Refreshing Western Liberalism

Respecting diversity is a global meta-value.

An American flag in a forest outside Altoona, Pennsylvania on Nov. 8, 2016. Donald Trump was elected president that day. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

George Yeo was Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs from 2004 to 2011.

The economic and technological convergence of globalization did not lead to a singular cosmopolitan order, but to a great divergence, in which prospering emergent nations, most notably China, once again attained the wherewithal to chart a path forward based on their own civilizational foundations. Economic and technological strength engenders, not extinguishes, cultural and political self-assertion.   

This development has led Bruno Maçães to argue we are seeing the return of “civilization states,” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, that are pushing back against the universalist claims of a liberal world order.

In this series, we asked several thinkers, including Shashi Tharoor, Zhang Weiwei and Pallavi Aiyar, to assess Maçães’s argument.

— Nathan Gardels, Noema editor-in-chief

SINGAPORE — As an intellectual exercise, imagine Earth faces imminent planetary destruction. Humanity can only preserve itself by sending a Noah’s Ark to Mars. Those selected represent a cross-section of Earth’s peoples. They will be part of a new creation on Mars but carry with them ancestral memories — their civilizational inheritances. In that brave new world, they must respect their past while living with others of different ethnicities, cultures and religions. Working together on Mars will be a necessity, not a choice. This is the liberal idea. 

The liberal idea accepts human beings for who they are but requires them to accept others who are different. The U.S. Constitution raised itself above the differences that divided Europeans by making no requirements on religion or ethnicity. In fact, it was to escape religious and ethnic persecution in the Old World that many went to the New World. There they could be themselves without being discriminated against. It took time, of course, for the British and Dutch to accept Italians and Irishmen. During the First World War, the loyalty of Germans was suspected. Eastern Europeans were progressively absorbed. It was relatively easy for America to absorb Europeans of diverse origins because the Western liberal idea was ultimately founded on values inherited from Greece, Rome and Judeo-Christianity. 

The French Revolution also adopted the liberal idea. “Liberty, equality and fraternity” was not qualified by membership of any particular group. Napoleon tried spreading it throughout Europe, but it quickly met resistance. 

“Instead of the liberal system being a meta-structure that respects the diversity and autonomy of constituent elements, it now seeks to create uniformity with the help of centralized power.”

As Joseph Needham, a Sinologist and historian of technology, writes, the Jesuits who arrived in China were surprised to find a moral system that was not underpinned by organized religion. If China did not need organized religion, neither should Europe, they thought. French encyclopedists like Voltaire and Descartes were partly inspired by the example of China. For them, the ancien regime was not only Louis XV but also the Catholic Church. Not so dissimilarly, a thousand years earlier, the Mandarins in Tang China decided that Buddhism from India should be depoliticized and the monks confined to monasteries. 

The European Union has a founding principle in subsidiarity, which is Catholic in origin. It is a liberal idea that respects diversity. In any domain of human affairs, the only justification for centralization — for taking power from a lower level — is necessity. In the minds of the architects of postwar Europe, which remains a community of essentially tribal nations, this respect for diversity is fundamental.

Similarly, in the U.S., the Founding Fathers were determined that the federal government should not, in time, become oppressive, and so wrote into the Constitution provisions that ensured the states retained considerable autonomy. Some say that the Second Amendment was the ultimate guarantee of this balance between the federal government and the states. If the federal government has a monopoly on legal violence, to use Max Weber’s distillation of state power, then the states would eventually lose their autonomy. 

The Degeneration Of The Liberal Idea

The Western liberal idea has since degenerated. Instead of the liberal system being a meta-structure that respects the diversity and autonomy of constituent elements, it now seeks to create uniformity with the help of centralized power. The mobilization of resources during the First and Second World Wars in the U.S. led to a growing concentration of political power in Washington. This power enabled elites to impose their values on the general population. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s began a revolt against Washington. It is a struggle that continues today, possibly reaching its apogee with the Trump phenomenon. On both sides of the polarized body politic, the liberal idea has been cast aside, at least temporarily, in a fight for the soul of America. 

The Western liberal idea has also weakened in Europe with the concentration of power in Brussels. The Treaty of Rome, which established the European common market in 1957, was a short but inspiring document. I had it on my desk as a model for the ASEAN construction. The acquis communautaire, which sets out the terms and obligations of the European Union today, is much longer. Subsidiarity as an organizing principle has long been abandoned. The European project did, however, give to the continent its longest period of peace. The failure to incorporate Russia in this project laid the ground for its invasion of Ukraine. 

By respecting diversity, liberalism as a meta-idea could have risen above its Western origins and united all of humanity for a higher purpose. Unfortunately, it never really extended beyond Western shores. European empires never accorded to those living in their colonies the same rights they gave to their own citizens and to one another. And after the Second World War, the U.S. gave hope to the world that it could furnish that meta-system, but that is now doubtful.


The U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights listed what are in fact meta-values for the nations of the world. But that period did not last. 

Intoxicated by its own success, American exceptionalism disdained the value systems of other peoples. They were judged before they were understood. Western values such as individualism and multiparty liberal democracy were asserted as universal values. Nevertheless, the American Dream became the Asian Dream. The American elite thought that Asians, when they became middle-class, would then be like them, and are disappointed when they are not. 

Pax Americana never became a meta-system. The imposition of American ideas and values came to be resented, especially by the ancient peoples of Asia, who saw the U.S. as a young country and not quite a civilization. 

Within the U.S. and Europe, the in-migration of large numbers of non-Western people has created new stresses. There is a limit to how much these newcomers and their offspring are prepared to be Westernized. The teachings of Islam make the absorption of Muslims into Western society particularly difficult. 

“The imposition of American ideas and values came to be resented, especially by the ancient peoples of Asia, who saw the U.S. as a young country and not quite a civilization.”

In recent years, the view that history is a struggle between democracy and autocracy has helped the U.S. gather allies against China and Russia. It is a powerful polemic, but shallow. What distinguishes Homo sapiens from apes is the re-programmability of human culture to meet new challenges. 

Human culture is constantly evolving, including our political ideas. Democracy — the people as ruler — puts the common person at the center of good governance. This is easier said than done, which is why all societies have struggled to find the right political form. All political systems, including autocracies, should be attempts to achieve that noble goal. The Catholic Church, for example, is an autocracy, but its mission is centered on the human being. Its ideal is completely democratic. China would never concede that it is not a democracy, although it is in fact an autocracy not unlike the Church. The word for democracy in Chinese, minzhu, is exactly derived from the Greek demos and kratos, meaning governance with the interest of all citizens as its guiding principle.

The liberal idea is in crisis. It partly explains the tension between the West and the rest. More profoundly, the crisis is in Western society itself — in Europe and the U.S. 

A return to the original liberal idea that incorporates the yearnings of non-Western people would refresh both continents and provide a better basis for all countries in the world to live together in harmony. Restored and so refreshed, that should be the idea carried to Mars in Noah’s Ark.