When is a crisis not a crisis? Perhaps there are so many aspects of our current global situation being described as crises that the word itself has lost much of its sense of emergency. In Europe we’re trying to climb out of a financial crisis that then contributed to an ongoing currency crisis with the knock-on effect of creating multiple crises-of-governance across the continent and a Europe-wide identity crisis. Back in January these questions of identity and purpose became a crisis of ethics and values, at least among two-thirds of respondents to a World Economic Forum survey.
Does the global crisis really run this deep? If so it is a stark message for governments worldwide, as it calls time on an international order based on liberal capitalism. This would be especially serious in Europe, as these apparently crisis-hit values are the underpinning for the EU’s foreign policy. These values, built up over the lifetime of the EU, tacitly assume that modernisation on the basis of a Western model of democracy, respect for fundamental rights, and rule of law, is ultimately the model which ensures a better standard of living for all.
It is hard to escape the fact that although the roots of the meta-crisis are to be found in the financial heart of the Western world, the impact is being felt worldwide among many millions who lie a long way away from the western banking sector. This clearly has negative implications for the soft power of Europe and the US. And yet the Pew Global Attitudes Survey 2010 found that outside these regions, few people do actually believe that Western governments are to blame for the crisis. In most of the countries surveyed in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the majority of respondents who felt their national economy was in bad shape placed the responsibility for this at the door of their national government. This includes 95% in Indonesia, 93% in Kenya and Nigeria, 89% in Pakistan, and 88% in Lebanon. True, survey results only tell you so much, but this doesn’t appear to point towards faith in the Western economic model having been completely undermined.
What then, of rival economic models at this time of crisis? How are systems not based on free markets operating under the rule of law weathering the storm? Among the countries often cited as having been least affected by the financial crisis – leaving aside closed economies such North Korea – are those as diverse as Australia, Brazil, China and Morocco. So while this list does not discredit democracy as a basis for a stable economy, neither does it indicate that the Western model offers better economic protection for its citizens than other models. Arguably, in a time of financial crisis, non-democratic societies can afford to be more nimble. If there is no freedom of expression and association, tough decisions can be taken without the fear of mass protest and electoral defeat that trouble governments in democratic systems.
Questions must also be asked about what it means to steer a country through a financial crisis. It is one thing to pull an economy through a recession; it is a much greater challenge to do so whilst ensuring an adequate standard of living for all citizens. The close relationship between democracy and growth is troubled by the high growth rates experienced in China and other authoritarian countries, including Chad, Burma and Equatorial Guinea. Some commentators argue that the link between respect for international norms such as human rights and rule of law, and economic stability, has been broken. But such a conclusion is premature. China faces many hurdles to sustaining its growth, including an aging population, the need to diversify its economy beyond manufacturing and dependency on carbon-based energy.
When real earnings within some high growth economies are taken into account, the economic success of China and other authoritarian regimes looks much less secure. The benefits of this growth are often far from evenly spread, and a major test over the coming years will be the extent to which many citizens will be willing to endure ongoing relative economic hardship while their neighbours are seen to do so much better. Some argue that this might lead to greater pressure for political reform, and others that economic hardship leads people to place a higher value on non-material goods, which might include reforms such as political transparency and responsiveness.
Since many seem to blame their national governments for the crisis, we may find over the long term that rather than the financial crisis leaving the human rights based value system exposed, it actually instigates a worldwide resurgence of demand for political enfranchisement. People may become more assertive in demanding better from their political masters, emphasising what Angela Merkel termed in her meetings with the Russian government last month the “inseparable link between modernising the economy and making civil society more democratic”.
Few of the seismic shifts that are reverberating around the globe are going to crystalise fully overnight, either in terms of improvements in the economic sphere or in deflating an enduring world order based on international rule of law. The economic crisis has unquestionably driven some self doubt into the liberal international order, but it has not made a case for abandoning the fundamental principles on which the EU’s relationship with the rest of the world is premised. This would be a dangerous time for the EU to abandon an approach that has not been proved wrong, and for which there are no genuine alternatives. That might sound like an underwhelming reason for keeping an approach, but it is a realistic one that also relies upon the confidence of the European nations in the values that they seek to promote. That is how it should be: The economic crisis is already big enough: the EU does not need an existential crisis too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.