How history has returned to haunt the present-day

Current events in Europe and beyond are so reminiscent of the Cold War that one could be excused for thinking that it never actually ended, writes Harsh V Pant

Current events in Europe and beyond are so reminiscent of the Cold War that one could be excused for thinking that it never actually ended.

The Russian bear is growling again as imperialist sentiment grows in the corridors of the Kremlin. The Chinese regime is accumulating power at an unprecedented rate. But it is not simply great power politics that is back in vogue.

Regimes in smaller states such as Syria, Zimbabwe and North Korea have also been emboldened, and have begun to pursue their own brand of “values-based” foreign policy. Russia and China have used their positions in the United Nations Security Council to block almost all proposed forms of intervention and the West, after the debacle of Iraq, is more reticent than ever.

This divided world stands in stark contrast to the situation after the victory of the West in the Cold War. Neoconservative commentators in the US were ecstatic about a victory they took to be the ultimate triumph of western values, especially of liberal democracy and capitalism.

And in a fit of optimism after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared not only an end to ideological struggle, but the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

His enthusiasm was infectious. Liberals soon began to argue that the spread of liberal political and economic values was important for global security. Consequently, a coalition of liberals and neoconservatives pushed a global interventionist agenda throughout the 1990s.

This culminated in the Iraq adventure, which was meant to be the first step towards the transformation of an entire region, an answer to the Islamist radicalism being spawned in authoritarian regimes through western Asia. The Iraq War confounded most ideological categories and shattered a lot of myths about the use of force, as liberals found it hard to oppose a war that would remove a genocidal regime from power.

The idea that the democratisation of the Middle East would be the best antidote to Islamist extremism seemed like an idea whose time had come. Yet today, the authoritarian regimes of the region are all stronger than before. Iran has emerged as the strongest power in the region, twiddling its thumbs at the impotence of the West in carrying out its threats over its nuclear programme and charting a foreign policy course that is more ambitious and radical than ever before. The liberal ideology of intervention has proved its limits, and is now confronted with a rapidly evolving reality.

In the tradition of authoritarian regimes, the Chinese constructed a powerful pageant at the 2008 Olympics to boost officially sanctioned mass nationalism.

It was suggested in the West that the hosting of the Olympics would ease China’s inevitable transition to a more open society. It is now clear that China’s games instead hailed the success of an ideology in constructing a powerful state, restoring the nation’s sense of pride and greatness in passing.

Meanwhile, Russia has used the modern lexicon of humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping to disguise its aspirations to reassert its control in what it considers its own backyard, the Caucasus. The old battle lines between Russia and the West are being redrawn, with the faintest of hopes that Russia would ally with the West dwindling rapidly.

Russia has clearly stated its intention to reclaim its position as the primary geopolitical concern of the West. The Russian-Ukraine conflict is taking place in a broader strategic milieu in which Russia has re-emerged as a major player in global politics. It is flush with soaring oil revenues and confident of its power due to its hold over European energy supplies. There is huge support for this among the Russian people who remain nostalgic for their former great power status.

With parts of the Middle East in turmoil, the West seems to be losing its ability to dictate terms to an emerging global order. Europe, in particular, is witnessing a steady loss of self-confidence, turning inward and growing pessimistic about the future.

Ideological competition is in full swing as a former Russian foreign minister argued that “for the first time in many years, a real competitive environment has emerged in the market of ideas between different value systems and development models”.

According to him, the West is losing its monopoly on the globalisation process. Vladimir ­Putin got away with the seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and now he seems poised to retain Crimea. The US president has little credibility left after his red lines on Syria were conveniently ignored by the US Congress. Countries like Estonia and Latvia, with significant Russian-speaking populations, are worried as Mr Putin seems to have given rise to a new doctrine of protecting ethnic Russians wherever they might be.

Raymond Aron, the great political philosopher of the last century, was right: “What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error.”

Liberal sentimentalism about internationalism and human nature led to post-Cold War complacency about its values. This complacency has come back to haunt it, a tad sooner than expected: history is back with a vengeance.

Harsh V Pant teaches at King’s College London

Published: May 13, 2014 04:00 AM


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