THE BLOG
12/16/2014 03:58 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Can the West Stand Up to Illiberal States?

PETER MUHLY via Getty Images

LONDON -- It is a rare political speech that stops me in my tracks. But that is exactly what happened this summer when I read a remarkable address by Viktor Orbán, Hungary's increasingly authoritarian prime minister.

Orbán rarely commands attention outside of his country. The last time he gave a speech as noteworthy as this summer's was 25 years ago, when, as a young man, he helped break the back of communism in Europe. Speaking in June 1989 at the reburial of Imre Nagy -- who led Hungary during its 1956 anti-Soviet uprising -- Orbán angrily demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungarian territory.

This summer, however, Orbán struck an entirely different note. He delivered a speech in favor of what he called the "illiberal state," offering five examples of successful "systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, and perhaps not even democracies." Russia and China were among them. It was as though the Iron Curtain and the tanks that crushed Nagy's government -- let alone Orbán's younger self -- had never existed.

Russia and China may no longer be communist, but they certainly are illiberal and definitely not democratic. Russia is poised somewhere between authoritarianism and totalitarianism; and, for all of China's recent economic progress, the rising Asian power remains squarely in the same camp.

Orbán's remarks, and his subsequent announcement of plans to implement his vision of "an illiberal state," were greeted with shock. How could he profess such views as the leader of a European Union member state, even as he stuffed his government's coffers with EU subsidies?

The truth is that Orbán was merely echoing an increasingly widespread argument (though one that usually is expressed more delicately). Six years after the start of the global financial crisis, many are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions. How can liberal democracies remain globally competitive? Have Western democracies lost their self-confidence and their ability to deliver a better life for their citizens? Are America and Europe in decline, haggard and living on past glories?

What Orbán would describe as the "liberal democracies" in the United States and Europe are indeed weighed down by internal problems. In the U.S., polarized politics, gerrymandered congressional districts, and a constitution that seems to check more than it balances, have obstructed reforms and left the country seemingly adrift in choppy waters. The middle class is being hollowed out, and failed overseas adventures have discouraged the once "indispensable nation" from bearing the burden of global leadership. America remains indispensable; alas, it has allowed the notion that it is unavailable for duty to take root.

At the same time, Europe seems incapable of upholding the social contract that underpinned its post-war economic boom. The continent's most successful economy, Germany, insists that its partners follow its brand of fiscal conservatism, choking off the growth that would make painful reforms easier to implement.

With the world's most successful democracies obsessed with recent failures, international politics has drifted toward more dangerous potential outcomes. Sensible deterrence, bold efforts to reform international institutions, and a readiness to fulfill responsibilities have all fallen victim to the West's exaggerated sense of failure and political stalemate.

And yet, even as Western democracies seem least able to act, more will be required of them. None of the countries that Orbán cited in his speech has offered an alternative vision of world order. On the contrary, their domestic problems threaten to turn uncertainty into peril. Russia will have to confront the impact of a collapse in oil prices on its petro-economy. Major firms are begging for government handouts to tide them over. The ruble is falling like a stone. It will be a tough winter in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Even China's supersonic growth is beginning to slow; some economists, including Larry Summers, are predicting that it could grind suddenly to a halt. Either way, the road ahead is likely to be bumpy, with increasing friction where politics rubs against economics. At home (most notably in Hong Kong) and abroad, China gives the impression that the word "compromise" does not exist in Mandarin.

Orbán's putative political role models are likely to become even more shrill and nationalist in foreign policy as they attempt to retain domestic support. In order to secure peace on the home front, leaders will point to the enemies -- real or imaginary -- at the gate.

The world's liberal democracies must start believing in themselves again. They must prove that Orbán's remarks were nothing more than bombastic nonsense. If we want the "peace on earth and mercy mild" promised in our Christmas carols, we will need to work much harder and more confidently to secure them.

This piece also appeared in Project Syndicate

© Project Syndicate