Human Rights Professor: Liberal Democracy 'Seems To Be Unraveling'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Is there any reason for liberals to feel optimistic after a year of political disasters? Is there even a shred of silver lining to be found in the tatters of Brexit, Donald Trump's election and European disunity? Well, those are two questions posed by Ian Buruma in a recent article. Mr. Buruma is a human rights and journalism professor at Bard College who has written extensively about European history. He's a liberal who's writing recently looks at how Donald Trump's presidency might alter international political alignments. Ian Buruma, welcome back.
IAN BURUMA: Thank you.
SIEGEL: First, what do you see as the threat to international politics posed by Donald Trump's presidency?
BURUMA: Well, in short, the whole world order set up largely by the United States - at least in the West - after World War II to make sure such catastrophes would never happen again based on internationalism and cooperation and social equality and so on are now under threat because Donald Trump has said he wants to dismantle it. He's very suspicious of NATO. He doesn't really believe it's in the American interest to have allies except if they pay the United States and so on. So everything we looked up to in the West after the war seems to be unraveling.
SIEGEL: How well-positioned is Europe - at least the NATO part of Europe - to keep the peace in the region if indeed U.S. policy were to be that Washington regards NATO as obsolete?
BURUMA: They're very, very unprepared. One of my fears is that talk about not defending the Baltic states, for example, could tempt Vladimir Putin to try it on in a place like Latvia, which is NATO member. If NATO doesn't respond, that's really the end of NATO's credibility. If it does, it's war. And if it - if NATO loses its credibility, Europe is essentially defenseless.
SIEGEL: What do you think of the argument - perhaps not a very encouraging one - that the age of the U.S. leading NATO and playing a major role in the Pacific is today as antique as the European empires were a century ago. Inevitably, the post-World War II era would have to change and have to come to an end.
BURUMA: That may be true in the long run, but I don't see any alternative at the moment. The only two other major powers, apart from Europe, which is, of course, not really a unified power, are China and Russia. Neither of them seem to me to be desirable alternatives as regulators of the world order to the United States.
SIEGEL: In an article, you have warned against the idea that perhaps one lesson of the contemporary politics is that political parties are obsolete and really not that important. You would say no, they're very - they're very necessary. Why?
BURUMA: I think they're absolutely necessary to a liberal democracy because the road to dictatorship almost always starts with movements - movements that are set against parties that represent conflicting interests. And movements usually pretend to represent the people, as though the people speak with one voice and all those who disagree are not really part of the people. And so in order for politics to function and democracy to function as a way to deal peacefully with conflicts of interests, you need parties to represent those interests.
SIEGEL: What about the argument that the rise of populist movements is, well, it can be blamed on the political parties - that they just haven't delivered and too many people feel ill-served, their problems unsolved by the conventional parties.
BURUMA: Yes, but I think a lot of the anxieties and discontent of people cannot simply be solved by political parties. They have to do with technological change, with global finance, with robots working instead of human beings in factories and that kind of thing. Governments can't solve all those problems. And also the world is not quite in such a bad shape as people like Donald Trump would have us believe. In fact, the U.S. is now in better shape than it was in 2008.
SIEGEL: You know, I find myself saying this often to younger friends and colleagues - people alive today in America are the first generation in centuries to not have lived through a continental bloodbath in Europe - something that just might have been expected every 30 or 40 years until the end of the Second World War. Has the success of NATO been its undoing, perhaps - that indeed it just doesn't animate people anymore to prevent the great war in Europe? Where is the great war going to happen?
BURUMA: I think that something else that plays a role in this - which is that people forget, and collective memory fades. And people don't really know what happened in the '30s and '40s. And so it's no longer the warning that it was for previous generations, and people don't really realize and can even get bored with peace.
SIEGEL: Ian Buruma, a writer and professor at Bard College, thank you very much for talking with us.
BURUMA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.