Our idea that history had a libretto of freedom led the West to misread Russia and China’s strategic intentions. We brushed aside signs that they were refusing to embrace our view of the world. Russia resisted NATO expansion to its border and refused to give the alliance a green light over Kosovo, but we thought their need for foreign capital would soften their intransigence over time. Chinese leaders dug in when asked to devalue their currency and they continued to imprison dissidents. But we assumed they would cooperate with us on other issues because they sought integration into the global economy. For too long we believed they were behind us on the march to freedom but were heading in the same direction.
Maybe supporters of NATO expansion and intervention in Kosovo believed that Russia would become more accommodating to things it hates because of “their need for foreign capital,” but it’s more likely that they didn’t care what Russia thought about these things. Western governments did these things because “we” could. Ignoring Russian objections was quite easy in the 1990s, since Russia was in no position to do more than protest loudly, and Western recognition that Russia would do nothing to block continued NATO expansion or military intervention in the Balkans meant that Western governments could act as they saw fit. Eastward NATO expansion pushed too far, ran into a wall, and now it seems to be finished, at least for a little while. Western governments probably could try to do the same thing in Syria that they did in Kosovo if they wanted (but they don’t), and Russia would still be in no position to oppose Western action directly. Whenever Ignatieff says that “we believed” something in this article, he means “I believed” it. There were quite a few Westerners who never believed any of this.
It’s possible that Western interventionists were so delusional as to believe that economic growth and foreign investment cancel out or radically change other states’ perceived national interests, but it really is more likely that they simply regard the perceived interests of these other states as illegitimate and not worth respecting or acknowledging. Ignatieff is willing to acknowledge them, but otherwise he holds the latter view. We see some of this even now in Western discussions of Russian policy in Syria, which often returns to some version of the question, “Why don’t the Russians realize that our position is obviously the best one for them?” It is hubris and indifference to the interests of other nations at work here more than any theory of history’s “libretto of freedom.”
The illusions Ignatieff describes were shattered a long time before disagreements over Syria. Between the failures of the so-called “freedom agenda” and the decline of global freedom in the 2000s, those illusions had already been dispelled. Disagreement over Syria has been a reminder that Russia and China genuinely perceive other states’ internal conflicts very differently from the way Western governments do, but it’s hard to imagine that very many people still believed in what Ignatieff calls the “libretto of freedom” before the uprising began in Syria.
Ignatieff goes on to predict a Sino-Russian partnership founded on their shared authoritarianism:
A vast swathe of the globe, from the Russian border to the Pacific, including the tributary states of the Russian near-abroad, is now in the hands of venal, ruthless, deeply corrupt, single-party elites. These elites—Russian and Chinese—will draw closer together, as they understand that they have made the same strategic choice. Both are using capitalism to consolidate political despotism. They both see the world as a battle between elites like themselves with unlimited power and Western elites whose power is limited by democratic liberty.
When they look at the world this way, the Russian and Chinese regimes mock our view of history. They believe history is on their side.
Even though Ignatieff starts his argument by claiming to see through the ideological trappings of “our view of history” (which is actually his view of history), he can’t get away from seeing Russian and Chinese actions and motivations in terms of a global ideological struggle between competing elites. Russia and China don’t really see the world this way. The two governments haven’t made “the same strategic choice.” They are wary of Western intentions, and they assume that the U.S. is committed to exporting revolution to topple regimes friendly to Moscow and Beijing (and ultimately to topple regimes in Russia and China), which is one of many reasons why they take such a dim view of attempts to overthrow the Syrian government. Russia and China will cooperate when it serves their respective interests, but it is a mistake to view their cooperation in terms of authoritarian solidarity. Russia and China see other states as competitors for influence, but that includes seeing each other this way. They will draw together if “we” insist on pushing them together. One way to help push them together is to construct arguments that present them as part of a united authoritarian front that doesn’t exist.