Conversation impossible with today’s nationalist and religious states

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With the eruption of ISIS in the Middle East and the ongoing autocracies in Russia and China, pause for a moment and think back to the last century and compare the challenges back then to now. Odd as it may seem, in retrospect, liberal democracies shared some core assumptions about the world with the Soviet Union—what Reagan called the “Evil Empire”—and its satellites that made conversation possible.

Today, democracies share hardly any values with a revanchist Russia and the emergent hegemon in China, and no values with radical Islamists. Principled conversation is impossible, and that’s dangerous.

Marxism, far more than its founder or followers understood, emerged from the Western liberal tradition. Marx’s undefined utopian communist future reads more like Christian millennialism than the “scientific” thought he claimed. Because Marx knew only European-based culture, he fooled himself into believing he captured something universal.

Free nations and communist nations both valued the material well-being of their citizens. Marxism’s prime goal was to improve the people’s lot—at least of the workers. The fatal flaw was, of course, that Marxists never understood their means (top-down government and the attempt to micromanage millions of individual economic choices) undermined their end goal (a prosperous society). The resulting abysmal material failure of communist nations was a point of conversation and led to their loss of legitimacy.

Communist nations also accepted democratic ideals and personal liberty, at least in rhetoric though not in reality—thus, the profusion of the word “republic” or “democratic” in communist states—the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), for example.

And, communist states were rarely suicidal. Despite many proxy wars, nuclear “mutually assured destruction” held the overall peace from the end of the close call of the Cuban missile crisis (which served as a warning to all) to the fall of communism a quarter century later.

Now, fast forward to the present. Democracies share hardly any core values with the power centres of the non-democratic world.

Today’s Russia and China put little value on the material well-being of their citizens. Economic success is important only so far as it boosts the stability of the regime, allows increased military spending, and enhances the projection of military and economic power.

So Russia endures crippling economic sanctions and the regime rides high in popular approval. China tightens up on freedoms to preserve its power, even though its highly intelligent leadership fully understands that broad freedoms are necessary to create a modern, dynamic economy.

Both Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China also reject personal freedom and democracy. This is explicit in China and implicit in Russia, becoming increasingly more explicit there.

No argument about people’s well-being, their freedom, or democratic rights has legitimacy in Beijing or Moscow. Nor is their authority undermined by trampling these principles. No basis for principled conversation exists with liberal democracies.

Even more clearly, the West shares no core values with Islamic extremists who violently reject individual freedom, democracy, and the material well-being of people. And they are suicidal, welcoming apocalyptic visions and scenarios like the idea of a nuclear war—it will unleash the destruction of the world; Allah will arise to establish pure Muslim rule; good Muslims are resurrected into a truly marvelous heaven (Janna); the rest of us get dumped into cauldrons of boiling pitch, among other delights. The world is purified. Nuclear cataclysm is a good thing!

The Soviets, for all their brutal internal purges, people’s wars and nuclear brinkmanship, never thought that. While it might not have seemed so at the time, the free world could have a rational conversation with the Soviets because of a shared assumption that the Enlightenment and its attention to empirical realities mattered. And that the contest between the two could be settled, ultimately, on who produced the “goods” for people. The West ultimately won the “conversation” because of the inability of the communist world to allow its people freedom, or to better their lives.

These goals are unimportant to nationalist and religious states (or semi-states such as ISIS). We lack common assumptions needed to engage in conversation. That makes the world a more dangerous and less stable place.

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