a better model of democracy the better democracy is in general. If the world’s most leading democracy is not behaving like a good democracy, then it’s not as an attractive model as it might be.

Most people who want democracy want it for the reasons anyone does. I don’t think Egyptians would like to be relieved of their incredibly oppressive government because of American democracy. They have their own reasons for wanting to be relieved of this oppression.

Let’s wrap up with some hope. If you look across the world, who do you see taking seriously the obligation of freedom and human rights abroad?

 Tens of millions of people in the United States are committed to it. But right now the most liberal country in the world is Germany. Western Europe is still probably among the most liberal places. And Parasite’s winning of the Academy Award for Best Picture is an expression of how free things are in Korea. That’s miraculous, if you know Korean history. I find it inspirational that Koreans value their freedom of expression and right to criticize their government and society.

There is this sort of love of liberalism all over the world, even in places like Russia and China. It is obviously there in Hong Kong. Even though aspects of human nature work against liberalism, aspects work for it. My main point is this is a never-ending struggle. Those who believe in the virtues of liberalism need to engage in that struggle.

In the United States, we tend to look to our institutions or political leaders to protect us. That’s a mistake. Every individual here and around the world needs to take personal responsibility for defending liberalism and be more active in this unending historical struggle.