In a new article for RT today (that you can read here), I discuss how reform in Russia has generally come from above, often with the help of what one might call ‘enlightened bureaucrats’. Western politicians who imagine that dissident oppositionists will liberalize Russia are probably deluding themselves. If change comes, it will most likely come from within the system.
Anti-liberals among you will no doubt notice that my analysis contains a definite liberal bias in that it accepts the inevitability and necessity of liberalization. I stand by that. It would be absurd to say that liberalism is the ‘End of History’ – mankind will probably around for thousands more years, and there is no telling what social, economic and political systems and values will be appropriate in the year 3021, let alone 1,000,021. That said, within the context of our own times, liberalism offers many advantages – freer societies tend to be more vibrant, more economically successful, and more politically stable. This means that there are strong incentives for state leaders to liberalize. They needn’t be liberals, but if they want their states to be powerful, liberalization makes sense.
That said, certain economic and cultural preconditions are necessary for liberalism to take root and not to collapse in disaster. The fact that liberalism is in some abstract, generalized sense, desirable, doesn’t mean that one ought to demand it immediately in the particular circumstances of a given society. Don’t force it, in other words. Let societies discover its advantages for themselves.
Given this, it seems to me that if we wish others to liberalize, our focus ought to be on creating the preconditions I mentioned above and on making it easier for societies – and in particular their rulers, the ones who will enact change from above – to realize the benefits that come from liberalization. That means doing pretty much the opposite to what Western states have done in recent years. Rather than seeking to impoverish what we like to call ‘authoritarian’ states via sanctions, we should be doing what we can to help them prosper.
At this point, some might object that this strategy doesn’t work, pointing for instance to China. But that is a mistake. China does indeed retain an authoritarian political system, but it is undeniably a much more liberal place than it was 40 years ago, before it opened up to the world. Moreover, that liberalization has brought huge benefits to the Chinese. Compare China with North Korea – the one we have helped prosper, and the other we have helped impoverish. Which do you think is closer to having the necessary economic, social, and cultural preconditions for a liberal society? The answer, I think, is obvious.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It strikes me as rather paradoxical that many so-called ‘liberals’ believe in the universality of their ideas, but at the same time think that they need to be forced on others. Surely, if these ideas are bound to succeed, all you need to do is wait for natural processes to do their thing.
In this respect, I am an unashamed liberal optimist unlike so many contemporary ‘liberals’, who have abandoned their faith in progress and like to regale us with predictions of doom and impending ‘tyranny’. I tend to the view that things will work out in the end, if we just butt out and let them run their natural course. Maybe I’m wrong. Only time will tell. It will be interesting to hear if you agree or disagree with me.