Applied Liberalism: Political Challenges
for Liberalism in the New Century
by Graham Watson, member of the European Parliament at the workshop
of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), Penang,
Malaysia, 27 August 2004
I have been asked to say a little about political challenges for
liberalism at the national, regional and international level in
this new century. This is a fairly challenging brief for a fifteen-minute
speech but I thought that I could introduce our discussion by making
a few remarks about what I see as the key battlegrounds for liberalism
in the twenty-first century. Inevitably, as a European politician
I am strongest offering a European perspective, but I have deliberately
chosen to speak about the challenges that I think liberals face
everywhere they are in government or aspire to be.
I see the political challenge for liberalism everywhere as being
one of what we might call 'applied liberalism'. More has been written
about the political theory of liberalism than any other political
philosophy. This morning we did some work on defining what we think
liberalism is and is not and we returned to a set of broad ideas
which would be echoed by liberals in most times and most places:
the freedom of the individual, civil and political rights protected
by law, open markets, tolerance of diversity secular government
protection for the weak and the dispossessed. But these are abstractions,
not political actions. And politics is about political action. Applied
liberalism means transforming these ideals into workable politics.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of
the twentieth century, Liberalism became a concrete political program
in Europe and elsewhere. People began electing liberal politicians
rather than just reading liberal philosophers. Liberalism was forced
to become applied liberalism. Its ideals of human freedom were reshaped
by the real world. For the first time it dealt with the poor, and
the freedom of the poor. It dealt with the rights and the freedom
of women. It looked at the people of the European colonies and had
to answer for their freedom, or lack of it. Liberalism came to understand
that where human potential is denied, through poverty, or poor education,
or fear, there is only a caricature of freedom. Applied liberalism
quickly came to see freedom - as Amartya Sen would put it - as development.
As the freeing of human potential.
B) A Formula, not a Blueprint
One of the lessons I have learnt from working alongside liberal
colleagues in Europe and meeting liberal colleagues throughout Asia
and North America is that liberalism is a formula, not a blueprint.
Liberals are always trying to balance freedom and fairness, emancipation
and empowerment, to achieve the greatest measure of freedom and
opportunity for each individual, and this can mean different things
in different places. Scandinavian liberals, with their lumbering
social democratic states, are likely to be tax-cutters, whereas
British or Canadian liberals are just as likely to be defending
greater investment in public services.
Liberals everywhere are trying to work out the best way to make
government tolerant of social or religious diversity, but there
is no one single way of achieving that.
Free markets are important tools when they work well, but they
can fail in any one of a thousand ways, and effective liberal government
means recognising and adapting to those failures, many of which
are often due to local differences or preferences that must be respected.
Again, there is no blueprint. Just the formula of freedom and fairness.
That is the challenge of applied liberalism.
I think we can strip applied liberalism down to a few basics. The
first has to do with the need to make political power accountable,
the second has to do with breaking a long habit in modern politics
and learning to see people rather than states.
C) Accountable Power
Liberalism began in the defence of the individual from the power
of the state, or the majority, or simply other powerful individuals.
Liberalism has always tried to make power accountable, first by
ensuring that power rests in laws and constitutions and institutions,
not individual people. Then, in the twentieth century, by making
those institutions subject to democratic control.
A world of law and common values and multilateral institutions
is the only effective way of ensuring that power respects the weak.
It is easy to mock the failures of the United Nations - until you
consider the alternative. Whatever you think of current US policy
in the Middle East, the snub dealt to the United Nations by two
of the world's most powerful democracies undermined not just the
UN but the idea that we live in a world of rules at all.
Another example: last year in Europe, the credibility of the eurozone
suffered a heavy blow when France and Germany decided they would
break the eurozone's rules on fiscal discipline and maintain steep
public deficits. These were rules they had made themselves - in
fact Germany was their chief architect. As large states and political
heavyweights there was nothing to stop them, just as there was nothing
to stop the United States invading Iraq. But the broken rules are
not easily mended, and the precedent has been set.
This applies also in areas like free trade. Rich states often speak
as if free trade were a deeply held principle. But they do so in
one breath and defend their agricultural subsidies and tariff barriers
in the next, and we are left with the same sense that the rules
are for the weak, but not for the strong. The fact that the Doha
round has now been relaunched on the back of serious European and
US commitments to end this hypocrisy is to be welcomed. But the
poor need action not words.
In a world of strangers we rely on common values. Even the strongest
states must ultimately fear a world without rules. The US neo-conservatives
believed that American power was its own justification and its own
sustenance. They were wrong. Whoever wakes up as President of the
United States on November 3, we have to hope that the lessons of
unilateralism have been learnt. We can't reshape the world with
power alone. Even if we believe we are using power for the right
reasons, the smaller our coalition of the willing, the greater by
definition the coalition of the aggrieved we leave behind us.
Containing and influencing the large and powerful is a challenge
for liberals everywhere. While strategies may no be the same in
every case, Liberals know that success depends on vigilance, courage
and peer pressure. In Canada, former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre
Trudeau described living alongside the United States as being like
“sleeping with elephant”. In Western Europe Liberals were long divided
over how to deal wit the Moscow-based Communism which dominated
the eastern half of our continent: it was the skill and the courage
– and the patience – of former Liberal German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich
Genscher which created the conditions for peaceful regime change.
Here in Asia, Liberals in Taiwan or Hong Kong may not always see
eye to eye with Liberals elsewhere on how to sow and nurture democracy
in the PRC. But firm principles, courage and peer pressure will
no doubt be lements in any successful strategy.
On the global level, maintaining these networks of common values
and common expectations is a crucial challenge for liberals. We
should be leading attempts to reform the United Nations so that
it can respond better to the developing principle of humanitarian
intervention. Some people are already suggesting that the crisis
in Darfur in the Sudan may require a Kosovo-style intervention outside
of UN auspices. It is hard to see how the UN can remain relevant
if its political structure ensures that it cannot act in situations
such as this. Strong and coherent regional voices from Europe and
Asia are also needed to balance a wilful friend like the United
Liberals should also be pressing for democratic reform of the WTO
and pressuring the governments of Europe and the United States to
take the promise of free trade seriously.
We should be building a strong moral consensus around the ambitions
of the Kyoto Protocol and pushing beyond them to stricter limits
on carbon emissions.
We must give credibility and strength to the International Criminal
Court so that national sovereignty can no longer guard the breakers
of international humanitarian law.
Everywhere where power is exercised there need to be clear limits
to its reach, and it is liberals who should be defining them. The
war against terror has given governments a new and dangerous rationale
for encroaching on civil liberties and limiting personal privacy
- often in the name of our own safety. This year the European Parliament
was forced to take European governments to the European Court of
Justice when they authorised an agreement with the United States
to share confidential data on European airline passengers travelling
across the Atlantic. As in the US, many European governments have
used the war on terror to fast-track untested biometric technology.
If these things make us marginally safer - and there is not a lot
of evidence that they do - they do so at a real cost in reduced
privacy and liberty.
The war against terror leaves us afraid, and fearful people will
listen to governments who tell them they can only be safer when
government is more powerful. Benjamin Franklin said that the man
who would surrender liberty for a little safety deserves neither.
As liberals we need to be on our guard against claims that we can
be more secure by being less free.
Even in our daily political lives, liberals should always be asking
if institutions could be more open, and more accountable. I am a
firm believer in the European Union, but I have spent my entire
European political career working to make the institutions of the
European Union more open and more democratic. The developing powers
of the European Parliament mean that Europe now has a functioning
and strong transnational democracy, but that Parliament could still
connect to citizens better, as could the other institutions of the
EU. Freedom of information is crucial in this regard. From the IMF
and the World Bank down to our local village councils people should
see and understand the decisions that influence their lives, and
the people who make those decisions should be accountable for them.
D) People rather than States
The second insight of applied liberalism relates to people and
states. Liberals do not accept that individuals in one country are
fundamentally different from individuals in another. One of the
consequences of seeing the world as a planet of individuals and
families and local political communities is that national states
begin to look very different. Our national identities seem a lot
This is why liberals are both committed localists and instinctive
internationalists. I serve in the world's first international democratic
parliament, which is part of the world's most ambitious experiment
in international government. I would argue that where the European
Union is succeeding is where it sees people, not states. Pollution
doesn't stop at national borders. Fundamental human rights cannot
be different in France and Belgium. Spain cannot be secure against
international terrorism if Portugal is not. A genuine free market
in Europe means the rules we make for business cannot be different
in Poland and Germany.
The state is still the key administrative unit in human affairs,
but the time has come to detach it once and for all from the politics
of identity. Liberals are right to be deeply suspicious of the conservative
language of 'civilisations' or 'cultures'. Liberals believe strongly
in self-determination but they know enough history to know that
the language of nationalism and self-determination can be abused
by national groups to remove the freedom of individuals and to justify
aggression towards neighbours. We know that open and pluralistic
societies are historically richer and more pacific. We know that
economic nationalism is a gamble that can have terrible consequences
for prosperity and peace.
The challenge for liberal politics is to see - as much as possible
- people rather than states. We need a mature attitude to international
migration that recognises the value that economic migrants bring
rather than flattering the fears and prejudices those who will not
We need to accept and shoulder our responsibilities to the global
poor by investing in aid and development.
We need to build regional, and ultimately, international partnerships
in the war against terror, because there is no more safety in national
sovereignty. We cannot offer a state's defence against a stateless
enemy like Al Qaeda.
Every bit as important, we need to build similar alliances in the
desperate struggle to reduce and reverse the damage we are doing
to our shared natural environment.
States can be a tool in this work, but they can also be an obstacle
to it. National governments still tend to look inward rather than
outwards. The success of the European Union can be attributed to
the simple fact that it allows European states to reclaim some of
their power over the forces of global change. It enables them to
do together what they could not do alone. When the EU leaves local
government to local people and concentrates on serving their 'aggregate
interests' at the European level it is probably the most practical
vision of effective international government in the world. It can
and should be a model for liberals everywhere.
Colleagues, testing our liberal principles in the world of practical
politics shows us that there are many ways to a liberal society:
as many as there are free people in charge of their own political
futures. This applied liberalism may not have the abstract simplicity
of a treatise by Locke or a pamphlet by Mill but it is a programme
for a practical and truly democratic politics.
What I have tried to suggest this afternoon is that there are a
number of threads that should run through our work. The first is
a consistent and unwavering defence of the irreducible liberty of
the individual in the face of power of all kinds. Liberals have
always believed that power is dangerous, and must be contained by
rules and systems of shared values. Liberals designed and built
the United Nations and European Union to do just that. When power
invokes the war against terror to remove our freedoms, it will be
liberals who will stand in its way.
The second thread is the need to see people and the political challenges
that bring them together, rather than the states that keep them
apart. I have named global warming, international terrorism and
the global gap between the rich and the poor, but there are many
Liberals in Asia face challenges of their own: societies and communities
in which liberal solutions must be built for local problems. Here
in Malaysia the challenges of a pluralistic and racially diverse
society and a rapidly developing open economy call for liberal and
secular government, but the liberal formula will produce a Malaysian
liberalism subtly shaped to this unique culture and society.
This is a time of renewal for the Council of Asian Liberals and
Democrats. By setting objectives here you will be giving impetus
and direction to the work of liberal democrats throughout the region.
As a colleague and friend, and on behalf of the European liberal
family, I am privileged to be able to share with you some of my