Several recent essays on Western foreign policy and the state of liberal democracy—by Robert Kagan, Francis Fukuyama, and Walter Russell Mead—offer an excellent departure point for answering several questions about the post-Cold War period: Were the liberal hopes of those times justified? How did things veer so far off track? And why? Their essays also allow me to pose two follow-up questions: Can (and should) the West rethink its paradigm of retrenchment and “nation-building at home”? And can the liberal democracies reinvent themselves absent a strong global competitor and rival?It’s a bitter irony that Vladimir Putin’s puncturing of the post-Cold War order has had the secondary, beneficial effect of getting the ball rolling on the painful process of rethinking. Putin has helped us see that the old order was doomed to fail in any case; it had become an imitation order, wrapped in layer upon layer of illusion and wishful thinking. Instead of becoming a framework for ensuring the victory of liberal democracy, the post-Cold War settlement turned into a kind of fuzzy, postmodern arrangement, full of contradictions and thinly veiled hypocrisies. It was based on the premises that Russia would be a cooperative partner with the West and that liberal democracy no longer had an ideological rival. Things never turned out this way. “It was a beautiful plan, but it hasn’t worked out”, writes Mead about Obama’s foreign policy; one could say the same thing about the Western policy over the past two decades.Of course, we need to remember that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West took a nap, having lost interest in great ideas and “grand designs.” Although the liberal democracies had no global adversary for the past twenty years, they proved unable to reform an international governance system (the Security Council, first of all) that was based on the legacy of the Second World War and a balance of forces that ceased to exist with the demise of the Soviet Union. The West also failed to revitalize the liberal democratic model; today it seems dysfunctional. It is becoming increasingly less appealing to the outside world, and it has also failed to prevent the global authoritarian march. In fact, the liberal democracies failed to recognize both when and how the authoritarian “Central Powers”, as Mead has called them, began their attempts to change the international rules of the game.To be sure, the West can still take pride in the fact that it has no real competitors—but isn’t that the primary problem?Surveying the world today, one could conclude that the Soviet Union, the West’s geopolitical adversary and civilizational alternative for most of the 20th century, was the principal engine behind Western efforts to constantly “upgrade” its system, prove its adherence to its principles, and preserve its unity. The Soviet collapse eliminated not only geopolitical but also civilizational and ideological competition, thus making Western democracies complacent and indifferent to the normative dimension. The one archrival that could have offered the world a set of universalist principles was gone, and the ideologies of Iran or China were hardly tempting to the outside world.The liberal democracies didn’t just lose their appetites for reforming their domestic systems. The West has also been lacking a George Kennan-like figure—a thinker whose “long telegram” would explain to the Western capitals what they ought to be doing under the new conditions.Don’t misunderstand me: I am not nostalgic about the Soviet system. I am merely offering a reminder that we have not only misinterpreted the outcome of its death; we’ve buried it prematurely.Historical determinism (how Marxist!) has become the justification for no longer worrying about either the world or the world of ideas. “Liberal progress was inevitable, and therefore nothing need to be done to promote or defend it. Such thoughts were echoed though the 1990. The age of geopolitics had supposedly given way to the age of geo-economics”, says Robert Kagan about the American mood in the post-Soviet times. And suddenly “ it was the end of America, the end of the West. Triumphalism turned to declinism” (Kagan again). Moreover, Western triumphalism turned out to herald the “Golden Age” for the reincarnation of Global Authoritarianism, which has been gradually gaining strength by siphoning away liberal ideas and institutions and corroding the West from inside.De-ideologization of the West produced two outcomes. First, the West has been unable to formulate a strategic vision, since such a vision can only be based on values. Second, a generation of pragmatic leaders who seek only to preserve the status quo are ready to adapt, retrench, and seek trade-offs with the Authoritarian International.The West’s approach to dealing with Russia is the best exemplar of the post-Cold War “accommodation”, which looks more like the paralysis of liberal civilization. There were two components of this approach: naivety and pragmatism (although the pragmatism quite often reeked of cynicism). Naivety, coupled with lack of understanding of Russian reality, ruled the day at the outset. This was the time when Western countries tried to aid Russia’s transformation while relying on a one-man rule system in Moscow that rejected reform. (I wonder when it was, exactly, that Western leaders discovered that the Kremlin was not planning to turn Russia into a Western democracy: during Yeltsin’s rule, or after Putin took over the Kremlin?). When it had become clear that Russia would not become a liberal democracy, the West turned to “dual track” policy: Western capitals pursued their business and security interests, while pretending to believe that Russia’s democratic evolution was proceeding apace. Or is it really that two generations of the Western leaders failed to understand what really was going on in Russia?The West’s “Let’s pretend” game has spawned influential lobbying structures that protect the Kremlin’s interests in West. It has also allowed the Russian ruling class to personally integrate with the fabric of Western society. Other authoritarian regimes, from Kazakhstan’s to China’s, have also been able to hire more than a few Western lobbyists, up to and including former Western leaders and politicians. The greatest of the charmers are the Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and the Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev (the latter is an active participant in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program). But no other authoritarian state so far has pulled off the most exquisite trick of them all: institutional integration with the Western system, through the Council of Europe, the G8 framework, and numerous political and business networks. Oh, but this is about symbolism, you say. Symbolism, I would answer, can pay huge dividends; Putin’s Moscow has been on the receiving end of these dividends, of course.This postmodern phenomenon of integrating the alien entity and accommodating it has further eroded liberal values and strengthened moral relativism and double standards, at least within the Western business and political elite. By the early 2000s the West had lost its role as a mentor and guarantor of universal values. Forget about preaching democracy! Paradoxically, in some Western countries (primarily Germany), defending values in dealing with authoritarian states would now mean hampering the country’s economic stability. This is at least one of the results of the “dual-track” policies that many Western leaders are so comfortable with.The U.S. reset policy and the German Partnership for Modernization (an invention of Germany’s Social Democrats) became the most well-known reflections of the postmodernity prevailing after collapse of the Soviet Union. The reset allowed Washington to accomplish some tactical goals—in particular, logistics for Afghanistan, and we can only wonder how successful it has been in supporting the U.S. agenda in Iran. But the (artificial) euphoria that enveloped the policy, as well as its imitative component (namely, the civil societies dialogue under the Kremlin’s watch), pointed to the lack of strategy, and to the dim understanding of what a dialogue with a more manipulative partner might lead to.Berlin’s relations with the Kremlin benefited German business circles, mirroring West Germany’s Ostpolitik during the Soviet era. But did Berlin really believe that partnering with the corrupt Russian regime would facilitate Russia’s modernization? If so, it’s a perfect example of naivety; if not, it could not have been a more cynical ploy. In any event, we have textbook examples of tactical successes at the price of strategic defeat and the discrediting Western values.The de-ideologized post-Cold War era could have continued to this day, undermining the West’s vitality and demoralizing it—if not for Putin’s decision to ensure his regime’s survival by creative adaptation of George Kennan’s recipe. The Western hopes that the Kremlin would limit itself to authoritarianism within Russia’s borders while remaining friendly to the West (remember Obama’s policy of “de-linkage”?) were dashed. Ukraine became the first test for the Kremlin’s containment of the West. The West, still reeling from shock, is still wondering how to deal with the new world it finds itself thrust into.Up until last week, some claimed to see signs that the Kremlin was backing down in Ukraine. Putin has recognized new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and has even talked to him. Furthermore, Russia hasn’t invaded eastern Ukraine yet (though the U.S. claims that the tanks being used by the separatists came from Russia). If this is “backing down,” it’s a strange version of it: 1) Russia isn’t returning to the status quo ante; 2) the West can’t agree where to set its “red lines”; 3) it refuses to subordinate its commercial interests to its strategic interest (which seem so vague); 4) it wants desperately return to its familiar “dual track.” All of the statements by European politicians about their being a “light in the end of the tunnel” (Americans are more hesitant to say such things) are signs of the urge to return to accommodationist policies.One would think that Putin’s Crimean grab wasn’t enough of a slap in the face. The West’s leaders are treating a dramatic political crisis as a mere unfortunate occurrence to be remedied by a little tactical maneuvering. Moreover, these maneuvers look pathetic, even comical: How is it possible to square efforts to revitalize NATO with France’s ongoing sale of amphibious assault craft to Moscow? How is the Kremlin supposed to take Western sanctions seriously if those sanctions don’t target the Kremlin’s lobbying structures in the West?To be sure, Putin isn’t exactly holding a strong hand. He’s trying to save an obsolescent civilization in an advanced state of decay. But for now, he looks like a winner not only because he is a risk taker and the West is risk-averse; he wins because the West has trapped itself into seeing the current crisis only as geopolitical tug of war (or a battle for areas of interest), in which the Kremlin has more chances to gain the upper hand. The current generation of Western leaders is afraid to acknowledge that this is a clash of normative systems. But the new anti-Western phenomenon does not resemble the Soviet Union or other authoritarian states of the 20th century: It is more arrogant; ready to defy the rules; able to corrupt the West from the inside; more efficient with its propaganda; and has broad commercial ties with the West. Thus, the West can neither contain this phenomenon (by revitalizing NATO), nor acquiesce to it, nor wait patiently for its collapse (because waiting may only prolong the pathetic interregnum).Liberal democracies have to prepare themselves for a tough new chapter, compared to which the narrative of the past twenty years was an easy read. Nuclear-armed authoritarian systems fighting for their lives and ready to turn the world into their arena—now this would really make for a new and gripping drama. The Western powers would need, first, a new generation of experts and politicians—a generation not responsible for today’s myth-building and able to deal with the fluid and confusing situation we find ourselves in (and where would we find this generation, one wonders?). Second, the West must rebuild itself. “No one living in an established democracy should be complacent about its survival,” warns Fukuyama, calling on us all to address the “political decay” of liberal democracy. Returning to “Idealism”, which means values- this is Kagan’s recipe for dealing with the present bout of Western declinism is a return to “idealism,” which means values.But for me the question is still open: Can this be done absent a more devastating crisis and threat to the West? Can it be done without there being a true rival to the liberal democracies in the realm of ideas?
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Published on: June 16, 2014Crowning a Winner in the Post-Crimea World
Does liberal democracy depend on the existence of ideological and civilizational rivals to spur it into cycles of reinvention and renewal?