Year in Review

Helmut K. Anheier and Robert Falkner, Academic Co-Directors of the Dahrendorf Forum, share a few reflections of the tumultuous year.

It is an understatement to say that 2016 has been a difficult year for liberal Western values. We have seen countries grow increasingly nationalistic and isolationist, challenging the very principles that Lord Dahrendorf worked so hard to promote.  Illiberalism and autocratic regimes seem to be on the rise, and liberal values are too often confused with ‘political correctness’ or simply seen as serving the ruling elites.

Here at the Dahrendorf Forum, our researchers have provided insightful analysis on some of the year’s upheavals, such as the attempted military coup in Turkey, the British Referendum on leaving the EU, the election of Donald Trump, and the refugee crisis. At the beginning of this year, when the Dahrendorf Forum first initiated its Foresight Analysis Project, some of these events were envisioned as worst case scenarios: for example, EU disintegration, paired with US detachment from NATO, serving to strengthen a neo-imperial Russia, thus threatening the sovereignty and security of the Ukraine and the Baltic states.

We have also put a spotlight on the growing backlash against the liberal project of ever-closer global integration. To be sure, the seductive demagoguery of populist politicians has played its role in the rise of anti-globalization sentiment. But we also need to address liberalism’s failings: for all the apparent good that Western values and liberal market economies have achieved – universal human rights and basic freedoms, affluence, global trade, cooperation on security issues – the neoliberal economic agenda has also created severe wealth inequality, instability in financial markets, and under-investment in public education, among many other distortions.

Although these outcomes are often seen as necessary side-effects of a free market economy, they have had serious consequences for millions of people, who struggle to cope with the collateral damage produced by globalization and see themselves slipping down the socioeconomic ladder.  These ‘left-behind’ millions turn out not to be the poor in China or Africa but more often the excluded in the old industrial West who, bypassed by globalization, see their fortunes eroded over generations as the “elites” celebrate the benefits of a globalizing world.  Too often, Western liberalism has focused on market efficiency and individual freedom, which benefited the privileged few but not those left behind by the juggernaut of global capitalism.

For us, the Brexit referendum, the US election and the stirring of populism across many countries is, therefore, a necessary wakeup call. As we enter 2017, the biggest challenge we face is uncertainty, also with regard to the liberal project’s future. This is not the first time, of course, that liberalism – born out of conflict, and grown in controversy – has faced a fundamental crisis.  Western liberalism may have much to answer for and will have to prove its worth by finding responses to the problems of our times. But liberalism, as Dahrendorf understood it, is the much-needed antidote to the seductive rhetoric of illiberal populism and the dangerous flirtation with authoritarianism around the world.

In this respect, looking to the future, the Dahrendorf Forum will continue to engage with policy-makers and academics, seeking ways to constructively engage with these new political dynamics in Europe and address the legitimate concerns that have surfaced in recent years.


The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.