The Authority of Democracy Exposed

The fall of communist regimes had the unintended consequence of forcing Western societies to confront their own divisions and internally generated problems

The fall of the regimes in East Europe in 1989 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union had a devastating impact on the credibility of communist and socialist ideologies. That is why for a very brief moment the collapse of these authoritarian systems was greeted with a tone of triumphalism by Western commentators particularly those of right wing and a conservative disposition. They could look back upon the demise of their traditional opponents on the left and conclude that their marginalization represented the vindication of the Western way of life.

However, the tone of triumphalism very rapidly gave way to a mood of anxiety about the future. At the time, a handful of astute observers, such as George Kennan, the influential author of the strategy of containment counseled caution. He warned that the celebration of victory was premature since the collapse of the Soviet bloc did not mean that the West had actually triumphed.

As it turned out the fall of communist regimes had the unintended consequence of forcing Western societies to confront their own divisions and internally generated problems. Until the late eighties and early nineties the precarious unity that prevailed during the days of a highly-charged ideological superpower conflict allowed Western societies to avoid confronting the problem of developing a positive account of themselves. But once the external focus of unity was removed, the fragile state of the social and moral consensus prevailing in the West stood exposed.

The end of the cold war served to expose the relatively fragile normative foundation on which authority in Western society was based. Almost immediately after the previous disintegration of the Soviet Union the reliance of Western governments on values and institutions generated through the Cold War became evident. All of a sudden the world looked to be not only a more unpredictable but also a more dangerous place. Observers nostalgically bemoaned the erosion of stable global patterns and feared that the post Second World War global institutions would not be able to deal with the eruption of new nationalist and culturally motivated conflicts.

“Historical change is happening in a way it was not meant to happen,” observed an anonymous American defense expert at NATO headquarters in Brussels in April 1990. By this time the triumphalist tone gave way to the realization that compared to the certainties of the Cold War the new world was a confusing, unpredictable and dangerous place. Already in the early 1990s there was a perceptible mood of nostalgia towards the certainties of the Cold War years. The suspension of Cold War rivalries brought to the surface the divisive issues surrounding the question of legitimacy, which were suppressed during the ideologically driven global conflict.

In retrospect it was soon evident that for the West, the Cold War represented an era of stability, legitimacy and relatively high level of trust. In January 1991, The Financial Times reported that the “West’s relief at the ending of the Cold War is history.” Instead of relief the predominant reaction was now one of fear of “political instability and the awareness that integrating Eastern Europe, not to mention the Soviet Union, into the world economy poses difficulties of a hitherto unimagined complexity.”

An even more pressing matter confronting societies in the post-Cold War era was the necessity to develop a positive account of their way of life. During the Cold War the effectiveness of the anti-communist crusade meant that this challenge could be evaded and postponed. However, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union the quest for norms and values that could help define a way of life became more pressing. The negative validation of authority provided by an anti- Soviet and anti-Communist narrative had lost its capacity to legitimate. As the political analyst, Zaki Laidi argued, “to define oneself by contrast with communism no longer has any meaning.”

One reason why the defeat of the Soviet Union did not lead to the strengthening of the normative foundation of liberal democracies was because the West did very little to develop a positive account of it during the Cold War. Aside from the rhetoric of freedom versus enslavement and good versus evil, the West was almost entirely dependent on the appeal of its economic success during its ideological confrontation with the communist world. In other words people were drawn towards the West in the Cold War mainly because of its economic superiority and its promise of prosperity. Arguably it was not enthusiastic approval and support for liberal democracy but pragmatism that underpinned the calculation of citizens on both sides of the East-West divide. After the end of the Cold War, Western governments could no longer rely on the legacy of economic efficiency and prosperity to spare them of the responsibility of validating their way of life in the language of politics and culture. In any case by the 1990s the era of the long post-war boom had given way to that of global economic insecurity and instability.

For all its limitations Cold War ideology at least provided policy makers and society with an explanatory framework for interpreting global events. Its loss, which led to the rapid disintegration of assumptions, conventions and practices associated with the Cold War order has led to what Laidi has characterized as a “world crisis of meaning.” This crisis of meaning is the outcome of the incapacity of public institutions and conventions to provide clarity of purpose for the conduct of policy.

During the 1990s commentators on both side of the Atlantic had to acknowledge the unpleasant fact that their societies lacked moral clarity and consensus and were experiencing an unprecedented decline in public trust in most of the key institutions. The absence of a vision of a common good was most strikingly demonstrated by a steady decline of public confidence in the performance of representative institutions in Western Europe, North America and Japan. The post-Cold War “good-feel” factor soon gave way to a new era of mistrust and alienation from public life.

With the termination of the Cold War domestic problems could not be easily externalized. That was why the military historian Michael Howard warned in 1991 that the long-term challenge facing the West was that of “maintaining cohesion in increasingly heterogeneous societies.” He alluded to the escalation of social tensions and cultural conflicts and claimed that mass immigration had “eroded the cultural cohesion of older communities.”

The exhaustion of the politics of ideology and the threat of communism served as the prelude to the emergence of a new peril—the politicization of culture. The eruption of the so-called Culture Wars in the United States in the 1990s indicated there was little agreement on what constituted the foundational norms of society. In Europe, competing claims about national identity, social cohesion, multiculturalism, immigration, family life and marriage speak to a society that is far from at ease with itself. In these societies conflicts about group identity and the lifestyles through which they are expressed are rarely suspended in the interest of a wider form of national unity.

One symptom of the post-Cold War malaise is the inability of Western societies to forge the consensus and unity of the previous era. The problem of galvanizing public support around a common objective became evident to policy-makers in the years following the so-called war on terrorism. One study of British public diplomacy concluded that it is far more difficult to convince citizens to back the official line on the war on terror than it was during the Cold War. This loss of Cold War certainty was coupled with the awareness that society’s capacity to integrate its citizens had become seriously compromised. So a study published in 2008 about the security threat facing Britain reported that “we are in a confused and vulnerable condition.” It indicated that one reason for this sense of insecurity was because “we lack the certainty of the old rigid geometry” of the Cold War. Confronted by what it perceived as the “loss of confidence” and the absence of an overarching moral purpose in British society, the authors could not but mourn the loss of the Cold War. The acknowledgment of the loss of Cold War certainty is paralleled by the emergence of a sensibility of vulnerability on both the domestic and external fronts.

Cold War ideology was always more than empty rhetoric in service of a public relation exercise. The narrative of the Cold War provided western societies with a language through which they could define themselves and validate their institutions. Anti-Communism proved to be an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for providing disparate groups on the centre and the right with a counter-ideology that validated their way of life. In effect, during the Cold War, anti-communism served to endorse the claims that conservatives and centrists made about the moral superiority of their society’s way of life. Once anti-communism lost its immediacy and relevance its capacity to validate a way of life was also severely weakened.

At a time when conflicts over values within Western society threatened to weaken domestic consensus, cold war ideology provided a unique resource for minimizing its effects. Consequently, the influence of cold war ideology was not simply confined to the governing of East-West relations it also guided policy makers in the domain of domestic policy. One of the unexpected outcomes of the end of the Cold War was that it deprived Western governments of one of the most effective instruments of legitimization. That is why time and again, politicians and policy makers have acknowledged their yearning for the certainties of the Cold War years. As Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President of the US recalled in February 2002, “when America’s great enemy suddenly disappeared, many wondered what new direction our foreign policy would take.” Confusion about the future direction of foreign policy was by no means the only outcome of the demise of the Cold War. A similar pattern of disorientation is evident in relation to domestic affairs.

Once the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union followed it onto the scrap heap of history, thus ending the Cold War, the Western elite was faced with the fundamental questions that it had evaded for so long. The question of what society stands for could no longer be answered by the statement “its hostility to communism.” It was at this point in time that policy makers and their intellectual consultants unleashed a quest for a “big idea” to replace the now irrelevant anti-Communist crusades of the Cold War. What President George Bush described as “that vision thing” in 1987 continued to elude policy makers to this day.

During the Cold War the West did not need a vision thing because as against the negative example of the Soviet bloc it could enjoy moral authority. During this period, Western parliamentary politics could live off its historic legacy and there was no serious attempt to develop an account of liberal democracy that could motivate and inspire the public in the post Cold War world. And then it all came to a sudden end! The most significant unintended consequence of the fall of communism was to expose the fragile normative and intellectual foundation for contemporary liberal democracy. Today, the questions forced on the agenda through the fall of communism demand answers.

Democracy remains an ideal in search of conceptual clarification, intellectual validation and meaning. After the bitter experience of a century of ideological conflicts tackling the question of how to ensure that popular consent serve as the foundation for authority remains the question of our time.

Frank Furedi

Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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