The Return of History

Just two decades ago, Western ideals seemed to be sweeping the world, as a succession of countries transitioned to democracy, liberal internationalism flourished, and thinkers hailed “the end of history.” But as Welsh vividly chronicles, history has come back with a vengeance. Her book catalogs many of the things that have “returned” from the past: barbarism, mass refugee flows, confrontation between Russia and the West, growing economic inequality. But by spending most of her time contrasting today’s realities with the optimistic visions that took hold in the immediate post–Cold War moment, Welsh has rigged the game. Liberal democracy’s ascendance has unfolded over two centuries, not two decades. And from the beginning, it has been a tale full of contingencies, setbacks, crises, and lucky breaks. Still, Welsh reminds readers that liberal democratic advances can be reversed and that large (and perhaps growing) constituencies inside and outside the West now favor autocratic nationalism and illiberalism. For liberal democracy to regain its luster, its advocates must craft new narratives about its struggles, failures, accomplishments, and enduring principles.

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