Liberalism’s Civilization Problem

Two of the most influential essays written towards the end of the twentieth century were Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” (1989) and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” (1993). Later expanded into books, the authors outlined very different prospects for global politics.

For Fukuyama, the crumbing of communist systems heralded a coming “end-point” in “mankind’s ideological evolution,” this being the eventual “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” There might be temporary lapses on this Hegelian high road to liberal domestic and international order and the journey might take centuries, but the destination was settled.

Huntington took a different view. While some ideological conflicts may have subsided, he argued that societies were likely to find themselves caught up in civilizational conflicts. Far from a coming hegemony of Western values and institutions, Western nations would be confronted by resurgent Sinic and Islamic civilizations.

Throughout the 1990s, the end of history thesis seemed ascendant. Numerous countries in very different cultural settings appeared to be embracing liberal democracy and markets. But that type of argument looks rather less convincing these days. In fact, as confidence in the desirability of liberal order dwindles throughout much of the world, Huntington’s thesis appears to have come into its own.

Nothing is Inevitable

Whether it is Russia’s embrace of neo-Tsarism mixed with state gangsterism, Hindu nationalism’s ever-tightening grip on India, the Muslim world’s ongoing dominance by decidedly illiberal regimes, or China’s ramped-up Communist-nationalist authoritarianism, they underscore the fading credibility of the “liberalism is inevitable” standpoint. Many of these regimes are consciously framing themselves, as Adrian Pabst and Aris Roussino have illustrated, as civilizational actors over and against Western states.

One can be cynical about Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cloak his authority in ballasts of Russian identity like Eastern Orthodoxy. Likewise, it is easy to dismiss Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to re-root Turkey in an Islamized version of its Ottoman imperial past as to be expected from a politician with Erdogan’s background. As for China, more than one person regards Xi Jinping’s insistence that China is entitled to project its own values abroad as primarily about his desire to reinforce the Communist party’s internal control.

But whatever the motives—and I think it would be unwise to view these developments as simply driven by internal power consolidation—these regimes are behaving as more than just nation-states. Since 2012, for instance, Putin has repeatedly portrayed Russia as a “state-civilization bonded by the Russian people, Russian language and Russian culture native for all of us, uniting us and preventing us from dissolving in this diverse world.” For him and many other Russians, the steady political expansion of that civilization-state since Peter the Great’s time is the natural state of affairs.

Similar trends are noticeable in China. As David Goldman recently observed, “there’s a continuity between what was always a very heterogeneous set of men who had a very cruel empire and what the Chinese are doing today.” That pattern of governance goes hand-in-hand with a 5000 year-old civilizational tradition that survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It is easy to see why contemporary Chinese leaders invoke this past to underscore that China is no ordinary nation-state. They have a point, and it resonates with much of China’s population.

Liberal Deer in the Headlights

These developments have created several challenges for Western nations. For one thing, they indirectly highlight the extent to which institutions of freedom in the West such as constitutionalism, market economies, and rule of law have become detached from their distinctly Western roots: i.e., the mixture of classical, Jewish, Christian, and Enlightenment sources that gave concrete definition to the idea of Western civilization.

We witness this in the reluctance of some contemporary Western advocates of free societies to even mention this history in anything but the vaguest terms. In the case of European Union leaders, some plainly question the worth of some of these roots, particularly those of a religious nature. Other EU politicians mirror the wider absence of civilizational confidence that pervades so many European countries. That’s understandable, given twentieth-century Europe’s penchant for self-destruction and its capacity to generate ideologies of evil like Marxism or National Socialism.

Yet other Western leaders maintain that universalizing these habits and institutions requires them to be detached from their Western origins. How, the argument goes, can we expect Saudis or Mongolians to embrace rule of law or constitutionalism if we don’t deemphasize their Western associations? One alternative would be to note that some of these institutions derive their deepest legitimacy from claims of natural law and natural rights: i.e., concepts which, while undergoing their most sophisticated development in the West, are not by definition specifically Western phenomena. Unfortunately it’s unclear that many Western politicians and culture shapers themselves have anything but the flimsiest grasp of such ideas, which means they are unlikely to be convinced—or convincing—articulators of this line of thought.

Whatever the reasons, these doubts, forgetfulness and reticence leaves Western defenders of free societies enunciating the thinnest of normative foundations for, say, human rights, or unable to get beyond efficiency arguments when defending markets. They are reduced to making nebulous allusions to, for example, dignity, but they can’t explain dignity in terms beyond feelings, utility, or “because the United Nations says so.” None of these have ever proved strong foundations for anything.

This absence of civilizational self-assurance manifests itself at the very top of European politics. Consider, for instance, France’s Emmanuel Macron. In a 2019 article, he called for a revival of “European humanism” and a “European civilization that unites, frees and protects us.” Yet his reflections about European culture said almost nothing about the nature or source of European values. While Macron referenced freedom and progress, his focus was overwhelmingly on practical issues like climate change and tax policy: all important no doubt, but hardly central to the content of European civilization. “Europe is not a second-tier power,” Macron insisted almost pleadingly. It was hard not to read Macron’s appeal as confirming precisely what he was denying. His words left the impression that Europe’s second-tierness owed something to an incapacity to give concrete expression to the deeper commitments which defined the West itself.

By contrast, figures like Putin, Xi, and Erdogan have no qualms about robustly defending their political arrangements via references to Russian history, Confucian ethics, or Islam. Their accounts of how Russian culture, Confucianism, or Sunni theology legitimates authoritarianism may be disputable. For the moment, however, that doesn’t matter. Theirs is a powerful, confident message against which most of their contemporary Western European peers look and sound ineffectual. Some American conservatives have taken note, and added this observation to their repertoire of reasons for why we need to dispense with liberalism.

Alas, few Western leaders possess the imagination to link the values and institutions of freedom to these cultural reference-points inside the civilization-states presently confronting the West.

For all its problems, America is better positioned to re-ground its case for free societies upon a particular civilizational heritage. The American Founding is a distinct political and cultural achievement, but also draws upon the classical, religious, and Enlightenment sources which have shaped Western identity. Moreover, it continues to inspire not just Americans but also many others precisely because of the American Founding’s universalistic claims. It’s not a coincidence that American progressives want to “change the narrative” about the Founding via endeavors like the 1619 Project. They know that dismantling the Founding will delegitimize the institutions of ordered liberty which the progressive left want to unravel.

Paths to Choose

If the preceding analysis is accurate, it suggests two possibilities that may help address the internal and external civilizational dilemmas facing Western free societies.

One involves insisting that the Western values and institutions which have defined freedom and whose foundations stretch as far back as the Hebrew Scriptures and classical Greece do have specific origins, did achieve maturity in Western societies, but are also good for all peoples. That’s not an argument for wars in the Middle East. But it would allow Western leaders to project a civilizational self-assurance that is presently lacking, and to respond to those who argue that such propositions amount to neo-colonialism or aggressive Occidentalism.

The main obstacle to this approach lies less, I suspect, with the negative reaction it would surely generate from the likes of Xi, Erdogan, and Putin, and more with the hostile response it would evoke from within Western countries. The progressive left’s obsessive focus on Western history’s darker aspects and its insistence that most of the West’s achievements are primarily masks for endless oppression largely flows from the left’s generally negative view of Western civilization. On the other side of the spectrum, some conservatives view post-Enlightenment liberalism as a decisive break with the West’s deeper philosophical and religious roots. Far from wanting to associate principles of ordered liberty with Western civilization, they want to jettison the liberal project altogether.

A second possibility concerns Western thinkers investing considerable energy and time in illustrating how the norms and institutions of free societies might be embodied within the cultural settings of those states presently challenging the West. This possibility arises when we recognize that the cultural histories of these nations are less monolithically authoritarian than often realized.

Longstanding traditions of liberal constitutionalism exist, for instance, in Russia. They go back to the eighteenth century and run counter to the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” doctrine promoted by the Tsarist regime in the nineteenth century as well as the seven decades of Bolshevik rule. These traditions are associated with figures like Tsar Alexander I’s close advisor Count Mikhail Speransky, the Decembrist army officers who tried to install a constitutionalist regime in Russia in 1825, and the Octobrist and Constitutional Democratic parties who exerted considerable political influence between 1905 and 1917. There was even a significant Russian liberal conservative movement which combined criticism of autocracy with firm opposition to the radicals, nihilists and anarchists who proliferated in nineteenth-century Russia.

At different points, these Russian movements for greater liberty were severely repressed by Czars, socialists, Marxists, and Greater Russian nationalists. They never achieved anything like a critical mass. Yet they are undeniably part of Russian history and, as such, constitute a Russian source of legitimacy for moves towards a freer Russia.

China is not without its own traditions that lean in the direction of greater freedom and which provide a contrast to the Chinese Communist party’s authoritarian corporatism. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Chinese intellectuals such as the historian Liang Qichao and the philosopher and diplomat Hu Shih espoused liberal ideas and sought to link them to ancient Chinese philosophies ranging from various expressions of Confucianism to their primary rival, Mohism. During the same period, reform movements like the Progressive Party which consciously promoted constitutionalism and liberty under rule of law achieved significant representation in the new Chinese Republic’s National Assembly in 1913.

Even further back, there are schools of Confucianism which upheld similar ideas. The series of debates known as the Discourses on Salt and Iron which occurred at the imperial court in 81 BC pitted “Modernists” (supporters of price controls, extensive state monopolies, and high taxation to fund military expeditions and state-led colonization of China’s border-areas) against “Reformists.” This second group consisted of Confucian scholars who advocated ending government monopolies, reducing taxes on merchants and capital, and generally market-friendly views. The Reformists’ overall understanding of life was very much one of “self-ordering” within an ethical and legal framework that emphasized virtue and a type of natural law reasoning. The parallels with freedom-friendly Western discourse are clear.

No Confidence, No Future

To be sure, these legacies of freedom in China and Russia remain overshadowed by highly resilient authoritarian trends. They also proved unable to resist Communism in China and Russia, or even, in China’s case, some assimilation into fascist-inclined nationalist movements in the 1920s and 30s. From this perspective, they are at best shaky foundations for other futures for China and Russia. Nonetheless, these traditions cannot be dismissed outright as foreign impositions and thus provide some indigenous precedents for rule of law, greater economic liberty, a vibrant civil society, and a limited state in countries which have experienced precious little of such phenomena.

Alas, few Western leaders possess the imagination to link the values and institutions of freedom to these cultural reference-points inside the civilization-states presently confronting the West. Nor do many have the courage to ground liberal order explicitly upon a clear and unapologetic understanding of what Western civilization means. They seem wedded to the promotion of bloodless protocols routinely ignored by Beijing, Moscow and Ankara, confuse freedom with license, increasingly collapse justice into wokery and political correctness, or are trapped within the deterministic mindset of “if markets grow, liberty’s victory will inevitably follow.”

Not one of these approaches will instill in Western societies the civilizational confidence that is indispensable if they want to push back against the authoritarian regimes of assertive civilization-states. Putin, Erdogan, and Xi understand the importance of that type of self-belief. It is high-time that more Western leaders did so as well. Without it, the West and its tradition of liberty under law have a limited future.