Development and spread of liberal economies, the rule of law, and democracy

Liberal democracy can be defined as a state where there is rule of law, a capitalist economic system and what are recognised as the essential features of democracy: free and fair elections, choice, participation, representation and accountability. ‘Rule of law’ means a system in which no person or institution is above the law. Rulers and others in positions of power and responsibility may not disregard civil liberties and individual rights or act in contravention of the rules of the political system. These are guaranteed by statute law and the constitution and are enforced by an independent and neutral judiciary. A liberal economy or capitalist system is one where wealth creation is largely driven by the private sector, with the government playing a minimal role in regulating the operation of the market. Wealth and ownership of property is protected by law.

The spread of liberal economies through the industrial revolution seemed to go hand in hand with democratisation. As with democracy, England was the first to industrialise. It began in the late 18th century with a number of inventions that allowed for mass production of manufactured goods, such as iron and steel, and cotton and woollen cloth. Industrialisation then spread through western Europe and the United States of America in the 19th century. The acceleration of globalisation in the latter half of the 20th century due to the promotion of free trade and liberal economic policy by international institutions such as the IMF and the World Trade Organization has led to more states adopting the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.

By the end of the 20th century it seemed that liberal democracy had triumphed. (Unipolarity) Francis Fukuyama, first in his 1989 essay The End of History and the Last Man and then in a 1992 book of the same name, put forward the view that Marx’s deterministic predictions of the end-point of human development being communism would not be realised. Instead, the intermediate stage of that development, which Marx had as capitalism, would in fact be the final stage of human development. Fukuyama was writing at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. Eastern European states were becoming democracies and even China and Russia were adopting capitalist-style economic development. It seemed as if no other political idea could rival liberal democracy. In the 21st century, Fukuyama’s predictions look less persuasive. The Arab Spring, which attempted to spread democracy to the Arab world, has faltered in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. A rival ideology has emerged in fundamentalist Islam, as promoted by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to challenge liberal democracy, and authoritarian populism has spread in Russia, China, and Hungary and is reflected in Brexit and Trump.

However, the developed states have benefited most from the expansion of liberal democracy and continue to enjoy significant advantages over developing states.

The development and spread of liberal democracy was linked by a number of liberal thinkers, to the spread of liberal economics. Market economies should create a more stable and peaceful world. Sometimes known as the economic peace theory, classical economists have consistently argued that free trade generates a more peaceful world order. This is often allied to two other normative elements of liberalism, such as support for the rule of law and the spread of democratic values.

In Thomas L. Friedman's 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the following statement was presented: "No two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's". He supported his belief, as a theory, by stating that when a country has reached an economic development where it has a middle class strong enough to support a McDonald's network, it would become a "McDonald's country", and will not be interested in fighting wars anymore. Shortly after the book was published, NATO bombed Yugoslavia. On the first day of the bombing, McDonald's restaurants in Belgrade were demolished by angry protesters and were rebuilt only after the bombing ended. In the 2000 edition of the book, Friedman argued that this exception proved the rule: the war ended quickly, he argued, partly because the Serbian population did not want to lose their place in a global system "symbolised by McDonald's" (Friedman 2000: 252–253).

In 2005, Friedman said that he framed this theory in terms of McDonald's Golden Arches "with tongue slightly in cheek". In his 2005 book, The World is Flat, he offered an updated theory he called the Dell theory. Friedman (2005) argued that ‘no two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain…will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain.’ This is a theory that underlines yet further the significance of mutual dependence between countries. The Dell theory is an update of an earlier argument put forward by Sir Norman Angell in The Great Illusion (1909), reasoning that economic interdependence makes war unprofitable for all belligerents. Although not a cast-iron guarantee, both mature and developing economies will seek to maintain the trading benefits that come with globalisation, as opposed to descending into conflict.

Economic peace theory stipulates that market-oriented economies will not engage in war with one another. This is based upon an assumption that states act via their own rational interests, and that we should adopt an optimistic view of human nature. In an integrated and mutually dependent global economy, countries will seek to avoid the heavy financial cost and loss of life attributable to warfare, deterring conflict. Those who support the economic peace theory claim that ‘the freer the market, the freer the people.’ The forces of demand and supply enable individuals to make their own decisions. A market free from state intervention also leads towards the most efficient allocation of scarce resources.

The Crisis of Democracy. Is democracy really inevitable?

Critics on the left of the political spectrum point out that capitalism has operated successfully in repressive states such as China and Russia. Secondly, political leaders do not always make rational choice decisions and may make a more winner take all view of conflict. E.g Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As a result, argue critics of capitalism, wars will always occur on the basis of economic gain for capitalist powers. War id simply an extension of market competition.

The strained relationship between China and Taiwan is a useful case study since according to capitalist peace theory, the level of economic ties between them should prevent the possibility of actual warfare. However, China continues to make realistic preparations for a military attack on Taiwan. The war in Ukraine and Russia's invasion in 2022 provide a case study to counter economic peace theory.

Realist critics also reject the view that we should be optimistic about human nature since wars have rarely made rational sense. Regardless of economic and political ties, relations between states always hold the potential for conflict to emerge.

Critical View of market economics

The Rule of law

The rule of law refers to the principle that the legal system should provide impartial justice for everyone within a nation-state. This means that no individual can claim to be above the law and that the government is itself bound to obey the rule of law. The government (executive) is separate from the judiciary, ensuring that the judiciary is not simply a tool of the government as it is in totalitarian states. The powers of the government are therefore limited, so protecting the civil liberties of the public from arbitrary interference. A liberal democracy, like the UK, is governed according to the rule of law, in contrast to an authoritarian government in which there are no constraints on how the government acts.

At the end of the Second World War, the UN took the moral lead in trying to establish an international community in which the rule of law and respect for human rights would challenge aggressive nationalism and racism. The Charter of the United Nations (1945) laid the foundations for a new world order based upon cooperation between nation-states rather than conflict. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for the first time established an international standard of human rights to which all states should aspire to exist. Tragically, 1948 also coincided with the Soviet take-over of Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Airlift, so that the beginning of the Cold War soon overshadowed the fine cosmopolitan ideals of the UDHR. The resulting deterioration in relations between the Soviet Union and the USA therefore meant that the UN generally became gridlocked, as each superpower vetoed the resolutions of the other. In addition, it was in the interests of each superpower to advance its tactical interests at the expense of the other. This meant that each state became engaged in proxy wars to advance the interests of its allies, often exacerbating and prolonging military conflicts. The protection of human rights was therefore considerably less important to the leaders of East and West than advancing strategic self-interest and guaranteeing their security.

After the end of the Cold War there was a desire to enforce some international law.

President Clinton

On 26 February 1999, President Bill Clinton gave a speech in which he laid out a number of principles that later became known as the Clinton Doctrine. According to Clinton, genocide could never be purely a domestic affair and the USA should be prepared to intervene within states to stop ethnic cleansing. These principles later on became enshrined in the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (2005):

It’s easy ... to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brush land in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread? We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.

However, critics point out that before developing this doctrine, Clinton had withdrawn US troops from Somalia following the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, allowing that country to further descend into anarchy. His administration was also resolute for inaction as the Rwandan genocide took place in 1994. In 1999, it was Prime Minister Tony Blair who persuaded a reluctant Clinton that he should be prepared to commit grounds troops in Kosovo if the air bombing campaign did not lead to a withdrawal of the Serbian military.

President Trump

During his presidential campaign in 2016, Donald Trump shocked liberals across the world by abandoning the principle that the USA should act as the world’s moral policeman. What mattered to Trump was stability rather than morality — his approach to politics was therefore realist rather than liberal. For example, in his second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton he acknowledged that: ‘I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.’ Then, in his inaugural speech on 20 January 2017, he categorically stated that, ‘we will seek friendship and good will with the nations of the world but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first’.

On 7 April 2017, following the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, President Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian government military complexes. Russia responded that this was a blatant attack on a sovereign state. However, European leaders were much more supportive of Trump’s assertion that what had happened was an ‘affront to humanity’. Trump stated:

On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror. Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail. Good night and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.