The Bow Group, ‘the United Kingdom’s oldest conservative think tank’, is as ‘Establishment’ an institution as one could hope to find. Its board includes prominent former Conservative cabinet ministers such as Norman Tebbit and Geoffrey Howe as well as right-wing academics like philosopher Roger Scruton. I was intrigued, therefore, to hear its chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney, announce last week that, ‘the theory of neo-liberal interventionism is bankrupt.’
The context of Harris-Quinney’s remarks was the publication of a new Bow Group report entitled ‘The Sanctions on Russia’. In the report’s introduction, editor Adriel Kasonta declares:
Given that many people in Ukraine actually consider themselves to be Russian, and that the justifications for sanctions may have shifted, it appears necessary to revise our approach to what could be considered one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. We might do worse than explore for [sic] a peaceful solution to this crisis, engaging EU member states and Russia in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue.
The title ‘The Sanctions on Russia’ is actually misleading as only the first of the report’s three parts directly covers the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries. The report’s second part digresses into a discussion of the ‘Russian soul’, and the third focuses not on Russia but on Ukraine and what that country has to do to solve its problems.
In the section of the report dealing with sanctions, Elina Kyselchuk of the Ukrainian Business Centre in London shows that the sanctions have had a negative impact on the Russian economy but have not altered Russian behaviour in Ukraine. Given that the latter was their intention, the sanctions have failed. Kyselchuk concludes that:
There must be reached a diplomatic compromise, which will allow Russia to remain an influential political player in Eastern Europe, while letting Ukraine choose its own internal political regime and foreign policy orientation. A diplomatic solution will require all sides to find middle ground and to focus on their fundamental economic needs, which will perhaps not mean the best possible outcomes or absolute victory. Finding such a compromise will not be easy. However, it is vital for the West and Russia to work together towards reconciliation and building a stable, prosperous Ukraine.
The report’s economic analysis is easy to follow. The same could not be said of its dissection of the ‘Russian soul’. Think tanks are meant to speak to policy makers rather than to academics. But in his chapter on ‘Russian Christian thought as a key to understanding Russian politics’, Artur Mrowczynski-Van Allen of the International Center for the Study of the Christian Orient makes little concession to those not well versed in theology, as he explains the thinking of philosophers such as Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Vladimir Solovyov. For instance, he writes:
It is very easy to see that “Vernunft [reason]” accompanies “Adam:” philosophy and theology (and, ultimately, all spheres of life, culture, politics, economy, etc.) form a unit. A unit that is revealed in metaphysics, anthropology, and historiosophy—historiosophy intimately tied to ecclesiology. It is not just a theoretical question, but rather a real and rational way of thinking and living that can be defined as an eschatological pragmatism.
I am man enough to admit that I haven’t the slightest clue what the author is talking about here, and I suspect that most readers will shake their heads in befuddlement and skip this part of the report after reading just a few lines. But Mrowczynski-Van Allen’s final words are at least relatively clear:
Rather than imposing our own paradigms of interpretation, we must at least listen to others, be attentive to their counterdiscourses, come closer to the ontology, anthropology, and historiosophy that beat in the heart of a people and make it live, that make it live in a particular, unique way, whether in the case of Russia or of so many other peoples and cultures that are resisting modern colonization by the dominant and prevailing discourse of secular modernity.
In simpler words, we should respect cultural differences. Liberal interventionists will not like this conclusion, as it suggests that Western liberalism does not embody universal values which must be spread to the rest of the world. They will probably also dislike the contribution to the third part of the report by Nikolai Petro of the University of Rhode Island, which again warns against the imposition of artificial cultural unity.
‘Stable democracy does not result from having homogeneous political or cultural attitudes,’ writes Petro, ‘but from society’s ability to develop institutions that not only manage these conflicting elements within a culture, but also preserve a balance among them.’ The way out of Ukraine’s crisis, he continues, is ‘to develop a unifying civic culture that encompasses both its Russian and Ukrainian speaking communities.’ This will be impossible, ‘if Ukrainian elites persist in trying to promote national unity by imposing highly divisive national symbols, rallying around an “eternal enemy” (Russia), and insisting on a new national identity as a litmus test of loyalty. … Ukraine will thrive only if its bicultural and bilingual identity is seen as a source of strength, rather than as a weakness to be eradicated.’ Western analysts, Petrio concludes, should:
First, stop talking about Ukrainian identity as if it were a monolithic concept, rather than two closely related, but distinct, cultural heritages.
Second, oppose attempts to ignore or minimize the importance of the Russian cultural component of Ukrainian national identity. Historically such efforts have always resulted in bloodshed.
Third, stop trying to force Ukrainians to choose between Europe and Russia. Instead, adopt a broader view of European identity that accepts both Russia and Ukraine as quintessential parts of Europe.
Finally, recognize that all actors share a common interest in resolving this crisis through a direct dialogue of the conflicting parties.
This is all excellent advice. I know from my own experience that conservative think tanks in the UK are not always open to ideas which challenge the hegemony of liberal interventionist ideas. It is encouraging, therefore, to see the Bow Group offering an alternative point of view.