James has an unusual take Western attitudes towards Russia:

So here’s my peanut: bad relations with Russia make us feel so uncomfortable because they challenge and undermine our most cherished narratives about the moral and social progress of the global white community. I know even suggesting that we think analytically in terms of an ‘international white race’ sets off alarms, but it’s obvious that Russian disinterest in, or outright hostility to, liberal political norms is noteworthy primarily because virtually every other majority-white country in the world has embraced and institutionalized them. We (small-l) liberals recoil at the very idea that any white person could seriously appreciate or even live under a regime like Russia’s, because this is a reminder that white people are not the charmed winners of Earth’s civilizational marathon — contestants who can rest easy now that they’ve completed the course and won the race.

I have to give James high marks for creativity, but I don’t think so. The idea of a “global white community” doesn’t set off any alarms, because this refers to something that is a community in about the same way that “the international community” is actually a community. Discomfort with poor Russian relations is not anxiety caused by Russia’s subversion of some international white narrative. Put differently, what James is trying to say might not sound so strange. What annoys Westerners about Russia is that Russians are historically Christian, culturally European and are the most thoroughly Westernized so-called “Eastern” nation (in no small part because they have been part of “Western Civilization” for a millennium), but this does not lead most Russians to quite the same political preferences as their neighbors. That suggests that political preferences and constitutions are highly contingent and they are driven by particular interests and conditions. Western liberals seem to find this hard to believe, and they are reduced to explaining away such things by invoking irrationality as the cause.

It also suggests that a country’s history imposes limitations and constraints on how a polity develops, and it tells us yet again that there is no single model of modernity or modernization. Westerners may accept this in theory, but a lot of them don’t like it. However, before we get carried away in emphasizing Russian “disinterest” in or “hostility” to liberal norms, it is worth noting, as Lieven has done, that most Russians want a free media and the rule of law, or at least they say they do, but this does not therefore translate into what is conventionally defined as a “pro-Western” attitude on various matters of policy. This may help get at one of the real sources of Western frustration with Russia: the enduring importance of nationalism in international affairs.

If post-1989 central and eastern European liberal democrats embraced Western norms, they did so in part to reject Russia. As Lieven made clear in that item from earlier this month, liberal democracy succeeded in post-communist Europe where it did in part because it was grounded in an anti-Russian, nationalist reaction that the Russians themselves could never have. Instead, like every other post-communist nation (and like every still-officially communist state in existence), Russians have become or rather continued to be very nationalistic. Undomesticated, fierce nationalism in post-Soviet space is fine in the eyes of most Westerners, provided that its hostility is directed squarely at Moscow or its allies, but any expression of nationalism coming from Russia causes Westerners to worry, even though this resurgence of nationalism is something that is common to all post-communist nations.

This brings us back to a more basic issue, which is widespread and persistent hostility to Russia that taps into various old prejudices about tsarism, communism, Orthodoxy, Slavs and all things from “the East.” Were Russia somehow to become the vanguard of a global democratic revolutionary force, I can almost imagine many Westerners finding cause to celebrate authoritarian governments cropping up all over eastern Europe to help thwart the democratic Russian menace. After all, even a thoroughly liberal democratic Russia will not cease to have its own national interests and ambitions, and a liberal Russia would have far more pretexts for intervention in the affairs of its neighbors, perhaps beginning with the “liberations” of Belarus and Azerbaijan from the grip of their local despots. One can almost imagine all of the defenders of “liberal imperialism” from the last few years suddenly discover the dangers of ideologically-justified interference in the internal affairs of other nations.

I would say that Russia vexes Western liberals (broadly defined) because the Russian example suggests that historical memory, culture and the nation’s past are far from irrelevant to the constitution of a polity. Western liberals seem to want these things to be absolutely irrelevant, because they tend to get in the way of planting liberal democracies in other countries. I’ll wager the people who are made uncomfortable by bad relations with Russia are very few, and we are unlikely to be representative. Most people are either indifferent to this or may even be pleased by it. Nothing brings back comfortable, lazy policy-making and self-congratulatory rhetoric like being able to vilify “the Russkies” as in the old days. Unless ensuring bad relations with Russia is the deliberate goal, I cannot explain how else Washington can persist in policies that are guaranteed to result in bad relations.

The Russian example is discouraging to democracy enthusiasts, because it makes clear how vital strong legal institutions and limitations on state power are to a mass democracy if it is not going to become a plebiscitary authoritarian state. Even if the enthusiasts acknowledge this, they don’t like being reminded that liberal and good government is largely of a function of all the very un-democratic institutions and elements of our system. Whenever these people whine about Russian “backsliding” away from democracy, they don’t want to have to think about how the current Russian government is illiberal, authoritarian and interventionist in the economy because this is in many (though not all) ways what most of the people want.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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