Liberalism: What it is and What it’s not

Following is a presentation I gave at a two-day symposium, “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” at The Central European University on March 28, 2017. The day the symposium began the University was informed of government-sponsored legislation that, if adopted, would effectively shut down CEU. The legislation passed yesterday, April 4, and is currently pending signature by Hungary’s president. For background, see New law imperils Central European University’s future in Hungary, Inside Higher Education, April 5, 2017.

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When I read that title for our symposium would be “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” it struck me that participants were likely to have different understandings of what “liberal” and “liberalism” meant, which would make it difficult to collectively rethink the “liberal agenda.” So I thought I would take to take the opportunity to discuss “liberalism” as a concept, and clarify, at least for myself, what I mean by the term. I also thought it would be useful to consider how liberalism – again as I understand it – relates to other key concepts, including of the obvious one, democracy, but also others such as Popper’s notion of the open society, neo-liberalism, the liberal international order, globalization, and multiculturalism.

To that end, I asked a Berkeley PhD candidate in political science, Melissa Samarin, to do a literature review for me and put together a sample of treatments of the concept by authoritative authors, as well as a smaller sample of definitions of those other related terms, which I’ll put up on blog as a PDF if anyone is interested. [Link: Samarin: Liberalism and related concepts.]

So let me start with a few general points about liberalism the concept. Continue reading

Why the West should be pushing for a stable cold war with Russia

[Following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, November 23, 2015.]

Much has been written recently about whether the United States and Russia are once again in a “Cold War.” Somewhat more optimistically, the question is often rendered as “Can the United States and Russia avoid another Cold War?”

I suppose one could treat these as invitations to make a purely historical comparison between the current US-Russian relationship and the US-Soviet relationship during “The Cold War”? But I don’t think that is what most people have in mind when they raise the issue. Rather, I suspect that what most people want to know is how adversarial are U.S-Russian relations today, how dangerous is the relationship, is the high level of tension between the two countries likely to last, and what are the costs of hostility going to be over the long run?

It therefore strikes me that to answer the implied questions, one needs to break the problem up into at least four parts, as follows.

(1) What do we mean by the term “cold war”? (That is a conceptual problem about a category of events or states – hence no initial caps.)

(2) Are we already in a cold war with Russia? (This is a descriptive or empirical problem about whether the current relationship meets the definitional criteria.)

(3) How is the US-Russian relationship likely to evolve over, say, the next two years? (This is a predictive problem that will likely produce different answers depending on the forecast period – say five years instead of two.)

(4) Is there a way to return to a genuinely cooperative relationship in the foreseeable future? (This is a prescriptive problem in which it is perfectly possible to argue that such and such should be done but it is very unlikely that it will be.) Continue reading

Whither the convoy? A fateful decision for Putin and his advisors

The humanitarian convoy that left the suburbs on Moscow on Tuesday did not, as expected, continue down the M2 highway straight for the border crossing to the north of Kharkiv. Instead, it took a left turn in Tula and proceeded on to Voronezh, where it has remained since. From Voronezh, if the intent is to deliver aid to Luhansk, it can either head southwest toward the Shebekino crossing near Kharkiv, or it can head south toward the border crossings in eastern Luhansk oblast that are still controlled by the separatists (see map). Continue reading

Reading Russia on Ukraine (1)

I am frequently asked what is driving Russian policy toward Ukraine. Why is the Kremlin so intent on destabilizing its neighbor? Why was it so determined to keep Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union last fall? Doesn’t Russia have an interest in a better governed, less corrupt, and more prosperous neighbor? Why so much fuss about NATO accession? Does Moscow really think that Ukraine could pose a security threat to a country that spends more on its military than any state other than the United States and that has a huge arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons? Continue reading