Western Conservatism: The War Within

Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 6-13 March 2015

(This comment was published in French by Sputnik News and will shortly be published in Russian)

In an article marking a significant breach with usual political discourse, the leading German political magazine, Der Spiegel, lambasted two NATO generals for (effectively) lying when they accused Russia of escalating military intervention in Ukraine (when in fact, we have been witnessing a brief period of cessation of hostilities between Kiev and the Donbas, following Minsk 2). “The German government is alarmed”, the article warns: “Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to [US General] Breedlove’s comments as ‘dangerous propaganda’”.

Berlin’s anger directed at the ‘fifth column’ in Washington

As one reads further however, it becomes plain that the target of Berlin’s angst is not so much directed at the US Administration per se, but rather at the ‘hawks’ (i.e. the neo-conservatives) more generally: “When it comes to the goal of delivering weapons to Ukraine, [Victoria] Nuland and [General] Breedlove work hand-in-hand. On the first day of the Munich Security Conference, the two gathered the US delegation behind closed doors to discuss their strategy for breaking Europe’s resistance to arming Ukraine … [it was] Nuland who began the coaching …’You need to make the case that Russia is putting in more and more offensive stuff, while we want to help the Ukrainians defend against these systems’”, Nuland said”.

It is not just on Ukraine, or in respect to demonise President Putin, however, that the neo-cons are making a concerted push to pursue their ideological ends: the same is occurring with the attempt to sink the Iranian negotiations, and to revive the goal of ousting President Assad. But what lies behind these policy wrangles is a fierce ideological campaign being mounted by neo-cons against another orientation of thinking, which is also ‘conservative’ (with a small ‘c’).

The latter, however, is more rooted in a Burkean ‘conservatism’ (Edmund Burke was an Irish 18th century political philosopher), which takes a cautious, even a touch pessimistic, view concerning the frailties of human nature; is more doubtful as to whether governments are ever very efficacious in their projects; and therefore prefers to limit their intrusion into the citizen’s life; and above all is highly suspicious of grand, ideological projects. Burkean conservatism is rooted in the 18th century philosophy that originally constituted conservatism.

Essentially, neo-conservatives are not really conservative, just as neo-liberals are not really liberal (in the classic sense). They are somewhat similar to each other, but are not exactly the same.  American neo-liberalism arose in close tandem to neo-conservatism as a part of the ‘Chicago School’ in the 1970s and 1980s – and they share a certain zietgeist; but whereas neo-liberals emphasise global economic restructuring, de-regulation and privatization, neo-cons are more focused on the accumulation of executive power, and on the necessity of wielding of that power.

These two orientations of conservatism (neo-con and Burkean conservatism) are fighting each other to the death. It is a bitter struggle, with both facing a global backlash owing to their harshly regressive impacts. Yet as Stephen Walt has noted, that neo-con advocates never admit the errors of their policies (the wars, quests for regime change, etc.), nor do they apologise; but rather, they just barge on, unfazed.

We see this ideological divergence most evidently in the ambiguities inherent in the Anglo-Saxon approach to President Putin and Russia: the Burkean conservative was originally somewhat understanding towards President Putin’s moves in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but being by nature somewhat jaundiced in respect to human nature, has now come to suspect Putin of wider ambitions, and in any event, is inherently hostile to any show of national strong-man-ship which Putin seems to represent, and which implies an encroachment onto the private sphere of the citizen – something Burkeans abhor.

The neo-conservatives however have simply demonised President Putin utterly, and make it plain that they want him gone – “regime change” for Russia, they call. The Burkean conservatives, with their inherent suspicion of power, have over time, become more open to the neo-con demonization of Putin and Russia – and the tide of opinion has been flowing the neo-con way.

Something of a similar course of events has occurred in respect to Syria and President Assad (though the tide here is now flowing toward the Burkean perspective).

The Burkean orientation of conservatism does not want war with Russia (believing that the West anyway would back down, before it comes to that), and would share the German Chancellor’s view that all this aggressiveness from NATO and Victoria Nuland is simply the neo-con ideological project speaking – trying to drag Europe into their fantasy of overthrowing Putin.  In the Burkean optic, it is important to caution Putin to observe ‘the boundaries’, but not, certainly, to take any confrontation to the point of war (Burkeans are traditionally wary of war as the expression of politics by military means – and they would point to all America’s recent wars having failed to articulate themselves successfully – in political terms).

There is perhaps here, evident in the expression of the Burkean outlook, a certain sanguinity based on their assumption that Obama shares their view (i.e. that he is instinctively Burkean), and that the US President will simply out-wait the neo-cons, and rely on sanctions and the crashing of the oil price to establish the boundaries for Putin (or Iran).  This may be so in respect to Obama’s instincts, but nonetheless, at the same time, the neo-cons are putting facts on the ground: they are ‘getting the masses over the bridge and onto the right road’ (in Trotskyist terms) by the repeated ‘false sightings’ by Breedlove.

Der Spiegel  again:

“German leaders in Berlin were stunned. They didn’t understand what Breedlove was talking about. And it wasn’t the first time. Once again, the German government, supported by intelligence gathered by the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, did not share the view of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)”.

“The pattern has become a familiar one. For months, Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.”


The Difficulty of Reading American Signals Correctly

It is clear then, we are not dealing here with an academic debate about western conservatism: we are talking about a bitter ideological fight taking place within Washington, and in parts of Europe.  And the consequence to this ‘war’ in the Anglo-Euro sphere is that it is progressively projecting its own internal disintegration and chaos into the wider world (i.e. as evidenced in the open letter to Iran by the 47 American Republican Senators, essentially telling Iranians not to believe what the US President is telling them about any nuclear deal; or with Breedlove ‘making up’ a story of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine in order to persuade Europeans to arm Kiev with lethal weapons). This bitter ideological fight is generating strategic incoherence across many spheres (including the ‘war on ISIS’, where the ‘hawks’ have one agenda (to focus on ousting President Assad and the weakening of Iran), and the Burkeans another (to degrade ISIS).

This projection of western internal disintegration carries clear consequences: one characteristic of a chaotic system is that very small error signals in input may produce very large, and wholly unexpected, system outputs. Also, chaotic systems can have several distinct states or phases, but that eventually these phases will mix and become progressively chaotic too. Chaotic systems, in short, are both unpredictable and cannot be controlled.  And the problem here is precisely with the ‘minor’ input signals.

Whilst Burkean conservatives may hope that Russians will read the West correctly, and that President Putin will be able to distinguish accurately between neo-con campaigning and Obama’s more reserved Burkean instincts, this may not be the case. One reason (why those on the outside cannot make the call) is Obama’s early decision to form a government of rivals, so that ideological opponents – neo-cons, neo-liberals, classical liberals and Burkeans – are all lumped together in the same Administration (fighting like dogs and cats). The current US Administration is neither one, nor the other.

More than that, even though Obama himself can be (perhaps rightly) thought of as instinctively Burkean, his emphasis on American ‘exceptionality’ and ‘indispensability’ is pure neo-conservative Carl Schmitt, courtesy of the Chicago School. So how can one expect the Russians to distinguish between these orientations, and know what is America’s true ‘intent’ towards Russia?  They can’t — the signals are simply too incoherent. They must prepare for the worst.

But just as pertinently to the difficulty of whether or not to take Obama’s instincts at face value, Der Spiegel notes that “Barack Obama seems almost isolated. He has thrown his support behind Merkel’s diplomatic efforts for the time being, but he has also done little to quiet those who would seek to increase tensions with Russia and deliver weapons to Ukraine. Sources in Washington say that Breedlove’s bellicose comments are first cleared with the White House and the Pentagon. The general, they say, has the role of the “super hawk,” whose role is that of increasing the pressure on America’s more reserved trans-Atlantic partners.”

But if Breedlove has yet to fully impact his European partners, his and others’ bellicose rhetoric has resulted in a very different system-output than may have been intended – at least amongst the Russian public, where Russians now view the US more unfavourably than during the Cold War, with 81% of all Russians saying they now view the US unfavourably – a figure that has doubled over the last year (and 71% of Russians now view the EU unfavourably). So much for the view that the American application of pressure would isolate Putin from the Russian people.

So can the real Obama ‘please stand up’? NATO mobilisation is underway, and Russia (and its people) are preparing for war too.  The technical aspects of mobilisation, even a hundred years after the Great War, remain a mechanical ratchet (though more a technological ratchet now), but one which still invites us to recall the moment when on 1 August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm tried to pause the German mobilization, only to be told by his generals that he could not: 11,000 trains were on the move, and war could not now be stopped. Now it is missiles and nukes on the move — as the US sends military equipment to Latvia, a Russian Foreign Ministry official moots stationing nukes in Crimea.


What is the nature of this ideological war; and why are its effects radiating such instability?

The Burkean tradition has been outlined above. It has deep roots in American conservatism, but, as in the UK, this strand is dying: it lacks any articulate contemporary advocate, and is on the defensive.

The main antagonist in this ‘war’, the neo-conservative orientation, owes much of its doctrine to Carl Schmitt – a German philosopher, close to the Fascist Party, – who outlined precisely such a grand ideological project (as Burkeans and classical Liberals abhor). Schmitt had witnessed the demise of the Weimar Republic which he saw as unable to defend itself against classical Liberalism, and which he believed, too, had sapped the State’s defenses by its inability to understand the nature of power and by Liberalism’s innate distaste for wielding (an amoral) power ruthlessly. At the end of the day, a state’s very survival depended, Schmitt rgued, on its  will and on its ability to use power to eliminate any potential competitors or enemies, without compunction.

This conviction helps explain why neo-cons – as Professor Walt noted – never admit failure, never apologise, but just barge on. America’s ability not simply to project, but its willingness to use, military power is equated with power more generally; if America did not do this, it would be weak, and in decline (like the Weimar Republic) – in the Schmittian-neo-conservative view.

To be wielded effectively, power had to be concentrated with an executive decision-maker, and thus comes Schmitt’s celebrated line that ‘true sovereignty (power) lies with he who decides the exception’. Schmitt worked to elaborate the importance of exceptionality embodied in law, and to the advocacy of true executive power requiring the weakening of parliament and the judiciary (both as an end in itself, but also to unencumber the power of executive exceptionality before the law – a law, which applies only to everyone else).  It is this legacy (together with America’s New Jerusalem founding ethos), which helps explain America’s insistence on legal exceptionalism.  It is pure Carl Schmitt.

Power also required an opposite pole around which it could be constituted, and around which the masses could be united and mobilized: it required an enemy. It required an enemy so unequivocally evil, that even liberals would not dare to suggest that it was ‘that’ with which negotiations could be entertained (i.e. Islamism), or whose views could be allowed to attract even a modicum of popular sympathy.

Schmitt’s primal influence has always been pushed to the background (for obvious reasons), but through his, and Leo Strauss’ Schmittian followers (though Strauss himself was not wholly Schmittian), Carl Schmitt’s thinking has had a huge influence (i.e. on the Reagan and GW Bush’s administrations).  The Chicago School, their main transmitter, added the parallel ‘big idea’: the neo-liberal notion of a global economic governance, achieved through American control of the world’s reserve currency, its influence over the IMF and the World Bank, and the International Order’s commitment to neo-liberal restructuring, de-regulation and privatisation.

But this too, in its way, was about power (the common element with neo-conservatism). Though cloaked in the language of free markets, neo-liberalism is effectively an accumulation strategy (via practices such as privatisation and financialisation) to bring economic and financial global control back into the realm of US sovereign control. In this fashion, the proclaimed ‘freedom’ of free markets has “primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve this goal”. More lately, the US Treasury has weaponised the global financial system to further America’s political levers of control and coercion.

By some strange alchemy, Schmittian neo-conservatism has particularly appealed to, and has been advanced by, those who were initially influenced by the ideas of Trotsky both in America and in Europe (including Tony Blair, who has said that the book that had most influenced him, and which had turned him toward politics, was Isaac Deutscher’s 1958 biography of Leon Trotsky). The founder of the famous neo-con magazine, the Public Interest, Irving Kristol, and co-editors, Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, and Albert Wohlstetter, too, were either members of, or close to, the Trotskyist left in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

“What both the older and younger neoconservatives absorbed from their socialist past was an idealistic concept of internationalism,” explains John Judis in Foreign Affairs: “The neoconservatives who went through the Trotskyist and socialist movements came to see foreign policy as a crusade, the goal of which was first global socialism, then social democracy, and finally democratic capitalism. They never saw foreign policy in terms of national interest or balance of power. Neo-conservatism was a kind of inverted Trotskyism, which sought to ‘export democracy’, in [Joshua] Muravchik’s words, in the same way that Trotsky originally envisaged exporting socialism”.

Such has been the reach of Schmitt’s ‘grand idea’: No wonder the Russians (and much of the Middle East) are so very wary (and not much comforted) by the remaining, weakened Burkean voices.

It is plain that this ‘war within’ the Anglo-Euro conservative sphere touches upon the very essence of western civilization. It reawakens deep passions: the fight for civil liberties; the struggle of partisans against fascism. It touches too, on those political movements in southern Europe fighting against ‘austerity’ and the ‘system’.  It is likely to prove to be an ugly and bitter affair that may divide the West deeply, and will spawn its chaos much more widely.

One Comment

  1. delia ruhe wrote:

    Very interesting analysis. It’s more evidence for the thesis — more an observation, really — that there hasn’t been a left wing to the American political spectrum since at least Reagan, and maybe even earlier. The terms “left” and “liberal” are still used by so-called progressives to describe each other, but the truth is that at best they stand dead centre on the political continuum that every other country embraces. Burkeanism is a very appropriate description of Obama’s politics.

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