Saturday, September 13, 2008

Whom should we fear more?

In a recent address to the Bruges Group John O'Sullivan, the Executive Editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and author of "The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister" gave an interesting analysis of the dangers freedom and democracy face in the twenty-first century.

Mentioning Robert Kagan's "The Retunr of History and the End of Dreams", an interesting but somewhat inadequate slim tome about which I have written before, O'Sullivan expanded the theme. Kagan's book is about the return of old-fashioned power politics and the negation of the supposed utopia - the new international and transnational political geometry. As I have mentioned before, there seems no evidence that power politics ever went away, but it is possible to argue that it was in abeyance for a few (very few) years.

The first enemy we face is radical Islamism. John O'Sullivan's view and it is hard to argue with it, is that they are not as dangerous as all that. They can cause a great deal of damage but radical Islamists are failing in their main purpose - the establishment of a world-wide caliphate - and are not succeeding in their secondary purposes either. They have not been able to get rid of a single pro-Western government in the Muslim world since 9/11; they are losing in Iraq and not doing terribly well in other countries. Even in Afghanistan the main problems have to do with tribal structures and economic dysfunctionality, the latter of which the West could, should it have the political will, deal with.

The second enemy is, indeed, the strengthening autocracies who are detemined not to emulate the democracies but to go their own way. That would not matter, except for the fact tha their way involves a great deal of enmity towards the democracies and attempts to undermine them.

There are two reasons why I am optimistic about that battle. One is that the rising autocracies, particularly China and Russia are not as strong as many people seem to think. China's internal problems became manifest in the run-up to and during the Olympics and matters have not got much better even though the information is patchy.

Russia may act like a bully but her dependence on Western buyers and investors has been shown up recently and threatening, manipulating and invading other countries is not necessarily the best way of making your own stronger.

The second reason why Russia is less frightening than it used to be and why radical Islamists are an enemy we can deal with is because they cannot produce effective propaganda.

In this connection I should like to quote a passage from a fascinating book by the Hungarian historian Mária Schmidt, "Battle of Wits", about the East European show-trials and the American spy cases, in particular the Hiss case. Trying to analyze why Westerners became Soviet agents, Dr Schmidt writes:
First of all we have to establish that for those who embraced Communism, the Soviet Union stood for the "Fatherland", i.e. the country of their allegiance whose interests they represented. It is worthwhile to keep this fact in mind when we read harshly judgmental sentences about Cold War propaganda.

On the development of this strange attitude le me quote George Orwell, who started out as a left-winger, and whose inner conflicts were partly caused by the fact that he considered the interests of his own country to be above those of the Soviet Union. [Actually, Orwell went on being a left-winger but an anti-Communist one and he had no real inner conflicts about his feelings for his country but let that pass.]

Orwell writes again and again about the peculiar disjunction that characterized the English fellow travellers and Communists. In his essay, Inside the Whale, he explains that as they divest themselves of their former loyalties and superstitions, the Communists fill the gap by making up
their "losses".

And the result of this compensation is "Father, king, leader, hero, saviour - all in one word, Stalin. God - Stalin. The devil - Hitler. Heaven - Moscow. Hell - Berlin. All the gaps were filled up. So, after all, the 'Communism' of the English intellectual is something explicable enough. It is the patriotism of the deracinated."

That same sentiment is voiced by the French Communists' well-known adage: "France is the country where we live; the Soviet Union is our fatherland for which we work."
The reason I am less worried about both radical Islamism and the newly strengthened autocracies is that they cannot produce the propaganda.

Let me qualify that. Radical Islamism does produce propaganda and it is frequently very reminiscent of the Soviet one. However, by definition, it can appeal to a small, though possibly deadly minority. The Soviet vision was for everyone and it severely underplayed the violence involved in achieving it.

When countries are accused of surrendering to Islamic extremists, when officials come up with daft statements about not having piggy banks, when rules are broken in order to accomodate the supposed needs of believing Muslims, it is not ideology or a glorious vision that is at work; it is sheer cowardice or, not infrequently, dislike of one's own culture. These people are deracinated as well but nobody has managed to make up their "losses". [One may also add that most of the time the demands do not come from the Muslim community, very few of whom have succumbed to the extremist virus, whatever other problems there might be with assimilation.]

The authoritarian states may have an ideology for their own people - former President, now Prime Minister Putin has certainly tried to build up one of sovereign democracy a sort of an amalgam of the old Russian autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism and the more virulent anti-Westernism of the Soviet period. However, almost by definition these are not ideologies that can appeal to many people outside the country concerned.

Some people find the idea of muscular defence of the national interest attractive. But not only it is doubtful that the Chinese, say, or the Russian governments have the real interests of their countries at heart, it is also difficult to applaud the aggressive display of national interest of one's opponents.

It is the third of our enemies, the massed ranks of the transnational organization, led by the UN but with the EU as its most powerful force as its aspiration is actually to statehood, that is dangerous. They can produce an ideology and a vision, tarnished though it may be (though, at least, not insanely murderous), which can make up those "losses".

Belief in European integration as the great panacea may not appeal to as many people as it used to but belief in the rightness of national politics being superseded by a morally superior one of transnational one remains attractive to very many people, who will fight for a completely false vision as the Communists and fellow travellers did for all those decades.

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