Before the wars1 broke out, Yugoslavia didn’t feel particularly un-European to me when I’d visit; it was poorer, yes, but it was not notably more brutish or atavistic than, say, Italy. And when the wars came, though their horrors were difficult to watch, I was not nearly as baffled as the American commentariat seemed to be by what was going on. The pundits talked about “ancient hatreds,” about religious and even tribal differences, about ill-defined forces that were supposed to have been vanquished from the European continent. To a younger me, it was all a lot less complicated: These wars were primarily about self-determination.2
Having spent a good part of my childhood in the United States, I was puzzled as to why no one saw parallels with America’s struggle for independence. Yes, no soaring talk about universal values came from Zagreb or Ljubljana, but given the way in which the constituent republics sought to throw off Belgrade’s yoke, the parallel seemed clear enough to me. Instead, alongside the honest horror and disgust at the violence, it was easy to detect a note of moral superiority among foreign observers. It took me a long time to understand that for Americans and West Europeans, a struggle that did not evoke universal principles was just a form of barbarism. We in the West were better than this, they seemed to be saying. We had left all this behind. The Balkan Wars bequeathed to me a special sensitivity to this kind of preening.
Fast forward a few decades, to March 2014. An echo of this same kind of condescension—more bewildered than exasperated, but still uncomprehending—could easily be heard in Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on the occasion of Russia invading Crimea. “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext,” Kerry complained to CBS. In retrospect, Kerry’s lament marked the start of a process still ongoing today: the slow discovery by Western policymakers, politicians, activists, and journalists that their mental frames do not usefully correspond to reality. But the discovery has not led to reflection. Instead, it’s all been confusion and frustration. “This is not supposed to be happening,” has been the repeated refrain to Brexit, the anti-migrant backlash across Europe, and the election of Donald Trump. “What has gone wrong? Aren’t we better than this?”
One answer is, “Obviously, no.” Some, like Damon Linker, argued that our elite worldview has depended on the establishment of a kind of “antipolitical politics”—a bloodless technocratic approach to governance that has lost legitimacy among several clots of the voting public. Others, myself included, have argued that the values behind modern liberalism have never had the kind of legitimating, cohesive power behind them we thought they did—certainly not in “New” Europe, where EU integration has failed to deliver on most of its promises.
Then again, maybe the questions themselves are misleading. Perhaps something deeper is amiss. Maybe it’s not about “liberalism” however defined or construed, but rather about our interpretation of history. Or, to put it more precisely, maybe our problem lies not so much with the strength or weakness of liberalism, but rather in how we have misunderstood its role in recent events. In doing so, we have acquired several huge blindspots that are preventing us from seeing what’s staring us in the face.
Let’s first look at the stories we have told ourselves about the period from 1945 to 1989. As Tony Judt remarked, historians and statesmen have invoked several recurring themes in describing those years in Western Europe: “Europe’s recovery was a ‘miracle’. ‘Post-national’ Europe had learned the bitter lessons of recent history. An irenic, pacific continent had risen, ‘Phoenix-like’, from the ashes of its murderous—suicidal—past.”3 These themes constitute a hopeful and morally redemptive narrative, especially for West Europeans who in large numbers had acquiesced to German occupation and had collaborated with the Nazis right up until liberation. Judt notes that Hitler managed to administer Norway with only 806 German overseers, and that 35 million Frenchmen made little trouble for some 1,500 German officials and 6,000 German civilian and military police. It was humiliating on a grand scale, even before these nations began to grapple with their complicity in the Holocaust.
The way in which these stories were used is also significant. Judt pointed out that a kind of ahistorical determinism related to these redemptive myths was built over time into the project of European unification. To oversimplify a bit, a set of trade treaties had set up an increasingly complex bureaucracy that had started to encroach on national sovereignty. It needed legitimation to continue doing so. “[T]he real or apparent logic of mutual economic advantage not sufficing to account for the complexity of its formal arrangements, there has been invoked a sort of ontological ethic of political community,” Judt wrote. “Projected backward, the latter is then adduced to account for the gains made thus far and to justify further unificatory efforts.”4
This dynamic helps explain the otherwise baffling reality of the European project as we know it today: a largely undemocratic bureaucracy that talks in the lofty language of a post-national political community grounded in a set of universal Enlightenment values. But it’s the inherent determinism of the project—going backwards being unthinkable—that most concerns us here.
Unlike Europe, the United States was not hamstrung by guilt and self-doubt over the cataclysms of the 20th century’s first half. Indeed, the Soviet challenge was quickly understood in Manichean terms, with American foreign policy driven by a form of secularized Protestantism. As James Kurth pithily described it in our pages more than a decade ago, “After World War II, the characteristic pattern of American foreign policy—‘realism’ toward the strong and ‘idealism’ toward the weak—developed further.” Where it could, it sought to impose a version of the American Creed onto the world it encountered. Where it couldn’t, it chose to wait things out.
After 1989 and the fall of global communism, this narrative became turbocharged—triumphalist and self-certain. With the formal declaration of the EU in 1991 at the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the ambitions for European unification expanded, not just for ever-closer union, but for an ever-broader one as well. By the mid-2000s, with most of the Warsaw Pact countries admitted, some dreamers had started talking about the “European idea” as being universal—applicable to all humanity. In parallel, intellectuals in the United States began to grasp the implications of the fall of not just its chief geopolitical rival, but also of its main ideological foe. Some wrote grandiloquently of the “unipolar moment.” Though historians came to understand that communism was not overthrown but had rather collapsed in on itself, a growing segment of the American public saw the end of the Cold War as a moral triumph. It had everything to do with long-suffering, oppressed people realizing the universal truth of the values that had sustained the anti-Soviet coalition since the defeat of Hitler.
Let’s call all this “democratic determinism,” a vulgarized version of Frank Fukuyama’s more nuanced “End of History” thesis. As a catechism, it was first internalized by liberal internationalists/neoconservatives/the democracy promotion community. But through the years, its ideological vapors have seeped into the public square and are now a part of the air we breathe, undetectable to all but the most sensitive noses.
Like all successful narratives of its kind, it captured important truths about the time it sought to describe. And like all good stories well told, it chose to focus on some things in lieu of others. It is of course also an aspirational and quasi-religious narrative—a story that gives important meaning and purpose to a set of mostly secular societies. It’s thus not wrong in any simple sense, but as a means of understanding reality it is very incomplete.
It can be tricky to point out that which someone is predisposed not to see. Luckily for us, Dr. Branko Milanovic, formerly the lead economist at the World Bank, has written a short essay that manages to do just that. His essay sets out to explain the divergence in perceptions as to the value of ethnic homogeneity between East Europeans on the one hand and Western liberals on the other. But it does much more than that.
The first part of his argument is purely historical. He notes that the struggle for nationhood for most of the countries found along a line extending from Estonia to Greece was one of emancipation from crumbling empires. It is a process that still festers on in parts of the Western Balkans, Milanovic notes, but otherwise has completed. Its end result has been the birth of remarkably homogenous ethno-states.
None of this is particularly controversial, nor is it incompatible with a worldview undergirded by democratic determinism. But Milanovic does not stop there. He goes on to argue that the events of 1989 are best understood not as a casting off of the false god of communism and an embrace of universally true Western values. Rather, he says, they were experienced by most of the people in Eastern Europe primarily as “revolutions of national emancipation”—a rejection of Soviet imperialism.
This is not as revisionist as you might think. Stephen Kotkin’s remarkable monograph Uncivil Societies goes to great lengths to document just how insignificant a force pro-Western liberals represented across the former Warsaw Pact countries on the eve of the communists’ collapse. Poland is the outlier, Kotkin shows, with Solidarity enjoying significant support in the run-up to 1989. But even there, the collapse was ultimately a top-down affair, and had more to do with Gorbachev’s political recklessness than anything else.5
The persecuted idealists and artists left standing in the wreckage of the old system were in some cases best-positioned to capture the imagination of a broader public as it emerged, blinking, from the gray realities of one-party rule and into the bright lights of pluralistic democracy. But the role of their values-based activism in bringing down their countries’ communists has long been overstated, first by the idealists themselves and their supporters on the Western side of the Iron Curtain, and then by the reformed aparatchiks who took over power and kept repeating the catechism in order to keep aid flowing.
Average “Eastern” citizens, on the other hand, were mostly glad to be rid of the threat of Soviet tanks rolling in to prop up a rotten, thieving nomenklatura, and were looking forward to prosperity which they believed would come as a result of adopting Western ways of doing things. This entailed embracing markets and competitive elections, but not, as Milanovic points out, ethnic heterogeneity within their borders. “For Westerners this may be an obvious implication of democracy and liberalism,” he argues. Not so for the Easterners, who had no intention of sacrificing their key accomplishment—national consolidation—“in order to satisfy some abstract principles” they never endorsed in the first place.
The purpose of Milanovic’s essay is narrow: to show how difficult it will be to compel these recalcitrant countries to accept migrants anytime soon—maybe ever. But the essay’s deeper implications are striking, and help illuminate one of the blindspots plaguing democratic determinists. The discomfiting truth is that some amount of ethnic nationalism is not just tolerated, but accepted as completely legitimate by many voters throughout Eastern Europe.
Unlike Milanovic, a democratic determinist sees 1989 primarily as an ideological triumph, and understands the values that underpin it as universal and indivisible from the proper functioning of a modern state. If 1989 is thought of as a successful democratic revolution, then much of the politics of the past ten years in Eastern Europe can only be seen as backsliding. Someone like Viktor Orban, who has self-consciously positioned himself as a kind of soft nationalist, is seen as inherently illegitimate—a symptom of political decay.
But insofar as Milanovic’s model is correct, an “Easterner” listens to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratches his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists. He just doesn’t see what the big deal is.
The persistence and legitimacy of nationalism is not the only blindspot for democratic determinists. It’s just one example of a broader pattern of thinking. Several essays could be written on the theme. Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report frames the current moment in terms of rollback: “At the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century,” it states. “Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.” The methodology employed by Freedom House is rigorous, and their reports tell us important things about institutional trends. But their framing misrepresents reality and ultimately misunderstands the problems. The tide of “democracy” is not receding, for example; it never really rolled in in exactly the way they think it did. It’s true that authoritarian tendencies are emerging in their data sets, but the very idea of the threat of a resurgent “authoritarianism” is a category error. There is no such ideology.
We can be critical of democratic determinism and still be troubled by what is going on in, say, Central and Eastern Europe. For one, it’s increasingly clear that the rising crop of “Eastern” politicians are leveraging their popular support to entrench themselves and their parties, to expand their patronage networks, and to enrich their cronies. It’s this kind of behavior, and the accompanying undercutting of any credible opposition, that finds its fullest expression in Putin’s mafia-like rule in Russia. These kleptocratic regimes have a nasty polluting effect. Their billionaire oligarch class are the disease carriers; they throw their money around freely in healthier, more developed societies, and begin to rot them out, too.
In addition, we know from history that appeals to nationalism can ultimately lead to zero-sum thinking and unpredictable foreign policies. Though most of these countries are far more ethnically homogeneous than their West European counterparts, their national borders rarely encompass all their irredenta. Hungarians in particular make up notable minorities in Slovakia, Romania, and even Ukraine, and casually bringing up the Treaty of Trianon in conversation will trigger a certain kind of Hungarian conservative.
And provocative nationalism doesn’t just have to do with irredentism. The Polish Holocaust law, which currently awaits ratification in the Sejm’s upper house, is as much directed at Germany as it is at Ukraine, whose own laws about language and history have inflamed Polish sentiments. Overall, even if today’s leaders are soft nationalists, there’s nothing to guarantee that they won’t harden their stances with time, out of expediency or conviction, or some tangle of both. It’s a slippery slope that leads nowhere good.
These unpleasant truths need to be understood in the proper historical context, and our hopes for positive change need to take into account how very long these things can take. We must resist the temptation to think in missionary terms—to save supposedly “fallen” liberal democracies. At the same time, we must not succumb to cynicism either. Tolerance and pluralism are important values that can bring unheard of prosperity and peace to societies that embrace them. Properly constituted, liberal democracy is indeed the best organizing principle.
Overall, humility must be our watchword. We shouldn’t “Orientalize” people, or exaggerate the differences in how societies understand politics or perceive values. Nor should we assume a stubborn, unchanging world. But we also must not assume that these differences do not exist or are immaterial—or that the power of ideas is always revolutionary rather than evolutionary. Without forgetting the importance of values, we need to be wary of a strategy that prioritizes “defending” them, as that approach will likely backfire. Beating people over the head with the idea that they are insufficiently virtuous can only cause resentment. Change may well come; if it does, it will be gradual.
1. The 1990s-era Wars of Yugoslav Succession.
2. Of course, the wars ceased to be quite so tidy and one-dimensional as the fights dragged on.
3. Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Books, 2006), p. 5.
4. Judt, A Grand Illusion?: An Essay on Europe (New York University Press, 2011), p. 23.
5. In Central Asia, myths of popular resistance are less widespread and the real dynamics that brought down the Soviet regimes are much easier to see clearly.