Lilia Shevtsova: End of the Affair ... Why Russian Liberals No Longer Look Up to America and the West as a Model

Roundup: Talking About History

Lilia Shevtsova, an AI editorial board member, is senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

These are ruminations of a Russian liberal, and they would have never been written if not for one simple fact: the concerns described herein are beginning to dominate the Russian liberal community (and not just the Russian one, I’m afraid). We are dealing with a phenomenon that until recently was unthinkable: emerging anti-Western and anti-American liberalism. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Russian liberals are rejecting liberal principles. They are just increasingly critical of the way the Western elites—political and intellectual—adhere to these principles, both inside and outside of Western societies. Are these criticisms a reflection of the usual tension between non-Western dogmatism and Western revisionism? Could be. But I’d rather not be presumptuous: I am only describing how Western developments and Western policies are seen from the outside by those who have traditionally looked to the West as an example and even an icon.

One could all too easily shrug and dismiss this phenomenon as ludicrous. It would be arrogant, after all, for those who have failed to achieve a liberal agenda in their own country to accuse those who have succeeded of normative inconsistency and structural ineffectiveness! On the other hand, Western observers themselves admit that the West has problems. Francis Fukuyama, for one, writes about "American Political Dysfunction." Walter Mead declares, "The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore." William Galston says, "We need a fundamental renewal of the liberal tradition in America." Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum discuss American decline and what is necessary "to revitalize the United States" (p. 329). Even Robert Kagan, whom we can hardly suspect of declinism, agrees that "the United States must adjust to the new" (p. 140).

Europe is no different. Walter Laqueur has announced "the slow death of Europe." Zbigniew Brzezinski concludes that Europe has become "the world’s most comfortable retirement home" (p. 36). Europeans themselves lament the crisis of Western civilization as well. Constanze Stelzenmüller acknowledges a "toxic polarization of domestic politics" and discrediting of "politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government." The Western project is beginning to resemble a house with a shaky foundation, and the spreading gloom has made the new "crisisology" into the favorite hobby of Western and non-Western observers alike.

So, what’s wrong with the West?..

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