Confronting the Threat of Illiberal Democracy: An Interview with John Shattuck

February 1, 2018
Confronting the Threat of Illiberal Democracy: An Interview with John Shattuck

Senior Fellow John Shattuck featured in EuropeNow


There is much discussion about how liberal democracies perish, alleged victims of “radicalized individualism,” and ruthless meritocracies. It is further argued that their deficiencies and fundamental flaws exacerbate extreme inequality, rampant corruption, depraved popular culture, and disintegration of social order, making authoritarianism alluring. At such times, the distinctive voices of seasoned, experienced individuals need to be heard.

Ambassador John Shattuck has an extraordinary background with which to address the transatlantic threat of “illiberal democracy.” His tenure as the fourth President and Rector of the Central European University in Budapest coincided with an extraordinarily turbulent seven years, marked by the rising influence of Jobbik and the rule Fidesz, and with remarkable upheavals in Europe—be it challenges to the integrity of the European Union, unprecedented migrant flows, or secessionist movements. He is uniquely positioned in this discourse over the virtues of liberal democracy and the threats to the most humane aspects of global civil society. In his distinguished career as an international human rights lawyer and advocate, he represented Morton Halperin, the director of policy planning on Nixon’s National Security Council, in an unprecedented illegal wiretapping case at the height of the Watergate Scandal when serving as litigator for the ACLU. As the Assistant US Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, he was among the first to investigate the massacre at Srebrenica by interviewing fleeing survivors on the ground in Tuzla. His report back to Washington resulted in the CIA aerial photographs of the execution sites being discovered and shown at the UN Security Council. He subsequently helped to negotiate the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, and was instrumental in the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. From 1998 to 2000, he served as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

He is currently developing his research on the resilience of liberal democracy at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and has created a joint Master’s program in Transatlantic affairs, the first of its kind, between the Fletcher School and the College of Europe in Bruges.

—Carr Center Fellow Sherman Teichman for EuropeNow

EuropeNow Liberal democracy is questioned and challenged on both sides of the Atlantic. How would you describe the challenge of “illiberal democracy?”

John Shattuck Illiberal governance and illiberal democracy are a form of neo-authoritarianism.

Liberal democracy has been the bulwark against authoritarianism, ever since the end of World War II. It is defined in terms of democratic elections, but also institutions – media, freedom of speech, and the various checks and balances against authoritarianism, an independent judiciary, minority rights and civil society.

Hungary’s current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, himself coined the term “illiberal democracy” when he was reelected in 2014. He was overt that he was establishing a new form of democracy that would resist all the elements of liberal checks and balances, and rely entirely on elections. Hold an election, and everything else thereafter can be centrally controlled by the government, a hollow democracy.

EuropeNow There are attacks on liberal democracy as having betrayed its promises, that its institutions have disproportionately encouraged self-interest and corruption. What did you mean when you described the conditions of liberal democracy, whether in the United States or in Europe, that allow for this to occur as “neurological?”

John Shattuck The current populist rebellion we are witnessing has benefited from the internal flaws of liberal democracy itself, given the ways in which elites have disproportionately benefited from the workings of both economic and political systems.

Now we have a populist backlash, which is really both economic, in terms of people feeling left behind through the loss of jobs, the shutting down of industries, the rusting out of industrial strength—certainly in the United States but also largely in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. The new technologies of production, the forces of globalization, automation, etc., all of this is creating a grave economic anxiety, and as a result, we see what used to be understood as blue collar workers shifting from the moderate left to the extreme right, and joining the populist forces of reaction.

Read the full interview.