The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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End of the Affair
Published on June 6, 2012

These are ruminations of a Russian liberal, and they would have never been written if not for one simple fact: the concerns described herein are beginning to dominate the Russian liberal community (and not just the Russian one, I’m afraid). We are dealing with a phenomenon that until recently was unthinkable: emerging anti-Western and anti-American liberalism. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Russian liberals are rejecting liberal principles. They are just increasingly critical of the way the Western elites—political and intellectual—adhere to these principles, both inside and outside of Western societies. Are these criticisms a reflection of the usual tension between non-Western dogmatism and Western revisionism? Could be. But I’d rather not be presumptuous: I am only describing how Western developments and Western policies are seen from the outside by those who have traditionally looked to the West as an example and even an icon.

One could all too easily shrug and dismiss this phenomenon as ludicrous. It would be arrogant, after all, for those who have failed to achieve a liberal agenda in their own country to accuse those who have succeeded of normative inconsistency and structural ineffectiveness! On the other hand, Western observers themselves admit that the West has problems. Francis Fukuyama, for one, writes about “American Political Dysfunction.” Walter Mead declares, “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore.” William Galston says, “We need a fundamental renewal of the liberal tradition in America.” Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum discuss American decline and what is necessary “to revitalize the United States” (p. 329). Even Robert Kagan, whom we can hardly suspect of declinism, agrees that “the United States must adjust to the new” (p. 140).

Europe is no different. Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Zbigniew Brzezinski concludes that Europe has become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (p. 36). Europeans themselves lament the crisis of Western civilization as well. Constanze Stelzenmüller acknowledges a “toxic polarization of domestic politics” and discrediting of “politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government.” The Western project is beginning to resemble a house with a shaky foundation, and the spreading gloom has made the new “crisisology” into the favorite hobby of Western and non-Western observers alike.

So, what’s wrong with the West? There is a consensus: failing economy, dysfunctional domestic political systems, entrenched interests, dwindling prosperity and populism. This naturally leads one to wonder, “What are the causes of the current Western malaise?” Fukuyama reminds us of Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, in which the latter argued that, during prolonged periods of prosperity and peace, democratic countries tend to accumulate entrenched interest groups, which in turn leads to the ossification of political systems. If this diagnosis is correct, the problem is systemic, and the remedy is to update the basics.

I would add that the crisis in the West was not entirely unexpected; it has a cyclical nature. In the 20th century, liberal democracies experienced traumatic shocks three times (before World War I, in the 1930s and again in the 1970s). These crises provided a powerful impetus for social renewal and the emergence of post-industrial society. Thus, what the West is going through now seems to be a stage in the normal rhythm of life—in itself a sign that liberal society is still vibrant and alive. The Russian experience, meanwhile, demonstrates that calm and stagnation are a much worse omens—signs that a society may soon lose its energy and drive. The more acute the signs of a crisis are, the faster the recovery.

There is yet another factor that helped the West re-energize itself in the past: the existence of Soviet Communism, an alternative civilization with global aspirations. It was this alternative that forced the West to pay close attention to justice, fairness, equality and social aspects of capitalism. Josef Joffe reminds us that it was the Soviet Sputnik satellite that forced the United States to change its fiscal priorities and funnel billions of dollars into research and education. Searching for ways to reform itself in the 1970s, the West not only upgraded its entire system; it also introduced values into the conduct of its international relations—for the first time in history. It was, in fact, a major breakthrough. Human rights became the leading theme of Western foreign policy. The universalization of human rights and respect for dignity and freedom blurred the boundaries between domestic and foreign policy, entailing rejection of the concept of absolute sovereignty in the global arena. The Helsinki process and its Final Act were simultaneously a sign of the new vitality of Western civilization, an effective instrument to contain the U.S.S.R. and a catalyst for the “third wave” of democratization. The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 owed at least part of their success to the influence of liberalism in the area of international relations.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the West without an opponent that could force the liberal democracies to refine their principles and modernize their systems. Political Islam, extreme nationalism and fascism failed to become alternatives to liberal democracy, as some experts had predicted, at least globally. These days, even paternalistic Asian authoritarianism is looking as if it is losing steam. Today, the liberal democracies will have to find their second wind from within; there are no outside factors to stimulate recovery.

Meanwhile, the way liberal democracies are currently trying to revitalize themselves raises some concerns and doubts. There are two “cures” under discussion within the Western community. First, the West has to find ways to deal with entrenched interests and their own plutocracies while at the same time rewriting social contracts to make the welfare state economically effective again. Second, liberal democracies have to figure out how far they want their power to extend in the outside world: whether they should limit its reach in order to tackle domestic problems (as per Obama’s popular “time to focus on nation building here at home” rhetoric), or expand it. Foreign policy experts are also debating new ways of understanding the world, managing threats, and forecasting future events. Whereas the thinking of the 1970s emphasized a normative dimension and the interdependence of domestic and foreign policy, Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo.

I have not found any substantive evidence (or did I perhaps miss it?) that the West’s “resuscitators” are prepared to offer ways to connect the domestic revival with a new model of “liberal internationalism”—to reconcile ideals and interests. Even staunch liberal internationalists today keep a low profile, as if they are still afraid of being accused of holding on to the neocon legacy. Indeed, it seems that there is no intellectual or political force in the West that would dare repeat the breakthrough of the 1970s by re-energizing liberal civilization with a return to values and principles. Looks like we are back in the Kissingerian world…

I have a problem with this world. In fact, I have a problem with the current role of the West as the guarantor of the status quo and balance of forces—especially at a time when we are witnessing an awakening of the Arab world and Russia, not to mention emerging signs that China’s rise, or even its stability, may be approaching an inflection point. It’s easy enough to understand Western attempts to downplay the values approach and missionary agenda in the wake of Bush Jr.’s embarrassing Iraq endeavor. Yet, these attempts look like a reflection of the inability to think strategically. Ironically, at a time when the West has no opponents, liberal democracies prefer to stop thinking about grand designs and principles. Even analysts who have always sought to balance interests and values when discussing foreign policy are now talking primarily about power dimensions or geopolitical thrust.

But how can Western civilization reinvent itself while pursuing a foreign policy pragmatism based on turning inward and making trade-offs with the non-democratic world? Western states do indeed face a multitude of internal challenges, but if foreign policy is a projection of the domestic agenda, how can liberal democracies hope to reform their political systems and revive their principles while refusing to follow them in the international arena? Or has the West decided to follow Robert Cooper’s advice and pursue a duality? (“Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of law . . . but when we are operating in the jungle, we must use the laws of the jungle.”) If it has chosen the latter, then Western politicians and their advisers would do well to know what the “law of the jungle” is: blackmail, corruption, raw force and readiness to break all agreements. If the West accepts these rules, it can’t claim it has a monopoly on values, and it can’t expect the respect and trust of other nations. There is no guarantee that Western civilization, operating on the basis of “the law of the jungle” internationally, would not apply the same laws domestically.

Moreover, there is an illusion shared by quite a few Western observers that power projection is what makes the West respected by and attractive to the rest of the world. This may have been true at some point in history, but not anymore. The way the West uses power, and the ends for which it uses it, now provoke different reactions entirely: mistrust, even in societies that have traditionally been loyal to the West, not to mention attempts to form a “counterpower” by China and Russia.

My Western friends would argue that in order to think about values abroad, the West should first sort things out at home. And then…liberal democracies will start thinking about the integrity and popularity of their foreign policies, and of democracy, in the outside world. I just don’t get this: How can one re-energize liberal democracy while continuing with the same foreign policy model that is one of the causes of the liberal democracies’ normative crisis?

The Western approach to Russia today is quite telling: It demonstrates an attempt on the part of key Western players to forget about values in their dealings with the Kremlin. Essentially, I hear two different justifications for that approach. The first one is based on the premise that Russian leaders (Medvedev, to be precise) have understood the need for democratically based modernization. Thus there is no need to preach democracy to Moscow or to remind the Kremlin to follow its commitments to behave well domestically. Even one of the most sensitive observers of Russia (and at one time one of the most critical ones), Zbigniew Brzezinski, described Medvedev as “the most prominent spokesman for the modernization-democratization school of thought” (p. 147) in Russia. (Or was this just an attempt to justify Obama’s reset?) I would ask, “Why, then, did Medvedev the Modernizer failed to reform Russia when he was President? Why, as President, did he adopt legislation that prolongs personalized power and expands functions of the repressive state organs?” Today with Putin back in the Kremlin and Medvedev in the role of Prime Minister, we will have even fewer chances for his independent agenda (even if Medvedev suddenly decides to pursue his promises of reform).

Charles Kupchan also notes that Medvedev is “more liberal in inclination than Putin” (p. 109). How does he know this, if Medvedev has never behaved like a liberal? Besides, Medvedev openly admitted that he is not in fact a liberal; he is conservative (which in Russia means traditionalist).

Hopes of a leader-reformer taking over the Kremlin and reforming Russia are dominant in Western media and literature. Even the most astute Western observers believe that Russia can be modernized from the top down. Are they aware that they are only repeating (subconsciously, I hope) Kremlin’s mantras? Regretfully, our hopefuls ignore Russian history, which proves that Russia’s personalized power has been unable to reform Russia; it has always used partial reform or reform rhetoric to reproduce itself. Frankly speaking, I don’t understand why Western observers, watching the wave of protests against one-man rule emerge in Russia, continue to believe in the positive potential of Russia’s personalized power. Is it naivety? Or typical Western wishful thinking? Or maybe this is a way of justifying the sweet deals made with the Russian regime?

There is another premise that may explain the revival of Western Realpolitik: the belief that the West is a unique civilization that emerged as a result of specific historical circumstances, and that liberal democracy can’t be replicated by other civilizations. In short, the hope that the world will follow the Western model, and that other societies will become more open, market friendly, and democratic, is phony. Those who believe in it are “falling into an intellectual trap,” Kupchan warns (p. 88). He argues that today’s rising powers are each following unique paths toward modernity based on their own conditions. Their culture plays a part, too. In China, Russia and other capitalist autocracies, paternalistic cultures “sharply contrast with the liberal tradition.” Moreover, these countries offer “an appealing alternative to the Western model.”

I thought that this type of thinking had perished a long time ago. After South Korea and Japan, Romania and Bulgaria—each with their own particular culture and historical background—became democracies, and after Taiwan and even Singapore started to move toward political pluralism, I believed that the myth of the uniqueness of the West had been repudiated. The Arab revolutions and Russia’s protests should have seriously undermined any assumption that their populations were doomed to live under authoritarian rule.

If Fukuyama, Minxin Pei and Andrew Nathan are right in saying that the Chinese system “embeds plenty of hidden problems that will make it in the long run unsustainable”, and that the Chinese model “is expedient, something temporary and transitional,” then China may soon cease being a success story and prove that its culture and past do not “contrast” with liberalization.

It seems that not everyone is convinced, however. What are the reasons behind this determinism? A lack of understanding and awareness of what is happening outside of the Western world? An attempt to make reality fit an artificial paradigm? Frustration with the neocon era? I can tell you how it looks from the outside. It looks, first and foremost, like doubt that liberal democracy could appeal to the non-democratic world, and secondly, like a condescending attitude toward nations supposedly unable to accept liberal democratic principles.

With respect to the argument that Russia and China could become “an appealing alternative” to the West, I can’t imagine what should happen in Western society to make the Russian or Chinese models worthy of emulation! Besides, I have not found a single piece of evidence that any post-Soviet or other state today views Russia in this way.

Reading Western advice on how the West ought to treat Russia leaves me in a state of bewilderment, if not outright shock. Some observers, acknowledging the predatory nature of the new Putin’s regime, suggest a U.S.-Russia condominium over the Post-Soviet space to prevent  other actors (mainly China and Iran) from filling the vacuum left by Russia. Such an idea leaves us with doubts as to the true nature of America’s role and American leadership. In order to cooperate with Putin’s Kremlin in the post-Soviet space, Washington has to accept the Kremlin’s rules. Other experts believe that, one day, Russia and America “will be forced by circumstances to recognize that their geopolitical need for each other transcends their differences”. This really could happen in the event of a global war or other apocalyptic case, but the “transcendence” will be temporary, as it was in World War II.

Another observer says that Russia is “maybe uniquely poised to help build a bridge between the Western order and whatever comes next” (p. 111). Moscow could even become a “useful arbiter in negotiating the shape of a post-Western order(!)” That leaves me totally dumbfounded! A system that is inherently hostile towards liberal democracy—a leadership that has a chief of staff who threatened to deliver a pre-emptive nuclear strike on NATO and the United States—is seen as an arbiter that could shape the West’s destiny! The Kremlin propagandists will be overjoyed to play on this idea when they hear it! To suggest this, one must have lost all hope in the Western order. I don’t understand how the idea of Russia as an “arbiter” is compatible with the demand to “restore U.S. leadership”—unless, of course, America agrees to tailor its leadership in such a way that it will not irritate “the arbiter.”

The majority of Western experts insist that the West should engage Russia, and that this engagement will change Russia. Why has twenty years of this engagement not already changed Russia? On the contrary, the formula of “engagement” only helped the Kremlin legitimize its power and use its Western partners to pursue its interests.

The West’s claim of a monopoly on morals and values at a time when it has become bogged down with its own domestic problems and is clearly demonstrating double standards in its foreign policy not only undermines its role in the world, but also increases suspicion with respect to its inclinations.

America is in an extremely difficult position. The problem is that Americans apparently believe that their country is exceptional, that it should lead the rest of the world. I assume that these views are an important element of America’s national identity. Meanwhile, American leadership role and its claim to be exceptional are being questioned more and more worldwide because of the way America responds to its challenges domestically and globally. How can America restore its leadership role even as it discards or plays down the normative dimension in the international relations? The simple answer is that it can’t, because it neither represents an effective model for capitalism nor is ready to project immense power abroad. And how can those who think that the world is moving towards multipolarity convince the people of the world that they still need American leadership?

America will have to work very hard to persuade the world to accept the super ambitious dual role that Brzezinski has formulated: the role of “promoter and guarantor of greater and broader unity in the West” (on what basis?) and “balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the East” (p. 185). Such “duality” would require from America not only power, but normative power.

What an irony that the declinist wave has swept over the West and America under Obama, the president who promised not only to restore America’s standing in the world but also bend the arc of history and change the global order. So far, he has been unable to reconcile his idealistic urges with his realism. “While inspirational words have their place in politics, there is a threshold beyond which aspirations become false hopes, and the conveyor of those visions sets himself up for resentment and a sense of betrayal on the part of those who once believed in him” (p. 267), explain the authors of the book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. Ironically, Obama, who had come onto the scene as a sort of visionary, a figure of hope who defied all traditional expectations and norms, is ending his first and perhaps only term amid a great deal of frustration by those outside of America who believed that he would be able to change the paradigm of world politics. The leader who arrived with such uplifting rhetoric (“Change we can believe in!”) appeared to be not only unprepared for the global awakening, but, having witnessed it, appeared to tilt toward the status quo, both geopolitical and civilizational. (By this, I mean that Obama did nothing to re-energize either American or Western model, or to make it more attractive for the world). Obama may have succeeded in sorting out certain issues in U.S. foreign policy, but he left the world doubting that America has a vision of the future, let alone a readiness to speak in normative language. His sermons lack substance. Is this what some have called “leading from behind”?

I remember Obama’s powerful speech in Moscow in July 2009, when he challenged official Russian stereotypes about the West and America and talked about the principles that allowed him, “a person of African ancestry”, to appear before the Russian audience as the president of a global superpower. However, Obama ended up appearing to Russians as a Kremlin’s partner interested only in pursuing a narrowly conceived U.S. agenda, trying not to irritate the Russian regime with unpleasant questions about democracy and human rights.

Disappointment with Obama only added to a deepening resentment among Russian society and its pro-Western segment in regard to both the political and intellectual Western community. Even pro-Western Russians viewed with growing suspicion the European Union’s “Partnership for Modernization” policy and the U.S. reset, both of which policies were pursued with an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt Kremlin. The most irritating thing has been the readiness of Western governments to play a game of “let’s pretend” with the Kremlin: Let’s pretend that the EU tried to help with the Kremlin’s “modernization.” Let’s pretend that the U.S. reset was not a tactical trade with Putin’s regime but a breakthrough in the relationship. I would imagine that,,even if the West were openly hostile toward democracy promotion (as it was in the Nixon era), it wouldn’t have generated as much resentment as it did by giving rhetorical support for values while cutting deals with authoritarian regimes.

The most frustrating aspect of this hypocrisy is the role played by the Western political and intellectual communities in the Kremlin’s staged “operas”, like the Valdai Club and Yaroslav Forum, which have been used by the Kremlin to legitimize its authoritarian rule. The annual participation of Western politicians, pundits and journalists in meetings with Kremlin leaders has helped to make Russian authoritarianism appear more civilized and acceptable for the West. When Western observers and politicians attend the Kremlin’s forums this year, they have to know that a significant chunk of the Russian people see Putin’s regime as illegitimate. They have to know that the authorities brutally crack down on mass protests and have begun to blatantly repress the opposition. Western participation in the Kremlin’s show will only exacerbate Russia’s disenchantment with the West and highlight its double standards.

The history of Western civilization has proven that the best environment for progress is one of competition and a certain clash of ideas. Having lost its former opponent, Communism, the West has acquired, without even noticing, a much more dangerous enemy: the corruption and cynicism exported by authoritarian systems. The Russian political and business elite has personally integrated into Western society, and it has succeeded in creating there a powerful laundry machine and a multi-layered “service class” that operates that machine (made up of lawyers, bankers, politicians, journalists, experts and even entire think tanks). This service class has been successfully lobbying on behalf of the interests of the Russian system in the West. This naturally raises the question: to what extent is the “Schröderization” of Western foreign policy a result of this lobbying? A recent shares swap between the Exxon Mobile and the Russian Rosneft, in which the American shareholders became the owners of stolen Yukos assets, is the latest example of Western-Kremlin mutual back-scratching.

I can hardly escape the suspicion that at least part of the Western political establishment understands the nature of the Russian regime and uses it in the furtherance of its own interests. Thus, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder used Putin and his genetic anti-Americanism to create a “coalition of unwilling” and to pursue their own agenda during Bush’s Iraq War. Today Moscow’s stubborn defense of Assad is a good pretext (and justification) for the West to do nothing in Syria. As William Fulbright once said, “The Soviet Union has indeed been our greatest menace, not so much because of what it has done, but because of the excuses it provided us for our failures”. This observation could be applied to the West and Russia today.

For its part, the West is a means of survival for the Russian political system. For the first time in recent history, a society that virtually collapsed overnight has managed to limp along by using the winner in the global competition and Cold War—and it has done so with some success! Meanwhile, having won the global battle, the winner is constantly catching up to present events, can’t predict the future, is unprepared for any shocks, and is gradually becoming more lazy intellectually and fuzzy ideologically.

Indeed, I have to admit that we Russian liberals are still waiting for the West to rebound. We believe that there is a chance to turn global interdependence in the opposite direction, to force the new West to influence Russia and the other transitional societies that got stuck in the doldrums. But we doubt that the new West can emerge without changing its current foreign policy paradigm and the ways it deals with the world. We doubt that the West can revitalize itself with its current crop of political leaders and intellectual elites.

We Russians don’t need any assistance from the West! We don’t expect any help in democracy promotion! Indeed those words should be erased from political dictionaries. Any Western attempt to preach democracy or to assist our civil society will only discredit our agenda (especially given the West’s current reputation). We need the West to take care of itself and try to revive the principles that it is built upon. Constraints on the freedom of the corrupt elites of authoritarian states to operate in Western society (the Magnitsky bill could be one) would be healthy, first and foremost, for Western society. Raising the issue of politicians and intellectuals who damage their reputations by working for authoritarian regimes would also help us both—but would help Western society most of all.

In discussing what is needed to revitalize the United States and to ensure American global leadership into the “next decade and beyond,” Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum invoked the example of the Soviet Union and other emerging markets that built their market economies. They concluded: “Shock therapy” (p. 329). I would, however, offer a note of caution: “Shock therapy” in Russia ended with the restoration of the same system of personalized power, only this time based on the market. We ignored the most important guarantor of successful transformations: normative principles. This is precisely why we have “shake things up” again today.

I began by writing a requiem for the West, and I am ending with a bit of hope: typical Russian inconsistency, not to mention a sign of desperation. I know that if the West fails to revive itself, we Russians are doomed to drift further in an unknown direction. And the West has made that direction rather difficult to make out in the fog and haze. Perhaps we can attempt a breakthrough without waiting for the West to reinvent itself. It’s a risky mission; there’s almost no chance for success. Then again, how long will we have to wait for the West to reinvent itself?

Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.