The year has put the world to the test. From the Ukraine invasion to Covid-19 in China, from inflation to climate change, from Sino-American tensions to some crucial elections, 2022 has raised tough questions. These experiences have not only sent the world in a new direction, but have also shown it in a new light.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been the resilience of Western countries with mostly liberal regimes. When Vladimir Putin ordered Russian soldiers into Ukraine on February 24, he expected the capitulation of a corrupt state government. Following the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, one certainly could not have expected the decadent and divided West to accompany condemnation of Russia with actual support for Ukraine.
Instead, Volodimir Zelensky and his people affirmed that self-determination and freedom were worth dying for. Thus they became a source of inspiration. Following the rise of popular support, Western governments turned to the new champion of democracy. Led by the Biden administration, the West is providing arms and aid on a scale not even imagined by the hawks.
At the national level, voters have also been vocal and have taken sides against taboo-breaking populists. In the United States, despite Joe Biden’s dismal approval numbers, centrists used their vote to preserve fundamental rights (such as, in some states, the right to abortion after the Supreme Court’s annulment of Roe v. Wade). . In very close races, nearly all of the Trump-backed deniers of the election results lost.
In France, despite disguising her far-right origins, Marine Le Pen was defeated by the centrist Emmanuel Macron. After becoming the first far-right politician to hold the post of prime minister since the end of the Second World War, Giorgia Meloni has leaned towards the center. Even in the reeling UK, both Labor and the Conservatives in government are coming to the conclusion that victory in elections is achieved far from the populist extremes of the right and left.
Just as democracies with some degree of disorder have displayed unexpected determination, some seemingly steadfast autocracies have shown feet of clay. Putin is the best example, doubling down and doubling down on his catastrophic gamble. But he is not the only one. After three months of protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, who was detained for not complying with the rules regarding the use of the hijab, Iranian security forces are now shooting protesters in the face, breasts and genitals. Once the faith of their people is lost, the mullahs have no other recourse than violence.
Those who admire strong leaders because they get things done should be careful what they wish for. Xi Jinping has extended the dominance of the Communist Party of China and has established himself as its permanent head and the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. However, measures to cool the property market, curb consumer technology and eradicate covid have seriously hurt the Chinese economy. Today, as we witness the spread of the virus, it is clear that his government has wasted a few months that it could have spent vaccinating the elderly, stockpiling drugs, and creating intensive care units.
Even China’s pervasive social control has shown its cracks. Chinese security services put down widespread protests last month, but those demonstrations were sparked in part by the spectacle of maskless crowds enjoying the World Cup in Qatar.
For those of us who embrace classical liberal values, Western resilience is encouraging and marks a major change after a long setback. However, the good news only goes so far. The tests of 2022 have also revealed the depth of the world’s divisions and set great government in motion.
To gauge the divisions, let’s compare the near-universal support for the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with the determination of the global South to remain neutral in the fight for Ukraine. In the latest United Nations vote to condemn Russia, 35 countries abstained. Many understandably resent the fact that the West imposes its concerns as matters of global principle, while the war in Yemen or the Horn of Africa, for example, or weather-related droughts and floods always seem to be regional.
In much of the world, liberal values are in question. Despite the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, democracy is under pressure in Latin America. Ruling under ruinous inflation in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pursuing potential challengers in the 2023 elections. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to avoid jail for corruption by forming a coalition government with the Arabophobic and homophobic far-right. Indonesia passed an anti-liberal penal code in early December that threatens to ban sex outside of marriage, muzzle freedom of expression and impose religious orthodoxy. Tech-inspired companies abound in India’s economy, but their politics are bigoted, ugly and cruel.
Around the world, the idea of limited government is giving way. Due to the energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion, European governments invest money in pricing. They also push the transition away from fossil fuels (in itself a welcome goal), but using industrial policy rather than markets. The US response to the security threat posed by China is to deploy trade barriers and subsidies to disconnect its economy and boost domestic industries. And, if with that it harms the allies, worse for them.
Economic nationalism is popular. Generosity during the pandemic has changed the expectations of the State. Creative destruction, which reallocates capital and labor, can be unpalatable to aging populations less insistent on economic growth and younger voters who embrace identity politics.
However, big government capitalism has a lackluster record. Given decades of high inflation, caused in part by misguided fiscal and monetary policy, especially in the United States, it is strange that voters want to reward politicians and officials by giving them power over parts of the economy they are not equipped to direct. State champions of energy and technology are sometimes successful, but the more countries embark on that path, the greater the waste and rent-seeking.
If we judge by the liberal benchmark of limited government, respect for individual dignity and faith in human progress, 2022 has been an uneven year. Still, there is room for hope. The West was arrogant after the fall of Soviet communism. He paid the price in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009. In 2022, rocked by domestic populism and China’s extraordinary rise, the West has been challenged and has found a way.
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Translation: Juan Gabriel López Guix