The Imperial Project

Nikita Kadan, from the series “Multilated Myth”, 2020


The Imperial Project

Jan-Werner Müller on “the West” and the War.

Nikita Kadan’s ( born 1982, Kyiv) work is about historical memory and amnesia, focusing particularly on the impotence of Ukrainian contemporary society to deal with its past traumas. For his research on the history of mass violence and the Holocaust in Ukraine 1930-40s, he appeals to existing documentary images in Soviet and Polish archives to register the actual events and bear testimony to contemporary and future society. In the series “Multilated Myth”, which premiered in Kyiv at the contemporary art gallery Naked Room, the artist references documentary photographs of the Lviv Progrom of 1941. In the second part of the series, these images collide with scenes of fetish game from Bruno Schulz’s “Book of Idolatry”. Although created two decades before the Holocaust, Schulz’s images look like a horrifiying anticipation of the historic catastrophe and his own fate as a victim of the Holocaust.

Jan-Werner Müller on “the West” and the War.

Is this the first populist war?

I don’t think that the concept of populism – at least as I understand it – is helpful at the moment. All populists assert that they – and only they – represent what they also often call “the real people,” and, to be sure, Putin in effect claims that only he represents Russia (and some of his acolytes even announce “No Putin, no Russia”). Plus, Putin pronounces claims about peoplehood, especially others’, for instance by denying it to Ukrainians. But in the end, we are better served by the notion of imperialism to understand what he is doing. Interestingly, observers in the Global South have seen this more clearly than some in Europe.

How do you explain the blindness – in Europe as well as in the US – vis-à-vis Russia’s imperial longings?

I would not describe them as Russia’s longings, as opposed to Putin’s. If I understand it correctly, the regime within Russia is floating all kinds of narratives to justify its conduct, not all necessarily imperialist and some clearly relying on some fantasy of replaying the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Also, to be fair, some observers did warn about the very situation we have now – but it was not seen as the most likely, and, to be sure, during years of the pandemic and with a background assumption that China was the dominant long-term threat, these voices did not always get much of a hearing.

Of course, diplomacy has a role – even for realists! – and everyone was aware that Nord Stream 2, for instance, was never just a matter of “economic thinking”.

Is this blindness connected to the state of the liberal project, favoring economic thinking and policy over political reflection?

That is an antiliberal stereotype going back to Carl Schmitt: liberalism supposedly tries to dissolve all conflicts into economic negotiations or moral deliberation; it will fail in the face of genuine political – which is also to say: violent – challenges or it will simply lose its liberal character by becoming violent itself. One should resist this framing. Of course, diplomacy has a role – even for realists! – and everyone was aware that Nord Stream 2, for instance, was never just a matter of “economic thinking.” Individuals may have miscalculated, or exhibited moral failings – the end of Putinverstehen should have come years ago – but none of this amounts to a thorough discrediting of liberalism. Plus, the Schmittian always wins the argument within his own frame: now economics has become clearly politicized with the sanctions, and he would see that as somehow a devious liberal ploy, as opposed to openly – that is to say: violently – fighting.

Nikita Kadan, from the series “Multilated Myth”, 2020

What does this war mean for the American right which never really had a problem with Putin, often quite to the contrary?

Plenty of Republicans are now calling on Biden to be tougher – it’s an easy way to score points against the administration. Meanwhile, self-declared national conservative politicians and intellectuals can pivot to somewhat different positions, away from defending Putin as a champion of traditional values or as a challenger to an international order constructed by allegedly corrupt liberal elites. They still try to make the case for a certain America First-isolationism (“Let’s focus on our Southern border first!”) or actually claim that the heroic Ukrainian resistance proves the power of nationalism, which they say the naïve liberals have been ignoring all along. I am not saying that this is very convincing; and it has been a moment of clarity to realize how narcissistic many of these right-wingers, with their trivial whining about “cancel culture” are. But, given how inward-looking (and inattentive to the recent past) US debates tend to be, both politicians and intellectuals could get away with some rather dramatic pivots.

There are plenty of smart authoritarian figures out there who are capable of learning. That does not mean they are invincible.

What do you think about the rhetoric of “the West”, which often frames this conflict in civilizational tones?

The easy answer is of course that one can use “the West” as shorthand for a universalist position. At the same time, one must remind oneself that even universal ideals do not have an immaculate conception, but originate in particular times and places, with particular blind spots; furthermore, one can recall that “the West” has made horrendous mistakes and, to this day, is guilt of many forms of hypocrisy. In short, one can have a firm position without what some conservative observers deride as a new liberal centrist jingoism. Of course, none of this prevents geopolitical adversaries from still trying to force liberal democracies into some sort of civilizational, i.e. relativist, framing and to insist on a kind of civilizational pluralism to uphold their autocratic systems at home.

What does this war mean for the future of democracy?

I don’t do predictions, especially not about the future. But two possible consequences seem worth discussing: the war poses a real problem for the right-wing populists who formed the core of Putin’s fan club in Europe. It makes it harder to casually call for strongman rule, like Zemmour has done in France, or to praise Putin as a plausible defender of traditional values. Hence internal threats to a number of established democracies might be reduced somewhat. But there’s another thing: one post-Cold War illusion was not that history had ended, but that only democracies are capable of learning, of admitting mistakes, of self-correcting. Autocracies, by contrast, were said to have a systematic disadvantage and – so the assumption went among liberals in the widest sense – would all end like the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin’s current conduct might reinforce this view of autocracy as self-undermining, since leaders are ill-informed and inclined to bad decisions. That might be comforting for some, but the point cannot be so easily generalized. There are plenty of smart authoritarian figures out there who are capable of learning. That does not mean they are invincible; my point is that we should not fall back on a certain complacency about autocracy’s automatic demise.

Jan-Werner Müller is a fellow in the program The Future of Democracy at THE NEW INSTITUTE and Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University.

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