What is distinctive about international politics? The question raised by the Bennett Institute’s report on public opinion on China, Russia, and America

A World Divided: Russia, China and the West. So goes the title of the Bennet Institute’s latest report on international politics, after a notable report on the decline of public trust in democracy in domestic political institutions (Global Satisfaction with Democracy, 2020). I would like to compare and contrast these reports and their shared implications for the complicated relationship between domestic politics and international political economy.

The latest report by the Bennet Institute’s Centre for the Future of Democracy.

Again drawing on polling data, the Centre for the Future of Democracy led by Roberto Foa now turns its lens towards the fate of liberal democracies in their external capacity, rather than in their crumbling internal constitutional pacts. A common message from the two reports arises: liberal democracy is being torn apart by the forces of illiberal autocracy abroad and the seeds of reactionary Caesarism within.

But can this account realistically apply both domestically and internationally? What if these spheres follow similar but non-identical logics? The problem, perhaps, relies on a circular logic of taking public opinion to be the cause and effect of itself. It is all well saying how democracy and policy are affected by public opinion. But what drives public opinion in the first instance?

The first report considers how inequality drives dissatisfaction within democracies. But what drives Nietzschean ressentiment towards liberal democracy around the world, besides widening within-country inequality? The answer seems glaringly obvious, and it is hidden in plain sight, as the title indicates: the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia pose America with the problem of narrowing between-country inequality.

American hegemony, the ground for protecting liberal democracy from all manner of foes (including itself), faces two obstacles: the domestic claims of the rich to hegemony over the state, and the international claims of challengers to America to hegemony over their respective regions of the world. This uncertainty creates apprehension, anxiety, and mistrust. That is in large part what drives these changing opinion polls — not mere ‘illiberal’ ideas, which, as ideas, are no more a cause of this crisis than they are causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.

As a statistical study published in Nature recently showed, imperial centralisation preceded religious monotheism. Material and institutional change precedes ideational shifts, not the other way round. And this report, in its own way, proves this case, despite headlines and summaries misreading the evidence given in the report. Let me explain.

As with the first report on democracy and inequality, the second report on America and its challengers gives good reason to believe public opinion is tracking an evolving political economy, not the other way around. The complication is that the political economy is so structured as to shape public opinion itself, as Noam Chomsky argued about American foreign policy in Manufacturing Consent. But even leaving the influence of media aside, the direction of causation seems clear.

Domestic politics are dominated by classes competing for power over the state. This much can be adduced from the evidence of the first report. International politics, meanwhile, are dominated by states competing for power over the state system through trade and war. This is clear from the second report. But in both cases, the conditions under which power is exercised are the conditions under which ideas are formed.

These conditions are material and institutional — and, thus, in part ideational. But as Alexander Wendt argued in Social Theory of International Politics, ideas may ‘constitute’ change but material conditions ‘cause’ it to happen in the first place. This much is argued in John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which looms like a large shadow over the second report.

The cases of Russia and China are materially different. Russia has oil and arms; China has industry and money. China has the economic foundations for military expansion; Russia does not. Together they may formidably challenge America. Alone, they don’t stand much of a chance.

Seeing as China is the bigger threat, by the logic of Machiavelli’s The Prince, it is rational for the West to ally with the weaker contender, Russia, in order to defeat the stronger contender, China. This is how to win the struggle for liberal democracy and against illiberal autocracy — not by being blindly idealistic, but by being ruthlessly realistic in the building of those unholy alliances necessary to contain the chaos that the unpeaceful rise of China is about the unleash on the whole world.

Alas, NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia into dangerous military manoeuvres in recent decades. And yet, to even say this is to risk being accused of excusing the inexcusable: Russia’s role in initiating a devastating internationalised civil war in Ukraine, analogous to the quagmire of Syria in the last decade.

But this argument is akin to economist Paul Krugman’s dismal of rural Americans’ reasons for voting Trump on the basis of urban America’s net subsidy of rural counties. It is the equivalent to saying: How dare you — after all we’ve given you! It is a childish way of seeing the world — and it fails to grasp the reality of class and interstate politics. It is a utopian view of a world mired by tragedy. It is also vengeful and wrong. No-one deserves to suffer. We should instead endeavour to alleviate suffering wherever we see it by negotiating peace wherever we can.

But America has not brought Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, and its efforts to contain China are, at best, lacklustre. This recklessness is dangerous, and it is reinforced by the argument in the report that liberal democracy can be protected merely by safeguarding liberal institutions and attacking illiberal ones. For illiberalism is a child of liberalism — and to ignore this is to pretend liberal democracy itself is autonomous from its material foundation. But it is not.

Liberal democracy, rather, requires a balance of class and state power in order to endure in an uncertain and unstable market economy, which must itself be managed to ensure trade does not destabilise the balance which prevents a slide towards war. Such arguments would be clear to early-modern writer James Harrington, for whom ‘ballance’ was the core principle of politics. Alas, such wisdom is forgotten in an unrealistic age.

We must learn from the evidence of this report, and amend the reasoning. If liberal democracy is losing faith around the world and this follows trends in changes to within- and between-country inequality, then it is the systems of distribution of prices and power that must be amended — not primarily the views of citizens, or even leaders. For it is not ideas that change the world primarily, but the world itself that changes, regardless of what we think about it.

And if ideas can have a role in changing the role, it is better to be humble about the power of ideas than to be hubristic about our power to reshape public opinion in a single image. For if liberal democracy is about anything, it is freedom of speech, expression, and thought. If this report teaches us nothing else, it is this lesson that must be emphasised the most. For the moment something is unsayable, it is unthinkable, and therefore undoable. Then, we really will have entered an Orwellian dystopia, and liberal democracy will have become the very monster it is designed to contain. Let us be sane. Democracy may well depend on it.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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