October 3, 2014

In his essay “The End of History?”, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed an end to war, hailing liberal democracy as the eventual victor. Yet, rather than celebrating a “Fukuyaman triumph of liberal democracy,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says “we are instead watching a new authoritarianism rising throughout Europe” and a “rise of tensions” globally.

Speaking at SIPA in a September 26 address on challenges to peace and security in Europe, Ilves said the world is witnessing a new battle of ideas “where liberal democracy is no longer the obvious winner.”

Reflecting on recent events—and particularly on the Crimea Crisis—Ilves, a Columbia College alumnus, shared concerns about problems that many thought went away with the Cold War.

“The annexation of territory, the violation of borders, aggression, an anti-liberal ideology combined with religious conservatism, with political authoritarianism, and imperialist bravado,” said Ilves, “It’s all back.”

Once under Soviet occupation, Estonia democratized after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Baltic nation is regarded as the most liberal democracy in Eastern Europe, and enjoys a thriving electronic and telecommunications industry.

In opening remarks, Dean Merit E. Janow observed that Estonia is a leader in cybersecurity and that the “underlying features of Skype” were created in the country.

Yet this progress has stalled in other former Soviet republics.

“Countries didn’t do the reforms, corruption flourished and authoritarianism came back,” said Ilves.

Ilves said a combination of “authoritarianism, orthodoxy [and] illiberalism” has gained appeal throughout Europe. He described the recent election of “a bunch of neo-facist nationalist party members” to the European Parliament as a worrisome reflection of this trend.

Ilves also criticized Russia: the nation’s “sinister ideological mix” would be bad in any country, but even moreso in a nation of 140 million people and nuclear weapons.

While events in the last seven months have exacerbated the situation, said Ilves, there were warning signs: “Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 was a wake-up call, but everyone hit the snooze button.”

According to Ilves, Russia’s actions demonstrate “a return of cynical geopolitics [and] the rise of propaganda… raw force has [also] returned as a foreign policy tool.”

Events in Ukraine, he said, are not just an EU issue, he said. “In this highly globalized world, there is no far-away country that no one knows anything about.”

He said turmoil in the Middle East also poses a global danger.

“People attempting to create a theocracy in the Middle East today, they use [Samuel Huntington’s notion of the “Clash of Civilizations”] as a prescriptive source,” he said. “They try to create a world in which their society rejects democracy.”

This perceived clash is why “the ideals of liberal democracy have fallen into disrepute” in a manner that makes the current environment especially dangerous.

It is a “harder battle now” than during the Cold War, Ilves said.

And while the world may have hit snooze before, “we can’t go on hoping that the bad dream will go away,” said Ilves. “We have to wake up and make it go away.”

— Tamara El Waylly MIA ’15