We all used to believe that liberal democratic principles would inevitably spread to consume the whole world. Peace, stability and prosperity would, as a consequence, reign supreme.
How wrong we were.
The events surrounding the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi have shocked the world – or at least some of it. In its wake, many Western personalities withdrew from the Saudi-organised ‘Davos in the Desert.’ Now we learn that their place was rapidly filled by an increased number of delegates from China and Russia.
The world’s authoritarian dictatorships are hanging together.
We can all speculate where this will lead. One scenario is a split between the world’s democracies (a minority) and authoritarian regimes who will continue to support each other no matter what.
If that happens, it is unclear whether the democratic world will either hold together or have the will to stand up to authoritarianism. We have already seen that neither the UK nor the USA are willing to withhold arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the killing. The prospect of those billions disappearing and maybe being re-directed to China and Russia has stopped them in their tracks.
No doubt the hope is that the incident will pass and we can get back to business as usual with a regime that is seen as a crucial Western ally in the Middle East and remains a source of oil for the Western world even while it finances terrorism, continues its devastating destruction in Yemen, and now embarks on murder and dismemberment of its critics on foreign soil.
When we published our book titled The Death of Liberal Democracy?, some people were shocked at the title (in spite of our question mark at the end).
In it we argued that democracies must re-invent themselves fundamentally if they are to continue to prosper and if democracy as a concept is not to continue to decline.
Since its publication, we have seen autocracy take over in Turkey and the EU embark on a tussle with some of its own member states in an attempt to preserve democratic principles. Political parties with illiberal tendencies are in the ascendancy almost everywhere – from Austria and Germany to Sweden and Italy.
Yet, what we have not seen is any evidence that the ruling elite is taking these threats seriously, embarking on meaningful soul-searching and doing what is necessary to revitalise liberal democracy.
As someone put it “Fish will be the last to discover water”.