Prefatory Remarks: The 2022 War in Ukraine and Liberal Hegemonic Aspirations 

Reality again rears its ugly head against ideology. Widespread violent conflict has broken out in Ukraine. Two different wars are going on in Ukraine and you can tell by the way the “attacks” are happening with a significant underlying dispute about political forms of independence. On the one hand, Russia and Vladimir Putin have wanted to maintain Ukraine as a buffer state between Europe (and NATO expansion) and the Russian nation, with the key ingredient being the nation. This has been largely fought within the country of Ukraine since at least 2013, if not earlier. Western powers have been trying to expand what they think is a benign “liberal hegemony,” which is ideologically based on liberal-democratic understandings of good societies.  

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its allies adopted a foreign policy called “liberal hegemony”. The basic goal of that foreign policy was to remake the world in America’s image. That policy, shown time and again, is a spectacular failure. We have seen it not only abroad, as I will specify below, but also at home with social, governance, and economic problems that liberal hegemony is ill-equipped to deal with. In the United States, Donald Trump ran in complete and utter opposition to liberal hegemony. Brexit occurred in much the same circumstances. The trucker’s protest in Canada also reveals some deep opposition to it. We might need to understand some key things about liberal hegemony. What is liberal hegemony? Why was it pursued when it was? Why do people believe it? What are some example policy issues it is involved with? And, why has it failed internationally?

What is liberal hegemony? This has three elements. First, it has been meant to promote liberal democracy across the planet. It will go to great lengths to make every country on earth a liberal democracy. Second, it has attempted to embed every state into an international economic order through increasing trade agreements, especially large states like Russia, China, India, and Germany.  A liberal hegemony tries to get everyone hooked on capitalism and economically interdependent. Third, it also attempts to internationally embed each country in an institutional order that was, in effect, created by the United States. For example, a liberal hegemony will seek to get China into the World Trade Organization, and it will try to get Russia embedded in the IMF and the World Bank. A liberal hegemony desires to expand the European Union and NATO. It is easy to understand why liberal democracies would pursue these missions.

The Three Benefits of Liberal Hegemony

Why were liberal democracies pushing so hard for a liberal hegemony? The first major benefit is the ideological commitment to human rights. As you know, citizens of liberal democracies have cared greatly about individual rights. As the story goes, we believe these individual rights are inalienable – meaning that every person on the planet has those rights. We don’t simply care about the rights of Americans and Canadians, but about the rights of every individual on the planet. Rights matter and they are a centerpiece of liberal theory. If you could create a planet that is filled with nothing but liberal democracies (to continue the narrative) we will no longer have to worry about massive violations of human rights. By definition, liberal democracies prioritize individual rights and don’t engage in massive violations of these. Liberal hegemony is a policy of eliminating the problem of massive rights violations.

The second major benefit of liberal hegemony is democratic peace theory. The assumption is that liberal democracies do not fight against one another. If you believe that assumption, and follow the logic of a planet filled with liberal democracies, then you end up with only love and peace. There will be no more war, and potentially an end of history if we believed Francis Fukuyama. It seems that substantial worries would come to an end, according to liberal hegemony, with the most significant anxiety being boredom. Liberal-democratic countries would obviously pursue liberal hegemony because it would secure human rights and put an effective end to war, or so the story goes.

The third big benefit of liberal hegemony is that it will eliminate the internal and external threats to having and developing liberal democracies. In the United States, this made itself evident in McCarthyism; in Canada, through the Japanese internment camps in World War 2. The Freedom Convoy in Canada had expressed significant worry that vaccine mandates had communist overtones. People who belong to liberal democracies are often very worried and threatened by opinions that might align with Moscow, Beijing, or Fascism. If the world is full of liberal democracies, that worry is abated.

Why now?

With such seeming benefits of liberal democracy, why didn’t we pursue this earlier in the twentieth century than the post-Cold War period? Why is this story that I have given above uniquely situated after the Cold War? While the answer to this question is found in many history books, not the least of which is the Great Delusion, I feel so strange to say that these are all within my own adult memory. Let’s explore some of the factors.

Primarily, we are now in the process of moving from having one world power (unipolarity) to many actors on the world stage (multi-polarity). I had grown up in a world dominated by the Cold War powers: the United States and the Soviet Union. In my lifetime, this bipolarity shifted to unipolarity in the late 1980s, most notably signified by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991. The shift to unipolarity matters for liberal hegemony. In a bipolar world, the balance of power is going dominate relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, such that they will behave in a pragmatical realist way. On the other hand, the United States, in a unipolar era since the early 1990s, does not have to worry about a balance of power politics. The West was free to pursue an ideological foreign policy. Becoming unipolar was the first enabling condition.

Another enabling condition was that the United States is a thoroughly liberal country. In other words, it is a highly ideological state that is the sole world power. With such power, it could go on a crusade to pursue liberal hegemony. On one telling, a European liberal democracy, with the support of the United States, had defeated Fascism in the early twentieth century; American liberal democracy had defeated Communism in the latter part of the century. The wind was at the back of liberal democracy.

What Happened?

Three policies clearly illustrate liberal hegemony in foreign policy at play: 1) The Bush doctrine toward the Middle East, 2) The crisis with Russia over Ukraine, and 3) the current engagement with China. All three of these have been spectacular failures in the spreading of liberal hegemony in the unipolar moment.

First, the Bush doctrine was about turning much of the Middle East into a sea of liberal democracies. As the doctrine played out, it was thought that if you could turn Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal democracies you would have peace. According to liberal hegemony, the way of dealing with the problems of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the way you dealt with terrorism was to build liberal democracies. As we now know, the spectacular failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have shown that the liberal hegemony is no benign doctrine.

Second, the play of liberal hegemony in Ukraine is quite clear. The story propelled by mass and social media is that the Russians are primarily to blame for the 2022 war in Ukraine. The story also goes that the expansion of NATO was in “anticipation” of the problem of Russian aggression and that Putin is an authoritarian madman. Often, the media will cite Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an example. Well, it isn’t just that NATO has expanded, but the EU as well. The Americans actually nurtured the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003). Well, both of these are the result of the spread of liberal democracy (the first goal of liberal hegemony) in Eastern Europe. The second goal is to get Ukraine (and Georgia) hooked on capitalism and integrated into the international economic order, created by the United States. The third goal is to get them integrated into international institutions (e.g. EU and NATO). In other words, the West’s goal in Ukraine is not to contain Russia. It is to act as a bulwark on Russia’s borders. Of course, the Russians are not going to tolerate this. And the recognition of two of Ukraine’s eastern provinces (largely Russian speakers and supporters) as independent states was a clear expression that Russia was not going to conquer Ukraine, but instead, destabilize it so that liberal hegemony would not encroach on Russia and its own sovereignty. Russia has consistently opposed NATO expansion. They opposed it in 1999 with the inclusion of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. They opposed it in 2004. And NATO made a giant mistake at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 when the communique supported Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO (Article 23). It is no accident that the war in August of 2008 happened in Georgia, and in February 2014 in Ukraine. And so it seems strange to call Putin a madman. While he may be authoritarian, he is very much a rational actor in this situation.

It now makes sense, in the early part of the war, that NATO will likely not contribute any troops in the Russian invasion, but instead will push sanctions – which is the economic side of the conflict. Russia, most certainly knowing the interdependence of Europe (and especially Germany) on Russian gas and oil resources are likely well-positioned to withstand sanctions and is likely not phased by them that much anyway.  And so the pro-liberal hegemonic Ukrainians will be left holding the guns and defending Ukraine, while NATO will support from a distance.

A third policy blunder of liberal hegemony is engagement with China. Since 2001, China has become part of the WTO, and this is to allow China to become hooked on capitalism. This means that the United States will encourage its vast wealth acquisition, allowing it to break a few rules, to bring it under the rules of the international economic order. The belief is that once you have embedded them into an economic order, they will become a liberal democracy. In other words, they will become a responsible stakeholder.

Ask the people in Hong Kong. China is far from being a liberal democracy. The failure though, from an American standpoint is that the United States has enabled China to become a peer competitor on the naive belief that it would embrace liberal values.

Domestically, as a side note, the interesting thing about the Trump phenomenon is that he ran head-on against the liberal hegemony. Trump never met an institution he didn’t loathe. He belittled allies to the liberal hegemony publicly (including Trudeau, Merkel [Germany], and Macron [France]). He was also not fond of the international financial system and never advocated for it. He ran against the moderate Republicans who supported liberal hegemony, called Bush a failed foreign policy president, and beat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. In Canada, the liberal hegemony is in full swing. As I have argued elsewhere, the Freedom Convoy has gotten this one wrong because they are arguing from the same liberal hegemonic reasons as Trudeau.

Liberal hegemony is certainly done on the foreign stage, and that for the pragmatic reason that the United States finds itself on a stage with multiple actors – a resurgent Russia, and China. The United States cannot pursue an ideological foreign policy because the balance of power matters so much.

A Case for Action

The difference between unipolar agents on the world stage, and being one actor among many, as is now the case, stresses the need for a balance of power and relationships to inform our free activity.

Some of this goes back to the very definition of liberal hegemony in the first place. Rights, as conceived in liberal democracies, are grounded in the individual. We want to protect rights and avoid mass violent trespassing on an individual’s rights. But the definition of liberal rights is also aimed at the unipolar actor. It is as if we wanted to understand the individual as not having to consider others.

Hannah Arendt understands the realm of freedom to be situated in the human artifice (the world that situates human activity), and as such within a plurality of actors. Freedom was never at home in the single individual. As such our action happens within the plurality of others, where we can never really know what we are doing. The associated principle is, for those familiar with Arendt, natality, that we begin something new. In the case of liberal hegemony, might there be a new foundation for human rights than “on the individual”? On the world stage, might there be a new way to conduct politics than on the expansionist policies grounded in imperialism? Might ideologies have a different way of spreading than as a crusade?

Perhaps it is time to reconsider what liberal hegemony and action really mean, and begin anew.

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