So consider this: a nice, erudite and well-argued piece by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy about why everyone who isn’t a Eurocrat or an American liberal arts professor is Backward and Wrong.
We’re all part of the 21st century, of course, but the worldviews that different states embrace often seem to come from different eras. Some countries appear comfortably committed to a 21st-century view of the world, while other states remain ensconced in worldviews that date back centuries.
So, which countries best exemplify “21st-century thinking” today?
First and foremost is the European Union, whose members have, for the most part, adopted the complete liberal prescription for the conduct of international politics — full stop. With some minor differences, European elites now recoil from the grim realities of power politics and believe that democracy, the rule of law, and powerful transnational institutions can dampen or eliminate rivalries between states and thereby guarantee stability and tranquility. Despite the eurozone crisis, Euroskepticism in the United Kingdom, and resurgent right-wing nationalism throughout Europe, many elites on the continent still believe economic, political, and social integration within Europe has weakened atavistic national loyalties and has fostered the development of a post-modern, post-national, pan-European unity.
These convictions (plus continued U.S. protection) have encouraged the EU member states to let their own military capabilities atrophy into insignificance. If everyone operates according to 21st-century principles, serious military power won’t be necessary and spending serious money on it is wasteful. Powerful national armies would also make neighboring states insecure and reopen the door to the militarist pathologies that helped produce past European wars. The EU should emphasize diplomacy and other forms of soft power instead, and it should eschew military force and the defense of traditional geopolitical interests.
It follows that Europe’s “21st-century” elites blame contemporary political problems on illiberal troublemakers such as the late Slobodan Milosevic or Putin. The problem, however, is that illiberal leaders like them are unlikely to be swayed by normative arguments or by economic sanctions, which leaves the EU with little capacity to shape the behavior of those states that are still operating with a more traditional view of world politics.
Whom do I have in mind? The most obvious examples are Putin’s Russia and contemporary China, whose foreign policies reflect traditional concerns for national sovereignty, territorial integrity, state capacity, and the balance of power. Russia is defending its sphere of influence in its “near abroad” vigorously and is challenging the liberal individualism that underpins core Western institutions, and it is all too willing to use proxy forces and other violent tools to protect what it sees as its core interests. If this goal requires seizing territory or promoting civil wars elsewhere — both venerable practices in the annals of statecraft — so be it. Western leaders can talk themselves hoarse declaring that their actions pose no threat to Russia; the point is that Moscow doesn’t believe them (and not without reason).
Similarly, a rapidly rising China may have embraced globalization as an economic meal ticket, but it’s not adopting a 21st-century view of world politics. On the contrary, after two centuries of humiliation, China wants to be rich enough and strong enough to thwart foreign pressure both now and well into the future. That goal requires continued economic growth, increased military power, and patient efforts to regain control over territories or regions it regards as legitimately part of China (such as Taiwan). China also wants to establish itself as a regional hegemon in Asia, largely by pushing the United States out of the region and encouraging its neighbors to accommodate themselves to Chinese power. After all, this is pretty much what the United States did during its own rise to world power (see under:Monroe Doctrine).
Russia and China aren’t the only states living with a 19th-century vision of foreign policy. Israel’s high-tech economy (and rising inequality) exemplify a 21st-century outlook, but as the now-deceased historian Tony Judt pointed out more than a decade ago, its political DNA — Zionism — is at its core just 19th-century European ethnocentric nationalism. Moreover, the long campaign to create a “Greater Israel” on the West Bank is just a lingering manifestation of 19th-century “settler colonialism.”
One wonders whether part of the alleged “chemistry”between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin is a 19th-century outlook that places territorial expansion ahead of peace on the list of national priorities.
China, Russia, and Israel may be stuck with a certain 19th-century outlook — at least in terms of foreign policy — but some other states seemed trapped in the amber of the 20th century. North and South Korea are divided by a frozen conflict dating back to 1950, and South Korea and Japan have been unable to get past the toxic legacy of Japan’s colonialism and its World War II atrocities. Furthermore, Japan’s political and economic systems seem unable to break free from the institutional arrangements that fueled its post-World War II economic miracle but have crippled its economy ever since the bubble burst in 1990 (and that’s 25 years, folks!).
But let’s not stop here. Some states and political movements have worldviews that date not from the 19th century but from far earlier periods. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia use modern technologies to varying degrees, but their political models are based on precepts dating back to the seventh century. When somebody says he wants to restore a medieval caliphate, it’s a pretty clear rejection of the democracy+human rights+markets+rule of law, etc. formula that optimists once believed was the only way to organize an advanced 21st-century society.
And what of the United States? Americans like to think of themselves as forward-looking, progressive, and fully committed to the same liberal values as their Western European allies; indeed, they sometimes think they invented those values. In short, Americans think they are also the embodiment of the “21st-century” worldview. There’s some truth in that, insofar as the United States does spend a lot of time invoking liberal ideals and patting itself on the back for defending them. But in reality, the United States today is something of an amalgam of 21st-century idealism and 19th-century power politics. Its rhetoric extols democracy, human rights, gender equality, open markets, and other prominent features of the 21th-century formula, and it is quick to chide rivals like Russia or China for their shortcomings on these dimensions.
But the United States also retains a 19th-century view of power politics. Washington wants to preserve U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and is still willing to defend an array of undemocratic allies around the world. Like past great powers, it has a decidedly flexible attitude toward international law and institutions: It embraces them when they are in the U.S. interest, and it ignores them when they get in the way of what it wants to do. The United States is far from bashful about using its military power to attack other countries, either in large doses (Iraq, Afghanistan) or in small ones (Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Serbia, Panama, etc.). One might even say that Washington talks like a good 21st-century idealist, but itsactions are more old-fashioned than it wants to admit.
Does any of this matter? I think it does in at least two ways. First, states whose respective “operating softwares” reflect different eras will have trouble understanding each other, and each will tend to regard the other side’s actions as incomprehensible or illegitimate or both. This problem is precisely what bedevils relations between East and West over Ukraine: The West thinks the East is being reactionary, and the East thinks the West is being domineering and insensitive…
You can dismiss this as ethnocentrism, but it wouldn’t – strictly speaking – be correct. Walt considers Beltway neocons to be just as backward as Russians, Arabs and Chinese, whereas he’s totally down with the European elite.
Rather, it would appear to be a variation on the tendency refered to by TV Tropes as ‘Men are generic, women are special‘:
‘If a smash hit has mostly male characters, nobody raises an eyebrow, but if it has mostly female characters, it’s a Great Big Anomaly worth several trees’ worth of shocked speculation.’
— Sarah Morayati, author of the Interactive Fiction work Broken Legs, in an interview discussing gender in fiction
In media, male is the default, ‘normal’ form of humanity, while female is a special subcategory reserved just for women. This meta-trope is Older Than Feudalism and is found not only in fiction, but is ingrained into many human societies and cultures. The technical term for this is ‘androcentrism‘. Take the English language, for example. The terms ‘Man’ and ‘Mankind’ are often used to represent humanity in general, whereas ‘Woman’ and ‘Womankind’ only ever refer to humans of the female gender (…)
This phenomenon carries Unfortunate Implications for both male and female characters when used in fiction. The main problem for male characters is that maleness is not special in the way femaleness is, and is often undervalued to the point of being disposable; men’s actions are less likely to be judged based on their gender, which gives them more freedom to act, but the consequences for their actions are likely to be magnified. The implication for female characters is that femaleness is special in a that way maleness isn’t or, to put it more bluntly, being male is ‘normal’, while being female is ‘abnormal’, which can either mean superior to men or inferior.
This leads to the Smurfette Principle, in which a character’s femaleness is the most important and interesting thing about her, often to exclusion of all else. It also tends to result in works failing The Bechdel Test, because if there’s a potential character who doesn’t have to be any particular gender, the role will probably be filled by a male character by default.
Likely exacerbated by the fact that Most Writers Are Male…
Though in this case the default is not gender-related but social. In other words, if you’re a liberal US professor then being a liberal US professor is normal, while being pretty much anything else is exotic.
However, as you will no doubt have noticed (unless, apparently, you’re a liberal US professor) liberal US professors – sadly – make up a tiny proportion of the world’s population. Until relatively recently, this didn’t really matter, since they dominated global foreign policy discourse to such an extent that they effectively functioned as a majority. Everyone who wanted to join the debate had to do so on their terms, using their vocabulary and in categories that they created.
Right now, however, this is changing. With the rise of the BRICS, groups that previously functioned as global minorities are now increasingly addressing the world on their own terms, rather than as a bit-player in the Grand Ole North Atlantic Opry. China, Russia, India, ISIS and many more are speaking to the West using their own vernaculars: from jihadi lolcats, to APEC blue, to the invasion of Ukraine. These are all things that US liberal professors disapprove of, and yet their proponents are doing them cheerfully, openly and without regret.
From the perspective of a US liberal professor, of course, this does look terribly backward and Not How Things Are Supposed To Be.
On the other hand, if you’re a Russian or Chinese politician, this seems a lot like a return to normality, and the opinions expressed by liberal US professors appear to be the curmudgeonly grumbling of an outdated rump…
I’m not necessarily saying that either of the two positions is right sub speciae aeternitatis, just that it is what it is.