It has become common to refer to the debauched state of U.S.-Russia relations as a “new Cold War.” This is not just or merely wrong; it is perfectly wrong. The Cold War bore a thick ideological dimension layered over an equally motivating geopolitical struggle. However one might parse the pieces of the Cold War in retrospect, it was not a desiccated affair, as some self-avowed “realist” revisionists now claim: The key protagonists over the years, and more than a few bystander nations, took the creedal and moral aspects of the struggle seriously.
Today’s U.S.-Russia relationship runs on completely different energies, those of ideology being perhaps least among them. We have finally reached “the end of ideology,” proclaimed by Daniel Bell and associates (Edward Shils, Seymour Martin Lipset, and a few others) starting back in 1955, some thirty-plus years before Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of pretty much the same idea under a slightly different name: “the end of history.” We are now arrived, then, at the threshold of the anti-Cold War.
The cultural conservatism of the Russian leadership and its loyal but shallow intelligentsia is not an ideology, but only a snarky gesture responding to the pretentions of the global “progressive” elite. Vladimir Putin and his entourage compose a kleptocracy whose structure resembles a multilayered protection racket. They are utterly transactional characters, occasionally disposed for public relations purposes to scatter about the mysterious pieties of the Orthodox Church the way a smoker flicks his ash. If they care about anything besides themselves and their offshore bank accounts, they care about Russian national greatness. But even here, one gets the impression that Putin, at least, dons aspirational Great Russian nationalism as an extension of his own ego, rather like an elderly matron pulls on a sleeping jacket. (Real nationalism frightens him, for it would portend the breakup of the Russian Federation.)
It is the American side of the anti-Cold War that begs a more extended explanation. Though the President-elect is the quintessential transactionalist, not everyone resident in the American political elite fits the bill. So it was in the shadow of the fall of Aleppo just the other day that, in the context of yet more outrageous Russian cynicism and outright lies at the United Nations, Samantha Power turned to her Russian counterpart and asked, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” The only surprise here is that, after all she has been through in recent years, Amb-Sam had to ask.
She and her colleagues will soon be sitting on the sidelines, along with conservative-idealist human rights advocates who have a lot more in common with her than they will have with the über-Randian Trump cabinet, and the transactionalists will be in the saddle. There will be no more talk of “nation-building” or human rights and democracy advocacy or civil society nurturing; there will no more foreign policy as social work (in Michael Mandelbaum’s memorable phrase); and there will be no more apologies for conceiving of strictly U.S. national interests and pursuing their protection and advancement.
Some of this merely continues the base convictions of the Obama presidency, albeit without the rhetoric—and not all of it is to be decried. But for G.K. Chesterton’s “nation with the soul of a church,” a foreign policy utterly shorn of American idealism would have been difficult to imagine, let alone for a new President to make happen, at any time in American history before now. But now is different. Now it is at least imaginable. Now it may actually happen. Why is that?
It is easy to understand the contemporary Russian aversion to high-sounding moralisms. The Russians have been cured of ideological cant thanks to a seventy-year experience with Marxist-Leninist politbabble, followed by a deep disappointment with the results of an imported post-Cold War liberalism-“lite.” Certainly from the Brezhnev period on, if not before, the gap between Suslovian platitudes and any normal adult’s sense of reality was wide enough to drive a T-72 main battle tank through. The same goes, perhaps to an ever more manic degree, for subjugated populations of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, and East Germans who were subject to relentless skeins of mind-numbing ideological twaddle for years on end. The only way for some people to stay sane was to make jokes out of it, and that they did by the trainloads.
The American case is very different, but to understand what has led us to the current decidedly odd moment requires first a firm understanding of what ideology actually is, and for that we could do worse than to go back to Daniel Bell. In The End of Ideology he describes ideology as follows:
[It] is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality, a set of beliefs, infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole of a way of life. This commitment to ideology—the yearning for a ‘cause,’ or the satisfaction of deep moral feelings—is not necessarily the reflection of interests in the shape of ideas. Ideology, in this sense…is a secular religion.
Bell had Marxism-Leninism in mind at the time, but he was not here defining any particular ideology; he was writing about ideology as a mode of thinking about political life.1
Now, there are, to simplify a fair bit, two main types of ideology: explicit and implicit. An explicit ideology, like Marxism-Leninism or National Socialism (fascism), has texts, what amount to catechisms, and readily identifiable enforcer cadres within a political structure. Implicit ideologies are belief systems so hoary and woven within the fabric of quotidian thinking that their premises melt usually unnoted into the flow of collective experience.
When writers describe the American civil religion, for example, they are pointing to a set of beliefs that functions at least loosely in the way Bell describes an ideology working just above. But whereas Communists and Fascists know they have an ideology, Americans and others possessed of an inherited Enlightenment sensibility about politics usually consider it an insult if someone accuses them of “having” or “believing in” an ideology. As far as most Americans have been concerned, their beliefs about political life are not “opinions” conditioned by history and culture, but self-evident truths about how the world ought to work. These beliefs become subject to focused self-scrutiny only in difficult times, and then only to be reinterpreted as necessary for re-deposit into the collective preconscious of the body politic.
The differences between explicit and implicit ideologies bear several practical implications. Explicit ideologies are subject to summary rejection when reality shows them to be false, hence Communism can “fall” in an historically rapid way. But implicit ideologies, since they are harder to get arms around, are more elusive objects of criticism (including self-criticism). As just suggested, too, they can adjust to new circumstances without being obviously seen to be adjusting.
But there are limits here. Whereas religious creedal systems are by nature unfalsifiable (which is not the same as saying they are false), all ideologies can be—and one daresay will inevitably be—falsified within historical arcs of varying lengths. Communism’s arc lasted for about a century. The liberal ideology of the Enlightenment era has gone through, by one count, three major iterations over the past few centuries, and it now evidently needs to find a fourth.
When any implicit ideology hits up against its limits, its premises become revealed as something other than preconscious assumed truth. In other words, it passes through a trial of desacralization described by Friedrich Schiller, famously repurposed by Max Weber as “disenchantment.” Now, Schiller and Weber were not talking about ideology but religion. They were describing a process of movement from the mystical to the rational at a time when the Age of Reason was yet young. But if religion and ideology are both creedal systems to some non-trivial degree—and they are—then the same observations may be exported into what was for them the future but which is, of course, our present.
We can do this because all creedal systems, whatever they may claim about their own ontological status, are either predominantly (ideology) or entirely (religion) faith-based. And they all gain their evocative power though the language not of science but of metaphor, which is the hallmark of mythical thinking. (I speak of myth here in its anthropological meaning as a mode of thought, not in the common vulgar sense of something obviously false, superstitious, or childish.) Every culture, every society, has its myths. Every culture and society needs myths to provide putative answers to the “why” questions of political life that are otherwise not explicable through empirical evidence and reasoning alone. Some myths just happen to be more benign than others, or so my own tastes in such matters persuade me.
If during normal times people treat their political myths as given truths, during unstuck times, as already suggested, myths begin to look more like what they actually are: abstract metaphorical concepts we share in order to speak and feel collectively about what matters to us as a political community. We in America are now living in unstuck times, largely because the main predicates of the Enlightenment upon which our political institutions are based are eroding (see this essay and its three preceding parts). So it follows that our myths are succumbing to disenchantment.
Whereas the Russian emperor has no clothes at all anymore, the American emperor may be seen today engaged in a rather awkward striptease. The signs are everywhere, if only we look around.
When the American civil religion was working well, we were an optimistic people. We are no longer so optimistic.
When the American civil religion was working well, we thought ourselves “exceptional” and hence justified morally to assume the global rule-setting role we rose to after World War II. We no longer so easily presume our own exceptionalism, and we are beginning to doubt our worthiness to tell other peoples how world order need be arranged.
When the American civil religion was working well, we possessed a coherent narrative about global affairs such that we did not obsess over “fake news,” the rise of conspiracy theories, and what would otherwise be the pathetic Russian effort to skew our domestic politics. As it is, we do now obsess, and in the narrative abyss (which has several sources) in which we find ourselves, we have to take Russian hacking and electoral whacking seriously. It is as William James said more than a century ago: “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they’ll believe in anything.” Substitute “myths” for “God” and you have the essence of our condition dead to rights.
So it is now possible to imagine a coldblooded American realpolitik, and we seem to have put a man in the White House for whom that view is congenial. Donald Trump is a pre-Enlightenment creature, a confessed Randian for whom zero-sum is the only kind of sum imaginable. He is as Western-world man (at least) was before the Enlightenment: a default social Darwinist without need of Darwin (or Herbert Spencer) to persuade him that if someone wins, someone else has to lose, and that any form of benevolence equates to an admission of weakness redeemable in blood.
That is, too, the austere premise behind balance-of-power, spheres-of-influence conceptions of international affairs, which we make true by dint of believing it true: the security dilemma, and only the security dilemma, run rampant. If the foundational firmament of liberal politics, and by extension of a liberal positive-sum international order—the American bully pulpit during the Cold War—decays beneath our feet, then nothing will remain save the security dilemma, everywhere and always. That is what the budding anti-Cold War portends, and of course the U.S.-Russian relationship is only a part of a larger, potentially even more fractious, whole.
The Cold War was very dangerous, no doubt about it. We were all lucky to have gotten through it without a global conflagration. The anti-Cold War may be more dangerous still. So how lucky are you feeling?
1Here he was not entirely original. The idea of viewing a political creed as a secular religion had been pioneered years earlier by Eric Voegelin. Voegelin’s idea has since become so pervasive that now many sin in the opposite direction by failing to note the differences between the two.