The rise of illiberalism and how to fight it

Storm clouds loom over an American flag in Convent, Louisiana, U.S., June 11, 2018. Picture taken June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman - RC17A0081E00

Governments, leaders, and governing paradigms change over time, but the rise of autocracy and illiberalism has concerned many observers. While these new trends represent a struggle between democracy and its opponents that has been present throughout modern history, Brookings Senior Fellows Norman Eisen and Robert Kagan argue that the United States’ contemporary turn toward an isolationist policy is especially problematic.

On September 17, the Governance Studies program hosted Eisen and Kagan in a conversation moderated by NPR’s Steve Inskeep to discuss the rise of illiberalism around the world today. The conversation focused on the current events foreshadowed by both scholars’ recently published books: Norm Eisen’s “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House” and Robert Kagan’s “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.” The books are a call to action against illiberalism: in Eisen’s story, a majestic house in Prague represents the cycle of democratic triumphs and defeats from 1918-2018 and in Kagan’s analysis, the United States plays an important role as enforcer of global peace and order.

Brookings President John Allen set the tone with his opening remarks, saying that “we have learned that democracy is not inevitable, that it needs to be understood, needs to be nurtured, it needs to be cared for, and it needs to be guarded with great vigilance.” Watch the opening remarks and full video of panel one here:

Steve Inskeep kicked off the conversation by asking Eisen about the history of the house, the main character of his “The Last Palace.” Eisen related the story of how the house changed hands over the years from its original Jewish builder, to its German general occupier during World War II, to the American envoy who fought the Cold War, to the movie-star ambassador who ended it, and then to Eisen himself.

Throughout Norm Eisen’s book, the palace, built by Otto Petschek, becomes a symbol for liberalism as momentous historical events occur just outside its doors. During the discussion, Eisen described how the Petschek family fled Prague during the May Crisis of 1938, and how the house transformed over the following decades. After the conversation with Inskeep and Kagan, Eisen participated in a panel that included direct descendants of previous residents of the palace and discussed first-hand accounts of the people who lived there, and how the cyclic rise and fall of liberalism affected them.

Eisen talks about the house and its occupants in this video:

In his book, “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World,” Robert Kagan highlights the importance of American involvement on the global stage and the real dangers of American isolationism. When asked by Inskeep how to combat the encroachment of illiberalism and autocracy and how the United States should respond, Kagan harkened back to the United States’ two-pronged strategy during the Cold War. The first part of the strategy, Kagan said, was to “deny countries that were autocracies military and strategic gains. That was what the containment of the Soviet Union was all about.” The second part of the model was that the United States helped to “create a flourishing liberal order” that non-democratic countries sought to join. By helping to reestablish a flourishing liberal order, Kagan stressed that the United States must “reenergize liberal democracy” and affirm our commitment to our liberal allies, rather than dismantle it.

Here, Kagan talks about his book:

For more, watch the full event video.

*Megan Drake contributed to this post