Review of the confer­ence: “Rethinking Liber­alism, Renewing Democracy”.

Foto: Imago Images

Liberal democracy is under pressure worldwide. At our confer­ence “Rethinking Liber­alism, Renewing Democracy” on 24 November in Berlin and online, we discussed with inter­na­tional guests from academia, politics, think tanks and business how liber­alism and liberal democracy must evolve in order to sustain.

Liberal democracy is under pressure worldwide. It is threat­ened from the outside by aggres­sive author­i­tarian regimes. The Russian war of aggres­sion on Ukraine is only one example. Domes­ti­cally, populist movements and parties are chal­lenging democ­ra­cies, as are climate change, digi­tal­i­sa­tion, global pandemics, increasing inequal­i­ties and migration.

Liber­alism as a broad way of thinking forms the basis of liberal democ­ra­cies as we know them. Democracy and liberal democracy are almost synony­mous today. Liber­alism has created freedom of expres­sion and assembly, equal rights for all and an inter­na­tional order governed by law. But liber­alism has fallen on the defensive.

Reason enoughto discuss the future of liberal democracy and liber­alism. To this end, the Centre for Liberal Modernity invited to the confer­ence “Rethinking Liber­alism, Renewing Democracy”. More than 20 speakers took part, and more than 200 guests followed the discus­sions and lectures online and in person.

Liberal democracy is under pressure

Anna Hofmann from the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius opened the confer­ence. With words from liberal thinker and soci­ol­o­gist Ralf Dahren­dorf, she reminded the audience that freedom always goes hand in hand with respon­si­bility and that people need the means to use their freedom.

Ralf Fücks, Executive Director of the Centre for Liberal Modernity, intro­duced the chal­lenges for liber­alism and liberal democracy, which has been in retreat worldwide since 2005. This “demo­c­ratic recession”, it is getting closer and closer to us. Some, like Timothy Garton Ash, even speak of an “anti-liberal counter-revo­lu­tion”. There are many reasons for this. Liber­alism has been very successful, but perhaps a little too confident of victory. The very successful political, economic and cultural moderni­sa­tion thrusts of the second half of the last century have produced winners as well as losers — and it is above all these who are now rebelling against liberal democracy.

Liber­alism can coun­teract this in various ways. It must be prepared to take the perspec­tive of the losers of moderni­sa­tion seriously, and it must meet the need for security in times of rapid change.

Self-criticism and security in times of change are important

The opening panel then took a broad, inter­na­tional look. How has the turning point of the Russian war of aggres­sion changed the world and Europe? Ralf Fücks discussed with Tanja Börzel, professor at the Free Univer­sity of Berlin, Pavlo Klimkin, the former Ukrainian foreign minister, Slawomir Debski from the Polish think tank PISM, and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff from the German Marshall Funds of the United States.

While the panel­lists agreed that the turn of an era was an epochal change, they disagreed on the solutions. There seem to be, as the later discus­sant Karolina Wigura noted, different kinds of fears in Eastern and Western Europe. In the East it is the fear of anni­hi­la­tion by Russia, in the West economic fears or those of nuclear war are more present.

Liberal World Order — The New Role of the State — “Rethinking Liberalism”

In the afternoon, the partic­i­pants discussed in three workshops. One focused on saving the liberal inter­na­tional order. Jana Puglierin from ECFR, Thorsten Benner from GPPI, Nicolas Tenzer from Science Po /​ Desk Russie, moderated by Judy Dempsey from Carnegie Europe, discussed. A second workshop focused on how the role of the state is changing as it faces more and more trans­for­ma­tion chal­lenges and unfore­seen world events such as global pandemics. Jan Schnel­len­bach, professor at the BTU Cottbus, and Dieter Schnaas, editor at Wirtschaftswoche, discussed under the moder­a­tion of Thieß Petersen from the Bertels­mann Foun­da­tion. In the third workshop, Jan-Werner Müller from Princeton, Sabine Döring from the Univer­sity of Tübingen and Karolina Wigura from Kultura Liberalna — authors of the volume “Liber­al­ismus neu denken. Liberal Answers to the Chal­lenges of Our Time” — moderated by Annett Witte, Friedrich Naumann Foun­da­tion for Freedom, what answers liber­alism as a broad current of thought can give to the demo­c­ratic recession.

A contem­po­rary liberalism

So what might a contem­po­rary liber­alism look like? Ralf Fücks discussed this on the closing panel with Gesine Schwan from the Gover­nance Platform, Michael Zürn from the Science Centre Berlin, Claus Dierksmeier from the Univer­sity of Tübingen and Mathias Risse from Harvard Univer­sity. They first agreed that liber­alism is a broad current of thought that deeply affects the way we live. Therefore, discus­sions about a contem­po­rary liber­alism are neces­sarily broad, and many aspects are contro­ver­sial. However, there was agreement that a contem­po­rary liber­alism must not over­stretch its claim and that it must provide concrete, tangible answers for people’s lives. Only in this way can it win the hearts of the people.

And the future? It still holds a number of chal­lenges, but not only the familiar ones — from climate change and digi­tal­i­sa­tion to systemic conflict with author­i­tarian powers. Inno­va­tions in biotech­nology are on the rise and, like ever more advanced arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, raise the question of what it means to be human and what freedom means today and tomorrow. So the discus­sion continues, also at future events of the Centre for Liberal Modernity.

It is sponsored by the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius.

If you have any questions, please contact Rainald Manthe (

Retro­spec­tive: Rethinking-Confer­ence 2021


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