Michael Lind: The Path from Liberal Internationalism to Civilizational Realism

Editor's Note: This essay by Dr. Boris Mezhuev, a Moscow-based political philosopher at Moscow State University, was translated by the Simone Weil Center.  It originally appeared in Russian in Politanalitika (6/25/2017).

 From time to time there appears in the American press articles of a sort that demand a timely response, and it is about one such publication that I wish to write today.  I am referring to Blocpolitik, an important article that just appeared in the latest issue of the magazine "The National Interest."  The article was written by the well-known American scholar, political scientist and economist Michael Lind.   This article clearly coincides thematically and conceptually with a recent publication by the same author that recently appeared in the new magazine American Affairs: that latter piece was called "The New Class War."  Together, the two articles form a sort of diptych.  I imagine there will follow now a number of other articles by the same author, eventually leading to another book, as usually happens.

I had occasion, between 2002 – 2008 (when I was reviewing his book The American Way of Strategy for Cosmopolis magazine), to analyze the life and work of Lind. I noted with interest how much Lind's views have changed and, at the same time, how thoroughly he has taken into account all the ups and downs of recent years in his conclusions.

First, a few words about the "The American Way of Strategy."  Lind clearly wrote this work with a view to its relevance for a future democratic administration, a circumstance that gives me reason to conclude that Lind's latest series of articles is intended for the policy of a hypothetical post-Trump White House, one with a Democrat in charge. In the earlier period, he correctly forecast the rough outlines of the new Democrat president. He realized that the future leader will try to dissociate himself from the legacy of George W. Bush, Jr., that he would try to combine the ideas of liberal internationalism and realism. Lind correctly forecast, in the area of foreign policy, that the new president's leading idea would be legalism: his first desire would be to act strictly within the framework of international law,  to take into account the opinions of America's allies (multilateralism), instead of ignoring them as Bush did during the war in Iraq. Lind’s hopes were, more or less, that the new democratic president would correspond to a tidy Wilsonianism  in the spirit of his beloved Lyndon B. Johnson.

Barack Obama, at the initial stage of his rule, corresponded in almost all respects to Michael Lind's  foreign policy ideal type -- except in one respect, which, alas, turned out to be the decisive one. Obama could not accept the idea of America taking a neutral stance with regard to the internal organization of various states: that is, he could not abandon the posture of "democratic messianism," and indeed, here he followed almost exactly in the footsteps of his predecessor.  The turmoil in Iran after the presidential elections of 2011 confronted Obama with his first difficulty, leaving him indecisive as to whether or not he should applaud the Iranian protesters.  And, of course, when in 2011 the Arab Spring broke out, he had to decide whether or not to give the process his active encouragement.  Obama, as we know, felt he had no choice but to provide that encouragement. And so he launched a series of events that eventually led to the triumph of ISIS and the current "war of all against all" in the Middle East. In other words, Lind for the most part correctly guessed the future direction of US foreign policy, but could not foresee all the problems that it would face, and which would require a change in that direction.

In this sense, Lind's return, after eight years focusing mostly on economic policy issues, to the topic of foreign policy and security, represents, in a certain sense, a chance to correct his past mistakes.  He is acting now as a completely unsentimental Machiavellian analyst, one able to set aside values so as to concentrate on reality, and an often inconvenient reality at that. His realism is not of the decorative or declarative variety: it is sober program of the study of political reality. 

One more point needs to be emphasized:  Lind is not directly speaking out in  opposition to Donald Trump. And yet, he clearly realizes that Trump's political program, his whole line about "America first," has been doomed as a project from the very start.  What Lind in effect has done  - albeit in Machiavellian fashion -  is provide a theoretical justification for those who are at war with Trump. Behind the latter group stands a well-established and irrevocable reality.  Behind Trump there stands, as they say, little more than idle dreams. To complete Lind's thought in my own words, Trump's presidency will lead to little more than the following: that reality on behalf of which the opponents of the president are acting will finally receive its proper theoretical formulation.

What is this reality? Here is the most important thing:  Lind wants to say that it is by no means the reality of the "global market", "transnational democracy", the "international community" and other chimeras that do not relate to reality. In this sense, Trump decided to counterpose to this set of myths a myth of his own, only to find himself eventually coming up against a certain very real wall.  What he came up against was the factual existence of the American bloc, a very integrated community in which the American corporate elite plays the leading role, but in which the minority members also play a very significant role – in this latter category are members of the European business community, the entire Western expertocracy, and finally the Saudi sheikhs and representatives of the Japanese political elite.  This beau monde has been interwoven for such a long time with hundreds of club connections, all sorts of initiatives, projects, business ventures, to such an extent that America, no matter how strong, is incapable of extricating itself from this conglomerate simply to feed some starving residents of the Rust Belt.  The "Bloc" will resist; it is resisting.  

Lind clearly states not simply that the "bloc" will defeat the "America first" concept: he says it is already winning, because by and large Trump is no longer doing anything that sharply contradicts the interests of the "bloc". His so-called revolution has already been submerged and is pulling back from the frontlines.

Lind does not use the term "civilization" that is customary for us, because he holds that the boundaries and composition of the "bloc" cannot be determined by culture, history and religion, although he admits that there is a clear tendency for blocs to include a register of values. The main thing in the "bloc" is the interrelationship of the spheres of politics, economics and military security, conditioned by elite integration between the "bloc" member countries, with America occupying unarguably the dominant position.

Here’s the most important point: bloc cancels the prior logic of national interest.  The "bloc" is not just an instrument for ensuring national prosperity, it is a new reality that any populist nationalist will have to reckon with.  To be sure, the taxpayer does not want to sacrifice his pocketbook for the sake of keeping Saudi Arabia or, say, South Korea in the "block"  --  or let’s say we’re talking to California or rural Virginia:  for the sake of keeping these territories in, both of you will have to suffer a little. Today, for the American Bloc such is the case. And no Trump is going to change that. I am, of course, presenting here the view of Lind.

However, the "American bloc" does not coincide with the world as a whole, because it is already facing challenges from both Russia and China, which have claims on creating blocs of their own. Russia is making these claims openly and demonstratively; China with a greater sense of caution.

As a result, as Lind writes, if the hypothetical Rip Van Winkle should fall asleep and wake up in 2050 or in 2100, he would most likely find that the political map of the world was not too changed. As George Orwell once assumed in his famous novel, there would be the Euro-Atlantic Oceania holding onto the continental part of Europe; there would be the East Asia area rallied around China, and the Russian middle world of Eurasia. That is the same as the three blocks already guessed at today – the American, Russian and Chinese. Lind also allows for the possibility of an Indian - South Asia bloc.  He is silent about the prospects of block construction in the Muslim world.

And further, sounding almost like a quote from Vadim Tsymbursky:  the blocs will seek to ease the severity of conflicts by neutralizing disputed territories, or turning them into the equivalent of mined [as in land-mines -- PRG] territories:  "Since the stakes are too high for the American public to support politics fraught with the risk of war with any one great power [meaning China or Russia – BM], the most likely long-term solution to the problem is the neutralization of the intermediate territories for which the struggle is fought, … Ukraine or the South China Sea, or the laying of new mined militarized stretches in the same regions, like the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. " Obviously, we are talking about the same approach to the problem of the territories split between different "blocs", such as Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, which the present author, in a number of recent publications, has called "civilizational realism.”

And  now a few words about which term is preferable: "block" or "civilization". On the one hand, it is understandable why Lind does not write anything at all about "civilizations" - he clearly does not want to be associated with Toynbee, Huntington, Brodel, Spengler and, in general, the entire philosophical and historical tradition of denying linear progress in the name of the cyclical concept of history. Let me remind you that Lind is a classic American liberal in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Any propositions of the sort that Chinese communism is of equal value with American democracy are deeply alien to him. At the same time, he admits that blocks can arise without any value basis -- a classic example being the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which even Obama failed to break, although this tie clearly outraged his democratic conscience.

How can one respond to all this?

I believe that sooner or later Lind will have to deal with Huntington, Toynbee and Spengler; and I very much hope that eventually Vadim Tsymbursky's ideas will become so well-known in the West that he will have to deal with him as well.  It is not enough to take note of the presence of "blocks": one must also explain what gives rise to them and what ensures their continued existence? Why did the Warsaw bloc break up but the American bloc survive? Why did the Saudi sheikhs come through unscathed, while the Egyptian president-autocrat had to be sacrificed, and the Russian oligarchs while in power were not allowed past the threshold? In other words, why do some "blocks" turn out to be capable of turning into "civilizations", while others are not?

And here’s an even more important question: what is it that ensures that a "block" will not suffer a collapse of the Soviet – Warsaw Pact type? In addition to elite ties, some kind of spiritual integration is needed, otherwise revolutions of the Trump type will happen over and over again. Hence, at the very foundation of the "bloc" there must lie a certain religious, or crypto-religious component -- and that is hardly the sort of thing it is possible to simply invent.  In other words, the "block" of necessity has at least something of a "civilizational" aspect.   What is more, in order to withstand technological competition with another "bloc", this civilization must also become a center capable of producing technological innovations.

So we can assume that under the competitive geopolitical stalemate described by Lind, the rivalry between the "blocs" will pass into the sphere of socio-religious politics and technopolitics.

Of course, in the future, each "block" will claim that it alone represents the prototype of the one true humanity. Unfortunately, this stage of "civilizational fundamentalism" is inevitable. For now our task is precisely to delay as long as possible the arrival of this stage.  We need this time delay so as to use it to get everyone nicely settled into their respective civilizational niches and, crucially, to solve the problems of the "intermediate territories."  In other words, we need to go through a long period of "civilizational realism,” during which all sides will, however reluctantly, recognize the existence of each other as well as themselves.

Toward precisely this end, I am already looking forward to seeing completed another series of articles by Michael Lind, a series which, I hope, will be collected in his next monograph. And for the same reason, I am also looking forward to the publication later this year (thanks to the efforts of the ISEPI fund) of the Ph.D. thesis of Vadim Tsymbursky, "The Morphology of Russian Geopolitics and the Dynamics of International Systems of the XVIII-XX centuries."   Both efforts are moving toward the same correct goal of preventing our "blocs” from colliding in a hot conflict.

Unfortunately, it is simply insufficient for the US and the Russian Air Forces to sign Memoranda on the prevention of collisions in the air:  we need similar work on the ideological plane; we need an appropriately detailed Memorandum on preventing the clash of our civilizations. But to start work on the drafting of such a document one must first recognize the existence of such "civilizations", we must admit to ourselves that we, that is, we Russians, and people in the West, and the Chinese, each represent examples of such civilizations.

And that is not easy.

Because in that case, many will have to face sacrifices. A resident of America's "rust belt" may have to sacrifice his work and family well-being.  The liberal-democratic public – its conviction that its country represents the flagship of the democratic idea.  A citizen of the European Union – ones self-concept as a free person, as opposed to a comfortable serf without rights, a kind of Thyrsus of the postmodern world constantly afraid that the new American president will give free reign to his will.  Here I’m talking only about cozy myths on the Western side -- but how many such "unrealistic dreams" of our own will we have to part with!  If I’m nervous about talking about, it is only because I do not want to see the idea of "civilizational realism" buried right away, but instead to preserve it as the only way to save Russia and humanity as we go through this more difficult than expected XXI century.

We should be grateful to Michael Lind, as it appears that he was among the first to enable Western man to directly face the unpleasant reality before us. It is a reality with which, in future, we will all have to deal, including those who would much prefer not to.

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Boris Mezhuev