How can it be true that the post-Cold War settlement has left an almost universal feeling of aggrievement? That is the question Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes set out to answer in The Light That Failed by examining three case studies: Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America and applying a theoretical framework of ‘imitation’.
Hungary and other Central European nations quickly imitated the West by creating young liberal democracies expecting to integrate into the international community equal to the incumbents. However, they have felt patronised by the older European nations who seem to undermine their sovereignty and national dignity. These issues are particularly pertinent to newly liberated nations who have a declining birth rate - the subsequent anxiety around national identity creates a rejection of liberalism in favour of a strongman such as Orban to protect the nation.
Russia also imitated through a painful decade in the 1990s of ‘Shock Therapy’ caused by economic dogma and oligarchic corruption. Putin, the authors argue, has altered this tool of imitation to create a weapon against the west. This can be seen in two examples: imperial foreign policy in the guise of liberalism and sham elections. Putin’s used a phoney reasoning of humanitarianism for his invasion of Crimea imitating what he views as a Western tactic. Similarly, rather than rigging elections in his favour in an underhand manner he chooses to show his hand to the West exposing the American use of elections to impress legitimacy. This imitation has created a space of confusion and halted any attempt for a united Western approach to Putin’s emboldened Russia.
America under Trump has reversed the imitation as he copies the identitarian strongman leadership of Putin and Orban. The authors argue that Trump has a more coherent worldview than is often believed. He rejects any moral superiority or American exceptionalism in favour of America First policies. The old adage of foreign policy being about “our values and our interests” has been truncated and Trump’s America simply has interests. This retreats America’s place in the world from paternalistic policeman into a projection of Trump’s personsona a self-interested ‘winner’.
The book is successful in examining just how the post Cold War world has left all feeling victimised. The former Communist states feel patronised by a hypocritical West while the West feel they have been taken for a ride as the newly liberated nations have departed from the path set by the West. However, the theory of imitation lacks explanatory power. This book seems to suggest that the period of liberal democracies flourishing was a genuine belief in Fukuyama’s famous declaration of an ‘end of history’ only for this belief to crumble once the failures of imitation began to show. Instead, maybe this period should be remembered as one of deceit: Orban’s anti-communism was only perceived as pro-liberalism because of the Western lens of ideological struggle, Putin only followed liberal democratic norms when it is was politically expedient and the USA preached the values of liberalism abroad while enacting authoritarianism at home, particularly so after 9/11.