By John Gray, adapted from an article in the October 2014 issue of Prospect. Gray is the author of many books, including False Dawn, Straw Dogs, and The Silence of Animals.
In October 1997, at a joint press conference in Washington, Bill Clinton told Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president, that Zemin was “on the wrong side of history.” In March 2014, Barack Obama displayed the same confidence regarding the future course of humankind: by absorbing Crimea into Russia, Obama declared, Russian president Vladimir Putin was putting himself “on the wrong side of history.”
It would appear that few world leaders have any knowledge or interest in the world as it was before they entered politics. Their concern is with the present, the recent past, and the near future as they imagine it. When Clinton and Obama declared that the regimes in China and Russia had no future, they were invoking the events of the past quarter-century — especially the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989. They saw the collapse of Communism as a victory for values — freedom, democracy, human rights — that have universal appeal and relentless momentum. When they made such assertions, these leaders did not believe they were invoking a disputable theory or philosophy. They were articulating what has become the common sense of the age — a set of intellectual reflexes and assumptions that they have never thought to question.
This consensus reflects, in the broadest sense, a liberal interpretation of history. All Western mainstream political parties and sections of opinion hold to a creed in which tyranny and empire are relics of the past, ethnic nationalism is fading away, and the rise of militant religion is a temporary aberration. This creed need not presume a belief in historical inevitability; the role of human decisions may be acknowledged, and the potential for backsliding recognized. But all those whose thinking is shaped by this conviction insist that, in the long run, there is no viable alternative to a world united by the same values. It is a view that has informed grandiose schemes of regime change and that shapes current policies toward Russia. The practical upshot has been a type of evangelical democracy, and the principal legacy a litter of failed states.
The meltdown of the Soviet Union had little to do with the spread of liberal values. More than any other factors, it was nationalism and religion that destroyed the U.S.S.R. and its empire. Demoralizing military failure at the hands of Western-armed jihadists in Afghanistan, loss of control to the Church and to the Solidarity movement in Poland, and national rebellions in the Baltic states — these defeats, together with the destabilizing effects of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and the challenge posed by Star Wars, Ronald Reagan’s missile-defense program, were what brought the Cold War to a close. The notion that the fall of Communism was a decisive victory for Western ideas and values — “the end of history” — is the reverse of the truth.
The Cold War was a quarrel between two Western creeds — liberalism and Communism. From beginning to end, the Soviet Union was a westernizing regime that aimed to wrench Russia from its Eurasian and Orthodox past. The collapse of Communism was a defeat for this project. If the Soviet legacy was a military-industrial rust belt, environmental devastation, and tens of millions of ruined lives, then post-Communist Russia suffered the effects of another Western ideology when neoliberal “shock therapy” was imposed in the early Nineties: a catastrophic depression, a dramatic fall in life expectancy, and the mafia capitalism of the Boris Yeltsin era. Against this background, the idea that Russia would further westernize was wishful thinking. Instead, the country has returned, politically, to its historically ambiguous position between Europe and Asia.
The rise of Putin has often been described as a return to tsarist traditions of authoritarian rule, but in some respects the state he has built is extremely modern. At its core is a reborn version of the KGB security agency, a quintessentially Soviet institution, which Putin uses to coordinate policy on multiple fronts. Russia is economically weak and will become weaker; its resource-based model, which depends on high oil prices, is not sustainable. Putin may well be acting on the suspicion that he has only a few years to avert a cataclysmic decline in Russia’s world standing. He has undertaken a type of hybrid warfare, sometimes called nonlinear, that uses disinformation and deceptive diplomacy, along with the threat of military force — most recently to annex Crimea from Ukraine and to destabilize the Kiev government.
For Putin the loss of Ukraine from the Russian orbit posed an existential threat. While the West was in the process of disarming, he spent the past six years modernizing his armed forces. His strategy has been to stabilize Russia’s mafia capitalism through a process of quasi-nationalization, and by setting limits on the ambitions of the oligarchs while still giving them the state’s protection. If the West were to capture Ukraine, this semi-baronial system could break down; the oligarchs might go looking for a leader who would better secure their interests. Putin was hardly able to ignore the challenge posed by such an incursion. Instead, he calculated that the West would not defend Ukraine and escalated the war until the danger had been neutralized, producing a frozen conflict that effectively partitioned the country and precluded any closer links with the West.
One reason the West neglected the strategic realities in Ukraine was the financial crisis, which shifted human and financial resources away from defense and security. But the chief Western deficit was cognitive. By the lights of the ruling liberal consensus, Putin’s Russia — a highly popular, hypermodern despotism — should not exist. The country remains unfathomably corrupt, gay people and religious minorities are regularly persecuted, and opponents of the regime face life-threatening repression. At the same time, by securing a semblance of order and asserting his power in dealings with the West, Putin enjoys greater legitimacy than any other Russian ruler since the Revolution, claiming levels of voter support that no Western leader comes close to matching.
Talk of a new Cold War illustrates the unreality of Western thinking. If Putin were to launch a campaign of nonlinear warfare in the Baltic states, like the one he sponsored in Ukraine, there would be little the West could do. NATO divisions could not block the seizure of post offices and town halls by citizen groups formed from Russian minorities mobilized by their home country, nor could it deal with the covert forces that would animate the protests. NATO’s capabilities have been diminished by successive defense cuts. But this is nothing like the Cold War. Putin is not promoting a universal ideology or model of society. He is doing something that, in the terms of the liberal consensus, is unthinkable: reasserting the claims of geopolitics, ethnicity, and empire. The West has yet to acknowledge the possibility that it is going to have to live with an authoritarian Russia indefinitely.
That democracy can be a vehicle for tyranny was well understood by earlier generations of liberal thinkers. From Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill through to Isaiah Berlin, it was recognized that democracy does not necessarily protect individual freedoms. The greatest danger for these liberals was not that the historical movement toward democracy would be reversed, but rather the potential ascendancy of an illiberal type of democracy — a development they saw prefigured in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the general will. Legal and constitutional protections have little force when majorities are indifferent or hostile to liberal values. Because democratic regimes can claim a source of legitimacy that other forms of government lack, liberty might be more threatened in the future than in the past. Most human beings, most of the time, care about other things more than they care about being free. Many will vote readily for an illiberal government if it promises security against violence or hardship, protects a way of life to which they are attached, and denies freedom to people they hate.
Today these ideas belong in the category of forbidden thoughts. When democracy proves to be oppressive, liberals insist it is because democracy is not working properly — if there were genuine popular participation, majorities would not oppress minorities. Arguing with this view is pointless, since it rests on an article of faith: the conviction that freedom is the natural human condition, which tyranny suppresses. But the mere absence of tyranny may allow no more than anarchy; freedom requires a functioning state, with a competent bureaucracy and a legal system that is not excessively corrupt, together with a political culture that allows these institutions to work independently of lawmakers.
In the absence of these conditions, human rights — which are, fundamentally, legal fictions that are created and enforced by well-organized states — are meaningless. Such conditions do not exist in most of the world today and will not exist in many countries for the foreseeable future, if ever. Where they do exist, they are easily compromised. Far from being the natural condition of humankind, freedom is inherently fragile and will always be exceptional.
Liberals in all countries find this prospect intolerable, and respond with a liturgy that is repeated incessantly in think tanks and universities throughout the West: A growing global middle class will secure the future of freedom. The assumption is that by some occult process economic modernization will promote liberal values, but this expectation has little basis in the historical record. The middle classes have put up scant resistance to the rise of dictatorships; often, as in Europe between the world wars, they have been among the most enthusiastic and committed supporters of authoritarian regimes. In Russia, they support Putin and, in growing numbers, they support such movements as the National Front in France. Like Marx’s theory of history, the idea that the middle class will be the savior of liberal values is a secular teleology — the rationalist residue of a religious faith in Providence.
This liberal worldview regularly suffers unpleasant surprises. When Western supporters of the Arab Spring compared it with the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, they forgot that by 1850 the Spring of Nations had been succeeded by a winter of reaction. Democracy only came to Eastern Europe a century and a half later, following periods of dictatorial rule, two world wars, and a geopolitical convulsion in the former Soviet Union. And it is far from self-evident that the Middle East will repeat the European experience, even in the long run. Those who were convinced that liberal democracy could take root throughout the Middle East neglected the fact that the secular regimes in the region have all been dictatorships. When the dictators have been overthrown, they have been replaced by Islamist versions of illiberal democracy or failed states.
This may in part be a result of colonialism. Most of the states in the region are creations of imperial power; many lack unifying national cultures. The nation-state itself is an artificial imposition, and so far only the Kurds have demonstrated the internal coherence needed to form a European-style state. Western policy has been aimed at maintaining state functions in Syria and Iraq, but everything suggests that they are well on the way to becoming territories ruled by shifting configurations of clans and religious allegiances. The countries that were cobbled together during the First World War by European diplomats such as François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes belong to a postcolonial settlement that is rapidly disappearing from memory. When the Islamic State posted a video celebrating the erasure of the Sykes–Picot line between Syria and Iraq, it showed that it understands something the West has yet to grasp.
Ironically, it is the West — by creating a failed state in Iraq and backing jihadist rebels against Assad in Syria — that has made the rapid rise of the Islamic State possible. But the West has little understanding of the monster it helped to create. Almost invariably, the Islamic State is seen as something medieval and is compared to the Assassins, the radical Islamic group of that time. Certainly the Islamic State has been shaped by the eighteenth-century Wahhabi movement of Sunni fundamentalism, which later played a formative role in the development of the Saudi kingdom. But like Russia under Putin’s rule, the Islamic State is also extremely modern. When it posted a video of the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist, with a voice-over in a British accent, the Islamic State showed that its reach extends far beyond its immediate battleground. More like the Jacobins in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia than the Assassins, the Islamic State practices methodical terror as part of its project to create a new kind of state. Like the regimes these modern revolutionaries established, the Islamic State is founded on belief, not nationality. Its ambitions, in this way, can be considered global.
The ruling consensus may find the Islamic State hard to understand because of the jihadists’ persistent use of violence in the service of faith. The core of a liberal interpretation of history is the notion that, given the opportunity to modernize, most human beings will opt for peace, freedom, and prosperity. But there is no hidden mechanism linking modernization with the embrace of liberal values. The world has been reshaped again and again by modern movements that have instead chosen death and destruction. Over the course of the twentieth century, many of these movements were driven by secular ideologies, such as Nazism and Communism. Today, the process continues with the religiously motivated Islamic State.
China’s emergence as a great power poses even more of a challenge to the prevailing Western consensus than Russia’s does. Within a generation, China has achieved the largest continuous economic expansion in history — an achievement that enabled it to launch a colossal credit expansion in the wake of the financial crisis. There is some truth to the cliché that it was the Communist Party of China that saved Western capitalism. Exponents of the liberal worldview predict that the Chinese model of development is nearing the end of the road: There needs to be a shift, they say, to domestic consumption and an accompanying expansion of political freedom, if mass unrest is to be averted. Even a year or two of subpar growth would greatly destabilize the regime.
But the consensus prediction remains misleading. While some of China’s elites may be investing in Western property as an insurance against political upheaval, there is no sign that the country’s rulers are surrendering their dynastic claims. At present, local protests are often followed by compromise, but repression is more likely than capitulation in the event of more widespread and threatening unrest. Whatever happens, China is not going the way of the former Soviet Union. Nor is it going to evolve in the direction of a Western-style market economy. China’s state capitalism serves the long-term goals of restoring the country and its civilization to what it believes to be its rightful place in the world. Even if some kind of regime change were to occur, thereis no reason to think that China’s new rulers would aim for anything different.
Our world, like that of the late nineteenth century, is one in which great and medium-size powers jostle for power and resources. This is no postmodern order of the sort that some fancied was being built in Europe after World War II. It more closely resembles the world envisaged by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end, a world in which sovereign states pursue their own interests and, in some cases, imperial visions. Among its rivals — China, India, Germany, and Japan — the United States no longer figures as a superpower. With the worst public infrastructure in the advanced world, a disappearing middle class, a higher proportion of the population incarcerated than in any other country, and a government gridlocked by corporate power, America and its political system are seen as a model by no one outside the United States.
Yet in some ways America remains the best positioned of the great powers. Unlike China, its political system does not require rapid economic growth in order to retain popular legitimacy. The nationalistic mythology of American exceptionalism is a powerful cohesive force. In the Obama Administration, as at times in the past, this distinctive brand of nationalism has encouraged a quasi-isolationist stance. Exhausted by years of ruinous war, voters are reluctant to risk further costly entanglements. American resistance to military adventure has been strengthened by developments in the energy market. Expert opinion is divided as to the long-term viability of the shale revolution, but if the United States were again to become a major oil exporter, the impact could be profound. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, which need high oil prices in order to sustain their political systems, would face crisis. There is little reason, however, for thinking that these states would evolve in the direction of democracy. Mass impoverishment would likely produce more virulent types of authoritarianism or, in the Saudi case, a breakup of the state that would leave contending varieties of radical Islamism as the main beneficiaries.
History is a succession of cycles and contingencies, and has no overall direction. But if any trend can be discerned at the present time, it is hardly favorable to the West. (From time to time counter-trends may seem to emerge, as in Ukraine and Tunisia, where pro-Western parties did better in recent elections than many expected. But Ukraine is a bankrupt state that the West is too enfeebled to refinance, and Tunisia remains deeply divided.) Overall, power and authority continue to leak away from the West. In some ways this is the normal course of history: the preeminence of the past few hundred years was never going to be permanent. But Western decline has also been accelerated by repeated attempts to export its institutions. As the American historian Barbara Tuchman argued in The March of Folly, her great book from 1984, many of history’s catastrophes have been the result of hubristic policies that should have been known in advance to be unworkable or self-defeating. Much that the West has done over the past quarter-century can be described in this way.
In any conceivable future, there will be many different kinds of regimes. Tyranny and anarchy will be as common as liberal and illiberal democracies. Ethnic nationalism will be a persistent force, while clan loyalties and hatreds become more politically important, in some countries, than nationality. Geopolitical struggles will intensify, war will continue mutating into novel and hybrid forms, and empire will renew itself in new guises. Religion will be a deciding force in the formation and destruction of states. There will be many cultures and ways of life, continuously changing and interacting without melting into anything like a universal civilization. If values such as freedom and tolerance are to persist, this is the world in which they must somehow survive. Coping with that world requires realistic thinking of a kind that the liberal mind, as it exists today, is incapable of. But this liberalism gives its believers something that realist thinking cannot supply — a story, or myth, that presents the possibility of shaping the future of humankind. As the West faces an increasingly disordered world, the greatest danger comes from the groundless faith that history is on its side.