The modern world is at risk of losing its way. The liberal-democratic order is under attack from within and without. In response, a Committee has been formed to respond to the crisis. This document describes the crisis and outlines the responses necessary to meet it.
The historical arc toward greater global stability, freedom, and prosperity in large parts of the world is at risk of being bent back—toward political authoritarianism, economic stagnation, ideological extremism and international disorder. The economic and political stability we have taken for granted for decades is eroding rapidly. The core principles of liberal democracy that once defined a centrist political majority across the free world are being pulled apart as once fringe views from the left and right gain public acceptance.
Relentless partisanship has led major parties to abandon common cause, leading to the debilitation of vital civic institutions, including responsible news media and mainstream political parties. Debates over immigration, education, health care, trade, national security, and taxes have been politicized to such extremes that the compromises needed to craft sound, sensible solutions are unlikely to be reached.
It is essential to defend and refine the values and institutions of liberal democracy before they are further crippled. These include: the integrity of democratic elections; freedom of the press, speech, conscience, religion, and assembly; equal justice under the law and the independence of the judiciary; the safety and security of individuals and nations; the ability to do business free of corruption or excessive government intervention; the right of every citizen to seek opportunity under the equal protection of the law; the free flow of goods, services, capital, and ideas across borders; a rational and humane immigration policy; a representative democracy that makes government accountable to its citizens; citizens who feel they are fairly treated and fully represented by their governments.
It is equally essential to defend liberal democracy against global adversaries— authoritarian regimes, terrorist groups, and the ideologies and theologies that underpin both. That requires a profound understanding of the nature of these threats and a willingness to confront them fearlessly, without jeopardizing bedrock rights of free peoples and the restraints of civilized governments.
The pillars of modernity are interlocking. Political stability and international security enable global trade and tremendous economic growth. A predictable and consensual rule of law creates the conditions in which entrepreneurs and businesses flourish, fostering levels of affluence that in turn enhance the global appeal of liberal democracy. Responsible political and digital revolutions in previously closed or suppressed societies unlock the economic and intellectual potential of millions of people, making it more likely that similar revolutions will follow.
It is no coincidence that the twentieth century was the American century. Foundational principles of democracy, liberty, and human rights gained global sway thanks to the unrivaled growth of American prosperity and power. The United States promoted its values abroad in general with considerable success. Liberal democracy and free-market economies became, if not a universal political norm, a widespread aspiration. The United States must continue to promote these values, and the institutions they sustain, at home and abroad.
In recent years these trends have slowed, stopped, or are in full retreat in parts of the world. Nationalists, neo-fascists, xenophobes, racists, and anti-Semites have received a surge of support. Neo-Marxism has found new champions in countries that owe their wealth to the opportunities provided by free-market capitalism. Protectionism is likewise gaining popularity in countries that have benefitted from free trade. Islamic extremism has gained sway through a combination of political appeal, social repression, and outright terror. Many champions of these movements have taken inspiration, or received political and financial support, from authoritarian regimes. Modern technology provides new weapons, new recruits, and new targets for the forces of illiberalism, and they have moved far more quickly to exploit them than the free world has moved to defend itself. Conspiracy-mongers and fringe websites have spread “fake news” that supports their illiberal beliefs and that undermines faith in objective, commonly accepted truths.
There is little doubt that many of the problems being addressed by the advocates of illiberalism are real, including growing income inequality, economic dislocation, declining social mobility, high youth unemployment, a growing threat from terrorism, and social breakdowns that are the result of technological transformations and, in some cases, misguided government policies. But their proposed solutions range from the impracticable to the illusory to the immoral. Free societies cannot prosper by adopting the practices of closed societies. While extreme religious and nationalistic views play a central role in the rising tide of illiberalism, moderate religious and patriotic sentiment can be vital in counteracting social alienation and radicalism.
The extremists share a disdain for the globalism on which modern prosperity is based. Whether they are far-left or far-right, they believe in top-down solutions to problems that can best be resolved through greater freedom, competition, openness and mobility. Both seek power without compromise or coalition and defer to the rule of law only when it strengthens their own position. These illiberal forces embrace divisive rhetoric that makes rational debate impossible. Indeed, they frequently reject established facts and scientific reasoning in favor of conspiracy theories and malicious myths. Liberal democracy must address the problems of those disadvantaged by economic change with practical programs grounded in fact and reason.
The free world must rally in defense of free societies and their values and promote them where they are most urgently needed, and must reject intimidation or suppression of speech rooted in ideological rigidity or intolerance of political difference, as has occurred on college campuses and elsewhere. Western proponents of the liberal-democratic order must first promote these values at home and defend them abroad without paternalistically imposing them, or repeating past errors such as uncritical alliances with authoritarian regimes.
Political polarization has opened the door wide for active interference, even war, from outside powers. We must reject this dangerous path. We must not allow the political fringes to pull the center apart completely. To achieve this, there must be credible alternatives, real solutions, and an ongoing dialogue. We must rally to the values that unite us in order to preserve and optimize the institutions we depend on to navigate the issues that divide us. We must channel the surge of political engagement into forming a new and vital center, one that transcends party and policy.
There is still a center in Western politics, and it needs to be revitalized— intellectually, culturally, and politically. The center right and center left are still joined by a broad set of common values, including respect for free speech and dissent, a belief in the benefits of international trade and immigration, respect for law and procedural legitimacy, a suspicion of cults of personality, and an understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems.
The immediate need is to help restore political confidence and ideological balance to traditional center right and center left parties on both sides of the Atlantic. This does not require fundamentally “new” ideas. It requires fresh thinking about good ideas, a new way of arguing for sound principles of liberal democracy.
The aim of this Committee is to help generate this fresh thinking and to convene the best minds from different countries to come together for both broad and discrete projects in the service of liberty and democracy in the West and beyond.