Cast your mind back to 1989. In that year, I visited Bulgaria - still under Communist rule - for the first time and our friend had to check us in at the police station every two or three days; we were camping in the Rila mountains, and this took him half a day. Later that year, I was driving down to Cornwall to attend a conference on Gaia and I heard on the radio that President Zhivkov had fallen, only a few days after the Berlin Wall came down. However, think back also to June 1989 and Tiananmen Square. The non-intervention reaction of the Soviets under Gorbachev was very different from China, and these differences are apparent in subsequent history. The confidence of Fukuyama with his rhetoric about the end of history has not turned out as he expected. The Light That Failed (Allen Lane, 2019) is a collaboration by a Bulgarian political scientist, Ivan Krastev, and an American lawyer, Stephen Holmes. It is a brilliant analysis of the rise of populism and as such essential reading to understand our current geopolitical scene.
The last 30 years have seen what they call the Age of Imitation – ‘a period of Western democratisation in which Eastern European values would be bent to the liberal fiscal, cultural and moral politics of integration.’ This concerned not only means but ends. After an introduction on imitation and its discontents, the three parts explain the copycat mind, imitation as retaliation in the case of Russia, and imitation as dispossession with China. One underlying initial trend in the 1990s was the abandonment of pluralism for hegemony by the United States with its self-definition as exceptional and its conception of the New World Order based on full-spectrum military dominance. However, it turned out to be difficult to maintain this position without an enemy, hence the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks (the new Pearl Harbour) in 2001 and engineered by powerful neoliberal influences. Here, the authors do not seem to realise the full strategic significance of these events given the inadequacy of the official account - I have discussed this in detail in other reviews in these pages.
In central and eastern European countries, the imposition of Western democracy and its liberal economic system failed to deliver on its promises after the initial euphoria of liberation. Global capitalism, Americanisation and EU directives tend towards uniformity and therefore represent an indirect attack on cultural heritage and identity – think of French gastronomy in relation to McDonald's. This cultural dispossession has been a powerful driver of renewed nationalism and populism following what many people saw as humiliation - Gorbachev has made this point about the Western treatment of Russia in the 1990s. Identity denial has ultimately resulted in identity politics with its reassertion. Universalism destroyed solidarity as well as the ethos of individual countries. Another significant factor was huge young professional emigration, as much as 20% in some countries, resulting in a lowering of skill levels and enhancing the ageing of population. All this has created the populist backlash represented by politicians like Viktor Orban, himself initially a liberal. This represents political psychology rather than political theory, and has been reinforced by the immigration crisis interpreted in terms of occupation (imposition of an economic system is also regarded as a kind of occupation).
The study now moves on to imitation as retaliation and revenge. There was an initial phase of simulating democracy then engineering of elections by Putin as a way of imposing his popularity. A third phase is a strategy of ‘selective mirroring or violent parody of Western foreign policy behaviour meant to expose the West’s relative weakness in the face of Kremlin aggression and to erode the normative foundations of the American-led liberal world order.’ (p. 79). A watershed in this respect was the incendiary and scathing speech given by Putin at the Munich Security conference in 2007. He exposed double standards in US foreign policy that thinks it can exceptionally meddle in the affairs of other people while this is not legitimate for any other state - Russian interference in the 2016 election needs to be understood in this light. And ‘what the West celebrated as popular democratic revolutions were simply Western sponsored coups d’etat.’ The most recent example has occurred within the last month. Ironically, Putin applied exactly the same arguments deployed by the West in relation to Kosovo with his own intervention in Crimea, with which he illustrates Western hypocrisy: ‘vaunted Western values, such as the self-determination of peoples, are simply Western interests in disguise.’ (p. 125) And ‘the primary objective of the Kremlin's foreign policy today is to unmask the West's purported universalism as a cover for the promotion of its narrow geopolitical interests.’ It is not hard to appreciate this point, and later in the book we see how some aspects of this have been renounced by Trump, whose tactics are perceptively analysed in some detail, as well as his admiration for non-democratic authoritarian leaders. Another interesting observation is that, for Trump, ‘every statement of fact dissolves into a declaration of membership or allegiance’ (p. 177) - so allegiance is primary rather than truth.
When we come to China, ‘the Chinese economic miracle has been a disaster for the United States’ (p. 159) in that the industrialisation of China is mirrored by the deindustrialisation of the US, exporting jobs in the process. Not only that, the Chinese have become adept at appropriating and developing US technological ideas and moving ahead economically. Advances in Chinese technology are reflected in its January 2019 soft lunar landing on the dark side, and we now know that space is being rapidly weaponised. Politically, the Chinese leadership closely studied the events of 1989 so far as the USSR was concerned. Repression and the non-import of Western values has enabled China to maintain its cultural identity and integrity while benefiting from economic growth and prioritising party over ideology. While Gorbachev socialism was morally unsalvageable, the Chinese abandoned the export of communist ideology while retaining the dominant role of the Party, now technologically reinforced by surveillance totalitarianism. The fact that the Chinese have maintained their cultural identity is a sharp contrast to the situation that evolved in central Europe as noted above. The Chinese leadership regards the West as degenerate and corrupting, and they have no intention of allowing their society to become Americanised.
The authors conclude by forecasting a pluralistic and competitive world ‘where no centres of military and economic power will strive to spread their system of values across the globe.’ (p. 205) I’m not so sure that the US will give up its striving for full spectrum military dominance so easily, but if they persist, they will come up against increasing resistance from Russia and China. However, our most pressing issues require building trust and collaboration, not only with respect to environmental challenges but also, as Gorbachev pointed out recently, the need to denuclearise the world. Power politics is quite inadequate in this respect so we need to move towards a politics of systemic interconnectedness – what Riane Eisler calls a partnership rather than dominator society - that reflects the ecological reality of our planet.