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Politics for the end of the world

How the crises of our times pose fundamental questions about the role of the nation state in our survival

History right now shifts with dizzying speed. Anatol Lieven’s new book is about climate change and the nation state. Lieven wants us to think about the kind of politics that should accompany a comprehensive approach to the climate crisis. In particular he addresses himself to the idea of a Green New Deal that held so much currency on both sides of the Atlantic in 2019. Like the Green New Dealers, Lieven is convinced that fighting the climate crisis will require a comprehensive reconstruction of politics and society.

But what is the political future of the Green New Deal? In the British general election of December 2019, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was badly defeated. This does not mean an end to climate politics, but it will not take the form that Britain’s Green New Dealers once imagined. In climate politics, time really matters. The clock ticks towards the upper limit of the carbon budget. The option for a UK Green New Deal, as envisioned last year, was thus permanently foreclosed. In the US, Bernie Sanders, the chosen candidate of the Green New Dealers, is still in the race for the Democratic nomination. But he faces an uphill battle. And Sanders barely figures in Lieven’s book. Joe Biden not at all.

The progressive that Lieven is most drawn to is Elizabeth Warren. But her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination fizzled out on Super Tuesday. And now, our lives have been turned upside down by the unprecedented emergency of the coronavirus pandemic.

Does that render Lieven’s book irrelevant? It might, if you took the title too literally and read it first and foremost as a book about climate change. But to do so would be to misunderstand Lieven’s intent.

Lieven’s métier is as a thinker of politics and international relations. He has a wide-ranging vision. As he tells us in several places in the book, he has reported from across post-Soviet Russia, Washington, DC, Pakistan and the Middle East. He is clearly stirred by the climate emergency. But this book is not really about global warming. Nor is it about energy policy, though Lieven does have strong opinions on the nuclear question. For Lieven the climate crisis serves as a diagnostic test. It poses the question of who we are in political terms. It exposes the antiquated strategic thinking that prioritises a new cold war over the very survival of states in their current form. It reveals the unsustainability of rampant market capitalism. The willingness of economists to discount the future of our progeny is for Lieven the mark of nothing less than the degeneracy of our culture.

The coming distributional struggles compound our political and social divisions. Will we sacrifice our ideological hobby-horses for the sake of doing whatever it takes to prevent climate catastrophe? The sheer bleakness of the future challenges our capacity for realism. The climate crisis is a test of our character. And Lieven does not like what it reveals.

Lieven strikes a pose beloved of self-proclaimed realists, placing himself between the do-nothing, know-nothing right and the radicals of the climate left. Lieven’s sympathy is with the left, which he thinks grasps the seriousness of the emergency. He agrees that there needs to be a social transformation. But to Lieven’s mind the transformation they envision is unrealistic and their politics are self-defeating. The priority they give to the interest of a rainbow coalition of minorities antagonises the white, male working class. Their support for open borders is an empty cosmopolitanism that is both off-putting and unrealistic in practice.

Lieven is disarmingly frank about his own historical role models. He draws inspiration from those who at the turn of the 19th century already sought to straddle the divide between socialism and conservatism, the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Lord Milner, John Buchan, Harold Mackinder and Rudyard Kipling. For Lieven the task is to “develop a new version of social imperialism, without the imperialism, racism, eugenics and militarism”. What this social imperialism will involve is a deliberate effort to rebuild solidarity from the top down, a solidarity founded ultimately on an idea of the nation, not a nation limited by race, but a strong concept of chosen collective solidarity. Lieven’s ideal, as he tells us, is a Democratic Party platform featuring Theodore Roosevelt in rough rider regalia and Eisenhower as the commander of the D-Day landings.

The centrepiece of this militant platform would be the restoration of the nation state. The years he spent in Pakistan taught Lieven hard lessons about how difficult it is for a society to flourish without a strong nation state. He has striking things to say about the intercommunal tensions that afflict the Asian subcontinent. On the national question he thinks that the West has lessons to learn from the imperial notion of citizenship fostered by Vladimir Putin’s Russia – all ethnicities and religions are welcome, so long as they swear loyalty to Russia. And, in the same spirit, he has no time for the ideologues of the new cold war who preach conflict with Putin and Xi Jinping.

All of this is pitched as a social (imperialist) version of the Green New Deal. The state has the authority and the tools necessary to direct the change. Furthermore, it is the nation state through which we primarily understand our intergenerational responsibilities. In the name of the nation we must sacrifice ourselves as consumers for the higher good of climate mitigation.

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This isn’t a book about pandemics. But if Lieven had seen Covid-19 coming, one imagines he could have written much the same book about our current crisis. The politics of pandemics seem tailor-made for him.

The struggle with the virus has been declared a war. In that war we need allies. The last thing the West can afford at present is a clash with Beijing, which seems to have brought its crisis under some kind of control. By contrast, the inability of the US to muster a national response of any degree of coherence is lamentable. Once we have come through the crisis there clearly must be a re-evaluation of state capacity.

Of course, one would wish this to be tied to the reassertion of basic social democratic virtues. In the meantime, paramilitary formations such as the National Guard have been mobilised to cordon off New York suburbs. The US Army Corps of Engineers, for which Lieven has a soft spot, will most likely be mobilised for a rash of emergency hospital-building. In Britain the lamentably underequipped NHS will most likely have to draw on the military too.

You might imagine that this rather butch version of progressivism was the sole reserve of tweedy professors of international relations. But, in fact, one of the odder features of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Brooklyn radicals is their enthusiasm for the economic history of the Second World War. One of their favourite examples for the productive capacity of state power is Franklin D Roosevelt’s drive in the 1940s to build a giant fleet of bombers with which to lay waste to the cities of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Returning to the 21st century and to the grounds of reality, we know how the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi reacted to the Green New Deal. She dismissed it as an ill-formed wish list, and there was more to Pelosi’s shrug than mere cynicism. She knows the long path between an enthusiastic campaign platform and the passage of a bill not just through Congress but any legislature.

Ocasio-Cortez and her cohorts can legitimately respond that that is not their purpose. They want to act as gadflies, to do for the left what the Tea Party did for the right. And they deserve credit for having transformed the debate in the Democratic Party. But exercising leverage from the margins of politics is not Lieven’s game. His book offers a blueprint for an epochal social and political transformation. For that you need big majorities won repeatedly.  The inspiration here is as much Ronald Reagan as Roosevelt. But that raises the question: what is the relationship between Lieven’s neo-Edwardian vision of social imperialism and the actual business of politics in the 21st century?

Lieven scorns what he sees as the identity politics favoured by some parts of the American left. But he never addresses the heterogeneity of the working class today. Giving voice to women, migrants and people of colour is not an abstract indulgence of identity politics, but a realistic reflection of the low-wage workforce. It is certainly far closer to reality than Lieven’s fantasies of a nation organised around a draft. Conscription is an idea that has enjoyed a vogue recently among the authoritarian Gulf states, where Lieven currently teaches. Qatar and the United  Arab Emirates rival each other in their well-upholstered visions of national mobilisation. But what is the relevance of that politics to the generation of Western youths whose attitude towards the nation is resolutely post-heroic?

Lieven mocks the European Greens for the knee-jerk cosmopolitanism of their party manifestos. He fears that their refusal to emphatically embrace the nation undermines the popularity and efficacy of their environmental politics. But as someone who claims to be a realist, would he not be better off asking what relationship such pronouncements have to the conduct of actually existing climate politics? The UN climate change conferences, which are the real drivers of global climate politics, are anything but exercises in altruistic cosmopolitanism. And the result, as one would expect, has been a painful deadlock.

When it comes to nuclear power, Lieven pillories “the greens” for their dogmatic opposition. In some cases this is no doubt fuelled by anti-modernism. And the overriding priority of the climate emergency certainly does throw new light on the nuclear issue. But anyone who believes that nuclear power can be defended in terms of realism adheres to a strange view of history.

In fact, the technology has been driven by a series of ludicrously exaggerated and unrealistic visions, among the most far-fetched of which is the promise of fusion, to which Lieven seems attached. What has kept nuclear energy alive has not been realpolitik, let alone the cost-benefit calculus of the market. It has been sustained by the entrenched interests of technocrats and a small cabal of engineering firms and power utilities, garnished with technological wishful thinking. There may be a case for continuing nuclear research and development as part of our response to the climate crisis. But if you are remotely realistic you make that argument on the speculative grounds that we have to keep all our technological options open.

The deepest irony of Lievin’s pastiche of realism becomes clear when we turn to international relations. One can certainly agree with him that in the face of the climate crisis and the current pandemic, a new cold war with China and Russia would be ruinous. But to argue, as he suggests, that the urgency and generality of the climate crisis render all considerations of geopolitics and ideological difference irrelevant is to make life too easy for ourselves. Lieven may well be right that China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea will soon be submerged by the rising tides. But that is why the geopolitics of climate change are concentrated not on the South China Sea but on the Arctic, where the melting ice caps are clearing the waters for a new Great Game.

The irony of Lieven’s position is that in treating climate change as a threat to all states, by concluding with regard to climate policy that, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”, he espouses not so much realism as an inverted version of  19th-century liberalism. In this vision all nations were imagined unfolding their inner destiny, peacefully side by side. Unfortunately, the reality of our situation is more difficult than that.

Adam Tooze is the author of “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World” (Allen Lane)

Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case
Anatol Lieven
Allen Lane, 240pp, £20

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special