Is the relative pull of Liberalism as strong as they say?
Chatter about deglobalization and allied blocs is swelling. This time around, a more honest ‘accounting’ of the interests of nations might give us a more stable world.
There has long been a curious glitch in conventional accounts of geopolitical motivations and machinations. Recent events foreground it.
The word ‘account’ has two somewhat contrasting senses. One is that of a narrative. A reporter gives an account of events. The other is a tally of transactions. It’s what an accountant does. The two contrast in the sense that the latter is an objective exercise. You rely on unassailable numbers. You cannot make them up1. Narratives are subjective. Not only are they subject to the Rashomon Effect, that is their essential nature. Stories are made up and their makers have an end in mind.
The war in Ukraine set off columns and essays on an old question: What attracts countries to one another? Like in any high school social network, you’d get very different answers if you ask the attractor and then the attractee. They point to different accounts. The Times speaks for the former; this newsletter for the latter.
In recent years, readers of English media outside the OECD have grown inured to the phrase ‘rules-based international order’. Let’s shorten that to RuBIO. It signifies a club of countries that everyone ought to aspire to join. The presumptive attraction is Liberalism itself. The phrase in fact used to be ‘liberal democracies’, but in this young century that started to sound like discomfiting shorthand for ‘rich countries’. Standing on the boundary of the set it stood for, depending on whether you looked in or outwards, the older term either seemed increasingly vacuous or not capacious enough. Some really well-integrated economies appeared resolutely off the path to democracy. Meanwhile, even among prototypical liberal democracies, both parts of the term increasingly warranted close introspection.
Regardless, the last century’s narrative frame has resisted this century’s nudge towards updation. How else would one part of the world bring more into the fold of its better way of life? Hence the new phrase. Except, it isn’t quite, ‘Join the RuBIO, won’t you? Drinks on the house Thursdays!’
Myths stand on a scaffolding of resilient rhetoric. Especially the ‘why’ part of it - why join us. The canonical answer is a set of values, alone and sufficient in themselves. The Times built much of that scaffolding. On its pages, it is hence an easy slip from, ‘it is why everyone ought to join us’ to ‘it is why everyone wants to join us’. No mention of free drinks.
Late in March, Ross Douthat wrote a compelling broad piece on the Clash of Civilizations. But on the question of pull factors in potential global realignment, it took a shortcut:
… wherever smaller countries are somehow “torn” … between some other civilization and the liberal West, they usually prefer an American alliance to an alignment with Moscow or Beijing.
Your average liminal country looks East, gulps, then looks West and gapes at a shining example to follow, for their admirable liberal values alone. Four days later, Ezra Klein repeated the suggestion in an absolutely sublime piece on Liberalism. He called Ukraine Liberalism’s “would-be friend”.
… it is a country that aspires to be part of the West and struggles against the indifference and even contempt of those it admires.
That is one account, the narrative. Countries want to join you because they admire you and your qualities, be it Ukraine, or India, Peru, South Africa or Taiwan.
That narrative framing has a mythological quality. It may once have been a necessary myth, but it remains harder to show in facts. Its work is rhetorical. It certainly worked on me. To be clearer, I admire much2 about the modern liberal-democratic project of North-Atlantic minting, even in the Douthat-Klein sense. (Seriously, go read them if you didn’t!) But more objectively, the story sounds strikingly like the popular kid in a high school who happens to be extravagantly rich genuinely believing that everyone wants to join his parties only because he’s funny and honest, very trustworthy yet entertaining. It’s got nothing to do with the gifts that every attendee receives.
The other account is pure numbers. Because when countries join clubs, there indeed are gifts and free drinks!
There was a time when Liberalism itself accommodated ‘free’ trade as a principle, whether or not that was entirely accurate then3. We don’t live in those times. The wor(l)d has changed. Today when you are speaking of Liberalism as a set of values (which no country can claim at least 95% of its population agrees on and demonstrably professes), we must set out the benefits of trade separately. Besides, these are material benefits quite apart from abstract values. Some institutions meticulously track them in hard reliable numbers. Even if the word’s meaning hadn’t shifted, why not account for the numbers transparently?
Where’s the nearest stop to get the numbers? Other Times columns. The day after the war began, Thomas Friedman reported:
In 2012, Russia was the destination for 25.7 percent of Ukrainian exports, compared with 24.9 percent going to the E.U. Just six years later… “Russia’s share of Ukrainian exports had fallen to only 7.7 percent, while the E.U.’s share shot up to 42.6 percent,” according to a recent analysis published by Bruegel.org.
That’s it. That’s all there is.
Step into Ukraine’s shoes, try and get inside its head. (Rather than President Putin’s, which has been a more popular hobby all through 2022.) The EU is a large market just across the border where people who can afford most of what they want are eager to buy more of it from you, unlike Mother Russia4. The only people who have trouble sorting Ukraine’s primary motivation to join the EU between values and cash—mindless of Russia’s fatal attraction—might be 2016 ‘Leave’ campaigners in UK, those who still haven’t felt any buyer’s remorse. (Sorry, maybe it’s cruel to call it that just now.)
Ignoring the appeal of trade between countries is rather like suggesting, as Ted Cruz did yesterday, that the sole reason so many from mid-income countries covet jobs in the USA or the EU is their love for liberal values. That the five-fold salary for the exact same job is purely incidental, not worth mentioning every time we discuss the pull factors of immigration. (Also see ‘Post-Date’ below.)
Here’s what the world looks like to an unattached country that’s had enough lonely evenings and decides it’s time to get in bed with someone new.
When you’re scouting cool new friends, some names jump at you. You want to swipe right on the names that you can read from 4-5 screen lengths away. Then you sidle up to them and offer a compliment or a drink and see how the evening goes. The free drink is key.
To any country with competent bureaucrats in the department of foreign trade, the choice is not between Washington and Moscow-Beijing. Yes, China’s name on that graphic above is as big as the USA, but that’s not all you care about. You also know that most of the other large names are in a clique. Have been for decades. The rewards for picking that bunch are lop-sided. And if you’re clever, you remember ‘that scene’ from A Beautiful Mind.
Again, yes, liberal values as even I define them remain unevenly distributed, even as they wither away, and are attractive to many who live without them. Just let’s not cast them as the main pull factor in geopolitical alignment when there’s hard evidence for another factor. At best, the values merit a secondary mention or in direct relation to trade.
This is not just reflexive critique of American mediaspeak from a newsletter written in the Global South. This particular blindspot has tangible effects on the world’s trajectory. Starting with how you think the invasion of Ukraine affects an assessment of security threats to Taiwan. A deep familiarity with the plain trade numbers would never allow you to liken the motivations of China with Russia’s5.
The disconnect between the narrative of abstract values and the economic numbers on the ground is the bulk of the explanation for what Friedman more recently called the “insanity” of “funding both sides of the war”:
We fund our military aid to Ukraine with our tax dollars and some of America’s allies fund Putin’s military with purchases of his oil and gas exports.
One side of that is driven by the self-story woven around values, the other by preordained economic numbers6. The gap between them also explains why President Biden, despite winning an election campaigning as the anti-Trump, hasn’t lifted a finger to roll back unreasonable Trump tariffs—tariffs that are taxes on Americans that worsened the current historic inflation, which in turn is tanking Democrats’ 2022 electoral prospects. Mind boggling yet? All the Beltway teeth-gnashing about the retrenchment of Liberalism and very little actual work to repair the recent corrosion of the concrete that really binds countries.
And yes, Russia was well-integrated into the global economy too and relied on that to time and finance a months-long war. (Those who did get into Putin’s head observed a not dissimilar condition where mythology overpowered and commandeered his awareness of other trade figures7.) But we have also known for decades that the bane of fossil fuels is not merely that they endanger the planet and our survival in the long term. Even in the medium term, fossil fuels (and arms) are not ‘friends of Liberalism’ the way most other traded goods are. That’s a sub-clause in the contract between the values and the dollars (in Liberalism’s classical sense). Not only do we not live in a world where the virtuous and wise only trade with kindred economies, the nature of OECD trade with those outside the club — skewed towards fossil fuels and arms — often actually delays their transition to OECD values and institutions.
Besides essays, the war also prompted book reviews; it’s early days for books. Jennifer Szalai wrote a comparative review of a collection of several books on Liberalism published since 2019. Joe Klein wrote another.
The first observes that Liberalism has been a victim of its own success. I thought I’d leave you with the flip side. While some of its opponents are showing Liberalism’s value, as in Klein’s heading, its success has galvanized other opponents determined to weaken its antecedents. Some of the most powerful and zealous opponents are providing a better-late check on the excesses of Liberalism’s success. It is always good to have such feedback loops in a system. One of the most ‘invested’ detractors of liberalism (or maybe just liberals) appears in Farhad Manjoo’s piece on the Big Three investment firms—an overtly right-leaning entrepreneur whose challenge to dominance of the Big Three, though motivated by political paranoia, might actually make the US market freer. That is, after all, what underpins a RuBIO8.
To some though, even RuBIO is a “vacuous” phrase. I don’t agree with every word there, but that is the spirit of Charles Mill, who, as Szalai reminisces, “envisioned a liberalism that was tougher and more radical, yet imbued with some necessary humility”. That conviction matches the mission of this newsletter on behalf of globalist citizens from the Global South. A more humble and honest Liberalism may not succeed as spectacularly or rapidly as its Enlightenment edition, but it would make for a more stable world someday.
20 Oct 2022: What better validation for the name of this newsletter than Francis Fukuyama chiming in with Ted Cruz (above): “millions of people… leaving poor countries for life not in Russia, China, or Iran but in the liberal, democratic West”. He did not link to a survey that asked immigrants to rank their motivation between A) much higher income without learning a new language and B) the absolutely irresistible resilient democratic institutions.
29 Aug 2022: More on the extreme fluidity of the word ‘liberal’: Such great forces are stretching the word in all directions that it has probably attained a new state of matter. Case in point, in a July 2022 interview regarding the war in Ukraine, Russian political scientist Sergey Karaganov invoked the odd phrase ‘global liberal imperialism’ several times:
Ukraine is an important but small part of the engulfing process of the collapse of the former world order of global liberal imperialism imposed by the United States and movement toward a much fairer and freer world of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures.
In Russia, even some academics contrast the word ‘liberal’ with an alternative that would be ‘much freer’!
30 Aug 2022: A new book published 16 June, The Paradox of Democracy by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing makes the case that liberalism and democracy are not coterminous. Their focus is on media technologies and concomitant communication cultures, but that’s near a place I was trying to arrive at in a clumsier way. A future post will dwell on this more squarely.
In the Netherlands, people are very direct and so I was allowed to be too. It made life there very… well, liberating indeed. Some might argue that the lax social convention is correlated with liberal values. I can only respond anecdotally that friends from neighboring France and the USA found the Dutch ‘too direct’. Then again, Netherlands is a much flatter society than either of those fabled democracies forged in (more recent) revolutions.
This newsletter will return to the theme in weeks and months to come.
You’d also know Ukraine’s erstwhile place in the food supply chains to lower-middle-income parts of the world, and Taiwan’s continued pivotal role in designing and making next-generation semiconductors for richer parts. Of course, there’s a lot more that contrasts the two nations, as their respective giant would-be claimants.
And that isn’t even the complete picture. Peel another layer, and you find American companies that are integral to Russian weapons supply chains.
Here’s a quote from that article: “…his real targets were the energy riches of Ukraine’s east, which contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway’s). Combine that with Russia’s previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of an enormous shale-gas field)…”
Has the Florida senator’s 2024 team thought of that one yet?