The “West” as we have known it is dying before our eyes. The liberal institutional, economic and intellectual carapace which (under both “right-wing” and “left-wing” governments) has enclosed and restricted Western thought since the end of the Cold War is now disintegrating. It has been corroded by a combination of the sins of the liberal establishment itself and aspects of globalisation that Western liberalism helped to foster.
Conservatives are becoming more conservative in the old sense, not just liberals in conservative fancy dress. If they wish to compete, left wing parties will have to become a good deal more socialist – as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have both demonstrated. National identity and national solidarity are once again core issues. And on both left and right, voters have demonstrated their opposition to the expansionism that has characterised much of US and European foreign and security policy over the past generation. Not only is the idea of further NATO and EU expansion dead, but it seems now almost certain that the EU itself will become a very different and much looser grouping, closer to de Gaulle’s idea of a “Europe des Patries” than the grandiose federalist plans of the past generation.
The crumbling of the previous Western order has many frightening implications, including for civic peace in Western Europe and North America and for international action against climate change. As far as Russia is concerned, however, the new cultural, intellectual and political plurality of views opens a range of opportunities. The most obvious of these is the prospect of geopolitical reconciliation between the USA, the EU and Russia, overcoming the totally unnecessary hostility created by the expansion of NATO and Russia’s reaction to that expansion, and by the adventurism of the USA and its allies in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. One of the worst aspects of the liberal order in the West over the past generation was its incessant attempts to turn Russian into a hostile “Other” against which the liberal West could define itself and celebrate itself.
It should therefore be possible in future to place Russia intellectually and culturally where it belonged between Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 AD and the fall of Kiev to the Mongols in 1240 AD, and from Peter the Great to Stalin, and has naturally belonged since the fall of Communism: as its own distinctive part of the European world in the broader sense, which today stretches through North America in one direction and through Siberia in the other to meet again across the Baring Strait. Within this wider unity there are several different “Wests” – not just the USA, the EU, and Russia, but between very different political cultures within each of these elements. In this more open and multiform West – or perhaps we should now say North - there should be plenty of room for Russia.
Paradoxically enough, this may also strengthen the position of Russian liberalism, by allowing liberals to think of themselves and present themselves as a Russian part of a pan-European ideological debate, rather than as agents of a Western ideological and geopolitical agenda hostile to Russia. For the most pernicious and dishonest aspect of dominant Western thinking over the past generation has been the way in which it has defined the term “European” as synonymous with membership of NATO and the European Union, and that membership in turn as synonymous with progress and civilisation. Especially when associated with the infamous slogan. “A Europe Whole and Free”, this explicitly excluded Russia from Europe and implicitly from modern civilisation.This identification of NATO and the EU with modern Western civilisation (which for Western liberals – despite their multiculturalist flim-flam – really meant civilisation tout court) created an irresistible pressure to seek membership on the part of states that would have been well-advised not to do so. In the case of Ukraine, this was bound to increase the country’s historical, cultural, linguistic and regional tensions to breaking point (as I argued back in the 1990s, in my book Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry) as well as destroying the crucial economic relationship with Russia. In the case of Georgia, the quasi-offer of NATO membership inflamed the nationalist megalomania of Mikhel Saakashvili and his supporters to the point of insanity, as witnessed by the attack on South Ossetia in August 2008. But in the former Soviet bloc in Central Europe and the Balkans too, countries felt compelled to join the EU either long before they were economically ready (Romania and Bulgaria) or where many of their basic cultural attitudes were wholly incompatible with the liberal internationalist ideology of the EU (Poland, Hungary and Croatia), or both.
With regard to Russia, the EU and NATO project was infused with a truly dreadful mixture of hatred, opportunism, conformism and hypocrisy. The hatred was provided by the Central Europeans and the Swedes, seeking revenge in some cases for sufferings under Communism, in others for defeats and humiliations dating back to the 17th Century. The opportunism and conformism were provided by Western security elites, comfortably embedded in Cold War security institutions, and too lazy and timid to risk their jobs by changing those institutions in response to new circumstances.
The hypocrisy was embedded in two approaches: firstly, that while NATO expansion was explicitly demanded by the East Europeans on the grounds of a supposed Russian threat – fears which NATO implicitly endorsed by its decision to expand - Russian protests against that expansion were dismissed either as empty paranoia or as evidence of aggression. The second deep hypocrisy lay in the fact that NATO and the EU expected Russia’s international behaviour to conform to internal EU practice (not, obviously, external US or NATO practice), without offering Russia the benefits and protections of NATO and EU membership.
NATO and EU strategy towards Russia over the past 25 years not only wrecked repeated attempts at stable and co-operative relations. It has also contributed greatly to crippling the forces of liberalism in Russia. Admittedly – as with the Kadets before 1917 – many Russian liberals’ own combination of arrogance, ideological fanaticism, ignorance of their own country and sheer silliness contributed greatly to their fate. But at least under the Russian Empire, Russian liberals could sincerely portray themselves as Russian patriots, dedicated to introducing westernising reforms not only for their own sake but in order to strengthen Russia in the world. This was above all true of the so-called “Westernisers” in their ideological battles with the “Slavophils”; among the things that identified the westernisers with the West of their day was their commitment to the Russian empire.
After 1991, by contrast, Russian liberals were expected by their Western backers not only to adopt a Reagan-Thatcherite version of radical free market capitalism (not shared by most of Western Europe), but to acquiesce – preferably with joyful acclamations – in the expansion of NATO and the reduction of Russia to the role of a US satellite. Some have always accepted this role with enthusiasm. I remember from my time in Washington Yegor Gaidar boasting to a US establishment audience how he had destroyed Russian military industry, and other Russian liberals fawning on their Western paymasters with talk about the stupidity, ignorance and general vileness of the Russian masses.
For these creatures we need have no sympathy. Sadly, however, their behaviour not only damned them in the eyes of the Russian masses – long before Putin finished them off - but also destroyed some of the positive and necessary sides of the liberal project in Russia. We may now hope that the end of NATO and EU expansion, the probable transformation and radical weakening of the EU itself, and the new (if in many respects unpleasant and frightening) plurality of political forces in the West will allow the emergence of a distinctive Russian liberalism as part of a pan-European ideological debate: patriotic without being aggressive, and embedded in European liberal tradition without being a tool of American geopolitical ambition.
The crumbling of the liberal ideological carapace and the end of “Western” confrontation with Russia could also play a liberating role with regard to Russian conservatism. Over the past generation, faced with overwhelming Western geopolitical, economic and ideological pressure on Russia, Russian conservatism has been forced into a defensive nationalist crouch that has undermined its ability to contribute to wider and deeper intellectual debates, and associated it with some rather chauvinist – and weird - traditions and people.
Freed from this defensive stance, Russian conservatism could emerge as a valuable part of the conservative debate in Europe and North America – for example, concerning the crucial issues of immigration and integration, on which European countries have tried a wide range of models without success. Here, President Putin’s approach – with deep roots in Russian and Soviet history – can make a distinctive and valuable contribution to European thought. Its combination of commitment to multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity with strict insistence on state loyalty and on the unifying role of the Russian nation, language and culture contains elements that Western Europe forgot for too long, and badly needs to relearn.
Joschka Fischer – a one-time radical critic of the Western liberal establishment who like so many others became ingested by it – has written that “Now that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, the end of what was heretofore termed the “West” has become all but certain. That term described a transatlantic world that emerged from the twentieth century’s two world wars, redefined the international order during the four-decade Cold War, and dominated the globe – until now.”
This is true, but it does not mean that the wider Christian-shaped world of Europe and North America is coming to an end. That northern world existed for centuries and millennia before NATO and the EU, and will – pray God – exist long after them. In that world, Russia can play a worthy role.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and the author among other books of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism and Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (with John Hulsman).