Liberal illiberalism

This is turning out to be a good week for hearing from top-level Russian ministers. First Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov penned an article for Russia in Global Affairs, and then Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave an interview to Moskovskii Komsomolets. The latter has got the most publicity so far, in large part because it’s the first interview Shoigu has given in many years, but I didn’t find much of interest in it. The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. The fact that this is considered such a great thing makes it clear just how terrible conditions in the Russian army were until very recently. Beyond that, the interviewer tried occasionally to ask Shoygu personal questions, but the defence minister generally refused to be drawn, except to say that ‘I have great nostalgia for the Soviet Union’ and to inform us that his mother comes from Ukraine and that he himself was baptised, aged 5, in a church in Stakhanov in Lugansk Oblast. That last revelation drives home the point that the war in Donbass is quite personal to many Russians. Is someone like Shoigu going to let the Russian state abandon Lugansk?? Somehow, I doubt it.

Beyond that, Shoigu’s perspective on world events was pretty much what one would expect. The world is ceasing to be unipolar, he argued, ‘And naturally, the West doesn’t like this, and it’s exerting every effort to regain its monopoly of influence in the world.’ To this end it’s doing what it can to overthrow potential rivals, ‘And of course this is done under the pretext of spreading democracy.’

This is pretty much the consensus viewpoint in Russia as far as I can tell, and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that in his article Sergei Lavrov says pretty much the same thing. But what makes Lavrov’s article interesting from my point of view is where he goes from there. The main theme of the article is the failings of Western liberalism. Again, this is hardly something new. But what I found revealing was the logic that Lavrov used. This is what he had to say:

The West’s reaction to what is happening allows one to judge the true principles of its wordview. The rhetoric on the themes of ‘liberalism’, ‘democracy’, and ‘human rights’ are accompanied by the promotion of approaches based on inequality, injustice and egoism, and conviction of their own exceptionalism.

‘Liberalism’, which the West claims to be defending, gives centre place to the person, his rights and freedom. And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …

As for Europe, the zealots of the liberal idea get on fine with massive breaches of the rights of the Russian speaking population of the European Union. …

And what’s ‘liberal’ about the visa and other sanctions imposed by the West against those living in Russian Crimea? They are punished for the democratic expression of their will to rejoin their historic motherland. …

Liberalism in its healthy, undistorted meaning, was traditionally the main constituent of world, and Russian, political thought. However, the multiplicity of models of development do not permit one to conclude that there is no alternative to the Western ‘basket’ of liberal values. …

[The West] has developed the concept of a ‘rules-based order’. … Its aim is to undermine internationally agreed legal instruments. …

In the economic realm, protective barriers have become the norm. …

What’s the result? In politics, the shaking of the international legal foundations, the growth of instability … in the realm of security, the washing away of the boundary between coercive and non-coercive methods of achieving external political goals … in the economic world – increased volatility, and fierce competition for markets.

Much has been said of late of Russia’s alleged ‘conservative turn’. Lavrov’s assault on liberalism will no doubt be added to the evidence in support of that. But read it closely. How does Lavrov attack Western liberals? By reference to liberal ideals! He appeals to human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and free trade. In short, it’s a homage to classical liberalism – liberalism in its ‘healthy, undistorted meaning’ as Lavrov puts it, liberalism which is, in his words, ‘traditionally the main constituent of … Russian political thought.’

In other words, the complaint is that Western liberals are hypocrites and have ceased to practice what they preach. They claim to be liberal, but they’re not. But there’s nothing here which challenges the ‘liberal international order’. If anything, it’s a call to return to the liberal international order.

I fully appreciate that this is a controversial interpretation of Russian thinking. Again and again we are told that the Russian government is illiberal and hell bent on destroying the ‘liberal international order’. I think that makes the mistake of taking radical geopolitical thinkers like Aleksandr Dugin and assuming that the Russian state shares their ambitions. But, as I see it, the Russian state is actually far more cautious. Far from wanting to destroy the international system, it would rather like to preserve it, but considers that the West is undermining it. For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc. Even when criticising liberalism, the Russian state uses its language. In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa noted that, ‘Russia makes no claim to revise the existing international order, but demands that the leading powers abide by the mutually established rules.’ I think that Lavrov’s article backs that conclusion up.

 

10 thoughts on “Liberal illiberalism”

  1. “And that raises the question: how does this correspond with the policy of sanctions? … Sanctions directly strike ordinary people, their well-being, and destroy their social-economic rights. How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people?”

    Mr Lavrov should look into the dichotomy of deontology and utilitarianism. Modern western liberal ethics are extremely rationalistic, utilitarian. Utilitarianism is the big word for a very simple idea: ‘the ends justify the means’.

    Therefore, for a modern western liberal there is no problem with sanctions, bombardments, and destruction, as long as they are perpetrated for the sake of noble ends and highfalutin ideas: ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’. And that’s all there is to it. That simple, Mr Lavrov.

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  2. “The main takeaway was that Russian soldiers now all have access to a washing machine. “

    And not that 90% of Russia’s pilots now acquired combat experience thanks to their participation in Syria’s war against the terrorists? You have strange set of priorities, Professor.

    “How do you reconcile the imperative of defending human rights with the bombardment of sovereign states, and the deliberate effort to destroy their statehood, which leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people? …”

    Easy-peasy. You proclaim those affected by the sanctions to be non-human. In fact – you don’t need to proclaim them that (anymore), your general population already thinks like that.

    Because this is the essence of the liberal-fascism – aka “liberast” – ideology of the West.

    “For all the talk of a ‘conservative turn’, I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. “

    Then you are blinded by your own religious adherence to the High Church (Classic) Liberalism. Russia has no alternative to the international order set up after 1945. It, hovewer, objects to lable such world order “liberal”. It wasn’t back then, it isn’t now and it won’t become one in the future.

    Thus, Lavrov’s article is a form of diplomatic trolling of the West. Everyone understands that “liberal international order” is a lie, only Russia uses the strict definition of the term to needle present day liberasts.

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    1. It all turns on the definition of “Liberal”. The present definition, valid in the EU at least, is “the market must rule everything, and any infringement on that from a state is illiberal”. So sanctions on, even bombing of states that try to use classical protectionist methods to develop their economies is liberal by definition.

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  3. “I don’t see that Russia actually has an alternative to offer to the liberal international order. I don’t see that it has any different political vocabulary to offer the world other than that of liberalism – human rights, democracy, free trade etc.”

    Forms of the words =/= their (current) meanings.

    Come to think about it – that’s not the first time you are claiming, professor, that “Russia does not challenge liberal world order”. Have you ever put any thought as to what is this “liberal world order”? Like, for real, not it should be, based on the dreams of the ivory-towers residing academia.

    With Bush Jr. and his gang of neocons it was all so simple – they honestly described their side as either “American Empire” or “Hegemony”. Now, it was only after the beginning of the benign reign of Obama, when the punditocracy had been tasked to rebrand this whole mess with flashy newspeak. Thus the buzzword “international liberal order” entered the mainstream. More honest, stubborn or just chutzpah-ridden pundits also added – America lead international liberal order.

    That’s the crux of the problem. No one really cares about metaphysics or theology of the Liberalism. Defining liberalness of this or that is not the task for the independent intellectual inquiry. Whatever the Collective Pope of the West says is Liberal is liberal. And liberal is Good. Without the Collective Pontiff you can’t, you are not allowed to determine liberalness. Doing otherwise is Heresy.

    There is no (NO) any significant power group in the West (primarily – the US), which would pay their pet academics, think-tankers and pundits to devise a new True Liberal theology, which would cast US role in the world as that not of a Hegemon Power.

    Now, Professor (others as well), run these several easy experiments:

    1) Find in recent (2014+) official statements, articles, interviews, speeches, etc. by Russian political elite any sign, that Russia recognizes and wants to maintain US lead order.
    2) Using the same batch of samples, find instances when said Russian officials describe the world order as “liberal”.

    After all – you might need to prove your often-stated claim about Russia. The actual results might enLYTTEN you a bit.

    What are you trying to do, Professor? Assure your fellow liberals that Russia is crypto-liberal and ready (any second now!) to embrace “Western liberal values”? That there is a chance for rapprochement based on common understanding and worldview? No. Think again – no. Russia is committing Heresy, a capital thought-crime right now by refusing to bow to the US demands, therefore, Russia is against the only “world order” your Western elites know. Therefore, Russia indeed offers something new and different to the world – a world not run by the US. How about trying to be honest with yourself?

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  4. I liked your reference to the washing machines, not least considering one of Lytt’s earlier references in the comment section. Curious it now seems to have triggered Lytt’s never absent fighting spirit, all the same.

    But, well yes. International Law, the UN Charter, mind you I am to a rather high degree on Lavrov’s side. But maybe that’s the crux, considering Lytt’s reference to Lavrov as trolling” the West”. What if 194 countries have to agree on rules? I doubt he would like it or us, but yes: that would be a “liberal, liberated international order”.

    Ideal and reality. International law historically and now. I don’t have much knowledge, but concerning the debates around self-determination, I looked into that. Hotly debated recently it seems. No rights on not historically recognized or terra incognita, may be one of the sources, which considering debates on war leads us to none state actors.

    …. and from there on to the fact that your friends may be my enemies.

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  5. Lyttenburgh may not like it, and he and other Russians may deny it, but Russia is full paid up member of the liberal international order (LIO). Not only is it publicly committed to international law and multilateralism, but it is an active member of numerous internatipnal organizations, including many of the most obviously ‘liberal’ of them – IMF, WTO, ECHR etc. It talks the language of LIO and as I said in my post has no alternative vocabulary. It opposes the extreme manifestations of LIO pushed by Western liberal interventionists, but that doesn’t constitute a rejection of the order itself.

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    1. “Lyttenburgh may not like it, and he and other Russians may deny it, but Russia is full paid up member of the liberal international order (LIO). “

      Define the term “liberal international order” in the real sense of the world as something else as “USA Hegemony”.

      “Not only is it publicly committed to international law and multilateralism”

      Which has nothing to do with the liberalism on itself. Demanding accountability is not “liberal” in itself.

      “…an active member of numerous internatipnal organizations, including many of the most obviously ‘liberal’ of them – IMF, WTO, ECHR etc”

      Here’s you are wrong – Russia is not an active member of said organizations, which exist solely to further US whims when it suits them. When it doesn’t suits them they are either ignoring it or even demanding their dissolution.

      “It talks the language of LIO and as I said in my post has no alternative vocabulary.”

      Correction – Russia resorts to this language when talking with “our Western partners” (c). Russia does not restort to this kind of language when talking with, say, Turkmenbashi or China. OTOH, the West knows no other “language”. That’s the difference.

      “It opposes the extreme manifestations of LIO pushed by Western liberal interventionists, but that doesn’t constitute a rejection of the order itself.”

      Please, professor, can you point out when said “LIO” was anything but that? When did this Golden Age of “vanilla” Liberalism took place, which we should use as a yardstick? It’s always been first and foremost “US lead world order”, which numbered among its members (in the past and right now) very illiberal regimes. It has never beeen about “liberalism” as ideology, only about US’ primacy.

      Go ahead and try to prove me wrong.

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    2. I notice that Sergey Karaganov is discussing the need for Russia to develop a “Russian” national idea that other nations might be attracted to. Unfortunately, the only reference to this idea is in this video- he doesn’t seem to mention anything in the articles on his website- and he refuses to flesh it out in any way.
      https://www.fort-russ.com/2019/09/russian-and-israeli-experts-were-closer-to-total-war-than-ever-before-we-should-make-our-own-rules-video/
      Presumably whatever he has in mind won’t be inconsistent with many liberal ideas. On the other hand, the real story to tell seems to about the West. Although we talk of “our democracy”, this seems to be a sham, and we seem unable to sensibly govern ourselves. As Alastair Crooke has remarked our citizens have been asleep for a long time. Much of our behaviour is irrational and emotional- I immediately think of Greta Thunberg addressing the UN- and a small economic elite seems to have taken over. This elite is extremely militarily aggressive. The elephant in the room is the media. A commenter at another blog said: “More than anything else, I would love to see something like a “worldwide day of remembrance for the victims of journalism,” where we take time to remember the millions and millions of people who were killed thanks to journalists’ lies and exaggerations.” I cannot imagine that sentiment being addressed so emotionally at the UN.

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  6. Here, Professor! I’ve found an example (albeit – from literature) of how one can use their interlocutor’s specified language and terms, without committing to their values in any real way. Just pretend, that they are talking about recalcitrant Russia.

    ***

    Otto Beess waved his hand. A minute later, the cleric introduced Hiram bin Eliezer. The Jew bowed deeply, sweeping the floor with the fox hat. Canon watched him carefully.

    “So what,” he croaked, “does the envoy of the Brzeg kahal expects from me? What business brings you here?”

    “Dear Sir asks “what business””? raised his bushy eyebrows Rabbi Hiram. “Lord of Abraham and Jacob! And in what case, I ask you, can a Jew come to the esteemed Sir Canon? What can I ask you to talk about? Well, I’ll tell you about what – about the truth. The Gospel truth.”

    “The Gospel truth?”

    “That’s right”.

    “Then speak, Rabbi Hiram. Do not make me wait.”

    “If the honorable Canon orders, so I will start speaking right away – why won’t I speak? And I say this: all kinds of good people are wandering near Brzeg, near Olav, near Grodkov, and nearby villages and they are calling to beat the vile murderers of Jesus Christ, rob their houses and dishonor their wives and daughters. At the same time, these claimants refer to respected gentlemen prelates, saying that such beating, robbery and rape would be done according to the divine and episcopal will.”

    “Go on, friend Hiram. You see, I’m patient.”

    “Well, with your permission, is there anything left to say? I, Rabbi Hiram bin Eliezer of the Brzeg’s kahal, ask the esteemed Sir Priest to protect the Gospel Truths. If you really need to beat and rob the killers of Jesus Christ, then please go and beat them! But, in the name of Moses the forefather, beat those who are truly responsible. The real ones. Those who crucified. Meaning – the Romans!

    Otto Beess was silent for a long time, examining the Rabbi from under half-closed eyelids.

    “Yeeeeaaah,” he said finally. “Do you know, friend Hiram, that for this kind of nonsense they can jail you? Of course, I’m talking about the secular authorities. The Church is gracious, but brachium saeculare can be strict if it comes to mockery. No, no, be silent, friend Hiram. I will speak now.”

    The Jew bowed. The canon did not move on the chair, nir did he even flinch.

    “Holy Father Martin, the fifth of this name, following the precepts of His enlightened predecessors, deigned to say that the Jews, contrary to appearances, were also created in the likeness of God, and some part of them, though small, would receive the Deliverance. Therefore, their persecution, humiliation, punishment, suppression and all other forms oppression, including forced baptism, are injustices. I hope, you, friend Hiram, have no doubt that the will of the Pope is an order for every cleric – or have you?”

    “How can I doubt, I ask you? After all, already the tenth in a row Sir Pope is talking about this… Therefore, this should be true, no doubt…”

    “If you are in no doubt,” the canon interrupted, pretending that he had not caught the ridicule, “then you must understand that accusing the clergy of encouraging the masses to attack the Israelites constitutes a slander. More so: a libel worthy of punishment.

    The Jew bowed silently.

    “Of course,” Otto Beess squinted, “secular people know little about Papal orders or don’t know about them at all. And they have constant difficulties with the Holy Scriptures. For they, as someone recently told me, are pro maiori parte illiterati et idiote.”

    […]

    “What then needs to be done, I ask you venerable Mr. Canon?” Hiram bin Eliezer inquired after a tense silence. “What to do to prevent these things from happening?…

    Otto Beess was silent for a long time. Then he said:

    “Any moment now there will be intoroduced a special one-time mandatory for all tithe. For the anti-Hussite crusade. Each Jew will have to contribute one guilder. In addition, the Brzeg kahal, in addition to the assigned amount, will add voluntarily… three hundred guilders.”

    The rabbi shook his beard in agreement. He was not even trying to bargain.

    “This money,” said the canon without visible pressure, “will serve the Common Good. And the Common, I would say, Cause. Czech heretics threaten us all. Of course, most of all us good Catholics, but you Israelites also have no reason to love Hussites. Quite the opposite, I would say. It is enough to recall the March of the twenty-second year, the bloody pogrom in the Old Prague Castle. The ensuing massacre of Jews in Chomutov, Kutna Gora and Piska. So you, Hiram, will have the opportunity with your financial help to join in the cause of revenge.”

    “Retribution is in my hands,” Hiram bin Eliezer replied after a moment of silence. “That’s what God Adonai says. God does not repay evil for evil to anyone. And our Lord, according to the prophet Isaiah, is generous with forgiveness. Also, ”the rabbi added quietly, seeing that the canon was silent, with the hand raised his forehead,“ the Hussites exterminate the Jews for only six years. What is six years compared to eternity, I ask you?”

    Otto Beess raised his head. His eyes were cold as steel.

    “You will end badly, friend Hiram,” he croaked. “I fear for you. Go in peace.”

    Narrenturm (Ch. 7) by Andrzej Sapkowski.

    ***

    P.S. “Roma locuta, causa finita”. In our case – Washington’s ObCom.

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