One thing that strikes me about reading Balibar’s essays on nationalism is how prescient they are about modern politics in Europe. I’ve spent the past week waxing on (and waxing off) about his insights into the still-embryonic European nationalist movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But I find the historical insight that strikes me most is how well he understands that there’s more to the end of the Cold War than anyone in any influential position in the West understood at the time.
|Etienne Balibar seems to have been the only one in the|
West who never got played by Vladimir Putin.
I’m reading this book at a time when Russian petty imperialism is in a new resurgence. They’ve literally invaded a core ally of the European Union, and wouldn’t have been long for joining NATO either. They invaded and conquered the Crimean peninsula, having already occupied several borderlands in countries like Georgia that used to be folded inside the Soviet Union.
All this in response to these former Soviet border countries installing more liberal democratic governments – Mikhail Saakashvili in Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine – who aligned more with the European Union and United States.
They’ve encouraged nationalist movements to destabilize democratic governments in their traditional sphere of influence as well. Russian nationalists in Donetsk have split Ukraine with a civil war. Transnistria has been a semi-recognized non-entity state on the eastern slivers of Moldova, with Russian support. And Vladimir Putin is trying to encourage Russian nationalism in the Baltic region.
This is not how a defeated power acts. Balibar is one of the few, writing in one essay shortly after Putin took over the Russian Presidency, to describe that change as a takeover by the political police – the mean who once led the KGB, in other words.
Despite all Putin’s shenanigans – interventions, destabilizations, stirring up nationalist movements in newly or soon-to-be democratic regimes in his neighbourhood – pretty much every mainstream commentator and political actor with any real influence was totally surprised by Russian meddling in Ukraine. And every Western leader was powerless to stop Putin’s support of Bashar Assad in Syria.
All the people whose job it was to know enough never to be surprised were completely surprised. It’s the most intense expression of the immense failure the end of the Cold War really was.
Since I was a small child watching the Soviet Union fall on cable news, I’ve been told that the West won the Cold War. And that’s certainly how everyone acted. Balibar, along with many left-leaning critics today, describe the modern European Union as having pushed all the Europe into the global marketplace, where globalized corporations and their leaders can enjoy those regions’ wealth.
|Not really how to lead a transition to democracy.|
The European Union is thankfully far more than this, and has far more potential than this crude co-optation. But the critics aren’t wrong either.
This was exactly the wrong way to treat the end of the Cold War. The European Eastern bloc and almost all of Europe’s former Soviet states transitioned to democracy, and Western leaders thought this meant total capitulation to everything about the Western way of life.
Balibar rightly argues that this democratic transition should have been a period to build a new vision of Europe and a new model of Western democracy together. A time when we could have learned from the ideals of socialist Eastern Europe before their corruption by dictatorships. And when the East could have learned from the more experience democracies of the West.
Instead, to the victors go the power. That’s how it went. And I believed for a long time that this was the right order of things. But it certainly didn’t work out.
The mass privatizations – more like mass looting – of the Russian state ended up creating one of the most horribly unjust societies. A mega-elite of oligarchical billionaires owned almost all the wealth in Russia, and the other hundred million or so Russians were left adrift. Putin’s nationalism at least gave them the promise of being part of a feared nation again.
To them, the end of the Cold War wasn't any victory for democracy, but a national humiliation. Russians could never have built anything from being forced into the economic system of the countries they considered enemies for decades.
Our apparent victory blinded the thought leaders and political leaders of pretty much all the West into a massive blunder of overreach and condescension. Who knows what promising philosophical, political, and ethical creativity could have come out of a meeting of the minds and moralities of two Europes after the Cold War's end?
We’ll never really know. Maybe one day, I’ll imagine and write a book about it.