The retreat of the West began with the fall of communism in 1989. Our triumphal elites lost their sense of reality, and in a succession of attempts to remake the world in their image went on to vacate some of the planet’s most strategically decisive regions. The end result of their attempt to export their system of government is that Western states are weaker and more endangered than they were at any point in the Cold War.
Yet viewing this debacle as a defeat for Western ideas and values is a fundamental error. Western ideologies continue to rule the world. In China Xi Jinping has embraced a variant of integral nationalism not unlike those that emerged in interwar Europe, while Vladimir Putin has skilfully deployed Leninist methods to resurrect an enfeebled Russia as a global power. Ideas and projects originating in the illiberal West continue to shape global politics. At the same time, in an intriguing synchronicity, Western liberalism has itself become illiberal.
The geopolitical descent of the West was visible in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is palpable in the withdrawal of American-led forces from Afghanistan. Iran is now the predominant power in Iraq. With the Afghan state and regular army melting away following the US withdrawal, the future will be decided by the Taliban and neighbouring states that are sucked into the ensuing power vacuum. After years of Western intervention and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, in Syria Bashar al-Assad is still in power and Russia is the deciding force. Following the Western-engineered overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is an ungoverned space and a gateway of people-smuggling into Europe.
In recent months the pace of Western retreat has accelerated. Joe Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva in June gave the Russian president what he most wanted. Accepting that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will be completed, Biden has empowered Russia to cut off energy supplies in transit countries. Ukraine has been left twisting in the wind, and Poland and the Baltic states are exposed to increasing Russian power.
The rationale for what is, in effect, a major geopolitical defeat is presumably to allow Germany to secure its energy supplies in return for supporting US efforts to contain China. But the chances of Germany risking its commercial relations with China have always been small. Last year, Germany exported almost €100bn of goods to China – roughly half the value of all EU exports there. China has not only become the biggest German export market, on some measures, but also the fastest-growing.
German foreign policy is dictated mainly by domestic factors, and industrial lobbies will ensure that trade links with China are not compromised. For the influential Greens, Germany’s exit from coal and nuclear energy transcends any geopolitical cost. In conjunction with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel has made it clear that Berlin wants détente with Russia. In any great-power struggle, Germany – and thereby the EU – will likely aim to stay on the sidelines, neutral or non-aligned, while in practice inhabiting a Russian zone of influence. No longer as constrained by European diplomacy after Brexit, Britain is resisting this tendency. But without support from the major European powers it is not clear how much the UK can do beyond protecting its own national interests.
The decomposition of the West is not only a geopolitical fact; it is also cultural and intellectual. Leading Western countries contain powerful bodies of opinion that regard their own civilisation as a uniquely pernicious force. In this hyper-liberal view, which is heavily represented in higher education, Western values of freedom and toleration mean little more than racial domination. If it still exists as a civilisational bloc, the West must be dismantled.
This hyper-liberalism is not presented as one among a number of standpoints that can be examined and questioned in open debate. It is a catechism policed by peer pressure and professional sanctions. Those who enforce it like to dismiss practices such as “cancellation” as nightmares of the fevered right-wing mind with no basis in fact. At the same time, they believe disagreement is an exercise in repression.
In the hyper-liberal credo, only what are regarded as simple, self-evident, morally impeccable truths can be tolerated. Assessing the costs and possible benefits of Western empires for the peoples they governed is not far from being a prohibited enterprise, as is examining the involvement of non-Western states in slavery. Some on the right have compared such ideological restrictions to those enforced under communism. The difference is that in Western societies these curbs on free inquiry are self-imposed.
The upshot is that the liberal West is more a subject of historical investigation than a contemporary reality. Those who believe humankind is converging on liberal values overlook the fact that Western societies are fast discarding them. The “arc of history” points to a model that no longer exists.
This does not mean hyper-liberalism has won. Democracy, insofar as it still functions, imposes limits on ideological orthodoxy. The marketplace, for all its excesses, produces alternatives. Venues encouraging intellectual pluralism continue to survive; some, like this magazine, thrive.
Hyper-liberalism is the ideology of an aspirant ruling class that aims to hoard wealth and position while flaunting its immaculate progressive credentials. Intractable culture wars and an epistemic crisis in which key factual and scientific questions have been politicised are a part of a bid for power by these counter-elites. But except in New Zealand and English-speaking Canada, there is no sign of them achieving hegemony.
Even so, schools are pressured to teach a single version of history, private corporations sack employees for deviant opinions and cultural institutions act as guardians of orthodoxy. The prototype for these practices is the US, which regards its singular history and divisions as defining every modern society. In much of the world the woke movement is regarded with indifference, or – as in the case of France, where Macron has denounced it as “racialising” society – hostility. But wherever this American agenda prevails, society is no longer liberal in any historically recognisable sense.
The evanescence of Western liberalism does not mean we inhabit a post-Western world. Arguments for Western decline are usually rehashed versions of the Harvard political theorist Samuel Huntington’s speculations about clashing civilisations, joined with prognostications of inescapable Chinese supremacy. Such claims have force insofar as they reflect the sharp contraction of Western power. But they miss the most remarkable feature of the contemporary scene: the continuing dominance of modern Western ideas. Not those of liberalism as traditionally understood, but mixtures of fascism, communism and integral nationalism.
Both China and Russia – avowed rivals of the West – are ruled by ideas that derive from Western sources. (The same is true of Narendra Modi’s nationalism in India and some Islamist movements.) What the West confronts is not the threatening advance of alien civilisations but its own dark shadows.
The formative influence of Western ideas on China’s leadership is illustrated by the references to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides that used to be common among official spokespeople. China, they would assure Western visitors, had no intention of falling into “Thucydides’ trap” – the tendency of rising states to seek to dislodge established powers from their dominant position, leading to war. Since Beijing’s switch to “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, a more assertive and aggressive form of statecraft, some have questioned the significance of the Thucydides trap in Chinese thinking. But Xi Jinping referenced it explicitly in a talk I heard him give in Beijing several years ago. He appears to have become more confident since then.
The study of Western classics is actively promoted in Chinese universities. The texts are often taught in their original Latin or Greek (a practice no longer required at Princeton, where some consider it racist). China’s meritocratic intelligentsia is also notable for having a grasp of Western political thought that exceeds that of many in Western universities. The works of Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and Thomas Hobbes, as well as 20th-century thinkers such as Michel Foucault, have been closely studied. The German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) has been accepted as having the most to teach regarding China’s political development.
Schmitt gained recognition in the German academy by examining the influence of theological ideas on Western jurisprudence. During the 1920s he fashioned a set of ideas in which the Enabling Act of March 1933, which formally established the Nazi regime, could be formulated and justified. Law was created by sovereign political decisions, and whoever decided when a “state of exception” or regime crisis existed was the sovereign. In 1932 he published The Concept of the Political, arguing that politics was not a dialogue among members of a shared community with divergent interests and values, but a struggle between enemies – in other words, a mode of warfare.
Joining the Nazi Party weeks after it came to power, Schmitt distinguished himself by endorsing the burning of books by Jewish authors . But he seems not to have been sufficiently anti-Semitic for his Nazi patrons, and in 1936 was accused of opportunism and had to resign from the party. At the end of the war he was arrested by Allied forces and spent a year in internment. He never recanted from his theories, elaborating on them in the decades that followed.
Uniform vision: Carl Schmitt believed the sovereign should promote the homogeneity of a people. Credit: getty images
Schmitt’s theory of law is not wholly original, or necessarily anti-liberal. A similar view can be found in the work of Hobbes. The difference is in their view of politics and the state. Whereas Hobbes believed the purpose of the state is the protection of individuals from violence and insecurity – a fundamentally liberal position – Schmitt charged the sovereign with promoting the homogeneity of the people.
It is this aspect of Schmitt’s thought that appears to be most attractive to the Chinese leadership. If the state and the people are one and the same, minorities can be suppressed, or obliterated, in the name of public safety. The forced assimilation of Tibetans, Kazakhs, Uighurs and other minorities into a uniform Han Chinese culture is not oppression, but a necessary means of protecting the state from forces that would destroy it.
The German jurist’s ideas are well suited to legitimating Xi’s increasing repression. In 2020 the Beijing law professor Chen Duanhong drew on Schmitt’s thought in a speech in Hong Kong to support the recent “national security” law, maintaining that the exercise of China’s sovereign authority to extinguish liberal freedoms in the former British colony is no more than the state securing its future.
Schmitt supplies a template for Xi’s integral nationalism. The construction of homogeneous nation-states did not begin with National Socialism. It had a European point of origin in revolutionary France. In the early 1790s, the Jacobins used an idea of the nation to crush a popular rising in the Vendée region of western France, in a campaign of repression that may have cost in excess of 100,000 lives. The construction of the French nation-state continued in the 19th century through the institutions of military conscription and national schooling, eradicating the diversity of languages and cultures that existed under the ancien régime.
Ethnic cleansing became central to nation-building in the wake of the First World War. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Romanov empires enabled the emergence of nation-states asserting a right to self-determination – a development reinforced by the US president Woodrow Wilson in the Versailles settlement of 1919. His goal was to reconstruct Europe as a community of civic nation-states. But there were internal minorities in many of these states, and in the years that followed large population transfers occurred. Huge numbers fled or were expelled – as many as 1.5 million Greeks from Turkey and around 400,000 Turks from Greece, for example.
The process continued during the Second World War, with the Nazis killing millions in the territories they occupied in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and attempting the complete extermination of the Jewish people. Stalin deported peoples whose loyalty to the Soviet state he mistrusted (such as the Chechens and Crimean Tatars) from their homelands to Central Asia, many of them perishing during the journey or soon after their arrival.
The nation-state is a Western invention. Nationalism emerged in China towards the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) as a response to the humiliating subjugation of the country by Western powers. Seeking to confer “Chinese characteristics” on his project, Xi Jinping has cited Han Feizi, a third-century BC aristocrat in the Han kingdom and a proponent of the Legalist school of philosophy, in which law is used to fashion a strong centralised state.
As in interwar Germany, Schmitt’s thought facilitates a shift to totalitarianism. The distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian states is nowadays dismissed as a relic of the Cold War. Yet it captures a crucial difference between illiberal regimes. Authoritarian states are dictatorial in their methods but limited in their goals, whereas totalitarian states attempt to transform society and intrude into every area of human life. Bismarck’s Prussia and late tsarist Russia fall into the former group, and National Socialist Germany and the Soviet state throughout most of its history into the latter. Xi’s China has moved into the totalitarian category. Through the 95 million-strong Chinese Communist Party, which celebrated its centenary on 1 July this year, the state aims to be omnipresent throughout society.
China represents itself as a “civilisation-state” based on Confucian ideas of social harmony. Yet Xi pays tribute to Mao Zedong, who between 1949 and the mid-1970s laid waste to Chinese civilisation in the pursuit of an ugly occidental utopia. The move to a more limited authoritarian regime that seemed to be under way in the time of Deng Xiaoping, who led the People’s Republic between 1978 and 1989, has been reversed, and totalitarianism renewed. China is the site of an experiment in coercive nation-building whose closest historical parallels are in interwar Europe.
Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are often understood as similar types of regime. There is some basis for this as both are vehicles for Western projects. Lenin always maintained that the Bolshevik takeover continued the Jacobin tradition in the European Enlightenment. A type of pedagogical terror was a feature of the Soviet state from the time of its foundation in 1917. Even after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, Mao continued to emulate the Westernising Soviet model.
But the differences between Russia and China today are profound. Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian regime in which the state, though violent, is weak. Its spine is the former Soviet intelligence services; but sections of them are semi-privatised, some working in opaque collusion with organised crime. Amorphous private armies operate in Russia’s near-abroad and other zones of global conflict. Putin’s authority appears to be unchallenged in the Kremlin, but he exercises it with the tacit consent of oligarchs who in turn depend on his patronage.
There are signs of decay in the regime. An earlier phase of Putinism in which the population was controlled through “post-modern” media techniques and the management of apathy has given way to one that relies more on the threat of force. Nonetheless, the control of the population by the state is less comprehensive than at any time under the Soviet system until it began its slide into anarchy with Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms from the mid-1980s.
In 2017 the Kremlin declined to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, with Putin reportedly asking, “What is there to celebrate?” The view of some regime-friendly Russians that Putin, an archetypal product of the Soviet system, is an essentially anti-communist leader is not wholly groundless. Yet the core institutions and methods through which he governs are Soviet inheritances. The “little green men”, for example – Russian irregular forces that effected the invasion of Ukraine – were following the Bolshevik practice of maskirovka (deception). His cyber-warfare applies a similar strategy.
The fantasy of world revolution has long since been abandoned, along with the goal of transforming society, but the state through which Putin rules remains Leninist in its structure.
The belief that challenges to the West emanate from outside the West is a source of some comfort to liberals. The role of an earlier generation of liberal and socialist thinkers in downplaying the colossal human toll of communism in Russia and China can be forgotten. The West’s complicity in present-day crimes can be evaded.
The attempt to erase the Uighurs as a people is the most obvious example of ongoing oppression in China. Confining them in concentration camps, demolishing their mosques and cemeteries, deporting them to work in factories (some of them reportedly in the supply chains of Western brands) and subjecting women to rape, involuntary abortion and sterilisation are crimes against humanity. But any campaign against them soon confronts China’s economic power, which has the potential to derail the global market the West has constructed and on which it now depends.
Despite the Uighurs’ plight being raised at international meetings, there is little real support for them. In most Muslim-majority countries, many of them indebted to China, Uighur cries for help have been greeted with silence. A world in which hyper-liberalism coexists amicably with the restoration of slavery may well be the next stage of social evolution. The Uighurs are on the wrong side of history.
The suppression of minorities in China is instructive because it undermines a consoling liberal narrative: the modern world is based on scientific and technological innovation, which requires an open society. Dictatorship is not just wrong but inefficient and unproductive. Only liberal societies have a long-term future.
China has dispelled this legend. During the post-Mao period a dictatorial regime presided over the biggest and fastest process of wealth-creation in history. As a result of the shift from authoritarian to totalitarian government under Xi, innovation may slow. There are already signs this may be happening. But countervailing forces in the West could yet give China the advantage.
In California, proposals are under consideration that would discourage the teaching of calculus in high schools. In Canada, Ontario’s proposed “equitable” maths curriculum “recognises that mathematics can be subjective”. Deconstructing education in this way, during a time of intense geopolitical rivalry in science and technology, does not look like a winning strategy.
Whether Western elites are capable of strategic reasoning at this point is unclear. Many of their key policies are performative in nature. Schemes to achieve net zero carbon emissions are extremely costly, and will not prevent accelerated global warming. The vast sums would be more reasonably spent adapting to the abrupt climate change that is already under way. But that would demand realistic thinking, which Western opinion-leaders reject as defeatist if not immoral.
A world-view that gripped sections of the Western intelligentsia throughout the modern period and dominated the post-Cold War world is disintegrating. Stories showing humankind evolving towards liberal values are parodies of monotheism in which a mythical logic in history replaces a redemptive providence. Knock away this myth, and the liberal way of life can be seen to have been an historical accident. In time the regimes created by Xi and Putin will crumble. But if the long drift of history is any guide, they will be succeeded by anarchy and new despotisms.
While Western liberalism may be largely defunct, illiberal Western ideas are shaping the future. The West is not dying but alive in the tyrannies that now threaten it. Unable to grasp this paradoxical reality, our elites are left looking on blankly as the world they have taken for granted slips into the shadows.
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special