The attack on “the liberal idea” by Vladimir Putin in his long interview in the Financial Times at the end of June is still vibrating in my mind.
First, I’d like to know if the Russian people share his views on immigration. In Britain and the US, despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions of Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump, most people, according to polls, are more pro-immigration than they are against.
Is this so in Russia? What do the electorate make of his support for Trump in trying to limit migration from Mexico? Do they agree with his statement that, “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done, that migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be directed”. This is pure Trump. They share the same outrageous prejudices.
Putin leads off from the example of immigration to conclude that “the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population”. Also, as examples of the weak character of liberalism, he criticizes those who are trying to undermine the Catholic Church and those LGBT supporters who are allowed “to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people”. To be fair, Putin takes care on the positive side to remind his audience that “the liberal idea cannot be destroyed. It has the right to exist and it should be even supported in some things. But you should not think that it has the right to be the absolutely dominating factor.”
Chicago University’s influential professor, John Mearsheimer, published an article in International Security on the liberal international order in the same week that Putin spoke. “The order is in deep trouble. The tectonic plates that underpin it are shifting, and little can be done to repair and rescue it. Indeed that order was destined to fail from the start, as it contained the seeds of its own destruction”.
He says, given the agenda that the liberal international order had, “it was bound to collapse because the key policies on which it rested are deeply flawed. In particular the attempt to spread liberal democracy around the world is not only extremely difficult, but often poisons relations with other countries and sometimes leads to disastrous wars”. Nationalism and balance of power concerns in the target state serve often to block the spread of democracy.
Like Putin, Mearsheimer singles out immigration as having had a toxic effect on the liberal democratic countries. Sovereignty and national identity are centre stage. In Britain, Brexit evolved out of immigration concerns. In the US, Trump intends to win a second term partly on the back of the immigration issue. “Nationalism is the most powerful political ideology on the planet. It invariably trumps liberalism wherever the two clash, thus undermining the liberal order at is core.”
There’s also the issue of “hyperglobalization”. This has resulted in job losses, declining wages and rising inequality. In Scandinavia the tide has been resisted by training workers in new skills and innovative tax policies but elsewhere not enough has been done. Also the international financial system has become less stable, leading to recurring financial crises.
At the onset of the 1990s after the Cold War ended it looked as if the US was well suited to construct a liberal international order. China was in the early stages of its rise and Russia was in a state of complete disarray.
Successive US and EU governments thought the best way to deal with possible political instability in Eastern Europe was to expand Nato eastwards. Despite that, relations with Russia and China were good. The administration of George W. Bush thought that it could turn all the countries of the Middle East into liberal democracies.
But by 2005 we could see serious cracks in the edifice. The second war in Iraq led to the strengthening of ISIS into a formidable force. The war in Afghanistan stalemated. The US and its allies pursued regime change in Libya and Syria which ended up precipitating civil wars. In 2007-2008 there was the global financial crisis. Israel has hardened its negotiating terms and now it seems there’s no hope for the Palestinians to have their own state. In Europe xenophobic right wing parties have grown in strength, although in the recent European parliamentary elections the Greens out paced them. Clumsy attempts to spread democracy and further Nato expansion provoked the war in Ukraine. Then came Trump with his agenda of “America First”. He’s tirelessly worked to undermine American democracy and liberal institutions. Not least, Russia and China are both steaming ahead, despite the sanctions on Russia.
Is the liberal order truly over? Are Putin and Mearsheimer right? Perhaps it’s too early to say. If the liberal order is to be preserved it has to be profoundly reformed.