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Leaderless Liberalism

Today, the US is hardly the hegemon it was a generation ago, with its democratic institutions under attack by a sitting president and millions of his unhinged supporters. As a result, global liberalism has lost its compass, with the EU demonstrating little appetite to uphold core values.

MADRID – The United States’ presidential transition, culminating in Joe Biden’s inauguration, has been a roller-coaster ride. It has brought moments of horror and flashes of hope, dismay at how fragile democracy seems to be, and a sense of relief that it has survived thus far. But, for Europeans, this tumultuous transition should also bring something else: honest reflection about the state of liberalism in today’s world.

The liberal tradition’s vitality has always relied on universality: the belief that liberal values apply to all of humanity. This conviction has sustained a sort of zeal, which propelled efforts to build, deepen, and sustain the liberal international order.

Consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a quintessential exemplar of liberal values. When it was being forged in the years following World War II, the Soviet Union opposed the inclusion of individual rights, insisting that human rights could be exercised only through the government. Saudi Arabia, for its part, took issue with the inclusion of freedom of religion, arguing that the country’s Islamic-based law must come first. Neither caveat was included.

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