Twenty-five years after the wall's collapse, the greatest threat to the west comes from the groundless faith that history is on its sideby John Gray / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
In October 1997, at a joint press conference in Washington, then-President of the United States Bill Clinton told China’s President Jiang Zemin that he was “on the wrong side of history.” In March this year, President Barack Obama displayed the same confidence regarding the future course of humankind: by absorbing Crimea into Russia, Obama declared, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was putting himself “on the wrong side of history.”
Few among our leaders have any knowledge or interest in the world as it was before they entered politics. Their concern is with the present, the recent past and the near future as they imagine it is going to be. When they declare that the current regimes in China and Russia have no future, they are invoking the events of the past quarter-century—in the first instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989. For them, the collapse of communism was a victory for values—freedom, democracy, human rights—that have universal appeal and near-unstoppable momentum. When they make such assertions, these leaders do not see themselves as invoking any disputable theory or philosophy. They are articulating what has become the common sense of the age; a set of intellectual reflexes and assumptions they have never thought to question.
This reigning consensus is, in the broadest sense, a liberal interpretation of history. All mainstream parties and sections of opinion in western countries hold to a creed in which tyranny and empire are relics of the past, ethnic nationalism is fading away and the rise of militant religion as a factor in politics and war is a temporary aberration. This need not be a belief in historical inevitability; the role of human decisions may be acknowledged, and the dangers of back-sliding recognised. But all those whose thinking is shaped by this view insist that, in the long run, there is no viable alternative to one world united by the same values. It is a view of things that has informed grandiose schemes of regime change, and shapes western policies towards Russia at the present time. The practical upshot has been a type of democratic evangelism, and the principal legacy a litter of failed states.
The dissolution of Iraq that is presently underway is not unexpected. Even before the American-led invasion and the many bizarre decisions that followed, such as disbanding the army and banning the Ba’ath Party, there were good reasons for thinking that regime change would unravel the state. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a modern secular despotism in some ways resembling Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey. Toppling this regime could only mean a long period of intense sectarian conflict, most likely ending with a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad operating in an Iranian zone of influence.
Similarly, the overthrow of ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has turned Libya into a playground of rival militias, tribal warlords and jihadist groups (one of which has declared a caliphate in Benghazi). Libya is now a country without a state. In yet another case, the result of 13 years in Afghanistan is a pseudo-state funded by western aid, systemic corruption and the drug trade, which will struggle to survive when American and British troops complete their departure and the Taliban try to regain power.
You might suppose some lessons could have been learnt from these experiences. Even considered cynically as exercises in grabbing resources, these regime changes were misconceived. How can resources be secured or exploited in a space that is ungoverned or controlled by anti-western forces? Yet only months ago western governments were attempting to put “moderate rebels” in power in Syria, where the only realistic outcomes of such a policy were an irreversibly fractured state, a radical Islamist regime or most likely a mix of both. Even now the United Kingdom and the US continue to support the rebellion against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, placing themselves in the position of having the Islamic State as an ally in Syria and, on the other side of a border that no longer exists, an enemy in Iraq. At the moment it looks as though the jihadist group’s rapid expansion could tip the balance in the Syrian Civil War and leave it the dominant force in the country. In that event the west could see the defeat of Assad’s forces, with the potential knock-on effect of a boost to the Islamic State and a more far-reaching collapse of government in Iraq.
Further western involvement may now be unavoidable in order to mitigate the chaos that earlier intervention has created. How could the west stand by as the Yazidi community faced extinction at the hands of forces for whose rise the west is partly responsible? To do nothing when it is the west that has created the anarchy in which the Islamic State is free to commit its atrocities would itself be an atrocity.
Not every western intervention over the past quarter-century has lacked attainable objectives. The first Gulf War in 1990-91 was successful because its objectives were limited. So, with some caveats, was western military action in the Balkans. Again, a concentrated campaign of bombing of Taliban bases in Afghanistan may have been justified following the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, the “war on terror” was an exercise in futility. The threat was real enough, but it emanated largely from two countries—Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—which were regarded as the west’s allies. Occupying Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing to diminish this danger and in fact increased support for terrorist forces. At the same time the west became complicit in practices of secret rendition and torture that violated not just liberal values but those of any civilised state.
To a greater extent than at any period in the past, the world’s conflicts have, since the end of the Cold War, come to be seen through the cloudy prism of the liberal mind. Yet the Soviet melt-down had little to do with the spread of liberal values, or with the failings of central planning, which were a feature of the Soviet system from the start. More than any other factors, it was nationalism and religion that destroyed the Soviet state. Demoralising military failure at the hands of western-armed jihadists in Afghanistan, loss of control to the Church and to the Solidarity movement in Poland and national rebellions in the Baltic states—these defeats for the Soviet state, together with the challenge that seemed to be posed to Soviet security by US President Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” (his proposed defence strategy against nuclear ballistic missiles) and the destabilising effects of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, were what brought the Cold War to a close. The notion that the fall of communism was a decisive victory for western ideas and values—“the end of history”—is the reverse of the truth.
The Cold War was a quarrel between two western creeds—liberalism and communism. From beginning to end, the Soviet Union was a westernising regime, aiming to wrench Russia from its Eurasian and Orthodox past. The collapse of communism was a defeat for this project. If the Soviet inheritance was a military-industrial rustbelt, environmental devastation and tens of millions of ruined lives, post-communist Russia suffered the effects of another western ideology when neoliberal “shock therapy” was imposed: catastrophic depression, a dramatic fall in life-expectancy and the mafia capitalism of the Boris Yeltsin era. Against this background, the idea that Russia would move into the western orbit was wishful thinking. Instead, positioned uncertainly between Europe and Asia, the country has returned to its historic ambiguities. History has continued, and on traditional lines.
The rise of Putin is often described as a return to tsarist traditions of authoritarian rule, but in some respects the state he has built is extremely modern. At its core is a reborn version of the KGB security agency, which Putin is using to coordinate policy on a number of fronts. Economically Russia is weak and set to become weaker as its resource-based model, which is heavily reliant on high oil prices, becomes less sustainable. Putin may well be acting on the basis that he has only a few years in which to avert a cataclysmic decline in Russia’s position. His response has been a type of “non-linear” or hybrid warfare, using disinformation and deceptive diplomacy, among other techniques.
In Ukraine, mobilising a sophisticated array of media, Putin created a spectacle that has allowed him to mount a covert invasion of the eastern part of the country. As the downing of flight MH17 demonstrated, these methods—in which lines of control and command are oblique and concealed—carry significant risk. But Putin’s neo-Bolshevik political technology was effective in achieving his strategic objectives, which were to annex Crimea and destabilise the Kiev government. He always retained the option of using Russian troops to mount a direct invasion. There was never any prospect of allowing separatist forces to be routed. Whatever the cost, Ukraine would be kept from entering a western sphere of influence.
Western leaders claim that talk of Russian encirclement is delusional. But here it is the west that is deluded. The attempt to bring Ukraine into the European Union made sense only on the premise that Russia was too weak to resist. But by blocking Georgia’s membership of Nato in 2008 and backing separatist states in Ossetia and Abkhazia, while mounting cyber-attacks in the Baltics, Russia had already demonstrated the ability and the will to defy the west.
For Putin the loss of Ukraine posed an existential threat. While the west was disarming, Putin spent the years following the Georgian crisis modernising his armed forces. His strategy has been to bring stability to Russia’s mafia capitalism through a process of part-nationalisation, and by setting limits to the ambitions of the oligarchs while giving them the state’s protection. If the west were to capture Ukraine, this semi-baronial system could break down as the oligarchs looked for another leader to secure their interests. Putin could hardly have ignored the challenge posed by such an incursion. Instead, calculating that the west would not defend Ukraine, he would escalate the war until the danger had been neutralised, producing a frozen conflict in which the state is effectively partitioned and excluded from any closer links with the west.
If these strategic realities were disregarded, one reason was the financial crisis, which shifted human and financial resources away from defence and security. But the chief western deficit is cognitive. In the terms of the ruling liberal consensus, Putin’s Russia—a highly popular, hyper-modern despotism—cannot exist. The system remains unfathomably corrupt, gay people and some religious minorities are suffering persecution, while opponents of the regime face life-threatening repression. At the same time, by securing a semblance of order in the country and being more self-assertive in its relations with the west, Putin enjoys greater legitimacy than any Russian ruler since the end of tsardom, together with levels of voter support that no western leader can come close to matching.
For those who hold to the liberal consensus, this situation must be highly abnormal. If Putin benefits from unprecedented levels of popularity, they are adamant that this support is bound to melt away with economic stagnation and falling living standards. If Russia’s President has been quoting writers like Nikolai Berdyaev or Konstantin Leontiev, who believed Russia embodies a civilisation distinct from the west, he does so only in order to give a spurious rationale for his arbitrary power. The possibility that this is a view of Russia’s place in the world that Putin has come to hold, and one which chimes with a Russian majority, has not been considered. The prospect that if he were somehow to be forced out Putin could be replaced by an ultra-nationalist leader who is more anti-western and less rational is too unsettling to contemplate.
Talk of a “new cold war” illustrates the unreality of western thinking. If Putin were to launch a campaign of irregular warfare in the Baltic states, like the one he sponsored in Ukraine, there would be little the west could do. Nato divisions could not block the seizure of post offices and town halls by citizen groups formed from the Russian minorities, or deal with the covert forces that animate the protests. Nato’s capabilities have been run down by successive defence cuts. But this is nothing like the cold war. Putin is not promoting any universal ideology or model of society. He is attempting something that, in the terms of liberal consensus, is unthinkable—re-asserting the claims of geopolitics, ethnicity and empire. The west has yet to face the prospect that it is going to have to live with an authoritarian Russia indefinitely.
For much of post-communist Europe this is deeply troubling. In the eyes of many in the region, the Soviet debacle was an opportunity to reclaim a normalcy denied them for over 40 years. A sort of normality has returned; but it is the kind that Europe experienced in much of the first half of the last century, a condition of chronic crisis. Structural flaws in the single currency have left much of southern Europe in permanent depression. Reunited by the fall of communism, the continent has been re-divided by the European project. Across Europe, there has been a resurgence of the far right and the politics of hate.
Post-communist countries are now the last redoubt, outside Germany, of the European project. Promising to entrench liberal democracy, the EU is seen as offering security, first of all against Russia, but also as a protector of liberal values. But this safety is mostly illusory. Who can seriously believe that Germany will go to war with Russia for the third time in a century in order to protect Poland or the Baltic states? Nor is the EU a guarantor of liberal values. Versions of democracy exist throughout Eastern Europe, but these democracies vary greatly in the degree to which they respect liberal norms. While it presides over a revival of many of the themes of European fascism—including the demonisation of Jews—Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary is not a dictatorship of the kind that existed in the interwar period. A more modern development, Orbán’s regime has harnessed popular sovereignty to create an illiberal democracy.
That democracy can be a vehicle for tyranny was well understood by an older generation of liberal thinkers. From Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill through to Isaiah Berlin, it was recognised that democracy does not necessarily protect individual freedom. The greatest danger for these liberals was not that the historical movement towards democracy would be reversed, but rather the ascendancy of an illiberal type of democracy—a development they saw prefigured in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the general will. Because democratic regimes have a source of legitimacy that other forms of government lack, liberty might be more threatened in the future than in the past. Legal and constitutional protections have little force when majorities are indifferent or hostile to liberal values. Most human beings in every society, much of the time, care about other things more than they care about being free. Many will vote readily for an illiberal government if it promises security against violence or hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached and denies freedom to those they hate.
Today, of course, these truisms belong in the category of forbidden thoughts. If democracy proves to be oppressive, liberals insist this is because democracy is not working properly—if there was genuine popular participation, majorities would not oppress minorities or tyrannise over themselves. Arguing with this view is pointless, since it rests on an article of faith: the conviction that freedom is the natural human condition, which tyranny suppresses. But freedom is not the mere absence of tyranny, which may be no more than anarchy. Freedom requires a functioning state, with a competent bureaucracy and a legal system that is not excessively corrupt, together with a political culture that allows these institutions to work independently of government. In the absence of these conditions, human rights—legal fictions created and enforced by well-organised states—are meaningless. Such conditions do not exist in much of the world and will not exist in many countries for the foreseeable future, if ever. Where they do exist, they are easily compromised. Far from being the natural condition of humankind, freedom is inherently fragile and will always be exceptional.
Finding this prospect intolerable, liberals in all parties respond with a liturgy that is repeated incessantly in think-tanks and universities the world over: a growing global middle class will secure the future of freedom. The assumption is that by some occult process economic modernisation will promote liberal values; but this sub-Marxian formula has little basis in the historical record. The middle classes have put up scant resistance to the rise of dictatorship; often, as in interwar Europe, they have been among the most enthusiastic and committed supporters of authoritarian regimes. Today they support Orbán, Putin and, in growing numbers, movements such as the National Front in France. The idea that the middle class can act as the saviour of liberal values is not an empirical belief. Like Marx’s theory of history, it is secular teleology—a rationalist residue of a religious faith in providence.
The trouble with this liberalism is that it is regularly exposed to unpleasant surprises. When western supporters of the Arab Spring compared it with the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, they forgot that the “Spring of Nations”—as the revolutions were sometimes called—had been succeeded by 1850 by a winter of reaction. Democracy came to much of Europe nearly a century and a half later, following periods of dictatorial rule in many countries, two world wars and a geopolitical convulsion in the former Soviet Union. But it is far from self-evident that the Middle East will repeat this European experience even in the long run. Those who were convinced that liberal democracy could take root in the Middle East had not reflected on the fact that the only secular regimes in the region have been dictatorships. When the dictators have been overthrown they have been replaced by Islamist versions of illiberal democracy or failed states.
In part, this may be a result of colonialism. Most of the states in the region are creations of imperial power; many lack any underlying national culture. But the nation state itself is artificial in much of the region, and so far only the Kurds have demonstrated the internal coherence needed to form a European-style state. Western policy has aimed to keep Syria and Iraq in being, but everything suggests they are well on the way to becoming territories without effective states, ruled by shifting configurations of clans and religious allegiances. The states that were cobbled together during the First World War by European diplomats such as François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes belong in a post-colonial settlement that is rapidly disappearing from memory. When the Islamic State posted a video celebrating the erasure of the Sykes-Picot line between Syria and Iraq, it showed that it understands this fact, which the west has yet to grasp.
Ironically, it is the west—by creating a failed state in Iraq and backing jihadist rebels against Assad’s secular tyranny—that has made the rapid rise of the Islamic State possible. But the west has little understanding of the monster it has helped create. Almost invariably, the Islamic State is seen as a reversion to medieval values. Certainly it has been shaped by the 18th-century Wahhabi movement of Sunni fundamentalism, which played a formative role in the development of the Saudi kingdom. But like Putin’s Russia, the Islamic State is also extremely modern—and not just in its sophisticated use of the internet. When it posted a video of the beheading of the American journalist James Foley along with a British-accented voice-over, the Islamic State aimed to show that its reach extends far beyond its immediate battleground in Syria and Iraq. More like the French Jacobins, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks or the Khmer Rouge than the medieval Assassins, the Islamic State practises methodical terror as part of its project of creating a new kind of state. As with the regimes these modern revolutionaries founded, the Islamic State is founded on belief not nationality. Partly for that reason, its ambitions are global.
If the ruling consensus finds the Islamic State hard to understand, it may be because the jihadist group reminds liberals of the persistent use of violence in the service of faith. The core of a liberal interpretation of history is the notion that when they have the opportunity to become modern, most human beings will opt for peace, freedom and prosperity over other goals and values. But there is no hidden mechanism linking modernisation with the spread of liberal values. The modern world has been reshaped again and again by movements that have instead chosen death and destruction for themselves and others. In the 20th century, these movements were driven by secular ideologies such as Nazism and communism. Today, the process continues with the Islamic State.
A factor that is neglected when considering the Arab Spring is the role of the financial crisis. Triggered by the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in December 2010, the revolts began with protests against rising food prices. North Africa and the Middle East are heavily reliant on food imports, and in the preceding years prices had risen sharply. These price rises were fuelled by massive injections of liquidity into global markets by the American monetary authorities. Implemented in order to stave off a 1930s-style economic depression, policies of quantitative easing have had the effect of inflating asset prices. Stoking speculation in commodities, this flood of liquidity contributed to regime change in a number of countries. If American power was instrumental in the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the unintended consequences of policies pursued by the Federal Reserve were more important than anything the CIA may have tried to engineer.
The financial crisis showed that the capitalism whose triumph was celebrated in 1989 was fragile. It was also in some respects criminally corrupt. The causes of the crisis included predatory lending on a vast scale, and it has since become known that banks had been rigging financial markets for years. Yet this louche variety of finance-capitalism has faced no significant internal political challenge. The Occupy movements illustrated the impotence of opposition and the absence of alternatives. Neoliberal capitalism’s most immediate vulnerability lies elsewhere. Globalisation has produced greater prosperity, for a great many people, than ever existed before. However, by magnifying demands on the planet’s resources, globalisation has also made intensified geopolitical competition a permanent condition. In these circumstances, conventional distinctions between war and peace become blurred. The state capitalism of Russia and China has a systematic advantage over the de-centred capitalism of the west, since a political economy that is state-centric can deploy techniques of hybrid warfare more coherently and to greater effect.
Even more than Russia, China’s emergence as a great power poses a challenge to the prevailing consensus. In a generation, China has achieved the largest continuing economic expansion in history—an achievement that enabled it to launch a colossal credit expansion in the wake of the financial crisis. There is some truth in the cliché that it was the Communist Party of China that saved western capitalism. Exponents of the ruling consensus say the Chinese model of development is nearing the end of the road: there needs to be a shift to domestic consumption, and an accompanying expansion of political freedom, if mass unrest is to be averted.
Certainly stability cannot be taken for granted. How can continuing flows of Chinese capital into western property be accounted for, if not as purchases of insurance by the elite against a risk of political upheaval? Again, if the world is moving into a period of slower growth—whether because of tightening environmental constraints, declining technical innovation or the increased burden of debt left by policies adopted to deal with the financial crisis—China will be particularly vulnerable. Whatever its achievements, China is more exposed to political blowback from economic slowdown than many other states. With its pervasive corruption and gangsterish infighting, there is no way the current Chinese regime could weather decades of deflation as Japan has done. Alongside nationalist resentment of the US and Japan and lingering memories of the horrors of the Mao Zedong era, continuing economic expansion is its principal source of popular legitimacy. Even a year or two of sub-par growth would provoke an explosion.
But the consensus prognosis is still misleading. While sections of China’s elites may be hedging their bets, there is no sign that its rulers are surrendering their dynastic claim to rule. At present, local protests are often followed by compromise and concessions, but in the event of more widespread and threatening unrest, repression is more likely than capitulation. Whatever happens, China is not going the way of the former Soviet Union. But neither is it going to evolve in the direction of a western market economy. China’s state capitalism serves the long-term goals of the Chinese state, which centre round restoring China and its civilisation to its rightful place in the world. (This is not only a Chinese phenomenon. In India, a new government has been elected that is committed to promoting the country’s Hindu civilisation.) Even if some kind of regime change were to occur, there is no reason to think China’s new rulers would aim for anything different.
Like that which existed in the late 19th century, our world is one where great and medium-size powers jostle for control and resources. This is no postmodern order of the sort that some fancied was being built in Europe. It more closely resembles the world envisaged in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 that brought the Thirty Years War to an end and in which sovereign states pursue their own interests and, in some cases, imperial visions (see Prospect’s interview with Henry Kissinger, p24). Among these rival states—America, China, India, Germany and Japan—the US no longer figures as a hyper-power. With the worst public infrastructure in the advanced world, a disappearing middle class, a higher proportion of the population incarcerated than in any other country and Washington gridlocked by corporate power, no one outside the US sees the American political system as a model to emulate.
Yet in some ways America is the best placed of the great powers. Unlike China, its political system does not require rapid economic growth in order to retain popular legitimacy. The mythology of American nationalism (otherwise known as “exceptionalism”) is a powerful cohesive force. In the Barack Obama administration, as at times in the past, this distinctive brand of nationalism has assumed a quasi-isolationist colouring. Exhausted by years of ruinous war, voters are reluctant to risk further costly entanglements. American resistance to military adventure has been strengthened by developments in the energy market. Expert opinion is divided as to the long-term viability of the shale revolution, but if the US were to become again a major oil exporter the impact could be profound. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which need high oil prices in order to sustain their current political systems, would face crisis. But there is little reason for thinking these states would evolve in the direction of democracy. Mass impoverishment would likely produce more virulent types of authoritarianism, or in the Saudi case a break-up of the state with contending varieties of radical Islamism being the main beneficiaries.
A succession of cycles and contingencies, history has no overall direction. But if any trend can be discerned at the present time, it is hardly favourable to the west. In part this is the normal course of history. The western pre-eminence of the past few hundred years was never going to be permanent. But western decline is also a process that has been accelerated by repeated attempts to export western institutions. As the American historian Barbara Tuchman showed in her great 1984 book The March of Folly, many of history’s catastrophes have been the result not of error but of what she calls “folly”—the pursuit of hubristic policies that could be known in advance to be unworkable or self-defeating. Much that the west has done over the past quarter-century can be described as folly in Tuchman’s sense.
In any conceivable future, there will be many different kinds of regime. Tyranny and anarchy will be as common as liberal and illiberal democracy; ethnic nationalism will be a persistent force, while clan loyalties and hatreds will be more politically important, in some countries, than nationality; geopolitical struggle will intensify, war mutate into novel and hybrid forms and empire renew itself in new guises; religion will be a deciding force in the formation and destruction of states. There will be many cultures and ways of life, continuously changing and interacting without melting into anything like a universal civilisation. If values such as freedom and tolerance are to survive, this is the world in which they must somehow live. Coping with this world requires realistic thinking of a kind that the liberal mind, as it exists today, is incapable. But this ruling liberalism gives its believers something realist thinking cannot supply—a story, or myth, in which they can shape the future of humankind. As it faces an increasingly disordered world, the greatest danger for the west comes from the groundless faith that history is on its side.