Blurred Lines: Good vs. Good, Evil vs. Evil
The fundamental political changes of 2016 are shocking and depressing for some, while being heartening and refreshing for others. It marks the beginning of an era where the old ideological lines between the West and the East are blurring, not necessarily as a consequence of a new wave of politicians manipulating their way through the electorate, but rather due to a new wave of thought in citizens across the Western world. Once again, they are challenging the status quo and saying that the establishment and globalization need to go.
This is by no means a new social phenomenon. The establishment has to confront periodic assaults on its meaning, function and purpose, regardless of its nature – it could be an aristocracy, a Communist Central Committee, or nominally liberal and democratic parties that have held a grip on power for too long. 2016 has surfaced something new to the scene, at least new for the last century or so: a general confrontation between liberals that favor centrist parties and globalization as the new paradigm of this century and conservatives that favor nationalist and more radical parties (with the word radical deriving from „root”). The anti-establishment and anti-globalization agenda is not limited or well defined by territorial boundaries, with conservatives and reactionaries from different countries and often conflicting traditions finding common cause with each other in presenting a more united front to their global enemies.
The establishment has to confront periodic assaults on its meaning, function and purpose, regardless of its nature.
During the Cold War, the isolation between the US and the liberal democracies of Europe, on the one hand, and the USSR and Communist bloc, on the other, was vivid. A wall that became infamous had to be built by Communist authorities in Berlin in order to stem the outflow of citizens that were trying to break free from under the totalitarian boot which, as Orwell once put it, had been stamping on their face forever. Even though that flow could have been attributed to the desire of reunification with loved ones that had been separated by geopolitical distances far greater than any geographical ones, the allure of the West and its prosperity was also a factor.
The Smithsonian Magazine retraces the story of Andrej Bozek, a Polish immigrant in the United States in 1974, in this article. The fact that he, along with countless others, risked to break up families, make a perilous journey and face the unknown, meant that the Communist regime was ruthless and that the West and the United States, in particular, promised another type of society. Eventually, Andrej and his son, Alec, who was 3 years old at the time, reunited with Irene, his wife and their two other children in Texas. While not easily remembered for those of us who were in the Eastern bloc, the basic premise of Western rhetoric against Communism was that the legitimacy claimed by the system was fatally undermined by the fact that citizens kept trying to escape it and their countries had to severely restrict movement for fear of detection. This was also an argument used to distinguish between the authoritarianism supported by the US in places like South America, and the Communism that intervention was meant to prevent.
It seemed that there was a sense of clarity when defining the good guys and the bad guys in the overall global narrative, at least from the Western perspective. Of course, Moscow and other Communist regimes from around the world invested heavily in propaganda and suppressed political dissidents trying to breach the information wall and also critique the system, but there was a feeling in the Communist bloc, among regular citizens, that they were lacking fundamental rights that on the other side of the Iron Curtain were not only being upheld, but championed as a political raison d'être. The fervor of change was thus subject to a lengthy process of democratic capillarity or osmosis from the West to the East, destroying the totalitarian ideological foundation that the USSR and its orbit regimes were based on. It could be stated that rock & roll and blue jeans defeated an ideology. At least in the realm of ideas, the lust for freedom had torn down that wall.
Now there are few territorial limitations for travel, at least in Europe and the United States. The clash of ideas between liberal globalists and conservative nationalists is not confined to an East-West paradigm. Ironically, globalization has sped up the circulation of information, ignoring political boundaries, and has unleashed an ideological maelstrom within nation states and across other geopolitical constructs, such as the European Union. The great divide of our time is not cognizant of geography, in the sense that centrists and populists are not restrained by a wall, be it natural or man-made. They coexist in the same countries, cities, neighborhoods as well as in the global cyberspace. Ideas clash and the old distinction of good versus evil is being blurred beyond recognition.
The fervor of change was subject to a lengthy process of democratic capillarity or osmosis from the West to the East.
There has been ample analysis of the similarities between the current President-Elect and former U.S. President, Ronald Reagan. Trump correctly identified the nostalgia of a certain part of the American population for the Reagan era and tweaked his message and campaign with Reaganesque elements, including the Make America Great Again campaign slogan. Eerily, the above mentioned NY Magazine article excerpts a passage from a memo Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s campaign manager, wrote in June 1980:
“The media’s role in disseminating the news has further diminished the function of the political parties. Most issues cut across party lines or are sufficiently complex as to blur most party and ideological distinctions”.
Before Reagan, Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, had said:
“When the President [Nixon] completed his address — an address, incidentally, that he spent weeks in the preparation of — his words and policies were subjected to instant analysis and querulous criticism. The audience of 70 million Americans gathered to hear the President of the United States was inherited by a small band of network commentators and self-appointed analysts, the majority of whom expressed in one way or another their hostility to what he had to say.”
But with regards to Russia, things could not have been more different between the two. While Reagan had a very straightforward approach towards Russia in terms of ideology, famously branding the USSR as an “evil empire”, Donald J. Trump made no secret of his sympathy for Vladimir Putin and tolerance for his approach to government, while at the same time causing serious concerns among Eastern European Allies by linking U.S. military commitment to payments and defense budget increases. Reagan embraced the ideological divide between the West and the Communists, while Trump, as well as other political parties across Europe that adhere to a nationalist ideology and have anti-globalization agendas, have been proposing normalization in the relations with Russia and Putin.
This rapprochement may be unnatural, but it shows that the new paradigm that we are firmly entering is one where there is no good vs. evil but rather good vs. good, or evil vs. evil, in the sense that both sides outline concepts and policy ideas that are defensible based on first principles. When you factor in the enormous informational input that is available via social media and the fact that hybrid warfare is a reality, these limits are further blurred and foreign powers that were deemed authoritarian and that have poor performance in terms of human rights and nurturing democracy are increasingly emerging like an alternative that is fighting globalization and an old elite that is trying to impose its whims on the world. Somehow, Putin has emerged as a modern Che Guevara, holding high the flag of conservatism, nationalism and illiberalism, as writer Peter Pomerantsev explained for Politico Europe. Even before Russia began its resurgence in earnest, author and neoconservative ally Peter Hitchens had cautioned against believing in enduring alliances of circumstance when fighting against any sort of tyranny, since the minds of one’s allies may hold the promise of future tyrannies once the previous ones had been displaced.
Putin has emerged as a modern Che Guevara, holding high the flag of conservatism, nationalism and illiberalism.
Furthermore, the Kremlin has stepped up its game in pushing this new paradigm by using hybrid warfare in its periphery to change attitudes and perceptions, directly undermining the European Union and NATO. It seems that Moscow has learned its lesson. Even though for decades the Communist citizens living behind the Iron Curtain could not rebel against their regimes due to aggressive repression, with Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956 serving as chilling reminders, the Central Committees could not stop the resentment and poverty of the economic results delivered by the system to its constituents, neither the hope or the allure which capitalism and the free market sparked in the hearts and minds of the same citizens, especially in the younger crowds.
Now, Russia’s resurgence is based partially on capturing the support of some demographics in Eastern Europe that see the Kremlin as a flag-bearer against an illiberally liberal, immoral, failing and decadent West. This narrative is a key asset for Russia and it is fueled via hybrid warfare, with immigration and nationalism being key concepts in this strategy. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has compiled an analysis called The Kremlin Playbook. Understanding Russia’s Influence in Eastern Europe, which gives us a glimpse into how information and perception are crucial in building up this new paradigm. In describing the threat, it says that:
“Russian influence centers on weakening the internal cohesion of societies and strengthening the perception of the dysfunction of the Western democratic and economic system, which has stagnated since the global financial crisis and reels from the effects of globalization.”
The aim of this strategy is not necessarily to turn Eastern European countries, or other countries for that matter, against the West, but rather erode the faith of a part of the population in their leaders’ ability to govern efficiently in a global context, demonizing globalization and immigration in the process. While there are defensible arguments against immigration and globalization, the intentional act of fomenting these attitudes through complex means that involve social media and other media channels, is a form of warfare that furthers blurs ideological lines and erases the old Cold War narrative of good vs. evil.
In this “brave new world” of the 21st century in which we are stewing, if not steaming, it seems that American exceptionalism is fading away, giving way to a multipolar world where the internal affairs of other countries are impervious to critique as long as they play their part on the international stage in addressing collective issues for world governance (stability, security of commercial routes etc.). In this world, a rising tide of people and not necessarily governments are disenfranchised by their political establishments and are looking for change. What they are asking for is an insurance policy against the effects of globalization that has been a blessing for some and a plight for others, wherein promises of transfers and rectifications that “lift all boats” have been proven empty.
Russia’s resurgence is based partially on capturing the support of some demographics in Eastern Europe that see the Kremlin as a flag-bearer against an illiberally liberal, immoral, failing and decadent West.
In this world, conservatism is being used to hide xenophobia and sometimes even racism. In this world, a leftist globalist platform has brought an almost unprecedented economic depression for millions of Americans and Europeans that relied on industry jobs for sustenance, social status and personal meaning. In this world, globalization has provided numerous opportunities for what seems to be a chosen few. In this world, the political and economic establishments of Europe and America have been, at best, blind or indifferent to the suffering and anxieties of parts of their electorate while giving speeches of integration and acceptance, paving the way for extremism that clothes itself in the mantle of protector of the oppressed and the nemesis of the elites.
These dichotomies would have existed anyway due to rate of technological progress but what was not necessarily foreseen is the fact that some state and non-state actors have taken the opportunity to use them in order to erase the naïve 90’s paradigm of the end of history and nurture a global multipolar narrative, where nations and politicians that preach liberalism, integration and human rights are seen as imperialistic, elitist and irrelevant, ready to be swept away by a wave of discontent and change. We are living in a world where disenfranchised people like Andrej Bozek don’t dream of the land of the free, but may look to nationalist Messiahs like Le Pen or Farage to deliver them from poverty, social stagnation and perceived powerlessness. There is no more good vs. evil. There is only good vs. good or evil vs. evil in this post-truth world.