Limits of Liberalism

Posted by Cutler on February 15, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Russia

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asks so many of the right questions.  Too bad he provides so few meaningful answers.

Still, his views are so emblematic of the liberal mind that I cannot help find value (although not really enough to want to pay) in watching him construct his world.

One of my favorite questions is the one he asks in his most recent column, “Putin Pushes Back.”  He has recently returned from Moscow and now he wants to know, in essence, “Why do they hate us?

Friedman’s Answer: NATO expansion.

We need to stop kidding ourselves. After the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the Bush I and Clinton administrations decided to build a new security alliance — an expanded NATO — and told Russia it could not be a member.

And let’s not forget that the Russia we told to stay out in the cold was the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and his liberal reformist colleagues. They warned us at the time that this would undercut them. But the Clinton folks told us: “Don’t worry, Russia is weak; Yeltsin will swallow hard and accept NATO expansion. There will be no cost.”

Why would a patriotic dude like Friedman go and join the “blame America first” crowd after all that time defending the American crusade in Iraq (really wanted/wants to do Saudi Arabia, if you listen to the guy)?

Because it is his way of saying that our illiberalism was and is the cause of their illiberalism.  And that goes a long way toward salvaging the idea that there was no internal crisis of liberalism in Russia (or the US).

So, a couple of points:

1. A huge chunk of what went “wrong” in Russia (say, with the rise of the ultra-nationalists in the December 1993 parliamentary elections) was a backlash against the neo-liberal economic proposals (shock therapy, tight monetary policy with its deflationary bias, massive unemployment, relentless austerity) that Friedman constantly champions in his embrace of neo-liberal “globalization.”  The Russian liberals weren’t done in because they were abused by American illiberalism.  The Russian liberals imploded because they championed some of the most politically unpopular economic measures anyone could imagine in Russia.

Did Russian’s want consumer goods?  You bet.  But didn’t they also want cash to pay for all those goodies?  And, honestly, Tom, describe to me again the kind of delayed gratification that was and is required under the neo-liberal plan…

There has always been an antagonism between political liberalization and economic liberalization.  In Russia, it was nothing other than political liberalization itself that put paid to the idea of neo-liberal austerity.

(The preferable model continues to be China where neo-liberalism need not worry about its popular mandate.  It thrives–so far–without all the fuss and bother of political liberalization).

2. We live in a world of great power rivalry.  What that means is that the US is neither the sole source of all things good nor all things evil.  The US is one locus of energy in the Great Game of Empire.  Friedman often oversteps by suggesting that the US is the sole source of all things good.  Here, he oversteps in the other direction by understating Russian “agency” in the Great Game.


Mr. Putin… said: “The process of NATO expansion has nothing to do with modernization of the alliance. We have the right to ask, ‘Against whom is this expansion directed?’ ” We all know the answer: it’s directed against Russia. O.K., fine, we were ready to enrage Russia to expand NATO, but what have we gotten out of it? The Czech Navy?

Disingenuous: we weren’t in it for the Czech Navy.  We offered the Czechs and others a security umbrella, not the other way around.  That has always been the story of NATO, so let’s not kid ourselves.

We were in it for control of Europe, for control of Caspian oil and natural gas, and much else to boot.  So were the Russians.


For those of us who opposed NATO expansion, the point was simple: there is no major geopolitical issue, especially one like Iran, that we can resolve without Russia’s help. So why not behave in a way that maximizes Russia’s willingness to work with us and strengthens its democrats, rather than expanding NATO to countries that can’t help us and are not threatened anymore by Russia, and whose democracies are better secured by joining the European Union?

This makes a mockery of the facts on several fronts.

Can he be serious that all throughout Eurasia countries were “not threatened anymore by Russia”?  The Russian-backed coup in Azerbaijan in wasn’t a threat?  The troops in Georgia weren’t/aren’t a threat?  Russian intervention in Ukraine and Belarus?  Russian control in Turkmentistan?  Russian support for Serbian nationalism?

It takes at least two Great Powers to tango.  We live in a world with at least two–quite a few more, really.

The whole point, in the world of Great Power Rivalry, is that Iran is a “problem” for the US because of its alliance with Russia.  Otherwise, a “deal” would have been done with Iran a long time ago.  This is why Cheney and Putin deserve one another: neither is willing to “share” Iran and so the Russians and the Americans fight over it.

Here is the tough question to send back Friedman’s way: does he advocate a world where Great Powers “share” the bounty of the “periphery”?

Given the very old, very real “Great Power” ambitions of Russia (all of which pre-dated the advent of the Soviet Union and continued on immediately after the demise), Friedman can only be suggesting a return to a world in which Great Powers carve up the “periphery” into exclusive spheres of influence.  Like Roosevelt, Friedman would then grant Russia its sphere of influence (everything but the Baltics, I guess).

I’m no fan of American empire.  I’m no fan of Russian empire.  But neither am I a fan of inter-imperialist collusion at the expense of the rest of the world.  If the “periphery” has any chance at leveraging a better deal in this world, it will have to come through effective efforts to play Great Powers against one another.

Bush Sr’s “New World Order” was specifically designed to try to keep that from ever happening again.  Part of the deal was that Russia could keep Ukraine and much else along with it.  Remember?  Tom?

Does Great Power rivalry always guarantee competition for the “hearts and minds” of the underlying population?  No.

Does it ever have that consequence?

Ask India if it could have won independence from Britain without the threat to go with the Germans in World War II.  A nasty business, but Gandhi’s entire campaign cultivating British conscience pales in comparison on the question of raw leverage for extracting concessions from the British.

While you are at it, ask the Egyptians if they didn’t play the Americans against the British.

And, Tom Friedman, ask the Israelis if they didn’t win statehood by playing both the Americans and the Soviets against the British.

3 Comments to Limits of Liberalism

  • Do you think Friedman maintains this dualism of pro-American imperialism on one hand and pro-neoliberal globalization on solid ground? Or is he playing some screwy game with himself and with his readers? Surely, as Jonathan noted, there is not a necessary condition of political liberalization for neoliberal economic policy in China and elsewhere in the ASEAN due to special economic zones and such, leading me to believe that he really is going out on a limb(for him) when suggesting it was the Americans’ fault for not including Russia in their neoliberal deal. It seems for Friedman that the economy trumps all and takes care of everything. Somehow, Russia would be more pleased with the US if Bush II had gone against the wishes of his father and engaged with Putin in some trade deal? Is this really what Friedman thinks? Does he believe that if Russia was given the OK to get in on NATO that there wouldn’t be, to use one example, the rise of white supremacy in Russia? Even on this very “liberal” human rights-type issue, which I usually gag at, Friedman is guilty of a lot of slippage. I wonder what’s going on…I get suspicious when good ol'(sarcasm here) liberals like Friedman don’t drill home the “human rights” issue. What’s going on there?

  • Sam–I don’t see any necessary conflict between Friedman’s imperialist/neoliberal positions. I think that the tension has existed under any recent (to pick an arbitrary time-line) American president:
    One wants free trade, but wants to maintain US preeminence within it
    One wants economic liberalization, but selectively, being careful with those sectors which are
    1. Vital to US security (gunboat diplomacy)
    2. Protected by entrenched domestic political interests

    You can see a great treatment of these tensions between domestic and multinational capital within the Democratic party in Ferguson and Roger’s Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics.
    Does that make sense?

  • Snidley,

    I completely agree. It happens that whenever I comment on this here blog my “tone” doesn’t quite surface the way I imagine it. That’s fine though. Just to clear thins up, I don’t, and never had, any hope in Friedman and most liberals. I do believe I know how neoliberalism works. Or at least what most people have said about it. I wanted to try to look for something else besides the characteristics you have pointed out. David Harvey has taught you well too, I can see. My point was more about the relationship between “human rights talk” and neoliberalism than about anything more macrological issues concerning geopolitical strategies concerning Friedman’s take on American imperialism and neoliberalization tactics. I mentioned the racism bit not because I’m that interested in Russia but because Friedman has often spoken about human rights, which I think throws in another aspect to the ones you already listed, which would be the governance and economics of life-itself. I was asking whether future pieces of “Friedman in Russia” would hint at a biopolitics.

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