Ram Madhav
September 27, 2022

New Order with a Blend of Western Liberalism and Eastern Civilizational Nationalism

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

(The article was originally published by Institut Montaigne  on September 27, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)

The conflict in Ukraine has begun reshaping the global order. Ram Madhav, Former National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Member of the Governing Council of India Foundation, questions the legitimacy of the Western leadership model for “Ukraine Shifting the World Order”. Shedding light on the increasingly heteropolar nature of our world, he advocates for a new world order based on 21st century realities: one where nationalism and liberalism can coexist and where the Global South is a primary stakeholder.

History changes, but not always at the same pace. Sometimes, its pace will be excruciatingly slow like in the 19th and 20th centuries, when a large number of countries in the Global South were struggling under the oppressive colonial yoke. The devastating effects of the two world wars led to a drastic change in world politics. History suddenly picked up momentum. The liberal democratic order gained currency from the experience of the dreaded dictatorships. As colonial oppression and exploitation ended, free markets and capitalism flourished. The evil effects of the world wars motivated countries to come together to build an international order based on rule of law.

A historical review of Post-war dynamics

When India, the world’s second most populous nation, opted for a liberal democratic model after its independence in 1947, it became an inspiration for countries freeing themselves from colonial rule. Most became democratic. As the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, countries in Eastern Europe formerly under the Soviet shadow also found virtue in democracy. By the beginning of the new millennium, the world experienced a democratic boom with over 120 countries opting for that model. Some were illiberal democracies while others can be categorized as elected autocracies.

The liberal democratic model was not flawless, prompting Prime Minister Winston Churchill to quip thatdemocracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried“. There were some dissenters. Led by the Soviet Union, a group of nations like Cuba, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Romania stood up against this world order. They rejected Western hegemony and broadly stayed out of the orbit of the order whose axis of power lay in the Pacific-Atlantic region. A bipolar polity was born, led by the US on one side and the Soviet Union on the other.

When the Soviet Union collasped, Western scholars exuberantly declared the end of the Cold War era, concluding that the triumph of the liberal world order was the only panacea for mankind. In The National Interest, renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that we may be witnessing is “not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government“.

This desire to build a uniform world order based on the Western hegemonic conception has been the sheet anchor of the theories of many Western scholars since. It is that desire which prompts them to claim that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was going to be a nemesis for the liberal world order.

The Western leadership model

Two important questions arise. Firstly, is a uniform world order wedded to those three principles mandatory for the world, or can there be diversity? Secondly, who is responsible for wrecking the current liberal order? The Western powers themselves or their recalcitrant challengers like Russia and China?

After the Second World War, Western leadership villainized national identity. Nationalism was blamed for the two wars and all modern nation-states were mandated to follow the same template: liberal democracy, open market capitalism and globalization. Other forms were condemned as retrograde. When India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru mobilized nations to build a non-alignment movement, the Western leadership disapprovingly dubbed him a “neutralist”. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, and a wave of enthusiasm engulfed the Western world. A unipolar world order based on Western liberal principles seemed inevitable and a fait accompli.

Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man argued Western liberal democracies would become “the endpoint of mankind’s socio-cultural evolution, and the final form of human government“. Samuel Huntington directly challenged Fukuyama with his provocative 1996 “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, stating that far from unipolarity, the ideological world had been divided on civilizational identities, the new source of conflict in the world, with “each learning to coexist with the others“. Later years proved that the collapse of the Soviet Union had not moved the world from bipolarity to unipolarity, but to multipolarity. Several nation-states, with long cultural and civilizational histories, like China, Arab countries and India, have emerged as the new poles in the world. We also witnessed the rise of non-state poles – multinational corporations, social media giants, new age religious movements, non-governmental bodies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Oxfam and CARE, and even terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. With influences beyond the national boundaries of the states, these created a heteropolar world.

The erosion of the liberal democratic world order is a Western failure

The hegemonic nature of the world order is eroding with the rise of the heteropolar world. Lofty ideals that it cherished – liberal democracy, open markets, human rights and multilateralism – have been facing severe scrutiny and challenge in the last two decades. Unfortunately, the institutions created for sustaining that world order have increasingly grown weak and ineffective. The world appears to be moving inexorably in the direction of anarchy. The Ukrainian-Russian war is the latest, not the first, in the sequence of events that have catalyzed the collapse of the old world order. The West wants the world to believe that Russia and Putin were the culprits for ushering in anarchy and attempting to destroy what they had built over the last seven decades. But the West cannot escape responsibility for the failure of its hegemony.

Most nations, especially those in the developing world, had embraced the liberal democratic world order in the hope that hegemons like the United States would sincerely work towards establishing a just world order based on those noble principles. But the experience showed that the West’s quest for “democratizing the world” followed more a political agenda than any ideological one. The developing world watched in dismay the US joining hands with autocracies, supporting military dictatorships, hobnobbing with authoritarian regimes, and even promoting terror groups like the Mujahadeen, all the while claiming to champion the “freedom agenda”.

Up to now, the Bush administration has been using democracy-promotion in the Middle East only as a tool to punish its enemies, not to create opportunities for its friends“, notes Steve Cohen, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution.

The international institutions, created with so much fanfare to promote a just and equitable world order have been rendered docile by the Western powers. If China refused to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or Russia played spoilsport in many just causes in the world at the UN, the US too had nonchalantly subverted those institutions in pursuing its so-called “freedom agenda” – whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq. It used its financial muscle to unilaterally resort to a regimen of financial sanctions, blockades and expulsions of the countries without ever consulting with or involving the international political or monetary bodies.

Free market capitalism also remained a chimera for the developing Global South, with the developed West doing little to help struggling economies. When the Great Recession hit in 2007-2009, the G-20 powers wasted no time helping each other. The US Federal Reserve quickly acted through the Economic Stimulus Act (2008) and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009). The G-20 too had plunged into action by launching the “Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth (SSB)” in 2009. But the developing world’s financial debts had no sympathetic ears in the capitalist world. Many countries in Africa and Asia, even in Latin America, were compelled to turn to the newly rich China for economic and developmental needs. New power blocs emerged as a result that did not necessarily subscribe to the liberal US-led world order. China played a major role in developing an alternative to the American-led world through alliances like Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). The wrecking of the prevailing world order was as much a result of the actions of its hegemon, the US, as its adversaries like China and Russia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought these faultlines to the fore. Irrespective of the outcome of the war, the world is certain to slide into a state of anarchy for some years to come. The Russia-Ukraine conflict exacerbated the economic crisis created by the deadly Covid-19 pandemic that devastated national economies. The pandemic-induced supply chain challenges and the Ukraine crisis-induced shortages have been major challenges in the Global South.

Ensuing confusion is leading to fundamental shifts. Nations are increasingly turning inwards to meet domestic needs. Authoritarian nationalism is making a grand comeback. Authoritarian regimes like China are succeeding in showcasing their economic and technological progress to convince countries about a model of “development without democracy”. As a result, democracy backsliding is leading to the rise of authoritarians and demagogues. Populism and welfarism are becoming the new mantras for those regimes, illustrating that a new world disorder is in the making. As the multilateral institutions failed to deliver, new regionalism is taking roots through alliances like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), U2I2 (US, UAE, India and Israel), AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) and the QUAD (US, Japan, India and Australia).

The scenario poses a challenge to the established world order led by the Western powers, but also provides opportunities to build a new one based on 21st century realities.

Towards a different world order built on new set of principles

First, we need to accept that the post-War hegemonic world order reached its tether’s end. In the changing world, no single country or model can work for all. There will be multiple power centers dominating world politics, and influencing heteropolar forces in global affairs. This calls for another approach. The liberal West has to shed its inhibition about the national identities of the countries: its biggest failure has been its obsession with internationalism and rejection of national self-identity. Liberalism must acknowledge that nationalism and liberalism are not antagonistic to each other and can coexist.

In a groundbreaking work on nationalism, Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony criticizes the liberal construction as “a form of imperialism“. He states that “like other imperialists, they are quick to express disgust, contempt, and anger when their vision of peace and prosperity meets opposition“. “Each nation judges in accordance with a perspective of its own. There is no human being, and no nation, that can claim to have captured the entire truth for all others“, he insists. For the last seven decades, the liberal world order was dominated led by the US and Europe. But in the last couple of decades, the global power axis has shifted away from the Pacific-Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific region. The Global South, which had no major role in shaping the liberal order, should be the primary stakeholder in the making of the new world order. Countries like India, Israel, Brazil, South Africa, and regional groupings like the ASEAN and the GCC should find their voice prominently heard in this process.

Hegemony, profits and wars dominated the agenda of the liberal world order. Ukraine is the latest version of that agenda where the two dominant worldviews – the US-led Western worldview and the Sino-Russian-led authoritarian worldview – are in conflict with one another for world domination. A large number of countries from the Global South have opted to stay out of this conflict. Many Asian, African and Latin American nations, with some exceptions, do not see any role or reason for them to be involved in this conflict.

To sum it up, no one wants the present world order to continue except the US and its allies. At the same time, the authoritarian order that the Sino-Russia alliance wants to build must also be reined in. It seeks to impose a system that would deny citizens the universal human rights guaranteed under the UNHRC regime and a political model that robs nations of democratic systems and values.

Sino-Russian order is a perfect antithesis to the liberal democratic order built over decades. It also militates against the core ethical values of the Global South, which blend Western Liberalism with Civilizational Nationalism. This dilemma before the developing countries may leave the world in chaos and disorder for some time to come. But it will also pave the way for building a new world based on a new set of principles.

As the world is witnessing the rise in democracy deficit, a new look at the democratic model is necessary. In the developed world, the Greeks introduced democracy to the world. But, after a few centuries, the Romans converted it into the rule of the emperors. Democracy only returned to Europe during the Enlightenment period. It acquired the character of electoral majorities, resulting in illiberal democracies and elected autocracies. The civilizational experiences of the developing world differed, with “limited state” and “decentralization” as hallmarks. The earliest and largest empire in the world was established by Emperor Ashoka in India in the 3rd Century BC, almost three centuries before the advent of the famed Roman Empire. Emperor Ashoka waged a fierce battle with the kingdom of Kalinga. But that war had no impact on the day-to-day functioning of the society in his vast empire that extended from Pataliputra (present-day Patna in India) in the East to Takshashila (present-day Taxila in Pakistan) in the West. The gravitational center of the society was never the political authority.

That brings up the second dimension – statecraft functioned on the basis of decentralization and consensus. Self-contained and self-controlled village panchayats were the unique institutions representing those qualities. While modern-day democracies centralized the power in the unit of the state, the earlier models in India promoted power delegation to the lowest units of the society.

On the economic front, in place of laissez-faire capitalism or oppressive communism, a new economic doctrine based on Swadeshi (localization) and Atma Nirbharta (self-reliance) can be developed in which the concept of global markets will be replaced by a global family, and where cooperation replaces competition. On the question of international relations, in place of the rules-based world order, we must strive to build a values-based world order.

Ethics and values should guide the nations so that hegemonies and might-is-right machinations do not dominate international relations. The new challenges that mankind is increasingly coming face to face with include climate change, healthcare, newer technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, machine learning, cryptocurrencies and blockchains. These challenges not only call for a global regime to regulate them but also for global ethics to evaluate them. When mankind enters the age of intelligent machines, a healthy man-machine debate needs to be undertaken to build an ethical world order devoted to human-centric development.

Institutions representing the old world order like the United Nations have worn out. Hegemonies championing that order are diminishing in power and influence. Heteropolar forces are tearing apart the remnants leftover of the liberal order. Stepping in into that recession are the authoritarians and anarchists. The rest of the world cannot remain a mute witness. Hundred and ten years ago, in 1912, renowned Indian poet, philosopher and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, had dreamed of a new world in his poetic masterpiece Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

The time for building such a heaven of freedom that upholds liberal democratic values of the West together with a civilizational nationalist ethic of the East is here.


Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

Bracing for New Hurdles

Bracing for New Hurdles

September 27, 2022
Misreading Bhagwat

Misreading Bhagwat

September 27, 2022

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four − two =