With the eruption of ISIS in the Middle East and the ongoing autocracies in Russia and China, pause for a moment and think back to the last century and compare the challenges then to now. Odd as it may seem, in retrospect, liberal democracies shared some core assumptions about the world with the Soviet Union and its satellites that made conversation possible.
Today, democracies share hardly any values with a Russia intent on recovering long-lost territories and an emergent China empire, and no values with radical Islamists. Principled conversation is impossible, and that’s dangerous.
Marxism, far more than its founder or followers understood, emerged from the Western liberal tradition. Marx’s undefined utopian communist future reads more like Christian millennialism than the “scientific” thought he claimed. Because Marx knew only European-based culture, he fooled himself into believing he captured something universal.
Free nations and communist nations both valued the material well-being of their citizens. Marxism’s prime goal was to improve the people’s lot – at least workers’. The fatal flaw was, of course, that Marxists never understood their means (top-down government and the attempt to micromanage millions of individual economic choices) undermined their end goal (a prosperous society). The resulting material failure of communist nations led to their loss of legitimacy.
Communist nations also accepted democratic ideals and personal liberty, at least in rhetoric. Thus, the profusion of the word “republic” or “democratic” in communist states during Soviet times. For example, the People’s Republic of Albania, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (when under communist rule). Soviet states were supposedly ruled with the democratic consent of the people.
Communist states were also rarely suicidal. Despite many proxy wars, nuclear “mutually assured destruction” held the overall peace, from the end of the close call of the Cuban missile crisis to the fall of communism a quarter century later.
Now, democracies share hardly any core values with the power centres of the non-democratic world.
Today’s Russia and China put little value on the material well-being of their citizens. Economic success is important only so far as it boosts the stability of the regime, allows increased military spending, and enhances the projection of military and economic power.
So Russia endures crippling economic sanctions and the regime rides high in popular approval. China tightens up on freedoms to preserve its power, even though its leadership fully understands that broad freedoms are necessary to create a dynamic economy.
Both Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China also reject personal freedom and democracy.
Instead, ethnic nationalism trumps everything. Russia invades Crimea and eastern Ukraine to “liberate” Russian communities. Moscow flexes its muscles around nations with other significant Russian minorities, particularly the Baltic States. China claims ownership of any territory occupied by ethnic Chinese, whether the ethnic Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong want control from Beijing – and they definitely do not.
No argument about people’s well-being, their freedom or democratic rights has legitimacy in Beijing or Moscow. Nor is their authority undermined by trampling these principles. No basis for principled conversation exists with liberal democracies.
Even more clearly, the West shares no core values with Islamic extremists who violently reject individual freedom, democracy, and the material well-being of people. And they are suicidal, welcoming apocalyptic visions and scenarios like the idea of a nuclear war. When Allah arises, good Muslims will be resurrected into heaven (Janna); the rest of us get dumped into cauldrons of boiling pitch. Nuclear cataclysm is a good thing!
The Soviets, for all their brutal internal purges, people’s wars and nuclear brinkmanship, never thought that. While it might not have seemed so at the time, the free world could have a rational conversation with the Soviets. While the Cold War was real and local hot wars broke out, the West ultimately won the “conversation” because of the inability of the communist world to allow its people freedom, or to better their lives.
These goals are unimportant to nationalist and religious states (or semi-states, such as ISIS). We lack common assumptions needed to engage in conversation. That makes the world a more dangerous and less stable place.
Fred McMahon is a Fraser Institute resident fellow and holder of the Dr. Michael A. Walker Research Chair in Economic Freedom.