The world is no longer divided by communism vs. capitalism. But it’s still divided by ideologies that have their clearest expression in the policies of Russia and the United States. That division contrasts liberal and realist views of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s realist stance has won ground. No country will help Ukraine get Crimea back, which Russia annexed in March. There’s no invitation pending for Ukraine to join the European Union – the more so since the new president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, has ruled out any applications for membership for at least five years. And NATO will not rush to admit a nation that it would be pledged to defend from armed incursion.
Yet Putin’s future problems are likely to be more of a headache than Ukraine’s gradual drift toward the West. The downside of the realist position is that it pays little or no mind to the autonomy of citizens.
John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that liberals now dominate foreign policy in the West. They believe that “the end of the Cold War had fundamentally transformed international politics and that a new, post-national order had replaced the realist logic that used to govern Europe.” In this vision, “geopolitics no longer mattered and … an all-inclusive liberal order could maintain peace.”
Mearsheimer, a realist among idealists, says Russia takes a more sensible – realist — position: All great states have large interests, he writes, and international politics is, as always, about projecting power in seeking to accommodate these interests when they conflict.
There’s no doubt that the liberal view of the world has many problems. In fact, we are witnessing one right now: the fallout from over-estimating the liberating possibilities of the Arab Spring. Western leaders were caught up in what sociologist Daniel Ritter called “the iron cage of liberalism.” President Barack Obama exemplified the point in his comments on the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal,” he proclaimed. “That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny.”
But Obama was doing more than just restating liberal freedoms. He was also ditching a long-term U.S. ally, the autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, who had long abided by a treaty with Israel and whose military the United States helped to fund and whom the demonstrations were instrumental in removing.
Now almost everywhere, the promises of liberation born in the Arab Spring have reinvigorated authoritarianism – in Egypt, where the military reasserted control, but also in the region’s real and simmering civil wars where proxies for radical Islamists and authoritarians do battle. It’s perfectly reasonable for a realist to contend that the liberals’ embrace of the upsurge of populist anger in the Middle East and its call for Western freedoms was the result of a naïve misreading of the real forces at play in Arab societies.
But the realists have their own iron cage — and its bars are thicker. The realists’ realist is Putin. Earlier this week, he met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine. He presented his now familiar enigmatic visage to the world even as videos of captured Russian soldiers and reports that Russia had inserted troops into at least one insurgent-controlled area, undercut his undying claim that Russia has nothing to do with the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.
It is a moment of apparent strength, but will not help him in the longer term
It is one thing to sneer at the West’s naivety in the Middle East, but it’s quite another to be blind to popular forces that, in Ukraine, increasingly look west to Europe and increasingly see in Russia a threat.
Putin viewed the demonstrations in Kiev that swept a corrupt president from power as wholly caused by Western money and plotting. For him, citizens’ uprisings are always due to “outside influences.” His underestimation of what citizens united can do will rebound on him. More and more are citizens conscious of rights that should be theirs; more and more are they linked to global flows of information, and more and more are they aware of the costs of corrupt authoritarian rule. Putin squared off against protest demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 and neutralized them by discrediting and imprisoning their leaders.
But that was then. The Russian economy isn’t growing, the hypernationalist propaganda will pale and the fact that Russian actions have “lost” Ukraine because they have alienated most of its people will hit home. Russia will confront a new reality: of citizens who want rights guaranteed by the state and truth from their media. It’s not naïve to believe this will happen: it’s realist.