In the world today, there is a global ideological war between the forces of liberal democracy and a burgeoning illiberal elite. In recent years, it has seemed like liberalism has been in retreat, so much so that Vladimir Putin was confident enough to declare that it was now “obsolete”.
Once such a claim would have been laughed off, but the situation is so serious that humour is no longer the appropriate response. European Council President Donald Tusk certainly took it seriously, warning that “whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete”.
However, the decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for his “efforts to achieve peace” – particularly in relation to his country’s long-running conflict with Eritrea – is recognition of a significant step away from the miserable vision of the populist right.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that Ahmed had taken swift action in his first 100 days in office, “granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.”
While it noted that “ethnic strife continues to escalate” in the country, where millions of people are displaced, the committee said that Ahmed had sought to promote “reconciliation, solidarity and social justice” and his efforts deserved recognition and also needed “encouragement”.
The actions described are those of a liberal democrat. The “ethnic strife” that troubles the country is based on illiberal ideas similar to those espoused by populists, ‘identitarians’ and the like in this country, who seek to blame migrants for our woes, sometimes appearing to regard ‘foreigners’ as akin to an alien species, rather than fellow human beings.
The central tenet of liberalism is that we are individuals first and foremost. It follows from this belief that we are all equal, that the only legitimate power is democratic, and that each of us has fundamental human rights.
The false patriotism of nasty, foolish, illiberal populists is no substitute.