Tag Archives: liberal interventionism

Bombs Away, Applebaum!

There’s no war so badly lost, it seems, that someone can’t be found to say that it was all a good idea and the problem was not that the war was fought but that it wasn’t fought hard enough. This was once perhaps the purview of conservatively-minded national security types. But since the end of the Cold War it’s been increasingly the opinion of the keyboard warriors in the democracy-promoting intelligentsia who want nothing more than the bomb the world into oblivion for the sake of liberalism and human rights.

So we should hardly be surprised that the debacle in Afghanistan has brought the liberal interventionists out of their closets to argue that America’s never ending wars aren’t the problem – the real problem is that Westerners are lilly-livered softies who are too decadent to stand up and fight against the forces of evil that surround them, and that if we don’t step up the bombing then democracy, liberalism and all the rest of it will collapse in a tsunami of assaults from the liberty-hating Russians, Chinese and Islamists, who together have formed common front designed to destroy us all.

And so it is that Anne Applebaum (who else?) has stepped up to the plate with a little piece in The Atlantic with the catchy title “Liberal Democracy is Worth a Fight.” Of course, the rotten regime that just fell in Afghanistan was hardly a “liberal democracy,” but I guess it was more liberal and more democratic than the Taliban are likely to be, so we’ll let that one slip. The point is clear: liberal democracy is in peril, and Applebaum wants to issue a call to arms: We must fight. Fight, fight, fight. If not, we’re doomed!

Continue reading Bombs Away, Applebaum!

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?

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