Eastern Europe has become resentful of its own imitation of the westby Mark Leonard / November 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
If you read one book to understand the state of the world today, make it this one. Aphoristic, counter-intuitive and amusing, a single page provides more insight into populism than libraries of books on Brexit or Trump.
Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and US law professor Stephen Holmes claim that the fall of the Berlin Wall led not to the “end of history” but the dawn of the “age of imitation.” They trace the story of how the post-1989 liberal dream became an illiberal nightmare through four parallel narratives.
Central Europeans were true believers who wanted to adopt the ends as well as the means of liberal democracy (Converts). The dream for Poland or Hungary was to be like Germany but the process of becoming a pale imitation proved psychologically humiliating and politically taxing. Tens of millions of the most liberal and talented people went to the west. The “left behind” rump became easy prey for populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, who used the refugee crisis to play on fears of demographic decline to promote illiberal nationalism.
Russia, by contrast, chose to fake westernisation (Impostors) by pretending to introduce democracy and free markets when it was weak—only to later raise a mirror to the west and weaponise its hypocrisy.
The Chinese path (Appropriation) was to borrow western technology while protecting the nature of the Chinese regime and culture. As China rose it ended the “age of imitation” by removing the idea that there is no alternative to western liberal democracy.
But it is the American story (Dispossession) that is most surprising. Trump has succeeded in promoting the idea that America’s imitators—through a combination of immigration and Chinese cheating—will end up dispossessing it of its culture, jobs and technology. This is an extraordinary and compelling book. Its subject matter is bleak but the deep learning, humour and humanity of its authors shines through.
The Light that Failed: A Reckoning by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes (Allen Lane, £20)