Keynote address: Lionel Barber

Wednesday 16 November 2022

In his keynote address at the IBA Annual Conference 2022 Opening Ceremony, Lionel Barber, Editor of the Financial Times between 2005 and 2020, offered his vision of what the future holds for liberal democracies and how they must adapt to face future challenges.

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm truly honoured to appear tonight before the International Bar Association. You must be the most intimidating audience I've faced since I went up close and personal with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin!

In these turbulent times. I've often thought of my midnight meeting with Mr Putin. Russia's spymaster looked at me through those shark-like eyes and declared, ‘The liberal idea is obsolete’. Putin claimed that Western governments had lost touch with their populations, being obsessed with multiculturalism, gender politics and diversity.

Now, this was a little rich coming from the man who's rewritten history and suppressed independent media. And yet, three years on, looking at the present discontents in the West, I'm forced to ask, could Putin actually be right after all? What does the future hold for liberal democracies in a fractured, leaderless world?

Well, tonight I want to offer a perspective. Let's start with some relatively good news. Liberal democracies coped better than most with the pandemic. Of course, governments were unprepared. Millions died unnecessarily, and lockdowns imposed a brutal economic cost. But the private sector, working with governments, developed [Covid-19] vaccines at warp speed. It was a triumph of scientific endeavour and a reminder that public-private sector partnership serving the national interest is not a dead letter.

Contrast the West's nimble innovation with Putin's second-rate vaccines and President Xi's enforcement of zero-Covid, which continues to impose a punitive economic and social cost on China.

A second cause for guarded optimism is the state of globalisation. Let's not forget that the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour championed by the US and other liberal democracies raised hundreds of millions out of poverty. Of course, there were losers. The forgotten man invoked first by Franklin Roosevelt and latterly by Donald Trump. But there were many winners as Western exporters took advantage of a burgeoning middle class in Asia.

Rumours of globalisation's demise are premature – we're witnessing something more nuanced. Brexit is one example; a better one is the US-China relationship. Remember ‘Chimerica’, the concept of two deeply intertwined economies, one moving towards greater economic and political liberalisation? Well, that's very yesterday. [Former Australian Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd’s new book spells out how President Xi's Marxist nationalist approach seeks to build power without China becoming permanently and structurally dependent on the international economy, the dollar denominated financial system or foreign manufacturing and technology.

And conversely, the US is rapidly reducing its dependency on China. The CHIPS and Science Act provides more than $50bn for semiconductor research, development and production in the US. And further, the US Department of Commerce says new export controls amount to an across-the-board effort to deny China access to the most advanced semiconductors.

In the West we have tended to overestimate our weaknesses and underestimate our strengths

So, whisper it very softly – actually, President Biden has doubled down on Mr Trump's ‘America First’ China policy and globalisation is correspondingly circumscribed.

There is a third cause for guarded optimism, one too easily overlooked in our fractious democracies. In the West we have tended to overestimate our weaknesses and underestimate our strengths. 2021 went down as the year of the strongmen: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Xi in China. Some of our Western leaders wilted and wobbled in the face of the populist tide.

Yet this year, 2022 will be remembered as the year of resistance – the women fighting for dignity in Iran, supported by mass protests against an oppressive theocratic regime; the men and women of Ukraine fighting for their freedoms and their nationhood against the Russian invader.

Liberal democracies have responded with impressive unity to Putin's power grab. The European Union, sometimes written off [in the US] as a ‘quaint museum’, has backed unprecedented economic sanctions as well as arms supplies to Ukraine. Finland and Sweden, the not-so-neutral Scandinavian nations, have declared their hands and joined the NATO alliance, and the US and the UK have followed through on their covert training of Ukrainian forces after the annexation of Crimea with crucial intelligence, logistical and high-tech weaponry for the Ukrainian armed forces.

The end of the Cold War was supposed to spell the end of history and the triumph of the liberal democratic ideal. But that worldview, the view of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and many Western leaders, no longer applies. We now live in a leaderless world where both the US and China are mistrusted, where age-old alliances such as the US-Saudi relationship based on a trade-off between oil and security, are suddenly in play. A world where Kissinger-style equilibrium is sorely lacking.

The open exchange of ideas is critical in a liberal democracy

This requires an adjustment in our thinking. As Chrystia Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and a former Financial Times colleague said in a recent speech to the Brookings Institution, ‘The strongmen, and they are all men, incidentally, turned the liberal rules-based system to their own advantage. From Moscow's admission to the International Monetary Fund in 1992, Beijing's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, Germany's collaboration with Russia to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Australia and New Zealand's free trade agreements with China. They're all of the same’.

Economic interdependence does not always prevent war, as Putin has murderously demonstrated. Interdependence turned out to be a one-way street when it came to Russian energy. And prosperity is not guaranteed to lead inexorably to liberal democracy.

At this point, as a journalist and former editor, I want to say a few words about the media in liberal democracies. Media has fragmented in the age of the smartphone, where everyone has a voice. Where we live in a world of alternative facts, where one plutocrat can control one of the world's most powerful social media platforms. We have a surfeit of information. Hyper-polarisation with media operating in ecosystems. And education systems which are inadequate – and yet on those very education systems depends, and on the media depends, an informed citizenry.

Now I've long clung to the belief that accuracy, balance and context are the ABC of good journalism. But in the digital age where the traditional lines between facts and opinion have become blurred, it's much harder to report both sides of the story. And this, in turn, has led to a denunciation of what's called ‘both sides-ism’.

But wait a minute. The open exchange of ideas is critical in a liberal democracy, and reporting and reflecting on what other people think and say is the essence of good journalism. It's not moral cowardice, as some critics claim. Nor does it preclude, ultimately, moral judgement. ‘One side-ism’ fits the facts around a pre-established narrative. It's the product of ideology, a belief. That something is true because it ought to be true.

I said earlier that we in the West tend to overestimate our weaknesses. We also tend to overestimate the appeal of illiberal democracy and authoritarian states. Take China after the Communist Party Congress – Xi Jinping is the most dominant leader since Mao Zedong, and perhaps the most powerful leader on Earth. Xi is bent on upending the post-war liberal order designed by the United States.

The course of the Ukraine war, now in its most dangerous phase, is being watched carefully by Mr Xi and may well bear on any calculations he may make regarding Taiwan. The outcome of the Ukraine war is a critical test indirectly for liberal democracy. Putin still believes he can outlast a decadent, irresolute West. And our challenge is to prove him wrong.

Slowly but surely, a more united political Europe is emerging alongside the Economic and Monetary Union. The EU is a lot more resilient than people assume. However, when it comes to liberal democracy, so much depends on America. There are many measures of a healthy democracy, but the rule of law and the integrity of the election process is front and centre, and they remain so in the next [US] presidential election in 2024.

In a leaderless world, what the US does and does not do really matters, for where America goes, other liberal democracies will surely follow.

This is an abridged version of Lionel Barber’s speech at the IBA Annual Conference in October–November 2022 in Miami, Florida. The filmed speech can be viewed in full here.