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>Václav Klaus and Richard Cobden

>In today’s FT Samuel Brittan, the mercurial veteran neo-liberal – ‘classical liberal’ as he prefers to style himself – writes a sceptical review of the British Moment the manifesto for ‘democratic geo-politics’ on now familiar wavelength of the Euston Manifesto of the new breed of muscular liberals endorsing involvement in Iraq and beyond. In the same piece Brittan also reviews a pamphlet opposing the new liberal imperialism, which takes a hostile obviously Tory, realist perspective (both pamphelts interestingly were published the same right-wing think tank, the Institute for Social Affairs).

Brittan sympathizes with scepticial assessment of democratic geo-politics/liberal imperialism of the second, but not its dismissal of universal liberal rights. We need, he argues, a Cobdenite liberalism framed in the spirit of the mid-19th century anti-Corn Law, anti-imperialist free trader, Richard Cobden – sceptical about state power both in the domestic socio- economic policy and the international geo-political arena. The Cato Institute, do this an up-to-date version of this, he says in another (critical) review (of Irwin Steltzer’s Neoconservatism)

So, is Václav Klaus, Central Europe’s most outspoken liberal opponent of the Iraq War and liberal imperialism a Cobden-ite? As a defender of the right small nations in Europe in a recognizable C19th way – for Austria-Hungary, just read European Union – it’s tempting to think so. And indeed Klaus has fairly dismissive things to say about US neo-cons, who are too big spending and convinced of America’s special mission rehape the wolrd (aka its ‘extended interests’). And the Cato Institute did publish an English langauge collection of Klaus’s writings back in 1997.

But as I read Klaus– and God knows, for academic reasons I do read enough of him – VK tends to is more culturalist than Cobdenite, tending to suggest (usually in his more out-of-the-way writings) that non-European cultures are not really capable of sustaining free institutions, but perhaps assuming that free trade and other forms of economic co-operation can solder any gaps between civilizations. The messianistic desire to remake the world with big guns and big ideas, he suggests, must be resisted with a good dose of hard-headed Czech pragmatism (provincialism, say his critics). and a good dose of self-interest and good look at the map. If we are free, prosperous and sleep safely in our beds, he implies, that is enough.

Many Europeans I suspect, are, in this sense ultimately Czechs at heart – perhaps even in Britain, where liberal imperialism tends to perculate through the national psyche in strange and unexpected ways, drip, drip, dripping its way subsconsciously into such varied progressive projects as New Labour or the Europhile thinktanks pressing for EU waking tall(er) in the world with a well organized foreign and security policy stamped “Made in Britain” on the back. But that’s another story….

>Christopher Hitchens on Trotsky

>Fireworks in a recent discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives programme. Invitee Christopher Hitchens chose as his ‘great life’ that of Leon Trotsky. Although no longer a man of the left apparently, Hitchens wanted Trotsky as his great life and wanted to discourse effusively about him in plumy tones pretty much from the perspective of his student days in the International Socialists.

Presenter and ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris and historian Robert Service did not, however, let him get with this, quickly raising the issue of Trotsky’s endorsement of state terror and his chilling view of men as violent apes without tails, a remark that de Maistre would have been proud of. Quite true, said Hitchens and terror was well, sort of necessary in the circumstances etc – a tired old far left defence, both morally and politically dubious, although I wasn’t clear if at and at what point his endorsement of Bolshevik regime want and whether he thought the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising a turning point or not.

When Hitchens sought to avoid addressing Trotsky’s contradictory attitude towards the Soviet regime and the question of what a Trotsky-led USSR of 1920s been like (bureaucratic and repressive, but with slower industrial development, a small private section, a smaller gulag and decent literary criticism, I suspect) Hitchens waffled about the importance of a programme and certain political generation etc. Why then, they, asked why he had chosen to speak on Trotsky at all if his personal qualities and views were of no real interest? Here Hitchens lost his cool and seemed about to walk out. However, they then they then cut the tape and finished the programme with a short, uncomfortable edited-in final exchange.

Interestingly, given his pro-intervention stance on Iraq Hitchens briefly mentioned the Trotskyist pedigree of leading US neo-cons, but didn’t unfortunately discuss the linkage between enthusiasm for world socialist revolution and the neo-cons later enthusiasm for that other great project of historical optimism: global democratic revolution. Does it inform his own view? Sadly no one asked.

Robert Service’s forthcoming biography of Trotsky is certainly to be looked forward to, although Isaac Deutscher’s beautifully written three volume classic will be a hard act to follow.

>Starting the week: Islam and ‘democratic geo-politics’

> Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Radio 4 is as interesting as ever today bringing together disgraced-then-rehabilitated Dutch liberal MP and critic of IslamAyaan Hirshi Ali , someone from the British
thinktank the Henry Jackson Society – supporters a sort of cleaned up neo-con foreign policy shorn of embarrassing associations with Bush and Blair, which they term ‘democratic geo-politics’ – very much on the wavelength of the ‘muscular liberals’ of the Euston Manifesto – and left-wing comedian, provocateur and anti-arms trade campaigner, Mark Thomas, who I had assumed was anti intervention in Iraq and, as far as I remember, a Socialist Alliance and then Respect supporter, although this wasn’t much in evidence on the programme.

The discussion was curiously civilized and restrained – Hirshi Ali argued that Islam was very largely a religious distillation of the cultural practices of Arab tribes. The West she says in her new book should promote the transformation and modernization of Islam through the taking up of enlightenment values. Western governments are too accommodating to such anti-liberal values because of cultural cringe and multi-culturalism.

A similar argument is presented in the Observer by Nick Cohen, who notes the FCO’s incompetent efforts in what is essentially a strategy of co-optation to distinguish ‘moderate’ from ‘extreme’ Muslim figures and organization. Even the ‘moderates’ are pretty conservative and illiberal, in many cases.

Hishi Ali was personally very impressive – perhaps why Mark Thomas did not lay into her as one might have expected. The problem with both her and Cohen’s argument however, is that rational enlightenment argument – especially in the short-medium term – is not going to effect a sudden transformation in the beliefs and values of politically organized Muslims (who may, of course, be unrepresentative) in the UK, or indeed elsewhere. Indeed, the type of ‘muscular’ approach endorsed by Hirshi Ali and Cohen seems likely to have no effect or to energise precisely the forces they want to demobilize– as Karen Armstrong argument that fundamentalisms are a modern, anti-modern backlash suggests.

This was complemented by the HJS’s presentation of arguments from its new manifesto The British Moment, although as Mark Thomas astutely observed why if democratic geo-politics (which seems a codeword for liberal imperialism) is rooted in the British tradition ) name yourself after a figure like Scoop Jackson, who no one has heard of in Britain. The argument that any other title would prevent a non-partisan rallying to the cause, but then why not just call it the Centre for Democratic Geopolitics?

Perhaps there are American funders who want the Society’s the transatlantic link underlined. Here too, I felt awkward issues were not raised. Does ‘democratic geo-politics’ entail the use of external force, as the pairing of the two words suggests? Given the limitations of resources available for democratic geo-politics Marr suggested the Gladstone Society, but wasn’t W E Gladstone sceptic about Empire despite – or because? – of his support for a C19th ethnical foreign policy. The John Stewart Mill Society would be nearer the mark, but perhaps a little too candid, given JSM’s Victorian candour on the subject

>Not Getting the Euston Line

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Having not strongly identified with the left for years without exactly ever embracing the right either, I finally read the much hyped Euston Manifesto – part written in an Irish theme pub I walk past on the way to work – with a mix of curiosity, indifference and detachment. Despite the hype over its supposedly ground breaking qualities and blogosphere origins, I was distinctly under whelmed. It is in essence a more long-winded, inchoate version of the familiar arguments of pro-Iraq war left-wing ‘anti-totalitarians’ such as David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen or Oliver Kamm topped off some more off-the-wall commitments to things like open source software.

Its basic point – that parts of the radical left are willing to make opportunistic alliances with conservative and authoritarian Islamists, backed by a lazy, knee-jerk hperbolic anti-Americanism – seems fairly obvious, but is no new departure – Ghadaffi’s Libya and Saddam’s own regime were hailed by parts of the far left in 1970s as exciting anti-imperialist experiments opening up new vistas for the revolutionary left (Ghadaffi also being later taken up the Third Positionists of the National Front during 1980s) – not to mention gallons of ink split on paens of praise to the IRA in the far left press right into the 1980s. John Callaghan’s The Far Left in British Politics covers it all – and has a few good jokes as well, which is more than the Euston Group can manage – so Respect and the broader trend it represents seem only the latest version of an old story of the marginality and opportunism of the radical left. So far so boring.

More fundamentally problematic though is the Manifesto’s Manichean notion of the need for a rearguard action to save democracy and the Enlightenment against a powerful new threat from ‘totalitarian-type movements’. There, of course, are many stripes of illiberal, semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian and populist movement, some savage, extreme and violent, but no real ‘totalitarianism’ against which the (only slightly sullied) white knights of democracy and the enlightenment now go into action. I guess this might arguably have been the case during the Cold War, when there were a small band of left-wing supporters for the US war effort in Vietnam – a way station for most to full fledged neo-conservatism, but an intellectually defensible position, I guess.

What the Manifesto proposes is also rather unremarkable – an alliance of socialists and democrats to fight for a liberal democratic minimum of human right and democracy. This seems to be a rehashed version of Eurocommunist (and earlier) notions of a Popular Front, this time turned against a ‘fascism’ or ‘authoritarian populism’ defined by radical Islam, Chomsky and George Galloway, rather than Hitler or Thatcher. This mirrors the neo-con construction of a continutation of the Cold War – radical Islam as a ‘New Bolshevism’ to use Margaret Thatcher. Despite some brief nods to economic inequalities in Western countries undermining the meaningful exercise of individual freedom orthe need for development and ‘democratic globalization’, there is little about structures of wealth and power in the Manifesto and its whole framing of politics seems as defined and obsessed by the ongoing Iraq experience as those who whose views it is targeting. Hardly, than a groundbreaking attempt to move on really

‘An opening to ideas and individuals on the right’ is a rather more interesting idea, although here we seem to be taking political realignment or radical centrism, rather than renewal of the left. The obvious problem here is that the Manifesto seems open to neo-con ideas of global democratic revolution from above – and, course some, progressive distinctly non-conservative figures like Václav Havel and Adam Michnik have signed up to this view- but not to those strains of the right that highlight the cultural and historical embeddedness and limitations of democratic (and indeed all) political institutions, and the contradictions between liberal freedoms and mass democracy.

Here, most of all, the Euston bloggers and drinkers seem to overlook the potentially rather sharp conflicts between the views of democratic and majorities and universal liberal human rights and freedoms of minorities, currently being vividly illustrated on the streets of Basra or Gaza with the election of Islamic religious parties. What do you do when the majority doesn’t want the full universal liberal rights that are ‘binding’ on all you? Undemocratically enforce them? This is the obvious answer arrived at by liberals from Mill to Hayek is yes. The obvious means being unelected, entrenched institutions and forms of colonialism. Writers like Mil made no bones about their penchant for liberal imperialism and suspicions of democracy (even in the UK)

Not alas the standard Euston group, who never address this and whose thinking seems so to say blogged down in the politics of the Iraq imbroglio viewed through a hallucinogenic Cold War construction of politics, which sees a new totalitarianism and new fellow travellers, when the realities seem messier, more confused and of course, given blog standard contributions like the Manifesto, not well thought through at all.

>Ivan Krastev on post-Iraq realignment and the limits of 1989 as model for export

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In a review of books by Fukuyama and Berman on the excellent openDemocracy site, the mercurial and provocative Bulgarian liberal and think tank analyst Ivan Krastev detects the “End of the Freedom Century” and reflects on both post-Iraq realigments and the limits of the CEE democratization experienec (and one might add their afterwave in the more half hearted and belated post-Soviet Coloured Revolution)

http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article.jsp?id=3&debateId=77&articleId=3486

“A fascinating aspect of this collision of ideas and power” Krastev observes, “which encompasses a new field of foreign-policy discussion about neo-conservatism, realism, liberal interventionism, armed force, civil society, and “democracy promotion” – is the way that it has supplemented older divisions between friends and enemies with fresh lines separating friends from ex-friends….[prompting] (…) international rethinking and repositioning on a cluster of related issues: United States policy after 9/11, the Iraq war, radical Islam and the Enlightenment inheritance, the nature of democracy itself and whether and how it should be “exported”.

In CEE terms, although Krastev does discuss it, this runs through the left-liberal dissident community, although unlike the West 68-ers, most (Havel, Michnik) seem buy into the anti-totalitarian argument without much difficulty and are (or were) pro-invasion, and the pro-Western liberal-conservative righ. Witness Václav Klaus’s estrangement from his own party’s thinkers on the subject and the Czech Republic’s small more committed band of neo-con cheerleaders such as ex-Civic Institute Chair Roman Joch, who has devoted a book to justifying the Iraq imbroglio to a sceptical Czech public.

Then more tellingly he argues (rather like Fukuyama) that
“the political imagination of those contesting the freedom century has populated the world with Polands (the optimists) and Serbias (the realists). The global democratic revolution was envisioned as a version of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale where it is enough for the Prince of Freedom to kill the dragon and kiss the princess in order to awake the sleeping global liberal majority.
This version of the story turned out to be wrong. And this is true with respect to the possibilities both of a global democracy-promotion campaign and of large-scale humanitarian wars. In this sense, the liberal interventionists and the neo-conservatives alike fell victim to the universalisation of east-central European political experience since the mid-1980s. The end of the cold war and the democratisation of east-central Europe that led to the emergence of pro-American liberal democracies and market economies was a model that could not be replicated in regions like the middle east.”

He then warns perceptively that Cold War victors fell prey to
“the careless wielding of vague concepts like tyranny and totalitarianism [which] has made them blind to the specific characteristics of the variety of repressive regimes around the world. The global rush for democratisation discarded sensitivity to context.”

Moreover, Krastev notes in a “neither [Berman nor Fukuyama] has written or could write a work still missing on the bookshelf: the east-central European perspective on the premature end of the “freedom century”. For this was also, arguably more than anything else, the east-central European century. And it is over”. Doubtless Krastev will oblige us with such a book. I look forward to it.

>An anti-American malgré lui – Václav Klaus in 2003 II

>More crititical Klaus reflections from 2003 on the Iraq war.

Despite his well established critical stance towards the Franco-German axis and belief that the foreign policies of Reagan and Thatcher, rather than West German Ostpolitik had created the geo-political environment for the fall of communism and US foreign policy had lateropened a ‘clear corridor’ for early NATO membership and further development, Klaus rejected the Rumsfeldian notion of an Old (anti-American) Europe and a pro-American ‘New Europe’ of former communist countries in CEE and more reliable US allies in WE such the UK. Although the role of US in the collapse of communism created a ‘loyalty’ in CEE countries domestic factors had been the dominant cause of regime change. CEE thus knew that ‘freedom is not a gift or a good (zboží) that can be exported’.

He therefore stressed his right as President of a small country to formulate and assert his own view. After breaking out of the Soviet Empire CEE states wanted to follow their own interests – some he felt which was ‘very American’. Rational doubts about the Iraq war were not a New Anti-Americanism’ – as US neo-cons had argued. In belittling rational criticism they were he claimed paradoxically created a ‘new’ New Americanism into which critics of traditional anti-Americanism (like himself) were being forced (Lidové noviny 26 March 2003).

Apart from taking sides in the strange cross-cutting generated by the Iraq war against many of his more neo-con inclined ODS colleagues, Klaus anticipates Fukuyama’s mea culpa about the non-exportabilty of 1989 and the need to not to overgeneralise the fall of communism as a model of rapid and positive regime change. This would also seem to apply to writers like Timothy Garton Ash – and a host of less well known but academically better equipped political scientists (Milada Vachudova’s ever thought provoking book Europe Undivided comes to mind) who see 1989 – rather least democratic consolidation thereafter – as a product of the EU’s ‘soft power’ generated by enlargement. This too may not be a model that can just roll and roll – I suspected the Coloured Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia (and perhaps just maybe Belarus and Moldova with the passing of some years) are part of this process, but the exportability of the CEE models of democratization, even in the irmore recent form of civic and electoral mobilization against semi-authoritarian nationalists rulers as in Slovakia (1998) Croatia (2000), Serbia (2000) or may be strictly limited exportability. Here, it seems, I am basically with Klaus, although, despite being a professional Klaus-watcher, I have always found the moderate secular conservative of ex-dissident, ex-PM and current Senatir Petr Pithart more intellectually interesting.

>Anti-communism, 1989 and Iraq – Václav Klaus in 2003

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Czech President Václav Klaus’s website offers a rich assortment of Czech right-wing positions, some idiosyncratic to Klaus, some more standard, which mixes propaganda, polemic and just occasionally some rather interesting ideas. Unlike the finally crafted prose of his predecessor, Klaus’s essay havea rather hasty, over wordy blog-like quality to them. I have been reading some of Klaus’s writings from 2003, his first year in office.

In the wake of his election as Czech President with the support of Communist deputies, Klaus (LN 26 April 2003) characterized his views not as anti-communist but as ‘non-communist’ – critical of and removed from communist ideologies or parties (whose definition did not interest him) – but not Anti-communism in his view was characterized by an inclination towards authoritarian social engineering and violently imposed change and a desire to re-educate others close to those of the Communists themselves and lacked a positive vision for the future and was an ideology of resentment and jealousy towards those better off than oneself. In conclusion he argues that Czech ‘should carefully study’ the institutional and cultural (psychological) legacies of communism and conceded (contra much centrist liberal Czech anti-communist discourse) that the Czech Communists today would ‘probably not’ introduce a one party system or demand nationalization merely implement dirigiste and etatistic policies like those – he claimed of the Social Democrats. Leaving aside the blurring of the Communists and Social Democrats, some sensible and realistic assessments, but a long way from the Klaus of 1990-1, who rode the tiger of populist anti-communism so well, before now rudely giving its tail a pull and getting off.

In speech for the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution (MfD 15 November 2003) Klaus expressed disagreement with the dissident view that ordinary people had collaborated with the totalitarian regime by not protesting or forming opposition groups. There was, he said, ‘resistance, inefficiency, substitute individual activities, the atomisation of society, mere passive existence (žití)’ but it was ordinary people who ‘created the prerequisites’ for 17 November 1989. The experience of communism he argued would be ‘our contribution (vklad)’ to the EU, which lacked such direct experience of such things and so had weaker defence mechanisms against socialist ‘constructivism’ – presumably those embodied in EU integration, although this was left unstated. Here the Czech President indulges very mildly in a familiar form of Czech messianism, more charcteristic of ex-dissidents like Havel or Petr Pithart, albeit with his own faintly populist twist. The little people of normalization new better than the dissident elite that came to lead them.

2003 is also of course the year of intervention in Iraq. Here, Klaus’s well known objections partly reflect his view of rights as culturally embedded in certain civilizations (clash of civilizations, without the clash, as it were) and hence a scepticism of the exportability of liberal democratic institutions, especially when imposed from by force. He is also worried but also a sense that the neo-con project opened up a rolling programme of military intervention and thinks other mechanisms such as effective anti-terrorist strategies will be more effective than starting massive preventative wars (MfD 25 March 2005). He also expressed satisfaction that (for once) as head of state he was expressing the majority view of Czech society.

A later review of an essay on the’ democratic globalism’ advocated by neo-con foreign policy writer Charles Krauthammer shows a more ambivalent attitude, however. Klaus agrees with the neo-con dismissal of a world of international organizations, the concept of the international community or global civil society as an organizing principle and is happy to affirm a world of sovereign national interests. He also endorse Krauthammer’s argument that neither pragmatic brute realism or Clinton-esque ‘humanitarian intervention’ (as caricatured by Krauthammer) are well founded policies. He objects to neo-con notions of the US as having special ‘extended interests and the right to shape world order – in effect to make choices for others (Newsletter CEPu 5/2004) and the messianistic notion of the US standing as the only guarantor of civilization against barabarism in a world overrun with terrorists, terrorist states and WMDs http://www.vaclavklaus.cz/klaus2/asp/clanek.asp?id=cKo20mHTmKnD

Here one wants to ask what kind of world the Czech President actually wants – he dislikes Krauthammer’s notion of the US as an unchained Gulliver, but wants the rights of small nations to be respected in the absence of the ties and chains of treaties and strong international organizations. Perhaps one should read it as an appeal for a sensible unchained Gulliver.