The intense Russiaphobia of Western liberals long predates the invasion of Ukraine, and that its real source is the reluctance of liberal elites to tolerate any alternative to their political domination, at home or abroad.
Phil Hammond is Emeritus Professor for Media & Communications at at London South Bank University
This article is cross-posted from The Northern Star
The West is in the grip of Russophobia. A cultural boycott has led to everything from Hollywood films to rock music, TV shows to videogames being withdrawn from the Russian market. Russian artists in the West — such as pianist Alexander Malofeev, soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev — have been fired or cancelled for failing to denounce Vladimir Putin. Predictably, Russia Today television has been banned, but now even the letter ‘Z’ is suspect.
It is tempting to see all this as the latest expression of the contemporary Western practices of cancel culture and virtue signalling. Online, certainly, there was an immediate transition from previous preoccupations such as gender identity and racism to the war in Ukraine, as social media icons demonstrating allegiance to BLM or transgenderism were replaced with blue and yellow flags. Declaring your allegiances in someone else’s war has quickly become as important as announcing your pronouns. Yet Western antipathy toward Russia runs much deeper and involves more important political currents than narcissistic online ‘activism’.
According to Francis Fukuyama, we are now at ‘the end of “the end of history”’ and History with a capital H has started again. It has apparently restarted in the style of the Cold War, requiring a muscular liberalism to defend the West’s freedoms against authoritarian adversaries. Anne Applebaum, for example, urges Western leaders to ‘fight ferociously for the values and the hopes of liberalism’ against ‘the forces of autocracy’, not simply in the sense of a battle of ideas, but with ‘armies, strategies, weapons, and long-term plans’.
And as in the Cold War, paranoia rules. For Fukuyama, ‘Putin is at the centre of a global anti-liberal campaign waged by authoritarian great powers like Russia and China, but also by a number of populists that have arisen in democratic countries, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary or our Donald Trump’. Similarly, according to Applebaum ‘as long as Russia is ruled by Putin, then Russia is at war with us too. So are Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary, and potentially many others.’ It is striking that Hungary appears on these lists of enemies of the West despite being a member of the EU and NATO.
Even more revealing is Fukuyama’s inclusion of Trump as part of a ‘global anti-liberal campaign’. It should remind us that the anti-Russian obsession had already reached fever pitch well before Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. In an extraordinary display of collective hysteria, the Anglo-American political and media class spent four years after 2016 blaming Russia for the upset of Brexit and the election of Trump. Rather than asking themselves why they failed to persuade their own voters, Western liberal elites depicted their citizens as malleable idiots and their democratic systems as controlled by hostile foreign forces.
Cold War 2.0 liberalism is not just paranoid but self-flattering to the point of hallucination. Fukuyama claims that ‘After the fall of the former Soviet Union, we had this extended period of peace and prosperity’, presumably unaware that the West repeatedly bombed and invaded the Middle East and that NATO engaged in active military aggression only after the end of the Cold War. The ‘biggest advantage of a liberal state’, he maintains, is that ‘it doesn’t kill people; it doesn’t invade neighbours’. Who is going to tell him?
It is difficult to take such rhetoric seriously because just two years ago mainstream Western journalists were wondering if the USA was now a ‘failed state‘. Diagnosing a ‘deep and existential rot’ at home, commentators found the idea of American global leadership ‘patently absurd‘. Such judgements were largely prompted by America’s simultaneously disorganised and authoritarian response to the pandemic, but that merely exposed prior trends. As Richard Haas argued in Foreign Affairs, ‘Long before COVID-19 … there had already been a precipitous decline in the appeal of the American model’. In 2019, even US allies were openly discussing ‘the end of Western hegemony over the world’, a prospect vividly confirmed by the ignominious and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
But the West has acquired the habit of projecting its own internal fears and insecurities onto an external adversary, as if the source of its problems lay outside itself, and could be resolved by engaging in (proxy) wars. This is not a new approach — indeed, it was the norm throughout the ‘peaceful’ end-of-history period. Western leaders have spent more than three decades discovering ‘new Hitlers’ allegedly committing war crimes and genocides, usually with the result that those regimes have had to be changed by force in the name of the fictional ‘rules-based international order’.
For the West, Russia has played an increasingly important role in this drama since Putin’s 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference. That was the moment when Putin openly rejected the ‘unipolar world that had been proposed after the Cold War’ and refused the enforcement of ‘one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making’. Acting on that refusal has meant thwarting Western policy in Syria and fighting back against NATO expansion on Russia’s borders.
But more significant than any specific Russian action is the underlying refusal to accept the logic of ‘There is no alternative’ — the core of the unipolar model. Attempts to tar any such refusal as ‘authoritarian’ confuse form and content. In form, the refusal of unipolarity is indeed often authoritarian (China, Russia) or populist (Venezuela, Hungary). However, insofar as there is a similarity of content between the foreign policy stances of these states, then it lies in the refusal of unipolarity and the closing down of alternatives. That refusal is what is unacceptable.
It is this refusal that liberal elites find equally unacceptable when domestic Western protesters try to contest undemocratic policies (the gilets jaunes, Canadian truckers) or vote the ‘wrong’ way (Brexit ‘Leavers’, Trump supporters). They too are labelled as authoritarian, racist, fascist; and liberal conspiracy theorists invent bizarre fantasies about Kremlin control to smear anyone who seriously challenges the status quo.
When Fukuyama and other ideologues tell us that history has started again, what they really mean is that they would like to replay the ending. The goal is to repeat the moment of unipolar triumph, with Western liberalism reconfirmed as the only game in town. Fukuyama imagines that ‘A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom”, and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy’. It is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s view of Afghans and Iraqis, who were given the role of fighting and dying so that the West could better believe in itself. ‘The fact of their courage’, Blair said in 2006, ‘should give us courage; their determination should lend us strength; their embrace of democratic values … should reinforce our own confidence in those values’. When Fukuyama proclaims that ‘The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians’, perhaps someone should ask the Iraqis and Afghans how that worked out for them.
Unsurprisingly it seems that many countries are now wary of the spirit of 1989. The Economist Intelligence Unit acknowledges that ‘two-thirds of the world’s population lives in neutral or Russia-leaning countries regarding war in Ukraine’. Will NATO powers now try to pressure, sanction and regime-change them all into compliance?
The world needs a new democratic alternative pole. Having broken with the supranational technocracy of the anti-democratic EU, the people of Brexit Britain should be well placed to develop such an alternative. The question is whether we can step up and provide it.
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