How to Defend Liberalism [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum
European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. They talk about contemporary liberalism and discuss what can each and every one of us do to promote it and make it stronger in the current geopolitical situation.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): How did you become a liberal?

Timothy Garton Ash (TGA): The answer to this question will be possibly very boring, because, usually, what people enjoy are dramatic, life-changing stories. No one is born a liberal, but I grew up in a liberal England. From a relatively early age I was an instinctive liberal. I became a conscious liberal in 1975, when, as an undergraduate at the Oxford University, I was sitting on the floor at the feet of Isaiah Berlin. Although he was one of the most famous intellectuals in the world at that time, he came to talk to a small undergraduate group, and I was just inspired. Ever since that moment I have been jokingly saying that Ich bin ein Berliner, referencing Isaiah Berliner. I have been a liberal ever since – changing in some of my opinions, but fundamentally, all the way through.

LJ: John Maynard Keynes used to say: “When the facts change, I change my mind”. Have your views changed in those 50 years?

TGA: They have changed, absolutely! One would have to be extremely stupid if one did not! Like very many people for whom the liberation of Central Europe and the transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s was a great experience, I too believed in the vision of globalization. I was never a neo-liberal – I did not believe that the free markets would be the panacea for everything. I did, however, believe that, on the whole, a kind of capitalism that we were getting in the 1990s and the early 2000s was going to helpful to democracy, human dignity, and freedom.


I have just finished writing a history of contemporary Europe. Part of that process was asking: what went wrong since 2008? Clearly, the malfunctioning of globalized and financialized capitalism is an important part of the answer. Looking back, possibly the greatest mistake liberals like me made was hitch a passionate belief in individual liberty too tightly to one particular model of capitalism.

LJ: Is it fair to criticize liberals and liberalism for the excesses of the Wall Street or the decisions made by certain politicians – also on the left? Should liberals learn from or reject such critics?

TGA: I do not think that the guys driving into the city of London or the Wall Street at 4 o’clock in the morning were liberals – let alone, neo-liberals. To characterize this situation as a primarily ideological phenomenon, “neo-liberalism”, is a mistake. It was unlike communism, which was actually built on a set of ideas and texts that people actively studied. Communists read Lenin, while most of the capitalists did not read Friedman. (Vaclav Klaus being an exception to this rule).

Nor do I think that it was liberalism in the broader sense, as a political movement. Although, I think that (particularly in the post-communist Europe, including Poland) the way in which liberalism was essentially reduced to one dimension of economic liberalism means that it was not really liberalism. There is simply no liberalism without the political and social dimension. And this was a big problem. Fundamentally, the problem was that the liberals like me hitched too closely to this model of capitalism.

LJ: What was the reason behind the extreme crisis of confidence in liberalism? Was it pride that doomed liberalism?

TGA: I think that hubris is the right word to be used in this context. It is not only the hubris of liberalism, but also of the United States, a state that thought that it was the hyper-power that could simply march into Iraq and create a democracy. It was also a hubris of Europe itself – believing that it was a model for the world to emulate.

There are multiple facets of hubris, but, certainly, one of them, was liberal hubris. Liberalism became much too closely associated with not only this particular model of capitalism, but also with the establishment – with the powerful. Such a development is always detrimental to liberalism, as it becomes identified as the ideology of the rich and powerful. This phenomenon helps explain the depth of the crisis that liberalism fell into after 2008.

There is, however, one other element to it. Liberalism has always been identified with reason, education, science, and progress. Therefore, a lot of the initial reaction to populism was labelling populists as stupid, irrational people. And, as Blaise Pascal once said, The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”. We neglected the reasons of the heart.

All over, in the Unites States, France, Poland, you name it, people who voted for populists have reasons of the heart. They felt neglected, ignored, condescended to by the university-educated liberal elites. They knew what they were saying by this protest. All of this came together in a great movement of crisis and self-examination. Nonetheless, liberalism’s great strength and the reason why it has lasted so long is its power of self-criticism, questioning, and the frenzy of self-doubt. In the end, this is going to turn out to be a strength.

LJ: Can liberalism survive in a world where the universal beliefs are being rejected – both from the outside and inside? Does it have to adapt? Or can it remain a universalist ideology?

TGA: Universalism, along with individualism, egalitarianism, and meliorism (the belief that the world can be made better by human effort) is one of the core ingredients of any liberalism worthy of the name. However, the point about Europe adhering to universalism is faulty – it has never been universal enough. When we started, in the age of Enlightenment, the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were enjoyed by white property-owning men – not by the majority of our societies, let alone the rest of the world.

Therefore, for much of the world, liberalism is associated with unequal treatment and colonialism. This context helps to explain why, when it comes to the war in Ukraine, the rest of the world’s democracies do not automatically side with the West. India and South Africa would side rather with Russia – or at least would rather remain neutral. The fact that, psychologically, we are now facing a payback time for centuries of liberal imperialism is in itself a big problem for liberalism.

What do we do about it? We need a more complex universalism. We have to understand what elements should not be compromised on, and where a compromise should be considered. A compromise for cultural differences, for instance, is entirely reasonable. This is a challenge that we face with the rest of the world, but within our own societies too. We need to figure out what a complex universalism in the 21st century is. This is one of the great questions that Europe is facing.

LJ: Is it possible and, most importantly, fair to try to get the genie back in the bottle when it comes to migration to and within Europe?

TGA: This is one of the most difficult questions we are now facing. There cannot be uncontrollable migration. It is no accident that the motto of the Brexit was Take back control. We certainly need to manage immigration, there is no question about that. The mistake that we made was to let too many people in and then not let them integrate. We need to manage immigration and allow for a much better integration, emulating the Canadian model.

This, however, still leaves the question about what in the world do we do for several billion people who are outside of Europe, and the migratory pressures – the numbers of people coming to us from the sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are going to be enormous. An even greater challenge is to define what answer will we have externally.

LJ: Can the liberal world order survive without a global empire like the Great Britain in the 19th century, or the United States in the early 20th century? Is it possible?

TGA: There is a great book about the United States called The Liberal Leviathan by John Ikenberry (2011), which captures this problem. It illustrates how we have had 200 years of Western global ascendency, in which – uniquely in world history – the hegemonic baton was passed peacefully from one Anglo-Saxon liberal power (Britain) to another (the United States). This is also coming to an end. The legacy of many centuries of European colonialism is facing a payback. China is emerging as a superpower. The question of what international order (if any) emerges from that is a critical one.

LJ: Liberals seem to have a problem with waiving a national flag. Is it possible to reunite patriotism and liberalism in the spirit of European Spring 1848?

TGA: It is not only possible, it is essential. Charles de Gaulle said that “Patriotism is to love your own country; nationalism, to detest that of the others”. This is a very important distinction to keep in mind. We, liberals, very much need to rediscover and convey patriotism. One of the mistakes we made in the post-1989 period was that we talked an awful lot about Europe, the international community, and the other half of the world, but we left the nation to the right. And this was a big mistake.

We need to rediscover the language of civic patriotism. The kind promoted by Józef Piłsudski, not Roman Dmowski, if you will. Is it possible? Absolutely! British patriotism, for instance, is a civic patriotism, because it is a nation made up of four nations. Then, in France, President Emmanuel Macron is, for me, with all his faults, a politician who exemplifies how one can build liberal patriotism into a wider Europeanism. This is exactly what we have to do.

LJ: Certainly, there is no lack of patriotism within the Ukrainian nation now bravely fighting off the Russian invasion. What has already changed and what should change in Europe and European Union?

TGA: I am very glad that you mentioned Ukraine. In a way, we are back to 1848 liberalism and nationalism going together. I hope it remains an open civic nationalism in Ukraine. One would have to have a concern about attitudes towards Russians in particular – and understandably so.

But, nonetheless. A good deal has changed since the war.

First of all, the illusion of the what I call post-wall period, period since the fall of the Berlin Wall have either already been buried or are being buried – the illusion that everything depends on the economy, that interdependence (for example, on Russia) strengthens peace, the illusion you can marginalize military power, or the illusion about Vladimir Putin and Russia. This is a very good thing.

What should also happen is that we in Europe, the whole of Europe (including Great Britain, Turkey, Ukraine, and the Western Balkans), get a geostrategic vision for our own future. A vision that is not so much about countering Russia, China, migration, or climate change, and all these negatives, but is rather about a vision of how a whole and free Europe should look like. This shift in perception would really take us into a new era. Up to a certain point, we had it (with a strategy of enlargement of the West, pursuing democracy, and joining the NATO). We need this kind of a grand vision again for the 20 or 30 years ahead.

LJ: What about Germany? Is Germany big enough in terms of its spirit and strategy to respond to the needs that you have just described?

TGA: Especially in light of the current Law and Justice (PiS) propaganda in Poland, we need to state that Germany is an immensely civilized country and a model democracy in running its own affair. However, geostrategically, Germany has taken holiday from history. Thomas Bagger, a fine intellectual and the current German ambassador in Warsaw, said that the end of history was an American idea, but a German reality. In the past, there was a strategic thinking in Germany, because there had to be. It has, however, faded very significantly in the last 30 years. So, there is, undoubtedly, a challenge there.

Still, it needs to be said that there are still people in Germany who pursue the line of very strategic thinking in Germany – with the likes of Norbert Röttgen, Robert Habeck, Annalena Baerbock, the Greens altogether. So, there is some really intelligent strategic thinking there, but it has not yet reached a critical mass in the German political class. Given the way German democracy has been structured since 1949, it has to come together and be led by the Chancellery.

LJ: Great Britain seems to find itself in a state of internal turmoil. What are the prospects for the United Kingdom? How do you see the future of your homeland?

TGA: The dilemma is real. The current, pretty disastrous government is, in a way, following through with the logic of the Brexit – which is, as the phrase went: Better Off Out. According to this logic, the plan is to do things differently. As Emmanuel Macron immediately saw, this attitude puts the UK in a competitive relationship with the European Union. Across the continent, Euroscepticism works by benchmarking – what would my country become by being out? Brexit Britain is the ultimate benchmark.

I cannot want my country to do badly because I am a patriot. I want the UK to do well! However, if it does too well, when compared with the EU, then this will have a disintegrative impact on the European Union. The Eurobarometer poll asked the question along the lines of Do you think your country would be better off outside the EU?”. In the UK, just before Brexit the positive answer to that question was just over 30%, and then the last time, it was still 28% in the current EU (without the UK).

The bottom line, for me, is this: I want Britain to do very well, but I want the EU to do even better.

LJ: War in Ukraine shows how Britain is needed in Europe strategically.

Britain will be missed in EU. Not just in external affairs but also inside the EU. Remember Princess Diana said: “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. With France Germany and Britain this ménage à trois helped to make the EU work. If you were medium size or small country and didn’t like a particular Franco-German initiative you go with Britain. If you don’t like British German arrangements you go with France. It  remains to be seen how all this is going to work with just France and Germany left in the driver’s seat.

LJ: Let us talk about Poland. Why is a country with such a rich history of democratic struggle so quickly abandoning the values that it cherished? Was it to be foreseen?

TGA: It is very painful to see what is happening in Poland. I do not think that Poles have abandoned the democratic values, because if we look at the opinion polls, they are still massively pro-European. There are hundreds of thousands of people going out onto the streets standing up for independent courts and the Constitution. So, the real question is: why has the politics gone astray?

Leaving aside his political convictions, Jarosław Kaczyński has clearly been an extremely successful and brilliant political entrepreneur. He managed to bring together different parts of the Polish society – often with different interests – under a large PiS umbrella, which allowed the party to win the elections. This strange combination of right-wing cultural and foreign policy, combined with left-wing economic and social policy proved to be very successful.

Let us make a very complicated story short. First of all, there are general factors that gave us the nationalist Eurosceptic populism across the continent – with the impact of the globalized financialized capitalism in particular. Poland experienced it in its raw version. Secondly, there are rather particular complexes of a post-communist society. For example, the politics of history “polityka historyczna”.

I think the most fateful mistake of some of my closest friends in the Polish democratic and liberal opposition was not having a major symbolic reckoning with the communist past. This lack enabled the PiS party to build a broad coalition based on a sense of historical injustice and, actually, to link the economic injustice to former. It is not only about those people in Warsaw who are getting rick, while I still am unemployed and live in a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Gdansk, but also about the fact that these guys in Warsaw were formerly Ubeks, communists, or Jerzy Urban.

This particular combination of generic features of populism and the specific features of the post-communist populism explains the so far success of this political option. Still, Poland is not as far gone as Hungary.

Hungary is no longer a democracy. In principle, illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. Democracy is liberal or it is not democracy. But it is a useful term to describe a liberal democracy in a state of decay, which is the case in Poland. However, in Poland, liberal democracy is still entirely recoverable. The key to doing that is just winning the next election.

LJ: What about technology and social media? Are they compatible with democracy?

TGA: I do not think that Internet or social media are incompatible with liberal democracy. It is a technology. All technologies are double-edged. A knife is a technology – I can use it to cut my sandwich or to murder you. The Internet and social media are also double-edged –  also they have also an enormous liberating potential (look at how the opposition organized itself in Belarus!).

LJ: Your new collection of essays Obrona liberalizmu (in defence of liberalism) has been recently published in Poland by Kultura Liberalna. What is your message to those who want to defend liberalism today?

Learn from our mistakes. Fight the good fight. Believe that we can win again, which we can. And if you have a dark night of doubt, look to Belarus, look to Ukraine, in countries that face an existential threat to freedom the flame of liberty is shining very brightly. And so it will be again.

The podcast was recorded on October 6, 2022.

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This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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