Putin’s Empire Strikes Back

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on the transport system development via a video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, May 7, 2020. (Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters)
Last week, the Russian people chose to reject the modern world order. Their decision is a symptom of a wider paradigm shift.

In 1648, at the negotiating tables of Münster and Osnabrück, a panoply of European diplomats signed a document that would lay down the foundations of the modern world order: the Treaty of Westphalia. Naturally, the signatories did not realize the impact of their contribution to history. Far from a pack of enlightened philosophers in search of perpetual peace, Westphalia’s architects simply found themselves faced with an uncomfortable reality; after 30 years of uninterrupted war and centuries of religious conflicts, it was time to stop the carnage.

Western powers based the Westphalian system of sovereign states on one central proposition: If diplomacy is to accommodate a myriad of religious beliefs, value systems, and cultures, its core must be procedural, not substantive. Rather than engaging in what Samuel P. Huntington would later call a “clash of civilizations,” competing states would not concern themselves with one another’s spiritual doctrines, symbolic rituals, and local particularisms. Instead, people with deeply antagonistic worldviews would set their differences aside to agree on a set of mutually beneficial partnerships. To establish these neutral working relationships, the fundamental entity of international relations would also have to change. Gone were ancient city-states and civilizations. And enter the Westphalian nation-state, a secular political unit fond of rational deterrents and translational dialogue.

The Enlightenment later supplied Westphalia’s philosophical foundations. After centuries of religious fervor and traditions, Man re-became what Aristotle called a rational animal. In his masterful essay “What Is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant invited his contemporaries to liberate themselves from the “lazy” and “immature” grip of “superstition.” For Kant, Man erected an army of traditions to avoid the need to think about the world and its complexities. At last, the Age of Reason had come, he said, and reason alone would suffice.

From this point onward, progress would take over history. Kant envisioned the fall of tyrants, the rise of republics, the disappearance of national boundaries, the end of customs, and the emergence of cosmopolitan peace. One after the other, peoples would succumb to the magnetic attraction of liberalism and its pacifist promises. To hold the hand of this great enterprise, the international state system would need to push religious and cultural preoccupations to the margins of politics. Fortunately, Westphalia had already begun to turn man into an impressive homo economicus endowed with supposedly infallible rationality.

Last Wednesday, by voting in favor of groundbreaking constitutional changes, the Russian people slapped this Westphalian order in the face. Closely monitored by the Kremlin, the referendum proposed, among other things, to allow Vladimir Putin to remain president until 2036 (if reelected), to ban same-sex marriages, to include the notion of “belief in God” in the Russian constitution, and to emphasize the primacy of Russian law over international norms. In short, the Russian people were offered a choice between embracing modernity or rejecting its foundations, and they chose the latter. A negative vote would have paved the way to the rise of a Russian nation-state, in the Westphalian sense of the term. Putin’s czarist aspirations could have been frustrated. The last bastion of Western anti-liberalism could have fallen — but it did not.

Instead, the Russians reaffirmed their status as a civilization-state, a notion long forgotten by Westphalian enthusiasts. Where classical liberals see the nation-state as a guardian of human rights and fundamental liberties, a Rechtsstaat (a rule-of-law state), partisans of the civilization-state view politics first and foremost as an instrument of power, a Machtstaat (a mighty-power state). And this power ought to be used to protect a specific cultural tradition.

Naturally, the recent reemergence of civilization-states extends far beyond Russia’s borders. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, a bill fast-tracking citizenship for immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan — but not if they are Muslim. The Act symbolizes a certain conception of national identity; while no one needs to become Hindu to be a “true” Indian, a deep appreciation of (if not reverence for) the Hindu way is required. For Modi, and for Putin, citizenship and culture are one and the same; the state wields power primarily to enforce and preserve traditional norms.

But the most interesting and worrying commonality between Modi and Putin lies in the strength of their popular support. In India’s 2019 election, Modi’s party captured more than 300 additional seats in the lower house of Parliament. As for Putin, while we should by no means minimize the influence of the Kremlin on election results, Russia’s Central Election Commission declared that 78 percent of votes across the country had supported the constitutional changes. We should neither blame these results on the convincing rhetoric of strongmen nor condescend to the Russian and Indian people by portraying them as naïve fools. In both cases, the civilization-state ultimately vanquished the nation-state with overwhelming popular support.

While the rise of anti-modern powers need not lead to the fall of the Westphalian system, it should. Granted, the current world order is, in many ways, more liberal than any previous order in history. Free and democratic states continue to possess tremendous influence, market-based systems of private property have gathered almost universal support, and a large array of international institutions advocate liberal values around the world. Yet we need not — and should not — embrace Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic reading of the “end of history.”

The referendum in Russia is not an isolated crisis punctuating an otherwise unstoppable progress toward Enlightenment. It is a symptom within a series of wider malfunctions. From Syria and Libya to Iraq and Afghanistan, Western interventions in North Africa and the Middle East are systematic failures. Outside the West, genuine adherence to democratic principles remains fragile. Within the West, nationalist resurgences repudiate the foundations of internationalism. Ultimately, far from a clear and coherent structure, the “liberal world order” appears neither liberal nor orderly.

For almost three centuries, Western observers have operated under the mistaken assumption that people are naturally drawn to liberal values, that rationality and progress are bound to triumph over tyranny and tradition. But the best way to preserve a liberal world order would be to begin by acknowledging its current shortcomings. First, if liberal norms are to endure, they need to be defended with as much fervor as they are attacked. Second, and most important, post-Westphalian liberalism needs to recognize the crucial role played by religion, traditions, and national identity in the construction of true nation-states; if we abandon all of these values to anti-liberal extremists, we will leave people with an unnecessary dichotomy between culture and fundamental rights — and their choice might well displease us.

We are not witnessing the end of history and the glorious realization of Kant’s wildest dreams. To paraphrase Churchill, we are not even witnessing the beginning of the end of history. Instead, we may be experiencing the end of its beginning, the overdue collapse of the conflict between international cooperation and national identity.



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