The Strongmen Strike Back

In his book Modern Russian Theology, American scholar Paul Valliere notes that Western liberals have great trouble understanding the great late nineteenth century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. (I’m not sure that many even try, but let’s put that aside, and consider just the few who do.) Solovyov, explains Valliere, was a liberal theocrat, and that’s something your average Westerner just can’t cope with. S/he sees the theocrat and immediately thinks ‘reactionary’. The idea that there could be a ‘liberal’ theocrat is so completely outside their frame of reference that they dismiss it out of hand, and conclude that the guy really was a reactionary after all (which, of course, he wasn’t).

Solovyov was far from exceptional in combining elements of liberal and authoritarian thinking. As readers of my forthcoming book on Russian conservatism will discover, in the history of Russian political philosophy (as also, I’m sure, in the history of other countries), efforts to do so are extremely common. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Liberalism is a political ideology. Authoritarianism, like democracy, is a method of government. At least in theory, liberal authoritarianism and illiberal democracy are both possible. In practice, of course, such absolute constructs are hard to find, but so too are pure ‘liberal democracies’. Liberalism in its many manifestations – economic, social, political – is often imposed from above on unwilling populations in decidedly undemocratic ways. Economic liberalization in developing countries, for instance, is often the product of intense pressure from Western lenders and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it’s certainly not democratic.

My point here is that liberalism v. authoritarianism is a false dichotomy. If nothing else, it ignores the vast differences between different regimes which are labelled as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘illiberal’. Most observers would agree that North Korea fits those descriptions. But many nowadays also apply them to Hungary. Yet to categorize the two countries as in any way alike would be clearly absurd. The differences far outweigh any superficial similarities. Liberalism and authoritarianism are sliding scales, not absolutes. They are also not binary opposites, but are often combined in seemingly paradoxical ways.

Robert Kagan is having none of this, however. Kagan’s a big name in the world of American political commentary, a prominent exemplar of neoconservatism (though apparently he himself prefers to be called a ‘liberal interventionist’). For some odd reason, American governments listen to him, so we have to pay some attention to what he says. And in a long essay in The Washington Post, entitled ‘The Strongmen Strike Back’, what he tells us is that ‘Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic order. … We in the liberal world have yet to comprehend the magnitude and coherence of the challenge.’ As he writes:

Authoritarianism has now returned as a geopolitical force, with strong nations such as China and Russia championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony. … It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption … reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.

According to Kagan, authoritarian rulers are no longer content just to sit at home, but are seeking aggressively to export authoritarianism and undermine democracy in the West. Moreover, he says, ‘These authoritarians are succeeding.’ This, he considers, is extremely dangerous.

Why is it dangerous?

Because although Kagan admits that liberalism has its problems, namely an inability to provide people with ‘the security that comes from family, tribe, race and culture’, he regards it as an almost absolute good. ‘Liberalism is all that keeps us, and has ever kept us, from being burned at the stake for what we believe’, he writes. This, of course, is highly questionable. Burning people at the stake for their beliefs was a purely Western European phenomenon. By contrast in the ‘barbaric’ Ottoman Empire, for instance, cities like Smyrna were mosaics of numerous cultures and religions, in which people freely intermingled without the slightest fear of stakes, burning or otherwise. But that’s by the by. On the whole, I’m a liberal, though not nearly so dogmatic a one as Kagan, and I’m largely against governments restricting my liberty just so that they can stay in power. So I’ll accept the premise that we should want to protect our liberal democracy. But why does Kagan think that it’s under threat from a rising tide of authoritarianism?

To answer that, you have to understand how Kagan regards authoritarianism. He argues that during the Cold War, the prevailing American attitude was that laid out by Jeane Kirkpatrick in a 1979 essay entitled ‘Dictatorships and Double Standards’, which argued that the United States should support ‘traditional autocracies’ against ‘totalitarian’ communism. This was a mistake, says Kagan. Authoritarian regimes of whatever type can never be liberalism’s friends. Moreover, the distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is false. An authoritarian regime can turn into a totalitarian one at the click of the ruler’s finger. Kagan notes:

We have become lost in endless categorizations, viewing each type of non-liberal government as unique and unrelated to the others. … But in the most fundamental way, all of this is beside the point. By far, the most significant distinction today is a binary one: Nations are either liberal … or they are not liberal.

‘In today’s world, there can be no liberalism without democracy and no democracy without liberalism’, Kagan continues, mentioning Hungary as an example. Modern technology, he adds, has created new opportunities for repressive regimes, and ‘This revolutionary development erases whatever distinction may have existed between “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism”.’ In short, Hungary and North Korea are the same. And they are both equally threatening to American liberty.

This, of course, is absolute BS. The idea that every state which is less than totally liberal in its forms of government and economics is ‘totalitarian’ is preposterous. The very term ‘totalitarianism’ is itself of questionable value, and is thus generally avoided by academics, but if we assume that it describes something real, then it’s probably something like the Soviet Union under Stalin. So let’s compare that to a state Kagan regularly uses as an example of authoritarianism – today’s Russian Federation. Anybody who spent any time in the Soviet Union and then visited Russia today could not possibly consider the two in any way comparable unless blinded by extraordinary prejudice. While today’s Russia doesn’t meet Western standards of liberalism, compared to the 1930s, or even the 1980s, it’s extraordinarily free. To say that ‘totalitarian’ Russian and ‘authoritarian’ Russia are one and the same is to ignore reality.

Kagan defines liberalism as a system in which states are ‘bound to protect individuals in their rights to life, liberty and property’. But in no state is such a commitment absolute. States have varying shades of liberalism of this sort. For instance, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country on the planet. By that measure, it is the least liberal country in the world according to Kagan’s own definition. To take another example – immigration – the policies of countries generally deemed ‘liberal democrat’ vary considerably from some which have very open borders to others which very tightly restrict immigration. And the same is true for ‘authoritarian’ states. Russia, for instance, permits large scale immigration from Central Asia and countries like Ukraine. In terms of migration policy it is therefore a lot more ‘liberal’ than places such as Australia.

In short, the binary ‘liberal or not-liberal’ thesis is nonsense. It’s also ahistorical. Many of the characteristics of liberalism which Kagan mentions, such as respect for LGBT rights, are quite modern inventions. If we are take them as the measure of ‘liberalism’, then 30 years ago there weren’t any liberal states anywhere. Yet, at that time Westerners still considered themselves as living in ‘liberal democracies’. If we were ‘liberal’ 30 years ago, then people elsewhere whose political and social systems have evolved to roughly where we were at that point are surely ‘liberal’ too. But according to Kagan, they’re not.

There’s a lot else which is wrong with this essay, including some preposterous claims (e.g that the First World War was a struggle of liberalism versus authoritarianism; that in establishing authoritarian regimes, rulers in countries such as Zimbabwe were ‘following Putin’s example’; and that Putin has ‘exalted Russia’s special “Asiatic” character over its Western orientation’ (no, he hasn’t, not ever!)). But I’m less interested in these factual inaccuracies and dodgy historical interpretations than in the reasons why Kagan says all this guff. Kagan isn’t writing pages and pages about authoritarianism for the sake of pure academic enquiry. He’s after something. So what is it?

The answer is that he’s worried that the American political class might be losing faith in its ‘exceptional’ role as the bringer of order to the world. The American left, he complains, is more interested in shouting about American ‘imperialism’ than in helping human rights by overthrowing repressive regimes such as that in Venezuela. The right, meanwhile, is becoming enamoured with nationalism. ‘A broad alliance of strange bedfellows … wants the United States to abandon resistance to rising authoritarian power,’ he writes, ‘And so, as the threat mounts, America is disarmed.’ Indeed, Kagan says, ‘these days the anti-liberal critique is so pervasive … that there is scarcely an old-style American liberal to be found.’

This is typical Kagan-ite exaggeration. American foreign policy isn’t run by a cabal of lefty anti-imperialists and conservative isolationists. If it were, the results might be rather better. On the contrary, the real problem is the opposite – as Stephen Walt and others have pointed out, the problem is that liberal interventionists like Kagan dominate, regardless of who’s in power. But Kagan seems to be worried that under Trump that might be changing, that Americans are gradually waking up to the disasters that liberal interventionism has left in its wake, and that they might be having second thoughts about things like regime change in Venezuela.

And that explains what this essay is all about. Kagan complains that Americans are drawing back from ‘confronting the great authoritarian powers rising in Eurasia’. He doesn’t like that. He wants to confront them – confront Russia; confront China; confront Iran; confront Venezuela; and so on. Therefore, he engages in a classic example of threat inflation – first, lumping together all sorts of countries, from Hungary to Russia to China, as if they are all one and the same thing; second, ignoring all shades of grey, all sense of sliding scales of liberalism, authoritarianism, democracy, and so on, and instead portraying the world in a binary fashion, of good liberals (us) and bad non-liberals (everyone else); third, assigning expansionist intentions to the latter; and fourth, claiming that our enemies are ‘succeeding’. The aim of all this is to scare and so to incite an aggressive response.

Returning to my original point, we see here a typical example of the phenomenon Valliere mentioned – a certain type of thinker so bound up in his own ideology that he just can’t comprehend that he could have anything in common with something which doesn’t 100% conform to his view of the world, and who therefore insists on painting that other in the most negative possible light. But the world is not a binary place. As I’ve often said, I consider myself a liberal. But I don’t allow myself to think that my version of liberalism is the only one, that you’re either a liberal or you’re not, and that if you don’t agree with my version of it you deserve to be sanctioned or invaded. On the whole, liberalism is indeed a positive force. But liberal dogmatism isn’t. And that’s what Kagan provides us. Like other dogmatic ideologies, it seeks to destroy in order to create absolute conformity. As such, it is highly dangerous.

20 thoughts on “The Strongmen Strike Back”

  1. Yeah, liberal totalitarianism of Mr Kagan is clear, and familiar. It’s not clear to me if he is a sincere crusading maniac or cynical propaganda-monger, but that’s not important.

    But what does ‘liberalism’ mean to you, Paul? What is sensible liberalism, liberalism with a human face? I don’t think I’ve seen many signs of it recently.

    Perhaps the lesson is this: whichever one of three basic enlightenment ideas (liberté, égalité, fraternité) gets to achieve clear domination, inevitably it turns totalitarian…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liberalism, as I understand it, focuses on the individual, and claims that s/he is the best judge of his/her own interests and aspirations. Liberalism therefore seeks to maximize individual autonomy. Liberals would further assert that individual freedom should be restricted only if it can be proven to be harmful to others. In the economic sphere, liberalism would add that maximizing autonomy also serves the general social good, as it encourages entrepreneurship etc.

      At least that is classical liberalism. Later versions of liberalism state that individuals aren’t able to assert their autonomy because of social/economic circumstances, and therefore call for state intervention to improve those circumstances, e.g. in the form of government-provided welfare. That, of course, involves restricting the liberty of others (e.g. through taxes). At this point, later liberalism comes into conflict with classical liberalism.

      More modern versions of liberalism take things even further and assert the rights of allegedly oppressed communities. In this view, liberty only becomes possible through emancipation of such communities. Collective rights of minorities then start taking precedence over the rights of individuals. Again, this clashes with classical liberalism, and one can end up in a position where being a ‘liberal’ means being something which would originally have been considered ‘illiberal’.

      I would view myself as closer to a classical liberal, but a pragmatic one. We should try to maximize freedom, but at the same time we have to recognize that we live in societies and have social obligations, so there are practical limits to liberty. (I think, for instance, that the American attitude to gun ownership is decidedly odd). At the same time, we should recognize also that later versions of liberalism are not entirely wrong in noticing that there are external constraints on liberty which we should be trying to eliminate. Also, cultural expectations, education, the level of legal consciousness, etc will affect how people react to liberty, whether they treat it responsibly as a form of ‘svoboda’ (as Russians would say) or as ‘volya’, ‘proizvol’, freedom to do whatever they wish. One therefore needs to proceed with caution. I guess this makes me a conservative liberal.

      So, yes, try to maximize liberty, but sensibly, in accordance with existing conditions, actual possibilities etc. In foreign policy terms, that means that indeed it would be nice if, say, Afghanistan turned into a wealthy, well-organized, liberal democracy, but don’t imagine that you can just go in there and declare it so, smashing existence structures, and giving people ‘liberty’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Still, even a sensible interpretation, it’s substantially based on individualism, “man is an island”. Social interactions (“social obligations“) are viewed as limitations. Consciousness is viewed as property of the individual.

        It’s a bit reductionist; problems arise.


      2. So a liberal starts by shouting at others about “my rights”, and, as all spirit of charity is lost, lets obligations slide from view…


    2. ‘Perhaps the lesson is this: whichever one of three basic enlightenment ideas (liberté, égalité, fraternité) gets to achieve clear domination, inevitably it turns totalitarian…’

      Well, yes. Balance is essential in most things, including politics.


      1. “isms’, which are abstract ideas, tend to ignore context, does “socialism”, whatever that means, work in a specific country or not. So just about any ism is totalitarian. And that is the downside to abstract ideas, which tend to be revered..


      1. I don’t know, nothing in particular. My psyche, I suspect, has a strong root-for-the-underdog current. I prefer to think if it as ‘pluralism’ or ‘contrarianism’, but others often define it as ‘trolling’.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. My psyche, I suspect,
        I like this. But what is our psyche vs let’s say our soul? And what creates either of the two?

        In a nutshell, basically I have once again urgent tasks, so I am gone for a while. Retire into watching mode for distraction that is:

        From my as always limited basis as human, in a specific part of the world shaping my perception, I think that a lot of words/routines got tainted lately. Not a new experience for us. But different. … What would be lately? For me it started in 2001, no doubt politically 1999 had a strong impact on my soul/psyche. As citizen. I have no doubt both dates completely passed some in the larger self-described liberal camp. They have their own dates and relevances. …

        But what exactly is your concern with liberal.. Present liberal, that is. … What exactly does it stand for you, Now.

        Otherwise I am waiting for Paul’s upcoming book.

        Take care, be well.


  2. I agree with your assessment of mr kagans motive in writing this piece.

    Mr Kagan is in search of an all encompassing ideology to label all americas “enemies”

    The Cold War was capitalism versus communism. He is seeking to set up a similar ideological conflict. He is seeking to provide a reason for continuing high military expenditure. The Islamic threat doesn’t work as well as great power conflicts

    Mr Kagan also works for a think-tank and needs the continuation of the failed neo- conservative / liberal interventionist agenda.


    1. Hence such college courses as “nationalism and liberal democracy”.

      That Kagan makes the mass media rounds and is the husband of Victoria Nuland doesn’t mean that he should get further props over censored others providing more insightful commentary. To believe otherwise underscores why there’re quality control issues vis-a-vis the soft science of political studies.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Let’s see–the current biggest threats to peace in the world are in order: 1). The U.S., 2). Israel, 3). Saudi Arabia, 4). UK, 5). France, 6). India, 7). Pakistan.

    Most of those with one huge glaring exception are supposed democracies–though oligarchies is better term to describe the U.S., UK and France these days.


  4. “….to Zimbabwe, as the remaining authoritarian regimes, following Putin’s example…”

    Good God!!!! Rulers of Zimbabwe used to be darlings of the liberal world, couldn’t do anything wrong even if at the time were wiping out +- 20000 of Matabeleland’s population and pushing for a one party state. Now and then the same group of people is in charge and have perfected their art of destruction without Putin’s guidance – in the 80’s Putin was nowhere in sight. I think Mr. Kagan should have his head checked.



  5. There’s an aspect of this that you’ve missed- the Libertarian aspect of US Liberalism. Boiled down, since Reagan, the Libertarian strain in US Liberalism has been Very Good for plutocrats, who have since seen their income share grow to post-1929 highs, and they very much want to see their low taxes & light regulation & financial control of US politics continue.

    They are deeply upset about how Putin broke the power of the ‘Seven Bankers’ and raised living standards for Russians, & want ‘Regime Change’ for Putin


    1. The libertarians I know are anti-intervention. War means a larger military, means more government expenditure, means higher taxes. All bad from their point of view.


      1. Name me a post-Reagan Republican, our party with the largest appeal to US Libertarians, who voted against a regime-change war or a military buildup.

        Reagan started the Republican tradition of military buildups financed with tax cuts. Bush II & Trump did so too.

        Now you know why the US national debt has risen from $1T in 1981 to $23T now.


  6. This Kagan fellow sounds like a real tosser, good job in debunking his B.S.
    I think a law should be passed, mandating that “He who eggs on for war should be assigned to the front-lines, handed a sabre, and ordered to lead the charge.” Into the fray and over the top!
    That might cool some hot heads among the war-mongerers.


  7. Frankly speaking, for the benefit of an improved foreign policy analysis and Kagan’s health, it’d better if he spent more time on physical exercise and improving his diet, as deserving others take his place in high profile foreign policy analytical situations.

    Same goes for some other folks as well. Cruel? Consider the situation of the aforementioned well deserving others.


  8. There was a time in the USA when they exterminated the indigenous population, and the vacant place was filled with slaves from Africa. Is there a contradiction with the liberal principles? There is no contradiction: the Indians and the Negroes weren’t considered people, which means they had no rights.


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