Illiberal out of Weakness: Why Liberal Internationalism Still Wins

With Victor Orban's recent sweeping victory in Hungary and Poland's new holocaust law, it seems that populism is wreaking havoc on the liberal international order. Andy Laub explains how Hungary and Poland's moves represent a backlash against globalism, but liberal internationalism still has the potential to remedy some of the weaknesses both countries face.


On Sunday, April 8th, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his right wing anti-immigrant Fidesz party swept another electoral victory delivering Mr. Orban a fourth term. Mr. Orban, who when he first arrived on the political scene in 1989 was a major champion of liberal values, is now the self-described champion of “illiberal democracy.” He has erected a fence around Hungary’s borders, promoted traditional Christian values and his recent campaign posters had a stop sign on them in reference to immigration. He has shied away from the West and sought better relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He has also changed laws making it harder for opposition parties to compete, solidifying his power. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was monitoring the election, criticized the Orban government for not giving the opposition parties a “level playing field” including the fear mongering and use of the media his Fidesz party utilized. In 2015, Mr. Orban famously criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel over their differences on immigration policy telling her to spare him the lecture on “moral imperialism.” Merkel shot back “I grew up staring at a wall in my face…I am determined not to see any more barriers erected in Europe during the remainder of my lifetime.” Poland, in a similar vein, has also gone in the same illiberal direction as Hungary; the right wing Law and Justice Party has passed laws limiting free speech including a very controversial law banning any sort of blame on Poland for its role in the Holocaust. The Parliament has also banned abortion and has undertaken controversial judicial reform to protect their new laws for generations to come, drawing criticism from the European Union, which seeks to promote democracy and liberal values.

The common thing the three countries of Hungary, Poland and Russia face is they all were under the guise of communism during the Cold War. Now, with the ideological piece somewhat hazy, the strand of pure authoritarianism and pseudo populism has emerged as a backlash to globalization and migration particularly in Hungary and Poland, out of the recurring theme of fear of the ‘other’, the very issue that predated World War II and Hitler’s rise to power. Taking a step back for a moment, one has to ask the question, why these countries, particularly Hungary and Poland feel the need to take this turn and project strength by being closer with powers like Russia. In reality, it seems to come off as exactly the opposite- they are taking this illiberal turn because they are weak. A small country like Hungary hardly serves as a role model for the rest of Europe; its economy is 58th in the world according to the IMF with a GDP of only $132,034. It is similar to Russia in that Russia is the largest country in the world and has an economy the size of Italy’s with a GDP that has been retracting the last several years. Both Hungary and Poland continue to face large swaths of poverty. The irony of this is that the country where both the holocaust originated from and the country that was subsequently divided by liberalism and communism in Germany has now become the bastion of liberal democracy. Compared to its neighbors Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world with a healthy GDP of $3,651,87, low unemployment and a robust youth workforce. In addition to taking a strong humanitarian stance on refugees, Merkel also made an important strategic economic calculation to ensure the future of Germany’s workforce, given Europe’s declining population. It appears Germany has learned the right lessons from history compared to its neighbors.

Liberal internationalism is not perfect, not everybody in globalization feels they have gotten their fair share of the pie; however turning inward and against one another by moving in reverse has never been the right answer. The European project, after World War II and continuing after the Cold War, was built on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and open economies. The bloc was built to show that countries are better standing together than alone and in examples like Germany show that when done right, liberal internationalism is still the best answer to lift countries up. Turning inward out of weakness will only set countries back, both in international isolation and economic weakness that will hurt its own populations; ultimately momentary impulses should not define long-term political and economic interests.

Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and Multilateral Affairs Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

Photo Credit: Executive Grapevine

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