Three decades ago, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Western liberals believed that they had triumphed. The 1990s were hardly an age of innocence – they encompassed the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, the Gulf War and the Asian financial crisis – but in an ideological Rorschach test, progressives saw what they wanted to see.
At the turn of the century, as China joined the World Trade Organisation and the West welcomed Vladimir Putin as a “reformist” leader, liberals convinced themselves that the world would ceaselessly become more politically, economically and culturally integrated. Progress was inevitable, we were told.
Yet a succession of events – the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump, China’s authoritarian turn and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – contradicted this “faith”. Far from becoming “flat”, the world is fragmenting into rival blocs.
How should we respond? In our cover story, Robert D Kaplan, the American author and foreign policy expert, Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at Cambridge University, and our own John Gray reflect on what we call “the new age of tragedy”.
Mr Kaplan’s recent book The Tragic Mind is an attempt to grapple with his past support for the Iraq War, which led him to suffer clinical depression for years afterwards. Having visited Fallujah in 2004 and found anarchy far worse than Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, he concluded: “I had failed my test as a realist… I helped promote a war in Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
Mr Kaplan has since sought consolation in tragic realism – a concept invoked by Barack Obama in 2016 over the West’s failure to intervene in Syria. “Tragic thinking encompasses many things, among them the realisation that fear is useful,” Mr Kaplan writes. “We have to use fear without being immobilised by it. Above all, we must realise that given such a claustrophobic and overloaded world system, the assumption of linear progress is a dangerous notion to entertain.”
[See also: Who is behind the drone attack on the Kremlin?]
In a new era of great power conflict, climate crisis, pandemics and resource scarcity, few would challenge this assumption. Yet British and global politics are strewn with those who have failed to heed such wisdom.
“We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over,” declared Boris Johnson three months before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. David Cameron and George Osborne prophesied a new “golden era” of relations between the UK and China.
The assumption, however, that China and Russia would become ever more liberal with time has proved a delusion. It is the autocratic alliance between those states – rather than any rapprochement with the West – that is reshaping the global order. As John Gray observes: “China’s proposals for peace in Ukraine may be vague and not altogether serious, but Russia cannot be restrained without Chinese intervention. A multipolar international system is already in operation.”
In this new era there is no place for utopian projects to remake the world or ideological fantasies.
Rather, these times demand a cold-eyed realism. The nation state, which libertarians long predicted the demise of, has re-emerged as a defining actor. Far from merely ensuring the efficient functioning of the market, governments will be forced to undertake ever greater responsibility for their citizens’ security and material well-being.
Global poverty, which fell from 36 per cent in 1990 to just 8.4 per cent as China and India expanded, is now surging for the first time in a generation. Such material changes will unleash conflicts we can as yet little imagine.
For the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, the challenge of modernity was to “live without illusions without becoming disillusioned”. The same could be said of our era. Tragic realists must resist the siren call of idealism without succumbing to fatalism. But those who wish to improve the world should first ensure they understand it.
[See also: The delusions that bind communism and liberalism]
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age