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
Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.