Politics & Policy

Bismarck’s Shadow

Freedom in retreat.

The release on Tuesday of Freedom House’s Countries at the Crossroads 2007, confirmed the truth of President Bush’s message to the United Nations: Freedom is in retreat in many places around the world. The President, in his address, cited a number of oppressive governments, but the most significant pushback against liberty, Freedom House concludes, has taken place in two countries the president did not mention: Russia and China. The coercive regimes of these two countries “are being viewed carefully by leaders in a host of developing countries” as potential models for emulation.

Russia, Freedom House concludes, can “no longer be considered a democracy at all according to most metrics.” Vladimir Putin has whipped up chauvinist passions with a militant nationalism that stirs in Russian hearts, memories of the days when Russia aspired to be the “Third Rome,” heiress to the imperial traditions of Rome and Constantinople. Putin and his principal mystagogue, Vladislav Surkov, are masters of xenophobic rhetoric, exciting the messianic paranoia of Russians by pointing, as Surkov has, to

decision-makers in America, Europe, and Asia . . . .who continue to live with the phobias of the Cold War, who look at our country as a potential enemy . . . Their goal is the destruction of Russia and the filling of her vast expanse with dysfunctional quasi-state formations.

Putin’s recent conquest of the North Pole, and proclamation of “Conception Day” (Mother Russia needs babies) might have been publicity stunts, but in other ways the Russian President’s actions have matched his rhetoric. He has baited the West over questions like freedom for Kosovo, and missile defense. The Russian military has resumed flights by nuclear strategic bombers over the Atlantic and Pacific, conducted cruise missile exercises over the Arctic, and tested a monster “vacuum bomb” with the shockwave of a nuclear explosion.

The revival of national chauvinism has given Putin enough political capital to consolidate his paternal grip on Russia with a program of pushback he calls “sovereign democracy” — philosophical cover for policies that have intimidated the media and the judiciary, weakened the legislature, and strengthened the Kremlin’s control over the provinces. Government manuals for use in schools inculcate meekness and submission to the father-figure in the Kremlin: “obey the law, pay your taxes, and don’t try to put yourself above the state.” They also portray Josef Stalin, the ultimate Russian paternalist, as “the most successful Soviet leader ever.”

China, according to Freedom House, is today an “arbitrary, polluted, and oppressive” country. At the same time, Beijing’s hold on the people has become more tenuous. The Communist overlords are therefore developing a new formula to justify their power. Like Russia, China is flirting with militant nationalism, launching a military build-up, demonizing neighbors like Taiwan and Japan, sponsoring TV shows glorifying the imperial conquistadors of China’s past, and promoting “Patriotism Education” that celebrates the racial superiority of ethnic Chinese. At the same time, the Communist leadership, eager to retain its paternal hold, is replacing the fading inspirations of Marx and Mao with a neo-Confucian philosophy stressing obedience to authority. Paramount Leader Hu Jintao, who made his name wielding a truncheon in Tibet, now, speaks in neo-Confucian accents of a “Harmonious China.”

The pushback against freedom follows an old model. The strategy of using militant nationalism and authoritarian paternalism to crush emerging free institutions was first perfected by Otto von Bismarck, who came to power as Prime Minister of Prussia 145 years ago this week, determined to use nationalist fervor and paternalist social policy to crush Prussia’s budding free-state institutions.

When Bismarck came to power, free institutions seemed poised to carry all before them. On the same day the Prussian statesman became Prime Minister, Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation; the previous winter, Tsar Alexander II proclaimed the emancipation of the Russian serfs. Stirring deep-rooted nationalist passions, Bismarck urged Prussians to unite Germany, not under the aegis of constitutional government, but with “Eisen und Blut (iron and blood).” Militant nationalism enabled him not only to unify Germany, but also to crush Prussia’s nascent free-state movement and prevent its leaders from establishing civilian control of the army. Bismarck consolidated his power by implementing paternal Wohlfahrtsstaat (welfare state) policies designed to make the masses subservient to the state.

So how does one fight pushback? With the falling of a shadow across the Bush Administration’s Freevangelical foreign policy, many have proposed a resurrection of the soberer tradition of realism in international relations, the cool appraisal of what is really in America’s interests — not the interests of Europe or Asia or the Middle East — which Theodore Roosevelt, Hans Morgenthau, and George Kennan advocated. There have been calls for a “new realism” (Bill Richardson), an “American realism” (Condoleezza Rice), a “progressive realism” (Robert Wright), a “higher realism” (Seyom Brown), and an “ethical realism” (Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman).

The most profound student of foreign-policy realism in our time, Henry Kissinger, traced the origins of the realist tradition in his 1994 book Diplomacy, an intellectual tour de force in which Bismarck, Cardinal Richelieu, and Richard Nixon emerge as supreme practitioners of an unsentimental Realpolitik.

But the realism Kissinger and Nixon practiced in the 1970s was grounded in a misconception. Bismarck himself saw that the pure cold analysis of national interests, which characterized Richelieu’s policy, ceased to be practicable in an age of mass communications (one in which public opinion was a force as powerful as standing armies). Great masses of people, Bismarck believed, could never be swayed by anything as gray and prosaic as realism.

Bismarck was on to something. While the leaders of a great power should, he believed, soberly pursue their nation’s real interests in the world, they must never seem to be engaged in so rational and prosaic a pursuit. The cool realism of their policies must always seem to be fired by the deepest furnaces of national passion. For once a rival power concludes that it has to do, not with the fervor of a roused nation, but with mere diplomats, it will pounce. Bismarck succeeded as a realist precisely because he did not appear to be one; rival powers were never quite sure whether they were dealing with an analytical chess player or a mad dog. The bit of foam at the mouth was a wonderful deterrent.

The 1970s bear Bismarck out. The pragmatic realism that underlies the Kissinger-Nixon policy of détente, unnourished by America’s faith in the transforming power of freedom, led many to conclude that America was weak, tame — decadent. Both the Soviet Union and radical Islam were quick to exploit this perceived failure of will: the belief that the U.S. had abandoned its visionary conception of itself as a “city on a hill” was one cause of the wave of anti-Americanism that swept the globe in the late ’70s. The decade that began with détente ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran.

Today, with Bismarck’s children hard at work around the world, the U.S. seems poised to repeat the mistakes of the ’70s by falling into a spiritless Realpolitik that will only encourage more pushback. Those who today repudiate the Freevangelical message the president delivered at the U.N. may in time come to rue their short-sightedness.

–Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor at City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, will be published in October by Free Press.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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