A Critique of Liberal Imperialism

Modern democracy, originating in Western European societies, has had dialectical relationships (i.e., relationships, in which different phenomena, depending on concrete circumstances, have a kind of friend-enemy relationships) with three phenomena that have, on the one hand, supported democracy’s emergence and growth while also putting limits on its expansion and deepening. 

These three phenomena are nationalism, capitalism and liberalism. As the last two of them have been considered almost inseparable in the post-WWII world (i.e. individual liberties and market freedoms have been often seen as two sides of the same coin), the controversial (i.e. dialectical) relationship of democracy with capitalism and liberalism can be dealt with as one dialectical controversy, notwithstanding that there have been societies and periods where and when free market has coexisted (or still coexists) with conservative, even authoritarian, social policies. However, at the beginning of the twenty first century, the positive aspects of the relationships between democracy and nationalism as well as between democracy and liberalism, which for decades had prevailed in the post-Second World War West, have become overwhelmed by negative aspects of these dialectical relationships. Democracy, nationalism and liberalism, which had rather peacefully coexisted for many decades, are now undermining each other’s potentials. The main reason for such a turnaround lies in the negative aspects or consequences of the processes of globalisation. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has argued, there is a fundamental incompatibility between hyper-globalization on the one hand and democracy and national sovereignty on the other.1

In my previous two articles for the Valdai club I argued2, that the processes of globalisation and the current migration tide, as one of its manifestations, are exacerbating today’s crisis of the European Union where those who can be anywhere (i.e. liberal elites) do not understand those who want to be somewhere (the majority of the people).

Glocalization: When Globalization Goes Local
Complexity and diversity make the world more stable. A global world with identical political, economic, and any other elements could have more, not less conflict. Globality is getting localized, and locality can be globalized, too. These two trends do not contradict each other: on the contrary, their synthesis is a source of stability.
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Those who can be anywhere, being dominant in politics, economy and media, are behaving like liberal autocrats vis-à-vis those whom they consider belonging to the category of those whom Hillary Clinton, speaking of Trump’s supporters, arrogantly defined as ‘the basket of deplorables’. Current conflicts between liberal elites and people in many European countries are a manifestation of the exacerbation of this dialectical controversy between liberalism and democracy, which being dormant when things were going relatively well, has sprung open in a globalising world. Liberal democracy has entered a phase of decline, which in politics is reflected in the clash between the elites and the populists. Having dealt with these aspects of democracy’s dialectical contradictions, I will now concentrate on democracies relations with nationalism.    

Democracy and Nationalism

The 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s saw the publication of dozens of books by well-known authors, and many more articles by those who were anxious of being late in leaving their mark on a fashionable topic, which all promised the withering away of nation-states.3 If a century earlier these were mainly Marxists who had anticipated the death of the State under the world-wide communism, now these are free-market liberal democrats who came up with similar predictions. This time, however, it would not be the solidarity of working classes of different countries but the greed of capitalists not recognising national boundaries that should have led to the demise of the State. Like the communist utopia promising a world-wide peace in a stateless world, the extinction of national borders as a result of world-wide triumph of liberal capitalism would also lead to the ascension of universal democratic peace.4 Although capitalists’ greed is a much more concrete and tangible item than the working-class solidarity, it is not leading to a better world. As history should have taught us, even good intentions rarely pave the way to the paradise.

Democracy in the post-feudal Europe emerged hand in hand with, and was conditioned by, the advent of so-called nation-States. The core political idea of nationalism that a nation must have, or deserves to have, a State (or vice versa that a State should be based on a nation) inspired politicians and thinkers who fashioned and consolidated statehood in England, France, the Netherlands and other parts of Western Europe. This idea, and practices founded on it (or were these practices that were followed by ex post facto ideological justifications?), was opposed, on the one hand, to the feudal fragmentation of Europe, and one the other, to the attempts of imperial dominance. Nation-states consolidated their positions and their sovereignty (both internal and external aspects of it) in parallel with the weakening of the supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire and later in the process of struggle against the dominance of the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. Democratic institutes such as parliaments and local authorities of self-governance emerged within these nation-states. John Stewart Mill, summarising the practices of such institutions, wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century that it was ‘a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities’and that ‘among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the workings of representative institutions cannot exist’.6 British diplomat and theorist of international relations Adam Watson was right in stating that ‘the self-assertion of the middle class in Europe took two forms: the demand for participation in government, and nationalism’ and that ‘the ideas of nationalism and democracy were related’.7

A dark side of these processes nation-state formation was that most of them came into existence and consolidated their societies through policies that today would be defined as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even crimes against humanity. American historian Charles Tilly wrote that ‘almost all European governments eventually took steps that homogenised their populations: the adoption of State religions, exclusion of minorities like the Moors and the Jews, institution of a national language, eventually the organisation of mass public instruction. The tolerance of States of South- Eastern Europe for linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity stood in sharp contrast to the intolerance of their North-Western brethren, and surely stood in the way of effective State making. The failure to homogenise increased the likelihood that a State existing at a given point of time would fragment into its cultural subdivisions at some time in the future’.My only correction to Tilly’s otherwise insightful comment would be that South-Eastern nation-states didn’t yet exist then as such. At best, these nations were struggling to break away from either the Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman empires. These late-comers to the European family of nation-states are even today keener about the homogeneity of their newly-found sovereign statehood.

We see that already at the inception of democracy and nation-states had two controversial sides: no democracy without a triumphant nationalism, but at the same time, exclusion and suppression of differences and repression of those who were the carriers of those differences.
Nationalism that played a positive role in helping democracy rise and liberate people from imperial dependency, today shows also its uglier side. As most states in the world have remained notwithstanding all the efforts of homogenisation or have become multi-ethnic or multi-confessional due to the waves of migration, nationalism, instead of consolidating societies, has become one of the sources of conflicts in quite a few of them. The crucial question remains and is exacerbated by the negative aspects of globalisation (or hyper-globalisation): can democracy flourish and even exist ‘without a fellow-feeling’ among people, without and beyond the boundaries of nation-states?       

Empires versus nation-states

Empires have indeed often been more tolerant towards ethnic and/or religious diversity than nation-states. So, amongst the highest nobility of the Russian Empire and its highest officials Tatars, Georgians, Baltic Germans (Count Vladimir Lamsdorf and Count Karl Robert Nesselrode were Czarist Foreign Ministers) and other minorities were widely represented. Genghis Khan cared even less about the ethnic origin or religion of his batyrs (baghaturs), though it is appropriate to note that European empires with overseas colonies were indeed also quite racist. So, British historian Denis Judd observes that higher than usual rate of homosexuals among British males was partly due to the racism of colonial officials who instead of looking for sexual partners among local females, whom they considered as not deserving their attention, preferred their male colleagues.9 Or that ‘concern about racial amalgamation tended if anything to encourage same-sex sex’.10 Ann Laura Stoler writes that in the Dutch case, at least, ‘concubinage between European men and native women was considered an alternative, albeit an unattractive one, to homosexuality, among the ranks’.11 

Even if usually more tolerant than the nation-state, especially during the stages of the formation of the latter, the imperial rule has never been democratic. Even if the imperial centre, as was the case of Great Britain, was a democracy, its rule even over its last colonial possession – Hong Kong, though liberal, lacked any vestiges of democracy. At the same time, empires of the past took care of so-called common goods. So, Genghis Khan’s empire for a quite a while and the Tamerlane’s for a shorter period both guaranteed relative peace and prosperity on the ancient Silk Road. When their imperial power waned, local chieftains felt free to rob the caravans travelling between China and Europe thereby putting an end, at least for long, to one of the lengthiest terrestrial trade-routes.

Today the terms ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’ have become so discredited that no entity would claim to have imperial status (Jean-Bédel Bokassa of Central Africa seems to have been the last proud emperor). However, if the time for formal empires may indeed be over, there are some political arrangements that may be defined, with some justification, as ‘informal’ empires. There is a centre and there is a periphery; there is also a relationship of dominance and submission where a dominant centre guarantees certain common goods (e.g., security or economic benefits) demanding in return unwavering obedience and punishing disobedience.

In a very interesting, though, in my opinion, controversial (often these two adjectives are necessarily interlinked) recent book Israeli author Yoram Hazony writes that when the struggle against communism ended, ‘the Western minds became preoccupied with two great imperialist projects: the European Union, which has progressively relieved member nations of many of the powers usually associated with political independence; and the project of establishing an American “world order”, in which nations that do not abide by international law will be coerced into doing so, principally by means of American military might. These are imperialist projects, even though their proponents do not like to call them like that’.12 In defence of international law it should be said that it is not this rather noble normative system, which willy-nilly worked even during the Cold War, that Washington tries to impose by its military might, but so-called ‘rules-based liberal international order’, i.e. the order based on rules determined in Washington that has nothing to do with international law. And it is not accidental that the only aspiring global empire is accusing those opposing its imperial ambitions, especially China and Russia, of building, or restoring, their own empires.

US-China:“Two Big Giants in the Room…the Entire World Is Worried”
On December 1 Xi Jinping and Donald Trump will conduct face-to-face negotiations on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. What are the chances for agreement between the two economic superpowers which collectively account for 40% of the world economy and whose growing rivalry threatens to plunge the world into global depression and war?
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It is unfair, in my opinion, to accuse the European Union of being an imperial project, though one may agree that promising (and acting on this promise) to create an ‘ever-closer union’, a kind of federal Europe, European political elites gradually became more and more detached from the aspirations of their peoples. It is becoming increasingly obvious that European societies, in contradistinction to political elites, are not (not yet, at least) ready to throw the nation-state into the dustbin of history. These are not only those whom Hillary Clinton haughtily called ‘deplorables’, but a multitude of highly intelligent, successful and multi-lingual persons who treasure their ethnic, religious or cultural origins, cherish their roots and are patriots of their countries. Benedict Anderson was not completely wrong when defining nations as ‘imagined communities'13 since historical myths and purposeful efforts of political leaders to make a nation out of diverse communities have always played a role in nation-building. However, there is also something much more tangible, even primordial, without which nations would not and could not emerge. Shared history, cultural and religious traditions, common language, even territorial closeness—are all factors that have played a role in the formation of nations. Today, more than even recently, more and more Europeans, being afraid of becoming strangers, because of a new mass migration wave, in their own country are in search of their historic roots. Both, liberal lefts and conservative rights, have become concerned about their identity. The first try to find them in the belongingness to a multitude of small, often marginalized, groups (depending on sexual orientation, specific interests or ways of life). The second try to find or restore their affinity with bigger communities, like nations or traditional religions.

However, Hazony is right about the American liberal imperial project. Almost immediately after the end of the Cold War, notwithstanding some rather vague ideas about a ‘new world order’ that would unite majority of humankind against common threats, like the climate change or terrorism, the ‘deep state’ in Washington started preparing for the ‘American century’. Already then there were those who prophesised conflict and prepped the American psyche for the coming clash with those who may oppose the American imperial project. So, an influential report published in 1998 by the RAND Corporation and written by Zalmay Khalilzad, who later became the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Afghanistan and also to Iraq, and Ian Lesser, conjured four scenarios for the coming century: the 'great game’, the 'clash of civilisations’, the 'coming anarchy’ and the 'end of history’.14 The authors considered the last two scenarios less probable than the first two; they foresaw the great-game theory as the most probable, which would pitch the West (i.e. Washington) against China and Russia in a new great-power game. The Islamist threat was not seen as the most serious challenge to the United States. 9/11 may have altered these priorities, but – as it turned out – only for a while.

NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia started already under President Clinton and has continued under all his successors. The existence and expansion of this relic of the Cold War par excellence, which should have lost its raison d'être after the disappearance of its erstwhile opponent, exposes more than anything else the imperial ambitions of Washington. If the Soviet communists slogan of equating Lenin with the Communist Party (when we say Lenin, we mean the Party; when we say the Party, we mean Lenin) was quite vacuous, equating NATO with the US is more than appropriate. It is Washington’s imperial arm in Europe. Although the dual containment of Russia and China may indeed be short-sighted15, but it is what a power braced for a world-wide dominance may be trapped into. It seems that while during his Presidential election campaign Donald Trump instinctively (and correctly, in my opinion) saw rising China as the main threat to the primacy of the United States in the world, Trump’s domestic opponents, accusing him of collusion with President Putin, have concentrated their fire-power on Russia.

Trump’s erratic and amateurish foreign policy may have alienated and terrified some of American allies, but it has also made visible the iron fist that was covered by a velvet glove under his predecessors like Clinton or Obama.

Yoram Hazony observes that his ’liberal friends and colleagues do not seem to understand that the advancing liberal construction is a form of imperialism'16 and that ’the emerging liberal construction is incapable of respecting, much less celebrating, the deviation of nations seeking to assert a right to their own unique laws, traditions, and policies. Any such dissent is held to be vulgar and ignorant, if not evidence of a fascistic mind-set'.17This is indeed like that since the so-called liberal international order is liberal only in the narrowest and rather specific sense of the term. This is a liberal economic order where there is a place only for States that are liberal domestically and are ready to obey the orders coming from the imperial centre. In a wider sense, as the term liberal is understood in relation to domestic orders, such an order in neither liberal nor is it even international. It is imperial. Equally, such an order cannot be considered democratic in any meaningful sense since imperial centre tries to suppress any form of disobedience.

The is nothing liberal in imposing liberal values

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has persuasively demonstrated that in today’s world there coexist at least three different categories of societies: those with the ethics of autonomy, those with the ethics of community and those with the ethics of divinity.18 If in the first category the individual runs prime with her wants, needs and preferences; in the second, concepts such as duty, hierarchy, respect, reputation and patriotism prevail, while in the third prevails the idea that people are, first and foremost, only temporary vessels within which a divine soul has been implanted. If some individuals from different societies can cross the boundaries of their ethical communities, to step outside of their ‘moral matrix’, or be sometimes even able to straddle and enjoy more than one of them, communities themselves change much more slowly, and changes that are instigated and pressed either from above or from outside may have lasting negative effects. Haidt concludes his essay with a warning against moral monists: ‘Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places – particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation'. 19

And I would like to add: trying to make humans, who belong to these different societies, more similar, using inter alia human rights discourse and export of democracy and liberal values, may spread not so much democracy and human rights as chaos and destruction.

Today’s dominant universalists, the proponents of the world-wide triumph of free-market and liberal democracy, are attempting to instil uniformity in the world by supporting differences between individuals as part of ideological individualism at the expense of differences between societies, especially differences that may legitimise collectivistic ideologies. It is important to emphasise that if the Western mass media, educational systems and other systems of indoctrination are promoting ideas of diversity within societies, diversities between societies (liberal or non-liberal, democratic or meritocratic, free-market or state controlled, etc.) are much less accepted, if not actively discouraged or even suppressed. Although one may find examples of references to the benefits of having diverse cultures, literatures or cuisines, positive comments on the existence of diverse political, ideological or economic systems have become in the West virtually taboo.

Such a one-dimensional and negative approach to diversities between societies is in stark contrast with the acceptance and even encouragement of diversity within societies, similar in some respects to the protection of bio-diversity. It is possible to conclude that such purposeful and forceful encouragement of diversity within societies is done in order to homogenise the world in accordance with one dominant liberal blueprint. French economist Hervé Juvin is right when observing that: ‘Behind permanent references to the need to respect diversity hides a completely different phenomenon; the creation of a conformist humankind through the extinction of diversity’.20 The encouragement of diversity at the level of the individual may indeed accelerate the extinction of diversity globally through the elimination of differences between societies. If an authoritarian ruler may prefer having his society ‘atomised’ (using the English language title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Les Particules élémentaires) instead of having strong and effective civil society organisations, in international society the imperial centre almost instinctively abhors diversity and independence of collective entities, particularly States, that may balance its power. However, such worldwide unification not only puts an end to social, political and economic experimentation, in the process of which new alternative routes of development and responses to new challenges could be found (many experts have noted that Europe’s economic, social and political development was accelerated, not impeded, by the existence of different competing societies that played the role of laboratories from which others could borrow), but it is bound to cause, inter alia, a counter-tendency wrought with the danger of civilizational clashes.

Clash of New World Orders: Path to Confrontation - speakers
On November 17 at 11:00 the Valdai Discussion Club will hold an expert discussion, titled "Clash of New World Orders: Path to Confrontation" together with the presentation of the book “Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order”, written by Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, Associate Fellow of Chatham House.
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Even the idea of the universality of human rights, notwithstanding the good intentions of most of its advocates and regardless of the positive results these ideas have produced, has its dark side. Whether done purposefully to destroy societies that do not conform, or in the sincere belief that what is good and true for us is (or should be) good and true for all, such a forced homogenisation of the world by way of a heterogenisation of individual societies tears apart many countries, destroying societal bonds that had developed during centuries and are not amenable to rapid change.


The humankind’s history has seen different political arrangements: tribes, city-states, empires and nation-states. All of them have had their historical rationales and justifications, their strengths and weaknesses. Some empires have even guaranteed relative peace and prosperity but all of them have ended by an imperial overstretch and even more importantly by the desire of those ‘barbarians at the gate’ to break free from the imperial dominance. Moreover, there has never existed a world-wide empire. Even the biggest among them dominated only parts of our Planet.

The world is not only too big but also too diverse to be ruled by or from one centre.
Even the much-used (abused) term ‘global governance’ is a misnomer and may unknowingly for many serve imperial ambitions of some. So-called ‘liberal international order’ is a utopian project of liberal imperialism. The rich tapestry of the world cannot be flattened into a doormat where one colour, be it Christian, Muslim, Confucian or liberal-democratic prevails. The time of sovereign nation-states (many of them multi-ethnic and/or multi-confessional) is not (at least, yet) over. Cooperation between them (particularly between the strongest and biggest among them), multilateralism that does not presume or require uniformity of social, economic or political arrangements, has been and remains the best international arrangement for resolving challenges facing the humankind.

1 D. Rodrik, One Economics, May Recipes. Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth, Princeton University Press, 2007.

2 R. Müllerson, ‘Can Europe Remain Liberal and Democratic vis-à-vis the Migration Crisis? 25.06.2018 (http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/can-europe-remain-liberal-and-democratic); ‘Europe in New Great Games: A Player or a Chessboard?’ 22.02.2018 (http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/europe-in-new-great-games-a-player-or-a-chessboard).

3 See, e.g., Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State: How Regional Economics Will Soon Reshape the World, Simon & Schuster, 1995; Jean-Marie Guehenno, The End of the Nation-State, University of Minnesota Press, 2000 (Jean-Marie Guehenno was until recently the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General on Peacekeeping and is now President of International Crisis Group).

4 See, a critique of theories of ‘democratic peace’ in R. Müllerson, Regime Change: From Democratic Peace Theories to Forcible Regime Change, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013.

5 J. S. Mill, Consideration on Representative Government, in Utilitarianism, on Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government (G. Williams ed. Basil & Blackwell, 1993), p. 394.

6 Ibid., p. 392.

7 A. Watson, The Evolution of International Society, Routledge, 1992, p. 230 and 244.

8 C. Tilly, ‘Western State-making and Theories of Political Transformation’, in Tilly (ed.) The Formation of National States in Europe, Princeton University Press, 1975, p. 28.

9 See, D. Judd, Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present, HarperCollins, 1996.

10 R. Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality, Routledge, 2013.

11 See, A. L. Stoler, Race and Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things, Duke University Press, 1995.

12 Y. Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism, Basic Books, 2018, pp. 3-4.

13 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

14 Z. Khalilzad, I. Lesser, Sources of Conflict in the 21st Century: Regional Futures and U.S. Strategy (RAND Corporation, 1998).

15 Dimitri Simes observes that ‘since Nixon administration directed America’s foreign affairs, it has been the policy of the United States to strive for better relations with China and Russia than the two powers with one other. Yet, America’s current policy seems to amount to a simultaneous frontal assault on both countries, at least as they see it’ (D. Simes, Dangerous Liaisons’, The National Interest, 16 December 2018). Simes sees such a policy of Washington as counterproductive and dangerous and writes that ‘there is no path to responsible policymaking that does not begin with understanding and accounting for the unintended consequences of confronting two great powers simultaneously’.

16 Hazony, Op. cit., p. 43.

17 Ibid., p. 49.

18 J. Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013), 116.

19 Ibid., 368.

20 H. Juvin, Le Mur de l’Ouest n’est pas tombé (Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, 2015), p. 71.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.