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

This is part of our special feature on Nationalism, Nativism, and the Revolt Against Globalization.

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.

—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.

EuropeNow Can you further explain this in terms of potential societal and cultural decay?

John Shattuck Economics is the first of three forms of rebellion, but the second is cultural rebellion, which is essentially that groups of people in the United States and Europe, who were previously dominant, are feeling excluded from what is, certainly in the United States, a civil rights culture that has intended, and has succeeded in some ways, to rectify centuries of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination. So you get white males in particular that are pushing back against that, and feeling culturally threatened.

The third element of this populist rebellion I call a “security rebellion,” people whose fears of terrorism and crime can be stimulated and fanned by politicians into great hostility towards minorities, refugees, migrants, and foreigners, developing virulent xenophobia.

We see these common areas of rebellion in a transatlantic context in both the United States and in Europe. This was manifested in Hungary earlier than anywhere else in Europe, which is what makes Viktor Orban’s rise so interesting.

EuropeNow Why Hungary?

John Shattuck First of all, Hungary has a long history of feeling isolated and trapped in Central Europe, and of being victimized by outside sources, whether it’s the Mongols, the Russians, the Turks, the Germans, and then obviously the Fascists – although Hungary itself participated in many respects in the rise of fascism in the 1930’s – and then Soviet Communism. So, Hungarians have always felt vulnerable to these dominant forces trying to control their lives.

Then, you certainly have to put personality near the top of the list. Orban is a quite brilliant politician, who saw and capitalized on these trends.

Hungary is also in somewhat of a language prison, in that nobody speaks Hungarian outside of Hungary, and very few Hungarians speak other languages. Orban had a captive audience among the Hungarians as he pushed forward the kind of nationalist populism that he succeeded in developing as a way of centralizing his own power and consolidating his ability through elections, and claiming the mantle of legitimacy.

EuropeNow You led a unique educational institution. Why was the Central European University (CEU) established?

John Shattuck We should look at this within the broad historical trend of what happened in 1989 and the years following. That period was nothing short of virtually an ideological revolution, albeit a peaceful revolution, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Authoritarianism, at least for the moment, seemed to be very much pushed back. CEU was established in 1991, by George Soros and others, including major leaders in the new political movements of Eastern Europe – Vaclav Havel, and other people of similar stature. It was established to introduce the principles of freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, and to revive forms of education that had been repressed, not only by communism but also by fascism.

We have to remember that Central Europe – and here I mean not only Hungary, but also Poland and Czechoslovakia at the time – was victimized not just by communism but also fascism. And they are in the only part of the world that had a series of governing authoritarian structures representing the two principal forms of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

EuropeNow What is CEU’s mission and influence?

John Shattuck Effectively, the CEU brought back the principles of inquiry and academic freedom, and particularly study of the social sciences. There was also an emphasis on the economic sciences, involving business and the new open and free market economics that were dominant after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

CEU has been successfully doing this for now almost a quarter of a century. In the early days of the Orban administration, there was no effort to try to push CEU out or otherwise restrict its activity. Even today, CEU continues to be a beacon of academic freedom. It just happens to be operating inside of a governing system that we’ve characterized as illiberal democracy.

EuropeNow What is Orban’s strategy for the upcoming election of spring 2018?

John Shattuck Orban previously attacked the refugee flows coming into Europe from the Middle East. Hungary became the leader of the resistance to any form of refugee resettlement in Europe, which helped his popularity. Under his leadership these attacks have intensified. There are ongoing severe cutbacks on the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, and now efforts to control civil society by branding it as foreign-dominated and foreign agent-controlled. Orban is constantly looking for scapegoats that he can attack as a way of continuing to aggrandize his power.

In this current election cycle, he has personalized this, shifting his focus to George Soros – because Soros promotes liberal democracy and freedom by supporting all of the institutions of liberal democracy in Europe and in Hungary, as contrary to the propositions that are being pushed forth by Orban’s ruling party, Fidez. He specifically attacks Soros – in a very spurious way, because there’s no truth to this whatsoever – for stimulating the refugee flows into Europe.

EuropeNow How does that affect CEU?

John Shattuck It’s been politically convenient for Orban to tie Soros and CEU together to put more pressure on CEU through regulatory measures, impinging on its academic freedom that have been adopted by the Hungarian parliament, which is dominated and largely controlled by Fidesz. CEU is not in any way governed by Soros. He’s on the board of trustees, but he’s otherwise not a major factor in terms of the academic decision-making of the university. And while Soros is the principle source of CEU’s endowment, the university has now diversified its sources of funding.

EuropeNow Is Soros’ stigmatization and personal vilification tied to the revival of Hungarian anti-semitism?

John Shattuck There’s a lot of concern that this is in fact anti-semitism. That’s certainly being denied, particularly by the Fidesz government and Orban himself. It’s reminiscent of the way in which financiers who happened to be Jewish were attacked in the 1930’s and earlier. While I think anti-semitism is a very major current backdrop, I don’t see this as a direct manifestation of anti-semitism, but as an appeal to the latent and long-time anti-semitic elements manifested in Central Europe, and particularly in Hungary. Of course, the Hungarian Holocaust was one of the major elements of the Holocaust, and, as history has clearly demonstrated, Hungarians themselves participated.

EuropeNow In this context, how is the question of the distortion of Hungarian historical memory understood?

John Shattuck This is part of a larger theme of the disintegration of factual and historical accuracy, and the manipulation of historical narrative by political forces that are trying to aggrandize their power. We’re seeing some of that in the United States with the attack on “fake news.” But in Hungary, very particularly, as Orban has looked for models for Hungarians to relate to, he has looked to the Horthy regime of the 1930s.

The Horthy regime was allied with Germany, partly to restore Hungarian lands that had been taken away by the international community after World War I. But it was still a proto-fascist regime, and certainly had strong anti-semitic and restrictive laws. The so-called numerus clausus restricted Jewish participation in various aspects of society.

Orban’s appeal to Horthy relates directly to the effort to reclaim history, and to airbrush out its unattractive aspects. The most dramatic example is a memorial in the middle of Budapest’s Szabadság tér, or Freedom Square, which is a monument to the victims of German occupation of Hungary. The monument makes only very passing reference to the Jewish victims of the Hungarian Holocaust, and looks at all of Hungarians as being victimized by Germany, which is totally contrary to the historical record of Hungarian participation in the Holocaust.

EuropeNow How else has Orban manipulated Hungary’s political landscape?

John Shattuck Centralization under Orban has been very advantageous for the development of a new oligarchic system – certainly a better example is what is going on further to the east in Russia with Putin, and also to a large extent in Turkey with Erdogan – but the growth of an oligarchic economy is very much part of, and at the center of the new illiberal regime that has developed in Hungary.

EuropeNow What is the impact of corruption inherent in such oligarchic systems?

John Shattuck There is vulnerability there. Corruption can be quite tangible, it becomes quite visible, and oligarchies become a target for popular dissent and dissatisfaction. Early in 2017, a quarter of a million Hungarians protested the government’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics, knowing that public resources would divert to government cronies. The bid was withdrawn. I understand this as civil society critically sifting through the cracks of authoritarianism. Similarly, in February of 2017, five hundred thousand people took to the streets in Romania, to prevent the passage of a new law weakening existing anti-corruption standards.

EuropeNow Are these illiberal political and economic tendencies spreading? How have the actions of these illiberal governments contradicted the European Union’s founding principles of “democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

John Shattuck In Austria, a right-wing government has been elected, when only six years ago a similar right-wing candidate, who was elected, Haider, had to relinquish power because he was pilloried for contradicting Austria’s democratic principles. Similarly, the Czech Republic – while it is uncertain where the new government is going –  has some of the same elements of Orban, and Donald Trump for that matter, in the election of a business mogul who otherwise has no particular political claim on power. In Poland, we also see similar tendencies to crack down on civil society, and on independence of the judiciary and the media.

These trends of illiberal governments and attacks on the principles of liberal democracy are manifested elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, the political party of the far right received almost fourteen percent of the vote, putting a dent in Angela Merkel’s governing potential. In France, there was a final contest, and it was won by the liberal democratic forces of Macron, who pushed back Marine Le Pen and her far right party.

All of this is present throughout Europe in different modes, and to make it very clear, this is also very much part of what the dangers are right now of liberal democracy in America in the neo-populism and dangerous authoritarian tendencies of the Trump administration.

EuropeNow How sensitive or dangerous are the political circumstances that you are describing?

John Shattuck It’s very uncertain where we’re going at this point. This is definitely a transatlantic phenomenon. There are two centrifugal forces at work in both European and American liberal democracy. In the US, the danger is what I would call deconsolidation, which predates in some ways the Trump election, and is decreasing participation in elections and increasing polarization. Polarization in the US is a result of the populist tendencies, including the manipulation of the media, particularly with the rise of the right-wing media, and decreasing support for democratic institutions. The US Congress, of course, is way at the bottom of the list, and democratic government itself is increasingly seen by Americans to be not performing the way they would like, and in some cases with outright hostility.

In the EU, I would say the danger is the possibility that the EU itself could disintegrate. Brexit is the primary example, and the recent Catalan vote is another example, as are the rise of Euro-skepticism, the growing regional division between East and West and North and South parts of Europe. The failure to reform particularly financial institutions, and what is widely perceived in Europe as a “democratic deficit,” which is that people don’t feel connected to decisions that are made in their name in Brussels and elsewhere, is threatening.

These are the centrifugal forces that are at work, and I think that the greatest potential threats to liberal democratic governance on both sides of the Atlantic are economic inequality, resulting from the structural aspects of globalization and the market deregulation. The tax legislation that was just enacted in the United States is a very powerful example of the growing inequality.

There is also the unresponsiveness and the lack of vision of the mainstream political parties. In the US, the Democratic Party hasn’t done anything remotely representing a vision that responds to the new populism.

Probably the largest threat, but the most distant one, is the possibility of what I call a Reichstag event, which is the spectre of another major terrorist attack, or a nuclear conflict such as with North Korea, and the threat that as a result of that there would be a strong neo-authoritarian crackdown on democracy on either side of the Atlantic.

So, there are big dangers out there, and some of them are very real, obviously not just theoretical.

EuropeNow Are there indications of resilience in Europe?

John Shattuck The election results in France and Germany and the Netherlands show that it is possible to defeat illiberal democracy and anti-liberal populism.

We have a very realistic kind of leadership, with a French president in Emmanuel Macron, and a German chancellor in Angela Merkel, even though her election was marred somewhat by the surge of the far right. I think if Merkel develops a secure coalition with the Social Democrats, which seems to be in the offing, and the Franco-German central powers of Europe look toward reform of the EU, there is room for some optimism.



John Shattuck is an international legal scholar and human rights leader. He served as the fourth President and Rector of Central European University from August 2009 until July 31, 2016.

Sherman Teichman is the Founding Director Emeritus, (1985-2016) of the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where together with Professor Passas he convenes a study group, “Confronting Corruption in Defense of Human Rights.” He is a non-resident Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies in the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations.        

Jerome Krumenacker is a recent graduate of Tufts University, where he participated in the “Future of Europe” EPIIC year of the Institute for Global Leadership. He is currently assisting Sherman Teichman in the creation of a higher education consultancy, The Trebuchet: Breaking Down Barriers.

Published on February 1, 2018.
Click here to view John Shattuck’s course syllabus US-EU Relations in the 21st Century: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Transatlantic Affairs at the Fletcher School.


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