>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….

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