The Counter-Enlightenment and the Great Powers

China, Europe, Russia and the new geopolitical dividing line

Whatever the differences between European and U.S. policymakers in recent decades, there was little doubt that the two sides were operating on the basis of shared Enlightenment values, however loosely defined.

Even at the peak of the rifts over the Iraq war, the very vehemence of the fights gave them the quality of a vicious family feud. Institutionalists, liberal interventionists, neo-conservatives, and other competing keepers of the universalist flame largely argued over how, rather than whether, liberal democratic principles should be defended and advanced, even if they were not always willing to credit the motives of their opponents at the time.

Since the election of Donald Trump, transatlantic differences have had very little intra-familial feel. Confusion and deep unease, rather than anger, has been the prevailing response in Europe. While much of this is focused on Trump himself, European policymakers have also sought to discern the intentions of those in the new administration who are capable of pursuing a coherent agenda amid the chaos. This has not proved a reassuring exercise. While evidently there are cabinet secretaries and senior officials who represent the mainstream U.S. foreign policy tradition, the political DNA for the figures who have most effectively channeled the president’s instincts is not just illiberal but explicitly counter-Enlightenment in nature: nativist, ethno-nationalist, anti-rationalist, and avowedly hostile to international institutions, the intelligentsia, and a list of enemies that has been a trope of reactionary political movements since the early nineteenth century.

Unlike the conservative political tradition that it disdains for being too accommodating, this form of politics is professedly revolutionary. In common with their counterparts in Russia and on the European far-right, its advocates want to roll back progressive social change, overthrow “globalist” institutions, and brandish “the will of people” against the legal and political obstacles to populist illiberalism. They also maintain a darkly symbiotic relationship with another group of revolutionary believers in an imagined, utopian past: Islamist extremists, who function as the legitimizing excuse for much of their behavior, and whose message of civilizational conflict they mirror and magnify.

For those who see the EU as the Enlightenment institution par excellence… the prospect of the United States colluding with the forces that want to destroy it is not treated lightly.

For European policymakers, this constellation of counter-Enlightenment forces represents a threat. While debates about NATO, U.S. alliance commitments, and European defense spending have naturally proliferated in recent months, it is the U.S. approach to the European Union that serves as the litmus test of whether Europe now faces a hostile ideological agenda. For those who see the EU as the Enlightenment institution par excellence, a peace project that has kept the continent from being dragged down by the ghosts of its past, the prospect of the United States colluding with the forces that want to destroy it is not treated lightly. This was recently dramatized by Wolfgang Ischinger, the sober-minded former German ambassador to the United States, who stated that if Washington were to drop its traditional posture of backing European integration to press for other countries to follow the UK’s example, it “would amount to a kind of non-military declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the United States”.

The hope is evidently that, beyond occasional dinners with Nigel Farage and cheerleading from a few figures in the White House, no such effort will be seriously pursued. There are still grounds for thinking that it will prove possible for Europeans to work with more mainstream elements in the administration and Congress to curtail President Trump’s wilder policy excesses, and continue cooperation on many shared areas of interest. In any case, there is every prospect that any “anti-EU” agenda would be ineptly pursued, whether because it is predicated on a fantasy of Europe as a terrorism-wracked continent plagued with “no-go zones” or simply because it is informed by a very limited understanding of how European politics and the EU itself actually work. European policymakers were unclear, for instance, whether early efforts by the administration to undercut EU authority over trade policy by proposing bilateral deals with member states were a product of ignorance or of incompetent attempts at trouble-making. Less amateur efforts could prove counter-productive anyway, doing more to catalyze resistance and taint by association than to provide ballast to the populist cause. Brexit and Trump have already proved a boon in opinion polls for many moderate, pro-European forces who are aghast at what they see in the old heartlands of liberalism and Enlightenment values.

But clearly none of this can be taken for granted, and the anxiety for Europe lies precisely in the fact that the raw material is there for a bleaker set of outcomes. In Brexit, Europeans have already watched a xenophobic, slyly misleading political campaign, based on hostility to elites and foreigners, emerge from the right-wing fringes to catalyze the withdrawal of a major EU member state. “Illiberal democracies” in Central Europe have established themselves within the EU’s borders with no effective sanction. There are significant elections to ride out this year and, despite Germany’s impressively resilient political center and promising dynamics in France, even victories will result in more of a sense of buying time than of having found long-term solutions to the social and political challenges that are roiling western democracies and the EU itself. Clearly the most important dynamics are internal: the rise of populist and far-right parties reflects trends that long predate Trump, Brexit, or “neo-reactionary thought”, and will persist regardless of them. But external, state-backed forces can play an important role at the margins, as Russian involvement in the U.S. elections has already demonstrated. And at worst, right-wing populist movements could gain a considerable boost from a combination of direct practical support and a set of U.S. policies specifically conceived to mesh with their agenda.

Moreover, the risks to Europe of a counter-Enlightenment agenda being run out of the White House are not limited to its EU-specific elements. There have been significant concerns about the dangers that U.S. policies may pose to a global trade order that was consciously forged with the lessons of the 1930s in mind. Whatever trade strategy the United States decides to adopt towards Europe itself, if the self-described “economic nationalists” win out, the administration’s broader approach to trade deficits, supply-chains, and the WTO could pose a serious threat to the economic system on which European prosperity is based. Add to this the prospect of United States unraveling the Paris climate deal (de facto if not formally), rolling back the regulations that had been designed to prevent another financial crisis, and a host of still-undetermined risks stemming from the proclivities of various figures in the administration for confrontation with the Islamic world, and the list of potential challenges is daunting.

Europe’s strategic choices look different as a result. The question most often posed since November is that of how Europeans can maintain the liberal international order in the absence of a committed U.S. partner. The answers given are some variant of working quietly with other like-minded democracies and sympathetic parts of the U.S. administration to hold things together for four years until a more normal U.S. presidency can pick things up again. It is not an answer that is ever given with total conviction though. In theory, the resources of the leading democracies — militarily and financially — add up to some impressive totals if collectively marshaled. But aside from the clear difficulties in doing so, in present circumstances most of those countries have less ambitious goals than the maintenance of a liberal order at the global level. For many Europeans, sustaining liberal democracy at home, staving off direct security threats, holding the EU together, and ensuring that the broader global economic and security order doesn’t deteriorate too markedly would be accomplishment enough in the next four years. And inevitably, a major part of the debate in Europe about how to support this more limited agenda has been about China.

It is easy to be dismissive of Beijing’s efforts to position itself as the savior of globalization and the international order in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election. From Lima to Davos to Munich, Chinese trade negotiators, foreign policy officials, and Xi Jinping himself have been showing up with the same underlying message: at a time of radical uncertainty, China is going to be one of the few grown-ups left in the room. For China hands from across the political spectrum, the whole effort appears ludicrous. They point to the rich varieties of Chinese protectionism as among the root causes of the backlash against globalization, to Xi Jinping’s political repression and burgeoning personality cult, to China’s military expansionism in the South China Sea, to the stoking of nationalism, to censorship, surveillance, and a litany of other credibility-shredding issues. Indeed, for certain commentators who subscribe to the “Enlightenment versus counter-Enlightenment” mode of analysis, China is self-evidently on the wrong side:

“Nietzschean thinking is back in the form of Vladimir Putin. Marxian thinking is back in the form of an aggressive China. Both Russia and China are trying to harvest the benefits of the Enlightenment order, but they also want to break the rules when they feel like it. They incorporate deep strains of anti-Enlightenment thinking and undermine the post-Enlightenment world order.” — David Brooks, New York Times

There are certainly frameworks within which this conflation of Russia and China makes sense. Both powers have been challenging elements of the “rules-based” international order, whether blatantly in Crimea or more incrementally in the South China Sea. Both have authoritarian governments that see liberal forces as an acute danger to them and act in concert to push back against international efforts to promote human rights and democracy. There is no credible account in which China is the defender of a “liberal” international order, nor does it purport to be. But in the current geopolitical context — and particularly when seen from Europe — the Enlightenment framework tends to illuminate the differences rather than the similarities between the two powers. Simply, Russia acts as a proselytizing counter-Enlightenment power, where China does not.

Even as China advances its own version of national exceptionalism, it wants a global system that works, and the institutions that underpin it to hold together.

To take only a few of the most obvious examples: Chinese cyber-capabilities are not deployed to subvert western elections and undermine confidence in democratic political systems. China does not finance, host, support or direct its propaganda outlets to back extremist parties. Beijing sees the rise of populist forces as more of a threat than an opportunity, given their propensity for upending the global economic order on which its rise depends. It is not part of a common “traditionalist” agenda to roll back LGBTQ or women’s rights. It engages in no anti-semitic dabblings. It has no interest in “civilizational conflict”. It doesn’t flirt with climate change denial. Even as China advances its own version of national exceptionalism, it wants a global system that works, and the institutions that underpin it to hold together. At the peak of the financial crisis, when Russia was urging China to dump its holdings in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to put further stress on Washington, Beijing wanted nothing to do with it. China undoubtedly takes advantage of divisions between EU member states to advance its own interests, but it has been supportive of European integration, and takes the EU and its institutional architecture seriously. China has played a constructive role at moments of real fragility for the European project, whether through its public stance against Brexit or its behavior in the bond markets during the eurozone crisis.

For the sake of not overloading this blog with debates about the May Fourth Movement, Marxism, Leibniz, Voltaire, enlightened despotism, and the current state of the Chinese Communist Party, I will not delve into the far more complex question of whether it makes sense to think of China as an Enlightenment power. Even today, there are credulity-stretching efforts to hold China up as a latter-day Confucian meritocracy of the sort that fired the imaginations of early European Enlightenment thinkers, which it evidently isn’t. The argument is more modest: during a period of reactionary, insurgent threats, China is not a power that sees the Enlightenment project as its enemy and the political challenges facing the west as an opportune moment to overturn the system.

As a result, in Europe there is now a quiet debate underway about what the relationship with Beijing should look like in this new era. This debate is, for the moment, still secondary to a broader set of questions about how Europe should navigate a world in which the Anglo-American spine of the liberal order has buckled. There is almost certainly not going to be a repeat of the sort of episode we saw back in 2004, when the EU contemplated lifting the arms embargo it had imposed after Tiananmen. Even if there was no intention on the part of European leaders at the time actually to sell weapons to Beijing, the whole process was infused with a degree of naivety about what sort of power China was becoming and Europe’s capacity to influence its trajectory. That naivety is absent in Europe today. Even as the EU’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, makes statements about “fighting protectionism together” with China, there are simultaneous efforts to press ahead with Europe-wide CFIUS mechanisms to address the risks of Chinese investments in strategic sectors. The EU has been beefing up its trade defense instruments to deal with Chinese industrial overcapacity. Just as in the United States, there has been much talk of “reciprocity” as a guiding principle.

The abiding hope [is that] in four years, the Europeans will have their closest partner back.

In the security sphere, the failure to secure unanimous consent for a convincing EU statement after last year’s arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea was disappointing, but stemmed largely from the behavior of governments on the margins of EU politics; the mainstream European consensus on the issue was clear. There are no illusions about what is going on in Xi’s China either, whether for Chinese citizens, European companies, or extra-territorially abducted Europeans. In normal circumstances, this would a period in which U.S.-European cooperation in navigating many of these issues was moving ahead. And aside from the underlying principles at stake, no-one in Europe is going to make any precipitous moves with China while the credibility of American security guarantees, and the Atlantic alliance itself, seems to hang in the balance. Any harm inflicted on it will not come from pre-emptive moves in Berlin or Brussels but from actions taken in Washington. The abiding hope remains that these will not be as damaging as advertised, and that in four years, the Europeans will have their closest partner back.

Yet, with all these caveats noted, there is no doubt that on a series of existential issues for Europe, ranging from the global trade order to climate change, from the future of the EU to the future of liberal democracy in Europe, there is a real need for partners who can be counted on to follow basically rational principles and not actively seek to subvert the existing system. This is a low bar, but it is not obvious that the United States under a Trump presidency clears it. And as a result, there is now the prospect that Europeans will discreetly shift emphasis in the next few years from working with the United States to sustain a liberal international order — as they would wish — to working with whichever powers can help stave off the counter-Enlightenment forces that currently look like the most potent threat to Europe’s future. At present, they see Russia acting as an unambiguously counter-Enlightenment power; the United States engaged in an internal struggle over whether counter-Enlightenment elements will get to pursue their agenda in government; and China — an illiberal power, yes, an authoritarian power, yes, but not a counter-Enlightenment one. And if the wrong side wins the policy battles in Washington, the division over Enlightenment principles could prove to be the geopolitical fault-line that matters.

This is the first installment in a new Medium publication called Out of Order. Follow us for more analysis on the liberal international order and the forces challenging it.