The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes
Pegasus Books, $24.49 (cloth)

For the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. foreign policy hovered in suspended animation. Trump wreaked plenty of havoc: disparaging allies, issuing tariffs as if they were tweets, and exiting international compacts willy-nilly. But many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment held out hope that these perversions would be like a bad dream—an unsettling interval after which things could return to normal, not a decisive break in America’s approach to the world.

For the past thirty years, the United States has sought to universalize the order that survived the fall of the Berlin Wall—a project we can call liberal universalism.

This hope was not without justification. While the implementation of U.S. foreign policy has fluctuated widely across administrations, the overarching aims have remained remarkably stable since the end of the Cold War. From George H. W. Bush’s “new world order” to Bill Clinton’s “democratic enlargement,” George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” to Barack Obama’s “rules-based international order,” the goal has been to extend the reach of democracy and free markets around the globe. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies built one international order, and the Soviet Union built another. For the past thirty years, the United States has sought to universalize the order that survived the fall of the Berlin Wall—a project we can call liberal universalism. Its objective—expanding an order that already existed—explains why there has been little innovation in international organizations since the end of the Cold War, whereas Washington has labored to increase membership in institutions that predate 1989.

The fourth year of Trump’s presidency has ended this history. To be sure, the viability of liberal universalism has been waning for some time—the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2016 presidential election sowed serious doubts about the United States’ global role, economic stewardship, and democratic processes. But Washington’s flailing response to COVID-19 has been the nail in the coffin, calling into question the basic competence of the American state and the cohesion of American society. We now face widespread disillusionment not only with U.S. leadership, but with the American political and economic model itself: a crisis of confidence caused by a crisis of competence. Even if Trump loses in a landslide in November, restoring liberal universalism is no longer feasible or desirable.

The time has come for Americans to rethink their country’s role in the world and fashion an internationalism suited to today’s realities. But before imagining a successor to liberal universalism, it’s necessary to understand why it foundered.

We now face widespread disillusionment not only with U.S. leadership, but with the American political and economic model itself: a crisis of confidence caused by a crisis of competence. 

This is the subject of Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s The Light That Failed (2020). Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, and Holmes, an American law professor, make formidable guides, having studied America’s post-Cold War foreign policy from both the giving and receiving ends. The Light That Failed is analytically rigorous, clearly argued, and—at just over 200 pages—concise, a major accomplishment for a work of such scope. Though the book went to press before the pandemic, it remains an indispensable resource in our current predicament and is essential reading for anyone considering a post-Trump foreign policy. Krastev and Holmes’s postmortem on liberal universalism, however, is ultimately incomplete—for they insufficiently probe the type of liberalism that the United States tried to universalize.

• • •

As Krastev and Holmes see it, the key question to ask about America’s post–Cold War foreign policy isn’t “What went wrong?” but “What if we were wrong?” The former question presupposes that the objectives of liberal universalism were well founded, even if Washington chose the wrong means to achieve them. But the latter question—Krastev and Holmes’s question—suggests that the objectives themselves require greater scrutiny. Their argument thus takes aim at liberal universalism’s underlying theory of change: that spreading the political and economic structures of the Cold War’s victors around the globe would pave the surest path to lasting peace and prosperity.

With the end of the Cold War, the political universe became monotheistic—if communism was the god that failed, liberalism was the only god left.

This theory was doomed, according to Krastev and Holmes, because liberal universalism was bound to generate resentment. In explaining why, they identify two “culprits co-responsible for the strange death of what we used to call the liberal international order”: Central European populists, led by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński; and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Both culprits bristled at liberal universalism’s implicit moral hierarchy, which placed the United States and Western Europe on a pedestal while imploring other countries to imitate them. And eventually, both set out to cut their exemplars down to size.

In Central Europe, the impetus to emulate the West was organic and sincere. The revolutionaries of 1989 did not seek some imagined utopia but “normality” as it already existed in the West. With the end of the Cold War, the political universe became monotheistic—if communism was the god that failed, liberalism was the only god left.

But the ambition to imitate actually existing liberalism proved problematic. For starters it encouraged brain drain, as many of Central Europe’s best and brightest emigrated to the West rather than waiting for their homelands to become the West. It was also psychologically taxing, forcing Central Europeans to chase after a model they could never quite catch. And it robbed Central Europeans of their agency, incentivizing them to embrace policy programs devised in Brussels and Washington. Over time it engendered shame and resentment, clearing the way for nationalists like Orbán and Kaczyński to win voters by appealing to their desire to recover a lost authenticity.

In Russia the story played out differently. Instead of genuinely attempting to imitate the West, Russia built a Potemkin democracy, ostensibly liberal but actually run by ex-communists. These members of the old regime “found faking democracy perfectly natural because they had been faking communism for at least two decades before 1991.”

Initially this charade was purely self-serving. At home, sham elections—in which Boris Yeltsin and later Putin ran against buffoonish challengers—provided the illusion of choice while emphasizing the lack of reasonable alternatives; abroad, they furnished Russian officials and elites with a patina of legitimacy. But in 2007 this simulation routine took an aggressive turn. From then onward, Russian foreign policy sought to parody liberal universalism and prove a pedagogical point: the West’s air of moral superiority was hypocritical. This new approach was best exemplified by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, allegedly to protect ethnic Russians, and its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, designed to give America a taste of its own medicine.

Krastev and Holmes’s narrative is illuminating and persuasive. But in two critical areas, it is misleading. The authors insist that illiberal leaders lack a “universally exportable ideology” and that authoritarianism is “not an ideology shareable across borders.” Yet elsewhere they claim that Orbán “aims to transform Europe into a Confederation of Illiberal Democracies” and that the United States is undergoing “‘regime change’ in reverse.” Clearly, leaders such as Orbán and Putin aspire to make the world safe for autocracy, including by exporting illiberalism to the West. (In interfering in U.S. and European elections, Moscow hasn’t just aimed to sow confusion; it has endeavored to boost illiberal candidates such as Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen.) While Krastev and Holmes are right to reject the dawn of a New Cold War, it remains imperative that the West defend itself against this ideological onslaught.

Clearly, leaders such as Orbán and Putin aspire to make the world safe for autocracy, including by exporting illiberalism to the West.

Equally important, The Light That Failed gives short shrift to economics. The authors call the 2008 financial crisis liberalism’s “coup de grâce,” but primarily because it discredited Western elites, not because of its grievous economic consequences. They argue that the globalization of the English language puts Americans at a disadvantage (as it makes the United States easy prey for malicious foreign actors), yet they omit what should have been their central point: it enables foreigners to win good jobs with U.S. companies while monolingual Americans are seldom qualified for similar opportunities at foreign firms. Most glaringly, they make just one extended reference to neoliberal economic policies—the market fetishism that came into vogue in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and that has dominated Western policy ever since—in a section about why West Germany proved a poor model for Central Europe post-1989:

Of course, various other factors were also involved, especially the evolution of the globally dominant form of American liberalism from Roosevelt’s kinder and gentler New Deal, promising freedom from fear, to Reagan’s deregulated market, meant to rattle people, to make them feel insecure at work, to take away their pensions, and so forth. The general refusal to invest heavily in the political stability of the new entrant states by supporting the economic importance of labor unions, while totally in line with the Thatcherite zeitgeist, deviated radically from the Allies’ basically pro-labor union policy in West Germany after the Second World War. The most important reason for this change was presumably the disappearance of a communist threat and the corollary that no special efforts needed to be made to maintain the loyalty of workers to the system as a whole.

It is impossible to explain the shipwreck of liberal universalism without this context. Yet Krastev and Holmes demote it to one of “various other factors” and allot it just three sentences.

• • •

If an idea won the Cold War, which one was it? And if it was liberalism—meaning a combination of democracy and capitalism—which form of capitalism? These questions, unexplored in The Light That Failed, are essential to understanding U.S. foreign policy in the post–Cold War era. It was a matter of historical contingency that the demise of the Soviet Union coincided with the apotheosis of neoliberal economic thought—but it was a contingency of the utmost consequence.

It was a matter of historical contingency that the demise of the Soviet Union coincided with the apotheosis of neoliberal economic thought—but it was a contingency of the utmost consequence.

In awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Friedrich Hayek, a patron saint of neoliberalism, in 1991, George H. W. Bush sounded ebullient notes: “How magnificent it must be for him to witness his ideas validated before the eyes of the world.” But had the end of the Cold War “validated” neoliberalism? Even for neoliberalism’s defenders, it’s hard to argue that plummeting tax rates on wealthy Americans and deregulation in the 1980s vanquished communism. Yet Bush’s panegyric hints that U.S. leaders did believe that neoliberalism had emerged victorious.

The best evidence of neoliberalism’s power at the time was Bush’s own political fate. After presiding over a remarkable string of foreign-policy successes—the peaceful reunification of Germany, triumph in the Gulf War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union—Bush lost reelection to Bill Clinton, a centrist Democrat, partly because Bush violated a neoliberal campaign pledge: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

Upon entering the White House, Clinton picked up where Reagan and Bush left off, deregulating the financial industry and championing the Washington Consensus, which aimed to export the neoliberal economic model around the globe. In the 1990s, neoliberalism achieved such intellectual dominance that it became (and in some ways still is) conflated with basic economic theory. To this day, few Americans understand that neoliberalism is but one form of capitalism, and that the country’s most prosperous modern period—after World War II—occurred under “embedded liberalism,” which prioritized state intervention for the public good. Fewer still recognize that neoliberalism doesn’t effectuate the absence of the state but rather uses state power to protect private property, facilitate the free flow of goods and money, and inoculate private markets against popular pressures.

All this history warrants recounting because it played a central role in America’s post–Cold War foreign policy. It explains why Western officials counseled the former Warsaw Pact states to adopt neoliberal economic models, epitomized by so-called “shock therapy.” As Krastev and Holmes acknowledge, Germany never pushed the European Union to export its much-vaunted welfare system and labor rights to the East. On a more basic level, it incentivized the newly liberated states to enact an intrusive economic program, leaving local leaders with little room for homegrown policies. In this way, neoliberalism’s dominance contributed to the feelings of resentment that are so well documented in The Light That Failed.

Neoliberalism’s greatest influence on U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War concerns what it did to the United States itself—it gutted government services, produced soaring inequality and social dislocation, and gradually depleted the American model of its global appeal.

Neoliberalism also helps us understand why the United States ushered China and Russia into global economic institutions. Today, these decisions seem puzzling—as if Washington afforded Beijing and Moscow the benefits of becoming “stakeholders” before proving themselves “responsible.” Viewed against the backdrop of neoliberalism’s heyday, however, China and Russia were both “responsible” by the paramount standard of the time—they provided U.S. firms with highly profitable investment opportunities.

But neoliberalism’s greatest influence on U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War concerns what it did to the United States itself—it gutted government services, produced soaring inequality and social dislocation, and gradually depleted the American model of its global appeal. For Americans, neoliberalism unleashed a vicious cycle: spawned by the post-1968 loss of faith in government, neoliberalism led to the slashing of government institutions, which in turn made government institutions less effective, which further diminished faith in government, which increased support for neoliberalism, and so on ad infinitum. By 2020, a Republican president could refuse to use the full force of the federal government to control a lethal pandemic, resulting in untold death and record unemployment, and still maintain more than 90 percent approval from members of his party. A restoration of liberal universalism is impossible, quite simply, because no country would willingly emulate that liberalism.

• • •

Krastev and Holmes conclude that the premises of liberal universalism were indeed faulty. In their telling, liberal universalism’s fatal flaw was that it divided the world in two, separating “imitators from the imitated, established democracies from countries struggling to complete the transition to democracy.” This dichotomy established a fraught moral hierarchy, fueling shame, resentment, and eventually retaliation. Examined in retrospect, it’s little wonder the imitators gravitated toward full-throated anti-Westernism.

The maxim “politics stops at the water’s edge,” formulated after World War II to shield U.S. foreign policy from partisan rancor, took on a new meaning after the Cold War—that foreign policy ought not be guided by the same popular currents driving domestic policy.

The case is logically sound and supported by history. But it is one step removed from the original sin of liberal universalism: the implication that the West’s own political and economic development was complete. The belief that American democracy and capitalism were already perfect encouraged complacency at home and messianism abroad. With an imaginative void domestically, the United States was naturally drawn toward adventurism internationally.

Disturbingly, this conviction severed foreign policy from domestic policy—treating the former as if it obeyed a wholly different logic from the latter. The result was a foreign policy disconnected from the felt needs of the American people, and unaccountable to any standards apart from those it set for itself. The maxim “politics stops at the water’s edge,” formulated after World War II to shield U.S. foreign policy from partisan rancor, took on a new meaning after the Cold War—that foreign policy ought not be guided by the same popular currents driving domestic policy.

This distinction is nonsense. To be sure, a successful foreign policy depends, in part, on input from nonpolitical technocrats. As a former State Department official, I can confirm that diplomacy is a skill like any other, honed through practice and aided by expertise. But the objectives of diplomacy are irreducibly political—they are not and should not be insulated from domestic needs and wants. The post–Cold War dissection of foreign and domestic policy not only hampered both; it opened up a void in which Trump could reunite them under the banner of “America first.”

The assumption that the American experiment had achieved perfection was doubly problematic because, of course, it was false. In reality, the neoliberal economic ideas that rose to power in the twilight of the Cold War weakened the United States. They hollowed out the American state and hindered its ability to confront the central challenges of the coming era: not wars among nuclear-constrained great powers, but climate change, disinformation, inequality, pandemics, and racial injustice, all of which require capable government institutions and social trust to address. Looking beyond Trump, the starting point of any new internationalism should be a commitment to rebuild state capacity, renew the social contract, and treat foreign and domestic policy as a single continuum.

• • •

The Light That Failed is a work of diagnosis, not prescription. Nevertheless, Krastev and Holmes reflect on the appropriate purview for U.S. foreign policy moving forward: “Relative decline is America’s fate. The choices that remain only concern how wisely or foolishly this decline is managed.” As Krastev and Holmes see it, China’s rise “finished off” the post–Cold War era, marking the beginning of an age that will feature non-ideological competition between states over trade, resources, and technology. In this “pluralistic and competitive world,” they maintain, the primary task for U.S. leaders is “to manage the West’s decline judiciously.”

The new liberal order should be tightly knit but also flexible, giving countries the right to opt in or out of different aspects so that they can remain accountable to their body politics.

This argument cuts across two emerging poles of thought on the future of U.S. foreign policy. The first aims to reprise Cold War–style containment in a less ideological form, replacing the Soviet menace with Chinese expansionism. The second urges restraint, counseling the United States to rein in its aspirations and content itself with incremental gains. Neither, however, is the right path forward for the United States. Containment Lite is too defensive, too focused on threats instead of opportunities, and ultimately risks stoking a climate of fear as destructive to domestic politics as America’s post–9/11 fixation on counterterrorism. Restraint is overly demure—the U.S. share of global GDP actually increased in the 2010s and stands today, at 25 percent, right where it was in 1980. For internationalism to thrive post-Trump, it must advance ambitious projects that the American people can rally around.

The lesson we should take from The Light That Failed is not that U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War was too focused on ideas; nor is it that Washington would be best served by reverting to cold-blooded realpolitik. It is that U.S. post–Cold War foreign policy was too focused on universalism. Or as Krastev and Holmes put it: “liberalism abandon[ed] pluralism for hegemony.” Striving for universalism blinded U.S. leaders to the deficiencies of the brand of liberalism that they were sponsoring.

After Trump, U.S. foreign policy should seek to remake the liberal world that already exists, instead of proceeding on the abortive mission of converting the whole world to liberalism. This will necessitate collaborating with like-minded democracies on bold programs that improve their own societies. Alongside these countries, the United States can forge new economic compacts aimed at reducing inequality, creating good jobs, accelerating medical research, combating corruption, and promoting green development. The progressive policy agenda, from building a fairer tax system to protecting online privacy to curbing climate change, is inescapably international; the most viable path to bringing it to life is working in concert with like-minded allies.

Even under a narrow definition, the world’s leading democracies—the United States, the EU, Japan, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Korea, and Australia—encompass well over half of global GDP. A new council of democracies would be well-equipped to produce initiatives that palpably improve the lives of their citizens and people all over the world. Such a council could also provide the ideal bulwark against autocracies’ efforts to export illiberalism.

This new foreign policy would demand taking ideas more seriously than liberal universalism ever did. Because it would be collaborative instead of hegemonic, it would require U.S. leaders to trust democratic allies to pursue policies broadly in line with American interests, even when such policies are untethered from U.S. primacy. For instance, if the EU gets serious about creating its own security apparatus, the United States should welcome it instead of viewing it as a threat to NATO. The new liberal order should be tightly knit but also flexible, giving countries the right to opt in or out of different aspects so that they can remain accountable to their body politics.

From 1989 to 2016, U.S. foreign policy envisioned the world as a classical orchestra. The United States was the conductor, Western Europe was the concertmaster, and all other countries were rank-and-file musicians, expected to play from sheet music composed in Washington or Brussels. After Trump, the United States should model its foreign policy on that quintessentially American form of music: jazz. While Washington can set the rhythm most of the time, it should always invite improvisation and experimentation. Some gigs will feature many players, others just a few. But there will be more hope and less resentment, and the beat will move everyone forward.