Since the Ukrainian crisis began, relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated rapidly to lows not seen since the Cold War. From speeches by Putin lambasting the degeneracy of the West and critiquing its place in the world order, to those by the Obama administration blasting Russia’s attempt to revert to a supposedly long-since abandoned foreign policy based on geographic spheres of influence; from provocative flight paths by Russian military planes to the newly re-discovered martial rhetoric of some political and military leaders in the West; from fears in Russia of a West-led colour revolution to overwrought hand-wringing in the West concerning Russia’s edge in the propaganda wars — all grounds for calm and compromise appear to be slipping away apace.
Indeed, according to a recent analysis of Russian and NATO military exercises by the European Leadership Network, “Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.” Are both sides acting equally provocatively? NATO Deputy Spokesperson Carmen Romero defended NATO exercises earlier this month, arguing that Russia has had more than 10 times the exercises NATO has had and that Russian exercises often include a nuclear component, adding that Russia’s exercises lack observers and occur unannounced.
NATO’s response, which places the blame for any escalation squarely on Russia’s shoulders and emphasizes the alliance’s defensive and democratic character, plays into a growing awareness in the West of the importance of counter-propaganda and informational warfare when dealing with Russia (as Russian propaganda could easily spin the report to mean that NATO is “equally to blame” for hostilities).
Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute writes that Russia’s “propaganda machine is being credited with almost magical powers of penetration and persuasion,” noting its description by NATO Supreme Commander General Philip Breedlove as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen.” Peter Pomerantsev reports that at a seminar in Kiev on NATO policy, the issue of information warfare, or of competing “narratives,” was heavily emphasized. The person leading the seminar “wanted to make clear that the ‘narrative landscape’ represented a new and unfamiliar battleground — one in which NATO no longer appeared to hold a clear advantage.” Indeed, Pomeranstev wrote, “If the battle shifts to the ‘psychosphere’” — i.e., to the domain of propaganda and counter-propaganda, narrative and counter-narrative — “NATO’s military supremacy is irrelevant.”
What these analysts are saying is that deteriorating relations between Russia and the West (the U.S., NATO and the EU) are tracking an increase in incompatible “narratives,” culminating in open declarations of information war. And for many, this narrative component is inseparable from the philosophical outlooks of either side.
For instance, Harvard historian Timothy Snyder wrote that: “The crisis of the West has two sides. One is political … the other is philosophical.… The essence and explicit purpose of Russia’s war in Ukraine … is the destruction of the West as a universalist project.… Its moral premise is that members of the West have abandoned traditional European culture … for ‘decadence’ and that only Russia represents civilization.”
Elsewhere, Snyder has asserted that the basis of the West is the logical law of non-contradiction — that a statement and its opposite cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect — which he says Russia is rejecting, and which many in the West is increasingly unable to defend as a result of “postmodernism” in thought.
On the Russian side, “Putin’s brain,” the Russian intellectual and political activist Alexander Dugin, recently sanctioned by Canada and the United States, also presents the conflict between Russia and the West as fundamentally a philosophical conflict, even as he articulates a plan for “network warfare” in the psycho-sphere in the service of his philosophical ideas.
So the political conflict has an important philosophical dimensional, too. But what, exactly, is the problem?
As Leo Strauss warned decades ago, the West is in a “crisis,” what he called “the crisis of modern rationalism.” The “values” of the West were once defended on the basis of a specific view of human nature or human reason — and implicitly they still often are. But over time, the intellectual foundations of the modern West have been steadily undermined by “postmodern” philosophical currents far less favourable toward those liberal democratic values — individualism, egalitarianism, a certain kind of freedom, economic rationality, etc. — under attack around the world by the anti-liberal left and right (Russia draws on both).
Strauss himself admitted that the most profound source of those philosophical currents, Martin Heidegger — “Putin’s brain” has written four books on him — destroyed every possibility for a rational liberal philosophical outlook, the kind we might like to have available to support practical liberal political principles. Heidegger showed that the human being is something much more profound than the “individual,” that scientific rationality is the shadow of a more fundamental human relation to being, and that “history” does not quite “progress,” or not, at any rate, toward the liberal “end of history,” in Francis Fukuyama’s famous words.
Strauss’s solution, for better or worse, was to defend liberal democracy on the basis of salutary myths, noble lies, and neglected traditions — especially Plato and the Bible. It is doubtful whether a better solution has been found. What Strauss did not offer is what Snyder and others imply is available: a clear philosophical basis for the support of liberalism against its enemies.
What this means is that those championing the West in the war of words and ideas against Russia face a problem: either they are content to oppose Russia’s lies (propaganda) with their own “noble lies” (propaganda) about liberal democracy, admitting that there is no philosophical basis for its defence, or they must find a philosophical footing for the defence of liberal democracy.
In the first case, spy versus spy becomes lie versus lie in this new cold war. And the question of what is noble and what ignoble here is not readily settled by calling Putin a thief, liar and tyrant — ask any Russian (or European) who legitimately prefers the Russian to the American or Euro-Atlantic “worldview” and to liberal values.
In the second case, we have to face the abyss Strauss warned us about: there just is no sure philosophical foundation for liberal-democracy these days.
By Michael Millerman, National Post
Michael Millerman is a doctoral candidate and Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship Scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.