Russia and the West’s ‘liberal order’

24 April 2018–As promised, ‘War & Peace’ – the writer’s nickname for his longwinded explanation to a mutual friend, clarifying Russian attitudes toward the West and especially NATO. (See Poking the Bear.’) When he started to explain the historical basis for Russian skepticism about ‘democracy,’ his letter got completely out of hand. So he transformed it into a classroom paper for his Russian Civilization course, in a Russian studies program for foreign students in Moscow. To protect his identity I’ve removed the title page and cut straight to the text:

Introduction

Most of today’s political difficulties between the West and Russia do not result from alleged ‘chemical-weapons attacks’ questionably attributed to Russia and its allies. The tensions predate the purported 2016 US election interference by Russian hackers; they predate Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria. Some might say they began in 2014, after the Russian reaction to the NATO-backed coup d’etat in Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the revolt in Donbass were predictable, appropriate and no more ‘illegal’ than the West’s dismemberment of Serbia in the 1990s. Yet the reaction shocked and infuriated the West. 

In fact, today’s western hysteria toward Russia has been brewing for decades, or centuries. Strangely, the verbal assault by Western officials and journalists has gotten noisier, even as the factual bases for their rage – hacking, poison, Russian aggression – have crumbled. Western opinion-makers have embarked on a rhetorical scorched-earth campaign from which it will be hard for them to retreat. They routinely label skeptical colleagues ‘Russian trolls’ and ‘Kremlin agents.’ It’s worse today than it was during most of the Cold War. As one US observer wrote over a year ago,  the ‘Russian election hacking’ narrative in the US media 

‘ … is an extraordinary episode in the history of manufacturing opinion … [A]nyone who has read the public documentation on which the claims rest will find only speculation, arguments from authority, and attempts to make repetition do the work of logic.’ [1]

The immediate source of today’s confrontation with Russia lies precisely in those western efforts ‘to make repetition do the work of logic.’ The intent is to distract the public from questioning even the most incredible aspects of the daily propaganda narrative. But it also distracts them from well-known historical, cultural and political differences, some centuries old. These divergent experiences do much to explain Russia’s and America’s divergent approach to both domestic and foreign policy. 

Every US administration since the end of the Cold War has based its foreign policy on promoting a global ‘liberal order’(or, ‘liberal democracy’). Sometimes its skeptics call it simply ‘globalism’. Whatever label we apply, the shrill, persistent American advocacy of a ‘liberal order’ raises a number of questions. They can be framed this way:

What is a liberal order?

What are the historical origins of a liberal order?

Why can’t the West impose a ‘liberal order’ on today’s Russia, and why shouldn’t it try? 

The first two questions are straightforward quests for a positive definition. My answers are long: Some historical discussion is required. The third question is normative, not positive: A demand for a policy decision. Western officials and media prefer slogans to honest debate, so we can’t really rely on official statements or news coverage. However the West has consistently, though ineffectively, addressed the question with deeds. From those we can deduce some preliminary answers.

What is ‘liberal democracy,’ or, a ‘liberal order?’ 

Critics of American political and military intervention have occasionally tried to explain why current norms of liberal democracy might not work in certain countries. They usually begin with a disclaimer: ‘Bear in mind, Russia (or Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc) has no tradition of a liberal sociopolitical order.’ That’s perfectly true. But the disclaimer isn’t enough, because the interventionists, the ‘hawks’, will simply shrug, and point out that America successfully imposed ‘liberal democracy’ on Japan and Germany after World War Two.Now those countries are among the strongest US allies. So, first I will define some terms. In general, I use ‘liberal democracy’ and a ‘liberal order’ as synonyms.

Democracy: This term has as many meanings as people have tongues. In this paper, I use the word the same way Winston Churchill did, the way that ordinary westerners use it in informal conversation: It’s shorthand for any government that rules with the consent of the governed. This is generally demonstrated by periodic free, fair elections. It does not imply any specific type of government.

Liberalism: This another word with many meanings. The American Left – the progressive movement within the Democrat party – and its media allies stole the word ‘liberal’ around the middle of the 20th century and began using it as a synonym for ‘progressive’ policies, which are, in many respects, the opposite of liberal. So I’m reclaiming the word ‘liberal’: In the West, liberal classically describes, first, a belief in natural rights – rights given by God, or by nature, to every individual human being. These natural rights are inalienable. They require strict limits on government authority. This ‘limited government’ leaves citizens free to pursue ‘life, liberty & property’ (or sometimes, ‘life, liberty & happiness’). 

There are several prominent features of the West’s traditional liberalism: ‘one man, one vote’; ‘checks and balances’ among the courts, executive and legislative branches, so that no government branch is predominant; and minimal regulation of private economic affairs, generally limited to enforcing contracts and maintaining a ‘level playing field.’ Other features include strong legal protection of individual liberties, such as rights to privacy, physical self-defense, and freedom of expression – political, religious or artistic. 

In America nowadays, this classically liberal view of political economy is often called ‘conservative’ or ‘libertarian.’ But ‘conservative’ is a word that Americans began using only in the 1950s, after progressives stole the term ‘liberal.’ Using ‘Libertarian’ means surrender to the thieves. I’m reclaiming the original definition. 

What are the historical origins of the West’s ‘liberal order’ ?

Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment

A ‘liberal order’ is a peculiarly American idea. It began in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it came to fruition in America. In practice, the source document for the modern political practice of political liberalism, which stood alone for decades, is the US Constitution. The first ten amendments, the ‘Bill of Rights,’ systematically forbids every method of oppression that the Founders could imagine that an oppressive regime might employ in order to override people’s natural rights. 

The Founders’ focus on inalienable natural rights of the individual was the hallmark of the 18th-century European intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment. In turn, the Enlightenment sprang from two earlier sources: the Protestant Reformation, which helped to break the Holy Roman Empire and the Popes’ grip on political power; and the Renaissance, the post-medieval rebirth of art, science and humanism, that had preceded the Reformation. 

All three movements, Renaissance, Reformation & Enlightenment, started among educated people. But in Europe, by the end of the Middle Ages, a middle class of prosperous townsmen – mostly merchants, tradesmen and petty bureaucrats – had already emerged from the serfs. They had the means and the will to educate their children. Therefore, in the West, by the 15th century, there was already a small, but rapidly growing, educated middle class, something lacking in Russia until the 19th century. 

The result: In Europe there were plenty of educated ’Renaissance men’ from humble backgrounds. Leonardo da Vinci, for example – whose talents in both art and science exemplify that ideal –  was the bastard child of a notary and a peasant woman. 

As a consequence, these movements – Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment – swept through Western society and had a profound evolutionary effect at all levels. All across Europe, the children & grandchildren of peasants became Renaissance men. Their children joined Reformed churches, read the new vernacular Bibles, and drew certain conclusions about the relationship between God and man. Their grandchildren went on to become Enlightenment activists and thinkers, which meant, in part, that they applied their religious beliefs to ideas about how God wanted man to govern himself

Russia: Too little, too late

The Renaissance eventually reached Russia, but centuries late. Its initial impact was limited to the intelligentsia and enlightened nobles. When Peter I began building St Petersburg at the beginning of the 18th century,

‘Muscovy was a religious civilization. It was rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Eastern Church which went back to Byzantium. In some ways it resembled the medieval culture of central Europe, to which it was related by religion, language, custom and much else besides. But historically and culturally it remained isolated from Europe. Unlike central Europe Muscovy had little exposure to the influence of the Renaissance or the Reformation … It had no great cities in the European sense, no princely or episcopal courts to patronize the arts, no real burgher or middle class, and no universities or public schools apart from the monastery academies.’ [2]  

Tsars like Peter I and Catherine imported and imposed post-Renaissance and Enlightenment-era ideas and technology, but centuries later than the rest of Europe. The vast majority of the people remained serfs, poor, backward and oppressed. In general, they weren’t entitled to engage in commerce or get an education. By the time Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the fashion among Russian nobles was to educate their children in French and to speak it even among themselves. This affectation further alienated nobles from peasants. 

Russia did not directly experience a Reformation at all. A key result of the Protestant Reformation, especially in northern and western Europe, was that it disrupted medieval Europe’s church-state cartel and led its Protestant adherents eventually to reject the idea of a state religion, in any form. That never came close to happening under Russia’s tsars. 

The Enlightenment, thanks to Peter I and Catherine the Great, reached Russia quickly. At first, its ideals were restricted to the elite: to liberal-minded nobles, and the relatively new intelligentsia. The War of 1812 and its aftermath produced a generation of reformist officers, liberals in the honest, old sense. These ‘Decembrists,’ as they became known later, after their December 1825 rebellion, were inspired by the Enlightenment ideals advocating ‘the personal dignity of every human being – an essential credo of the Decembrists which lay at the foundation of their opposition to the autocratic system and serfdom.’ [3] 

The Decembrists were suppressed, and many executed. But from that time onward, the intelligentsia, including many reformist nobles, pursued liberal reforms: Many or most wanted to free and educate the serfs, recognizing that that was the only way Russia could compete, as the rest of the world industrialized. One could argue that the Enlightenment reached its peak in Russia under Tsar Aleksandr II, an energetic, forward-thinking leader. He joined the cause, confronted the nobles, and freed the serfs, at least by law, in 1861.

Reform in the 19th century

Unfortunately, Aleksandr II was unique. The People’s Will front, a small, secretive terrorist group espousing populist reform, hated him because he didn’t move fast enough to suit them. After seven attempts, they finally killed him with a bomb in 1881.

The successors of Aleksandr II were mostly reactionary. They dug in their heels, resisted reform and in some instances, reversed the liberal reforms required to make the serfs’ new freedom meaningful. The result was several decades similar to the American ‘Jim Crow’ period, when former slaves continued to be oppressed, for decades after emancipation. Likewise, Russian peasants, although now technically free, remained mostly poor, backward and oppressed. 

Decades after the serfs were freed, 

‘Russia was still a peasant country at the turn of the twentieth century: 80 per cent of the population was classified as belonging to the peasantry; and most of the rest traced their roots back to it … Russia’s towns and cities all remained essentially ‘peasant’ in their social composition and character. Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages.’ [4]

One consequence of Aleksandr II’s efforts was the reform of the zemstvo system. The reformed zemstva – provincial and district assemblies – brought peasant representatives into the assemblies. Aleksandr II’s reforms enabled liberal gentry to set up schools for the peasants. The process also brought a great many urban professionals, such as doctors and teachers, into the provinces and the countryside, to implement reforms aimed at improving the peasants’ lives. These skilled members of the intelligentsia became known as the ‘third element’ and played a key role in promoting additional reforms.

A perfect storm

As a consequence, peasant opportunities improved, although village life remained backward and oppressive. Thanks to the reforms, after 1861 more and more peasants were at least able to get a basic education. Many moved to town and got factory jobs. This created the conditions for ‘a perfect storm’: These industrial workers disliked the peasant life from which they fled. Some looked down on their former neighbors. They later formed the Bolsheviks’ biggest constituency. 

In short, the Renaissance and Enlightenment reached Russia later and in a more limited fashion than in the West. They broadened the people’s horizons and raised their expectations. But thanks to the reactionary policies of Alexandr II’s successors, those expectations weren’t met. The reforms after the Revolution of 1905, which finally established a State Duma to counter the authority of the Tsar, were never properly implemented. That was probably the final chance to defuse the explosion of 1917. Russia went straight from monarchic autocracy to Bolshevik totalitarianism. The transition was marked by a 4-year civil-war interlude between these rival tyrants, whose mutual hatred led to unspeakable atrocities.

Three reasons why the West can’t impose its ‘liberal order’ on Russia

Reason 1: Collectivism vs individualism

American notions of individualism grow from the same Enlightenment roots as the idea of a ‘liberal order.’ I mention it because President Putin himself brought it up in widely referenced 2013 interview:

‘Practically, we have no ideological differences [with the Americans]. But we have logical-cultural differences. The foundation of the American consciousness is the individualistic idea; the foundation of the Russian [consciousness] is the collective.’ [5]

Russians – compared to Americans, including myself – have a more communal approach to most matters of importance. Extended family, as well as immediate family, is important. Friendships are more important too. This extends to matters of public policy: Social spending on ‘public goods’ like mass transport is more acceptable to Russians. So is a very powerful central government: It would be unthinkable, in America, for a president to appoint state governors. But at least for the time being, that is acceptable, even popular in Russia. This ‘collectivism’ or ‘communalism’ didn’t start under communism, but seems to derive from peasant village life in the old pre-communist countryside: 

‘The village community was the centre of this small and isolated [peasant] world … The mir was governed by an assembly of peasant elders which, alongside the land commune (obshchina), regulated virtually every aspect of village and agrarian life … The mir could engender strong feelings of communal solidarity among the peasants, bound as they were by their common ties to the village and to the land. This was reflected in many peasant sayings: ‘What one man can’t bear, the mir can’; ‘No one is greater than the mir’; and so on. The existence of such ties … bear witness not so much to the ‘natural collectivism’ of the Russian people … as to the functional logic of peasant self-organization in the struggle for survival against the harsh realities of nature and powerful external enemies, such as the landlords and the state.’ [6]

Perhaps communist social policies during the 20th century reinforced the peasant communal mindset, and applied it on a grander scale, at the state level. But I would argue that a much more important factor was the experience of the Great Patriotic War. (This is pure speculation, I haven’t read this anywhere else.) Russian soil was invaded and overrun. Twenty-seven million Russians were killed. Leningrad was besieged, Moscow was threatened, and Nazi armies fought their way to the edge of Asia until they were stopped at Stalingrad. Under such circumstances, the distinction between civilians and soldiers must have blurred: Everybody had to work together to survive (or not) and resist. War, by its very nature – especially defensive war – is a collective endeavor. American soldiers, at least, understand this well. But most Americans today don’t know, or care what happened in Russia in the 1940s, and cannot even imagine such circumstances.

Reason 2: The West’s 21st century ‘liberal order’ is neither liberal nor orderly

Today western enforcers of a global ‘liberal order’ generally mean something very different from the objective, historical sense of ‘liberal order’ that I employ here. Often, what they advocate is the opposite of a liberal order, and serves no legitimate western interest. In their terms, a liberal order can mean one thing, on one day, in Europe or America, and then something completely different the next day, in Syria or Ukraine, Afghanistan or Yemen or elsewhere. A perfect example is Russia in the 1990s, when top US officials interfered openly in two successive Russian presidential elections, in order to facilitate the looting of Russian resources and their sale to the West: 

‘The transfer [after 1991] of Russia’s natural resources into the hands of KGB-connected Communists, who called themselves businessmen, was a tragic moment for Russia. It was also a shameful one for the West. Western political scientists provided the theft with ideological cover, presenting it as a “transition to capitalism.” Western corporations, including banks, provided the financing …  The oligarchs who turned Russia into an armed plutocracy within half a decade of the downfall in 1991 of Communism called themselves capitalists. But they were mostly men who had been groomed as the next generation of Communist nomenklatura­ … They … controlled the privatization programs. They had access to Western financing and they were willing to use violence and intimidation … Yeltsin’s reign was built on these billionaires’ fortunes, and vice-versa.’ [7]

Since the 1990s, US forces and their allies or proxies have invaded or overthrown governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen – countries that were already poor and unhappy. A Republican president started the first two wars; a Democrat (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) the last four. In each case, they did so ostensibly to overthrow tyrants, or defeat terrorists. In each case, the result has been endless civil war, the dismemberment of each nation, and humanitarian catastrophe: millions of civilians left homeless, hungry or dead of disease or injury. These outcomes are neither liberal nor orderly.

Reason 3: The West always seeks to impose a liberal order ‘on the cheap’

As mentioned near the top of this paper, American interventionists sometimes cite post-World War 2 Japan and Germany as proof that liberal democracy can, in fact, be imposed – and quickly. 

First: That’s not entirely clear. US troops, warplanes and warships are still based in Japan and Germany. We won’t know whether the experiment worked until they are withdrawn. The second issue is cost. Millions of US occupation troops were stationed in Japan and Germany, for years after the war, and there was a Marshall Plan that paid for reconstruction. American voters will not allow that in any of those war-torn countries. Among other reasons, today taxes are four to five times higher, on middle-class families (using inflation-adjusted dollars, of course), than they were in the 1950s. Ukraine is a perfect example of the West’s unwillingness to put its money where its mouth is. In late 2014 a distinguished British academic observed:

‘In their zeal to denounce Russia for putting pressure on Ukraine over gas supplies, Western commentators usually neglected to mention that, through cheap gas and lenient payment terms, Russia was in fact subsidising the Ukrainian economy to the tune of several billion dollars each year – many times the total of Western aid during this period. This allowed the same commentators not to address the obvious question of whether Western states would be willing to pay these billions in order to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into that of the West … The answer is obvious.’ [8]

Reason 4: The West can’t keep its own ‘liberal’ house in order

In 2015, tycoon and TV personality Donald Trump announced he would run for president of the US.  Trump was openly skeptical of NATO. He questioned the rationale for US wars in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and he had long been a champion of better relations with Russia. To everyone’s surprise, Trump won – mainly because of the breathtaking corruption of his opponent Hillary Clinton. 

No sooner was Trump inaugurated than he found himself under investigation for ‘colluding’ with the Kremlin to ‘hack’ the election. There has never been any public evidence that the Russians were involved at all. On technical grounds, it has always appeared more likely that Sanders supporters, not Russians, leaked the emails [ 9], [10]. 

But Obama appointees at US intelligence agencies dutifully blamed the Russians, and by implication, Trump. So when challenged, America’s spymasters insisted they had proof, but refused to share it because it was ‘top secret.’ Anti-Trump politicians and officials continue to promote an epidemic of Russophobia, for use as a domestic political weapon, and apparently with no concern at all for the international consequences. This suggests that America itself isn’t a ‘liberal democracy’ at all, but an overgrown, overfunded banana republic, commanded by a cartel of unelected intelligence, military and law enforcement officials – with the mass media in their pockets.

Notes

Note to the reader: I relied heavily on my Russian Civilization lecture notes for many insights. When there is no citation for a historical assertion, the source is my lecture notes. For basic historical information, I have relied heavily on a single British specialist on Russia, Orlando Figes. I don’t have the background to evaluate his expertise. But he writes very well, and it’s much easier to read his work than that of some other western ‘experts.’

[1] Caldwell, Christopher. How to Think About Vladimir Putin.  Imprimis, March 2017 • Volume 46, Number 3. Hillsdale College.

[2]  Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (Kindle Locations 399-403). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 1580-1581). 

[4] Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (Kindle Location 2376- 2378). Random House. Kindle Edition.  

[5] Live interview with RT, 2013, retrieved 25 Apr 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JVR0zAiyw0

[6] Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (Kindle Location 2385 – 2403). Random House. Kindle Edition. 

[7] Caldwell, Christopher. How to Think About Vladimir Putin.  Imprimis, March 2017 • Volume 46, Number 3. Hillsdale College.

[8] Lieven, Anatol. How can the West solve its Ukraine problem? BBC News, 4 Dec 2014; retrieved 25 Apr 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30278606

[9] Carr, Jeffrey. The Publicly Available Evidence Doesn’t Support Russian Gov. Hacking of 2016 Election. Medium.com, 9 July 2017. Retrieved 25 Apr 2018, https://medium.com/@REEL_ICO_TALK/the-publicly-available-evidence-doesnt-support-russian-gov-hacking-of-2016-election-3ab928758a2f

[10] Lawrence, Patrick. A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack: Former NSA experts say it wasn’t a hack at all, but a leak—an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system. 9 Aug 2017, The Nation, retrieved 25 April 2018.

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