Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for February 2019

Feb/19

11

A “new post-ideological strategic world order”?

Pepe Escobar sees Eurasian integration and associated trade developments as possibly marking the emergence of a new, post-ideological strategic world order. China, with its infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative, is driving this process. By contrast, the US appears to be locked into a Cold War-like mentality.

There is some truth in this view. Certainly the latest annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the US Director of National Intelligence has explicitly categorized US–China relations in ideological terms. China is interpreted as seeking to propagate “authoritarian capitalism” and this is perceived as a direct challenge to Western liberal democracy.

And so it may be. But only if it delivers the promised benefits at a time when Western democracy seems to be losing its way. Our problems are of our own making and can’t plausibly be blamed on Russia or China.

Escobar rightly criticizes the tendency to conflate very different kinds of system; to equate, as he puts it, “Russian democracy with China’s one party rule, Iran’s demo-theocracy and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman revival.” Moreover, American criticisms of the illiberalism and authoritarianism of states which are perceived to be strategic rivals ring rather hollow while other equally illiberal regimes are given a pass.

It must be admitted that a pro-Russia bias is evident in Escobar’s article. The reference (quoted above) to “Russian democracy” is a case in point. And then there is this:

Last month in Moscow, I discussed Greater Eurasia – by now established as the overarching concept of Russian foreign policy – with top Russian analysts. They told me Putin is on board. He referred to Eurasia recently as “not a chessboard or a geopolitical playground, but our peaceful and prosperous home.”

All sweetness and light…

Some of Escobar’s substantive claims have merit, however. Claims about Russia’s strategic significance, for example, despite its relatively small economy (one tenth the size of China’s).

From boosting trade that bypasses the U.S. dollar, to increasing joint military exercises, the Russia-China symbiosis is poised to advance beyond political and ideological affinities.

China badly needs Russian know-how in its military industry. Beijing will turn this knowledge into plenty of dual use, civilian-military innovations.

Technology and trade are driving an historically and strategically significant process of economic and social change, no doubt about it. Escobar points out that Henry Kissinger saw this coming.

The Kissinger doctrine rules that, geopolitically, the U.S. is just “an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia.” Domination “by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres – Europe or Asia – remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War or no Cold War,” as Kissinger said. “For such a grouping would have the capacity to outstrip America economically and, in the end, militarily.”

Are we headed for a post-ideological world? It is a question of scope and degree. The fact that the West’s major antagonists have abandoned the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and adopted more pragmatic approaches makes it difficult if not impossible for the US and its allies to sustain with any degree of plausibility the simple dichotomies of a Cold War-style approach.

Our perceived strategic rivals have (as Escobar pointed out) adopted various ideologies and forms of government while, in the West, tottering liberal democracies are facing challenges from within. We see a swirling mix of views and outlooks. Various forms of nationalism, regionalism, separatism and internationalism compete with one another. Some groups focus on identity politics, others on radical environmentalism. Attempts are being made to revive various forms of socialism. Crackpot ideas like Modern Monetary Theory are being seriously entertained in some quarters.

In such a fluid situation it is hardly surprising that American attempts to utilize ideology as a means of cementing Western solidarity are failing. In recent years we have seen major US allies resisting America’s hardline approach to China and Russia. The current battles over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are just the latest example. Generally, pragmatic considerations seem to be winning out as US allies are increasingly seeing the need to take a more independent line on foreign policy and trade.

This, I think, is a good thing. Social and political myths and the ideologies with which they are associated will always be with us. But, given the role that ideology has often played in exacerbating international tensions and fanning the flames of war, it is well to be wary of any attempt to deploy ideological considerations in the context of foreign policy and international relations.

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Feb/19

4

More than a crisis

Paris Breakfast, Arc de Triomphe (Photograph by Maurice Sapiro, 1956)

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”) had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

Another notable old complainer is Paul Volcker. Late last year, past 90 and in very poor health, he spoke to the New York Times. Volcker saw “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions:

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone. Even respect for the Federal Reserve… And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But … how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

Quite. There are preconditions for democracy.

Human communities and societies have always been bound together and defined by sets of implicit rules and customs and, as societies become larger and more complex, political systems develop to deal with an inevitable proliferation of beliefs and practices. The best systems try to accommodate differences rather than trying to stamp them out.

On the whole, the modern, liberal, Western tradition struck a good balance between privacy and individual freedom on the one hand and the need to maintain a broad social and moral consensus on the other. The evolution of modern forms of government in Europe was not always a smooth or peaceful process but the trend (inexorable perhaps only in retrospect) towards the creation of liberal, secular states and associated institutions coincided with a flowering of creative energies such as has rarely been seen in human history.

Given recent developments in Western countries, however – spiralling debt, failing economies, loss of confidence in government and professional elites, the intrusions of fundamentalist Islam and rise of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Judaism, increasing social divisions and apparently increasing social conflict and violence – we seem to be in the midst, not just of a crisis period (crises pass), but of a period of epochal change.

Comparisons are often made with the 1930s but the resurgence of religious fundamentalism suggests that liberal democracy is facing a different kind of challenge from that once posed by various forms of fascism and radical socialism. Our situation is also complicated by the yet-to-be-understood impact of digital technologies. In fact, in social and cultural terms, so much has changed – and changed so radically – over the last fifty or sixty years that it is tempting simply to see the tradition of Western thought which led to the creation of modern liberal democracy as having finally played itself out.

This is not quite true, of course. It was a rich and varied tradition comprising many elements, some of which continue to find expression in current institutional arrangements. But political ideas and institutions do not develop or exist in a cultural vacuum. They are necessarily dependent on – and only work well in the context of – particular social and cultural conditions. To a large extent, the preconditions for liberal democracy no longer prevail.

What these preconditions are (or were) is impossible to specify precisely but they would, I think, include relatively stable regional and national cultures (essential as a basis for trust), a sense of continuity with the past, and an enlightened and science-friendly perspective. A science-friendly – or at least technology-hungry – perspective still prevails, but the humanizing elements which once went hand-in-hand with science are failing.

In Western societies the erosion of traditional culture is already well-advanced and is evident not only in regard to the loss of shared narratives and traditions at local, regional and national levels but also in respect of stories and traditions which transcend national boundaries (the Western classical heritage, for example).  The loss of these cultural frameworks weakens and isolates communities, cutting them adrift from the past and leaving them more vulnerable to demagoguery, dogmatism and social fragmentation.

Part of the problem, in fact, can be seen to lie with classical liberalism itself – at least in so far as it constitutes a philosophy or ideology. Its fatal flaw relates to the rationalism from which it derives and manifests itself in a tendency to see societies and individuals in abstract, timeless and universal terms and to underplay the significance of social context and history.

Though we can reason, we are not the “rational beings” philosophers once imagined us to be. A self or a person is not some kind of metaphysical entity but rather the tenuous product of a particular set of social and cultural experiences and the constellation of social connections which this history makes possible.

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