In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine many in the West described Putin as crazy. Yet for 30 years, Putin repeatedly claimed in his speeches that Russia and Ukraine were ‘one people’. When it comes to China and Taiwan it can seem that Westerners are making a similar mistake of not listening to what Xi Jinping is actually saying. So why are we so reluctant to take foreign adversaries at their word? What is it that prevents us from entertaining their perceptive on the world, however “crazy” it might seem to us? Are we worried that acknowledging a different way of thinking will put into question our own? At HowTheLightGetsIn festival London 2022, Peter Hitchens, Paul Mason, and Bhavna Davé debated why the West refuses to really understand its adversaries.
It’s fair to say that in the West we have become rather cynical about our politicians. We are used to them saying one thing, and then doing another. Bold statements about policy and vision before elections might rally the crowds, but few are surprised when those are not followed through. The question is, are we making a mistake when we apply the same thinking to leaders very different from those of Western liberal democracies?
The truth is, few people pay proper attention to what foreign leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping say anyway. When was the last time you listened to a speech by either? But even when the media pays attention to something alarming a foreign authoritarian leader has said, we tend to do one of two things: either dismiss their statements as bluster and rhetoric or explain them away as the words of madmen who have lost all contact with reality. Neither attitude is helpful when trying to predict what will happen next on the world stage.
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In a recent debate entitled “The Fantasies of the West” that took place at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival in London’s Hampstead Heath, two of the UK’s most outspoken columnists, Peter Hitchens on the right (the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens), Paul Mason on the left, author of How to Stop Fascism, together with international politics academic Bhavna Davé, debated whether we should be making more of an effort to really understand the perspective of our adversaries. The worry often seems to be that if we do so, we are in danger of recognising the relativity of our own perspective: they see the world one way, we see the world a different way - who’s to say who’s right? But the alternative seems even more dangerous: living in a collective delusion where all our adversaries are evil, irrational, mad, and therefore totally unpredictable.
Xi Jinping is still wedded to a Marxist ideology, and even though Mason is a self-described Marxist he recognises a dark, dangerous element in Xi’s thinking.
Paul Mason kicked off the debate by immediately subscribing to the policy of listening carefully to what leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping are actually saying. This is a lesson Mason had learned from his own study of fascism, the overwhelming consensus of scholars in this area is clear: take fascists at their word and don’t dismiss them, they mean what they say. If we do so, Mason argued, we will come to understand that Russia and China pose two very different kinds of danger towards the West. On the one hand, Putin has no designs on Western liberal democracy per se – he does not wish to defeat the ideology, he simply wants to expand the borders of his own totalitarian, reactionary system. The challenge of China, on the other hand, is very different. Xi Jinping is still wedded to a Marxist ideology, and even though Mason is a self-described Marxist he recognises a dark, dangerous element in Xi’s thinking. “Xi wants to Sinicize Marxism. He wants us to think we are automata, machines. In this, he shares a lot with anti-humanistic thought in the West.” This, Mason argued, is fundamentally different from any version of Western politics which is committed to the liberal ideal of allowing people the space to debate and circulate ideas, even seemingly radical and anti-systemic ones.
“Is Putin crazy? Yes. Until recently he was a cynical, but rational actor. He’s now become irrational and self-destructive.”
Peter Hitchens started his intervention by tackling the question of Putin’s rationality head-on: “Is Putin crazy? Yes. Until recently he was a cynical, but rational actor. He’s now become irrational and self-destructive.” And while casting our adversary as mad might deprive us of the ability to predict their behaviour, and perhaps even try and influence it, Hitchens argued that’s exactly the situation we have in our hands: “We are now dealing with someone with great power, but whose actions can’t be predicted by any calculus.” However, Hitchens doesn’t think that was always the case. He reminded the audience that in the past he argued that the Western attitude towards Russia, especially by the US and other NATO countries, was extremely provocative and wouldn’t end well. Hitchens wasn’t alone in this view. The historian and diplomat Geroge F. Kennan who had a deep understanding of the Soviet Union and Cold War dynamics, expressed similar concerns about NATO’s expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky, two people who, as Hitchens rightly observed disagree on almost everything to do with foreign policy, also agreed on this: NATO’s expansion in Russia’s neighbourhood would spell conflict.
Hitchens was careful to distinguish his analysis of the mistakes the West made from a justification or exculpation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, he became very aggravated at those who have accused him over the past months of being a Putin apologist. Hitchens was adamant that debating foreign policy should be free of such ad-hominem attacks as they short-circuit any fruitful discussion.
But while there is a distinction to be made between explaining Putin’s behaviour and justifying it, the line can become blurred by the narrative that explains the invasion of Ukraine as a predictable reaction to Western strategy. Earlier this year, Stathis Kalyvas, the Gladstone professor of government at Oxford made a convincing case for why the main reason we in the West got Putin wrong was that we were too focussed on the NATO expansion narrative that we missed the fact that Putin was telling us exactly why he was going to invade Ukraine. It had little to do with NATO and everything to do with the desire to reconstruct a “Great Russia”, and the belief that Ukraine is a made-up country, with no national identity of its own, and its very existence a mere accident of history that needed to be corrected.
Russia is still reeling from the trauma of the 2nd World War, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Especially the latter came with a sense of humiliation that Putin is all too aware of.
Bhavna Davé, a senior lecturer in international politics at SOAS underlined the thought that no matter how many mistakes the West has made in its dealings with Russia, there is no excuse for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But when it came to the main question of the debate, whether we should be making more of an effort to understand the perspective of Russia, she was emphatic: nothing can replace filed work, and on-the-ground-lived experience. She emphasised three key things we need to think about in order to make sense of contemporary Russia: 1) Putin and his regime have perfected propaganda. We need to understand how Russian propaganda works if we are to understand both the regime, but also why people go along with it. 2) Russia might not be a democracy, but there is still a social contract in place: relative prosperity and stability in exchange for people keeping out of politics. As long as Putin keeps his side of the bargain, he’ll continue to have the support of the majority. 3) The country is still reeling from the trauma of the 2nd World War, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Especially the latter came with a sense of humiliation that Putin is all too aware of.
Western leaders and intellectuals failed to appreciate this last point especially. Instead of thinking about how Russia might be allowed, perhaps even helped, to develop a post-Cold War identity of its own, what the West did was celebrate its ideological victory, pronouncing the end of history as liberal democracy and capitalism were suddenly understood to be the only game in town. This of course led to a series of hybris-filled interventions around the world, with attempts to export parliamentary liberal democracy to countries that shared neither the historical nor the cultural conditions that gave rise to this system in Western countries. We fell victim to the Kantian thought that our values, political and otherwise, were somehow transcendentally justifiable, rather than rooted in a place and time - in history.
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It’s this sin of Kantian absolutism, the idea that all humans share one common cognitive and moral scheme, no matter when or where they are situated in history, that Nietzsche revolted against. For Nietzsche there is no one shared perspective on the world – there are as many perspectives as there are people, and the more of them we are able to occupy, the better. Despite all of the panellists agreeing that we should be paying more attention to what our adversaries say and that we should try and understand where they’re coming from, there was distinctive reluctance to concede that acknowledging other perspectives means there is no one, objective perspective – one definitive account of, say, global politics.
Acknowledging that no one holds “The Truth” doesn’t immediately lead us to a nihilistic “anything goes”.
Paul Mason, acknowledging that HowTheLightGetsIn is a ‘Nietzschean’ festival, one that tries to grapple with the post-post-modern world we find ourselves in, doubled down on classic Enlightenment ideals of rationality and objectivity. Instead, he argued, we should hold leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping accountable to their own commitments. For example, they are both signatories of the UN Convention of Human Rights, yet violate them consistently.
Bhavna Davé was perhaps more open to the idea that recognising that others think differently than us should also make us question our own certainties. Take democracy, for example. Sure, we might look down on China’s avoidance of even discussing the concept openly, but we should also reflect on the fact that “democracy” for most in the West has come to mean “allowing the general population to have a say in how things are run”. But historically, democracy has meant so much more than just election participation. Should we not take stock and think of our own shortcomings when it comes to democratic governance?
Hitchens was a lot more worried about equivocating our weaknesses with those of our enemies. When Paul Mason suggested the U.K. might do well to apologise for the heinous crime of the slave trade during the Empire days, as well as the degradation of China during the opium wars, Hitchens rebutted “Let’s not apologise to people whose hands are steeped in blood.”
What lies behind Hitchens’ quip is the anxiety of relativism, the view that in the end, we’re all just the same, and that the West can’t proclaim any absolute or objective superiority over other value systems. That’s often taken to be the lesson of Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead – that since the idea of one, objective account of reality, of morality, even of geopolitics, is no longer tenable, then all accounts are equally valid.
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But that need not be the case. Even Nietzsche himself didn’t think so. Acknowledging that no one holds “The Truth” doesn’t immediately lead us to a nihilistic “anything goes”. Perspectives can still be evaluated, from their own interval point of view (are they achieving what they set out to achieve, are they internally coherent) but also from within other perspectives that can accommodate them. What’s not possible is to evaluate a perspective from the outside, from our own internal set of rigid criteria of what’s right and wrong, good and evil, rational and mad.
That’s why if we want to understand what Putin and Xi are up to, we have to first occupy their perspectives, try and see the world how they see it. Paying attention to what they say is a good place to start.