Author: Farhad NURIYEV
In his interview with The Financial Times just before the opening of the G20 summit in Osaka, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that "the modern liberal idea has become obsolete and came into conflict with the interests of an overwhelming majority of the population. Liberals have tried to impose their will on the world, which led to a series of tragic consequences."
As an example, Mr. Putin called the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to open the borders for more than a million refugees from Syria and other states of the Middle East a big mistake. He also mentioned the strategy of the US President Donald Trump to restrict sharply the flow of immigrants from Mexico.
In a relatively short period, almost three decades, the world witnessed the triumph of liberalism through the strengthening of international cooperation, expansion of the "export democracy", widespread recognition of the humanitarian component of foreign policy, and then its sharp decline. Today many countries are trying to delineate their independent positions in the world politics, and the concept of "national interests" again pushes supranational and global intellectual constructs into background. Do the ongoing processes mean the collapse of liberalism in international relations? Is liberalism compatible with deepening globalization? Can and should global problems be solved by liberal methods?
Triumph of liberalism
In fact, the birth of liberal approaches in international relations took place in the 19th century. The United Kingdom used them more actively than other countries. To maintain control over huge colonial possessions, London relied on military power only as the last resort but its world leadership manifested itself in science, technology, economy and trade.
In international relations of the 20th century, the liberal concept was in the shadow of the doctrine of political realism. Instead of convictions, a pragmatic assessment of the situation in a particular corner of the world and in a specific time period determined a choice of the optimal approach to solving problems. Liberal doctrine took the lead in the international politics of modern times only in the second and last decades of the 20th century. The most prominent liberal politicians and practitioners of the last century were US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, who ruled after the end of the First World War and the Cold War, respectively. In both cases, the United States filled the vacuum of power, acting as a guarantor of the post-war world and the development of economies in many European countries.
During this period, the world economy and international politics acted in unity, changing places as a subject and object. Modern economic diplomacy was preceded by the era of trade diplomacy. Then the union of diplomacy with economy became a truly universal phenomenon. Changes in the world economy at the end of the 1990s have gradually reached a degree of maturity, later called globalisation. Now globalisation is gaining a new quality, increasingly covering the more aspects of human life, expanding its geographical reach and the impact on modern civilisation. The significance of these changes is especially visible in the modern global development trends that pose unprecedentedly complex problems for the entire international community. Globalization of such spheres of human society as international security, trade, finance, information technology is becoming the main factor determining the nature of modern international relations, which directly affects the interests of each state. Can all these cardinal changes create serious prerequisites for a thorough adjustment of the processes bolstering the further development of the system of international relations? What will be the world order by the end of the 21st century?
To find answers to these questions, let us go back several decades. The Soviet Union collapsed. The totalitarian communist system collapsed. The Soviet foreign policy, which was a function of confrontational space and was based on imperial ideology and reliance on force, was radically criticised. The new foreign policy of post-communist Russia was born in agony, chaos and confusion. Nihilistic attitude of young Russian liberals towards many traditional values was accompanied by idealistic ideas about a new liberal world order dominated by universal human values.
By the end of the 90s, it turned out that capitalism, supported by Russian liberals, contributed not only to the expansion of freedoms, but also to the increased exploitation of post-Soviet population. That is why the West became convinced that Russia is no longer a factor in world politics, and it can push on Russia's sensitive points to subdue the country. Again, this was the situation in the 1990s.
After the election of Vladimir Putin as a new president of Russia, the country began to consolidate. Liberal ideas have gradually become obsolete. However, this in no way implied Russia's return to imperial ambitions. Instead, Russia began to reinforce its foreign policy, becoming more active and energetic in defending its foreign policy interests. It is said that the 37th US President Richard Nixon, while talking to the then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, formulated his categorical viewpoint on international politics as follows: “My rule in international affairs is to do unto others as they would do unto you.” Henry Kissinger later added: “Plus another ten percent.”
In principle, the entire American foreign policy after the collapse of the USSR and after the end of the World War II, with all its twists and changes, had a number of features that make it possible to consider it as a whole, very homogeneous phenomenon. What exactly is it about? Definitely, not about liberalism.
First, it is an aversion so strong that it gradually turns into the inability of the American leadership to see equal partners in the international arena. Hence the tendency to paternalistic approach to allies and neglect to opponents. The arrogance of American diplomacy can be seen even in relations with close friends.
Secondly, militarisation of American foreign policy. The collapse of the USSR, in fact, was not followed by the conversion of at least part of the US military-industrial complex to peaceful track. Rather, Washington began to develop plans to advance and expand NATO eastward, to the borders of Russia. Globalisation of American foreign policy was in fact through the strengthening of its military power. Before, the United States relied mainly on its huge production capacities, on "dollar diplomacy." The collapse of the Soviets led to a sharp increase of the Pentagon's role in the development and implementation of the US foreign policy.
Thirdly, in the past two decades, as in the post-war period, the US foreign policy shows a general tendency toward making and implementing forceful decisions. Air strikes on Yugoslavia, intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for the “colour revolutions” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya are a clear confirmation of this fact. Today, the US administration and its allies found a new enemy, Iran. The withdrawal from a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, complete disregard for the views and interests of partners under the agreement, dispatch of warships to the Persian Gulf, public insults of the Iranian leadership, intimidation of one of the major states in the Middle East can lead to serious, if not devastating consequences and destabilisation of the situation in the region. But the region is located in close proximity to the borders of Azerbaijan and its neighbouring states.
Fourth, a belief in military force, which led to a sceptical negative attitude towards the traditional tools of diplomacy: to negotiations and reaching decisions on the basis of mutually acceptable compromises. Washington often substitutes diplomacy for all sorts of intimidations, forceful threats, and military demonstrations. Washington’s diplomatic nihilism was also evident in the US approach to international organisations, such as the UN and its various institutions and agencies.
Fifth, the post-Soviet period of American foreign policy can be characterized by a high degree of ideologisation of foreign policy. The US foreign policy applies a pronounced division of the socially and politically multifaceted world community into friends and foes, where the former is declared as the keeper of human values and civilisation and the latter as the wicked and rogue states encroaching on these values. It is enough to recall the recent statements by President Trump regarding the political system of Iran and its leadership, the words of his predecessor about the "exclusivity of the American nation" and the "ripping to shreds the Russian economy." Apparently, such extremities as intolerance are necessary for the American establishment, on the one hand, for the ideological and psychological mobilisation of the American society in order to provide internal support for the foreign policy, and on the other hand, for the active influence on vacillating and evasive allies who doubt the realism of the “black and white presentation” of complex international phenomena. No way for liberalism!
The image described above will be incomplete without another aspect. The illusion that humankind has been living in a monolithic liberal world since 1991 is closely connected with accusations against Russia that it is allegedly trying to split the liberal world order, especially in the post-Soviet space. However, neither Russia, nor any other country can undermine liberalism in post-Soviet Eurasia, since it has not taken deep roots there. Liberal ideas have never become a political mainstream in the region, even among the cosmopolitan-minded post-Soviet citizens.
In 1992, the famous political scientist Ole Holsti noted that in the US is a big gap between political leaders and ordinary citizens. According to polls conducted in 1990 by the Chicago Board of Foreign Affairs, the vast majority of American elites believed that the US should play a leading role in world politics, although a significant number of ordinary Americans, about 50%, did not support this point of view. A survey conducted by the US Public Opinion Research Center in 2013 showed even a more radical picture. When asked about the main priorities of the US foreign policy, only a third of Americans stated that the main task of foreign policy is to protect human rights abroad. About 18% of respondents supported the promotion of democracy on the globe. The irony is that America’s upholding of democratic values around the world has not received democratic support in the homeland. According to American sociologists, liberal values in America were promoted by the elite, but they did not have much public support.
In 2016, mass protests of anti-liberal political forces began in the capitals of many Western countries. In Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and the USA, those who doubt the highest moral authority of liberalism received unexpected public support and continue to gain their supporters. These fundamental changes led many Western observers to conclude that 2016 was the beginning of the decline of the liberal order. This process reflected a general sense of crisis and the understanding that the global liberal order had exhausted its resources.
Going back to where we began, the interview of Mr. Putin with The Financial Times, he emphasized that "the end of the dominance of liberal ideas does not mean its destruction, and liberalism must be respected." As we can see, the liberal idea still has a fairly holistic and attractive moral foundation, which is difficult, and does not need to be challenged. Difficulties and contradictions begin when liberal principles clash with life. Quite rightly noting that “liberalism in the person of German Chancellor Angela Merkel could not cope with the migration crisis in Germany,” the Russian president linked this thesis with the interests of “the main part of the country's population,” which, therefore, “turns out to be different from the liberals in their comfortable offices.” As noted by Immanuel Kant, "the development of society and the economy is based on the collision and interaction of two basic principles - private and whole, individual and public." International relations are also developing dialectically, and liberalism here is one of the main ideologies, political philosophies of development. In turn, liberalism is opposed by realism, or, in other words, statist ideologies and doctrines. But liberalism still has a future. It cannot and must not win, but must simply be and develop, since the guarantee of the progressive development of the world is in the eternal dispute of liberalism and realism.