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The Rise of the New Idealists
Dr Benjamin Tallis on a dramatic sea change in international politics
There is a new idealism at work in international politics. Pioneered by people and politicians in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the Czech Republic, but increasingly apparent in the actions and words of leaders across the free world, it has opened the door to a better kind of grand strategy for liberal democracies.
The standard bearers for this new hard-edged, forward-looking idealism in (geo)politics include Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and her erstwhile Finnish counterpart Sanna Marin, as well as President Edgars Rinkēvičs (Latvia) and Foreign Ministers Gabrielius Landsbergis (Lithuania) and Jan Lipavsky (Czechia).
They are joined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a leader reborn in the crucible of Europe’s response to Russian aggression. At the head of the pack though is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who, channelling the courage and conviction of his people, has done most to pioneer the ‘Neo-Idealist’ synthesis of morality and materiel, principle and progress.
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Other actors send mixed signals. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock is pushing for a more clearly values-based foreign policy, while Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seems stuck in the recent past, clinging to the untenable status quo ante bellum. Berlin’s recent National Security Strategy contains both impulses and is thus rather confused.
French President Emmanuel Macron has often seemed eager to put great power politics ahead of liberal and democratic ordering. Yet he has recently swung behind a more values-based approach to Ukraine, as part of an attempt to increase cooperation with Central and East European (CEE) states, including those of the new idealists. The UK already has such cooperation and has repeatedly led the way on support for Ukraine, though it has recently toned down its approach on China and has hewed close to the more cautious United States line at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius.
Even the Biden administration, so crucial yet so hesitant to commit to Ukraine’s victory over Russia, has clearly positioned itself as the leader of a democratic bloc with the intent to face down authoritarian China as a systemic rival. Relatedly, Washington has been more hawkish on geoeconomics than geopolitics as it seeks to move on from Neo-liberal economics.
With all these major Western powers’ geopolitical positioning in flux, the stakes could not be higher. To understand whether the new idealism can flourish and take hold as the grand strategy for liberal democracies, we need to ask: what does it entail, how does it differ from existing approaches to international affairs, and where does it need further development?
What is Neo-Idealism?
Neo-Idealism is a morally-based approach to geopolitics, grounded in the power of values conceived as ideals to strive for: human rights and fundamental freedoms, social and cultural liberalism, democratic governance; self-determination for democratic societies; and perhaps most importantly, the right of citizens in those societies to a hopeful future.
Crucially, its proponents see the struggle for these ideals, and making progress toward them, not as luxuries to be set aside when hard-nosed interests are at stake. For the Neo-Idealists, our values are our interests.
Spearheaded by Zelensky, Ukraine’s government has drawn on the courage shown by Ukrainians to appeal to the better instincts of democracies across the world. Citing principle after moral principle, Zelensky has appealed to parliaments, leaders, and peoples across the West to help his country by giving them the hard power tools they need to fight – and win. He has encouraged people and politicians to relive the heroic moments of their history and confronted them with examples of where they failed to live up to their ideals.
By emphasising that his country’s fight is just one front in the wider struggle for freedom against tyranny, Zelensky convinced people around the world that Ukraine’s fight is their fight too. This approach gained particular traction in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where it resonated with historical experience of resisting Russian oppression. It also re-awakened the long-dormant hopeful, forward-looking politics of the 1990s associated with figures such as Václav Havel and Lennart Meri.
CEE states have committed staggering proportions of their GDP and led the way in supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons. They were also the first to formally support Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership – a priority for its government to salvage hope from the horror of war. Even if this approach is in these states’ interests, they are emphasising values which go beyond merely preserving territorial integrity.
Accordingly, the Neo-Idealists are clear about why they take such a tough and principled stance. Kaja Kallas spoke in Berlin of the need to “do everything to help Ukraine” in the name of defending freedom everywhere. With the Chancellery dragging its feet, and German society still debating the value of military means to stop a dictatorial aggressor, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Latvia, Artis Pabriks asked: “Are we paying lip service to values and liberal democracy, or do we mean it?… We are ready to die for freedom. Are you?”
Neo-Idealism thus challenges ‘Realism’ in several ways. Its emphasis on morality and progress contrasts with the tragic Realist approaches popularised by John Mearsheimer and Charles Kupchan. Like Emmanuel Macron, many Realists focus mainly on great powers, for whom they reserve meaningful agency in international affairs. By contrast, Neo-Idealists emphasise the agency and right to self-determination of all democratic states, including smaller states.
For example, Neo-Idealists assert that democracies can freely choose which institutions to apply for membership of. They could, thus, voluntarily seek to join ‘spheres of integration’ such as NATO or the EU rather than having authoritarian ‘spheres of influence’ imposed on them – as Russia has sought to do with Ukraine. Neo-Idealists challenge Stephen Walt’s 2015 view that the West should “do whatever it takes to convince Russia that we want Ukraine to be a neutral buffer state in perpetuity” – and reject Macron’s cynical equivocation on Taiwan.
Realists have a long tradition of smearing idealists as “woolly-headed” pacificists or utopians. Influential Realist historian EH Carr, an admirer of the Soviet Union and advocate of appeasing Nazi Germany propagated this myth and later Realists have also used it as a straw man with which to contrast their own supposedly clear-eyed view. Yet it is the Realists who are unrealistic. It is they who have been at the forefront of calls for negotiations with Putin, despite his manifest unreliability and untrustworthiness as a negotiating partner, and they who are in denial of Russia’s imperialism.
For Neo-Idealists, unlike Realists, regime type matters a great deal. Whether a state is a democracy or a dictatorship is central to understanding the foreign policy it will pursue – and the kind of relations democracies should conduct with that state: fellow democracies should be engaged with and supported, authoritarian and autocratic regimes shunned and contained. Whereas Realists relegate values to a secondary concern (at best), for Neo-Idealists, values are seen as interests in themselves as well as vectors of human progress.
This thoroughgoing focus on values conceived as ideals to strive for, sets today’s idealists apart from those labelled as such in the interwar period, whose limited view of progress – merely pacifying international affairs to a limited degree through economic interdependence – is hardly idealist in any meaningful sense. Even Woodrow Wilson’s iconic idealist commitment to ‘making the world safe for democracy’ was fatally undermined by his views on race.
What Neo-Idealism adds to Idealism in International Relations, therefore, is the ideals themselves, in a thoroughly liberal conception, to be progressively worked towards.
Beyond Liberal Internationalism
Neo-Idealism may superficially sound like Liberal Internationalism, but its pioneers have already shown how we can start to move beyond this model. The Neo-Idealists’ refreshingly assertive and deliberately galvanising approach is a significant challenge to the defensive, depoliticised, and technocratic approach of those such as Olaf Scholz who seek to preserve the increasingly zombie-like (neo-)liberal order. Yet, to become a credible approach to grand strategy in its own right, Neo-Idealism needs more substantial development.
Neo-Idealists emphasise the value of multilateralism and international institutions as means to idealist ends rather than as ends in themselves. Wary of the instrumentalization of liberal institutions for illiberal purposes, Neo-Idealists prioritise political outcomes over formal processes and prize cohesion rather than inclusiveness in their key institutions. This underpins Lipavksy’s view that “Hungary must choose its side, and whether they belong to the EU and NATO.”
By contrast, both Lipavsky and von der Leyen’s approach to Ukraine, emphasises the country’s struggle for democracy, freedom, and the prosperity they bring. Von der Leyen’s remarkable statement on 27 February 2022 – “They are one of us and we want them in” – upended two decades of policy on Ukraine, and raised the possibility of reviving the EU’s long-forgotten creative approach to geopolitics with enlargement at its heart.
Yet, a wider reconsideration of international institutions is needed. Prominent Liberal Internationalists have warned that pursuing systemic competition and standing up for democracy against autocracy, would require “new ways of running exclusive rather than inclusive global clubs, if we want to maintain an international rules-based system.” Just so – and Neo-Idealists should seize the chance to jettison or transform underperforming or outdated international institutions.
They should be ruthless in assessing which rules of the ‘rules-based order’ facilitate democracy and freedom, and which hinder them and should be ditched – not least the economic rules which allowed mercantilism to masquerade as free trade. They should double down on democratic groupings and alliances but also ensure that aspirant democracies have ways in, as part of a wider shift in approach.
Lipavsky has argued that defending democracies (whether Ukraine or Taiwan) from authoritarian bullies is key. So too is drastically reducing economic dependencies on authoritarian states to increase domestic resilience and support democratic ordering – as Sanna Marin affirmed: “trade or economics are not reasons to turn our eyes away from […] human rights abuses and the oppression of minorities”. Lithuania’s government went further, allowing Taiwan to open a representative office in its own name and bearing the cost of China’s economic retaliation.
This marks a definitive break with Liberal Internationalism’s sometimes facile reading of the ‘end of history’ – relying on the ‘convergence wager’ in which the spread of liberal economics would inevitably seed liberal politics. While some in countries like Germany misguidedly saw noble purpose in their lucrative entanglement with authoritarian regimes , in reality it enriched authoritarians and helped entrench their power as systemic rivals to liberal societies.
Neo-Idealists are clear that illiberal competitors should not be dealt with in too liberal a way. They recognise that ‘free trade’ of the kind seen in the last two decades in fact boosts autocracies such as China and undermines democracies. Yet, particularly given the level of our current dependencies on China, this raises questions over democracies’ sources of growth and prosperity.
Neo-Idealists should therefore embrace ‘friendshoring’ and other ways to increase economic activity within and between democracies. This will come at a short-term cost, which can be thought of as a ‘national security premium’.
Neo-Idealists have shown they know the price of freedom and are willing to pay it, but they need to go further. They need to show how they can transform this national security premium, into an investment in a better future. That will require fully seizing and accelerating both green and technological transitions but also entrenching redistributive models that will spread the costs and benefits of these transitions far more equitably across our societies.
They should seek to rebalance a global order that even liberalism’s defenders see as “rigged” and thus incentivise both rooted and aspirant democracies to adopt their approach. Just as importantly, they must reform domestic political economic arrangements to share the benefits of freedom more fairly with more of our populations – as the Biden administration seems to have recognised.
Neither Neo-Conservative, Nor Restraint Coalition
Doesn’t Neo-Idealism also sound a little like Neo-Conservatism?
A key difference is that, whereas Neo-Conservatives sought to impose democracy by force, Neo-Idealists seek to defend it where it is threatened. If intervening in Iraq was a quintessential Neo-Conservative endeavour, backing Ukraine to the hilt to ensure its victory is a Neo-Idealist one. While Neo-Idealists would welcome regime change in Russia (if it would bring a liberal, democratic government to power), they would not actively try to bring it about and focus instead on preventing the Moscow dictatorship from doing external harm.
The priority is to defend democratic societies to give them the chance to deliver the benefits they promise and thus become attractive role models to be emulated by others. This requires a change of tack internationally as well as domestic renewal by breaking with the elitist Neoliberal economics with which both Neo-Conservatism and Liberal Internationalism became entwined and which even its erstwhile proponents acknowledge as having failed.
As Samantha Power recently wrote, democracy assistance has tended to focus on politics and ignored economics, allowing significant material grievances to arise which are then leveraged by populists and authoritarians. This applies to our own societies as much as those to whom we provide such assistance – and must be rectified to make good on democracy’s claim to material as well as moral superiority.
The other key difference is that Neo-Idealism is not conservative, but thoroughly and assertively liberal. This is why Poland’s response to Russia’s aggression, impressive as it has been in material terms, could not be called Neo-Idealist and looks more like some variants of Neo-Conservatism, though the Polish government’s clampdown on liberal rights and freedoms go beyond what many Neo-Cons would avow.
Neo-Idealists embrace individual rights in diverse societies. As Kallas said in Berlin, this is about “keeping the rights of the individual and the rule of law at the centre of governance.” And she’s been as good as her word, pushing Estonia not only to new heights of defence spending but to legalising gay marriage.
While Neo-Idealists may be more prudent than Neo-Conservatives, they too avow the use of democracies’ power for good, and thus also provide an assertive alternative to the so-called ‘restraint coalition’. Restrainers emphasise the dangers of the (mis)use of US power. They thus seek to limit US engagements with the world to what they determine to be America’s vital interests.
Given the limited support restrainers advocate for Ukraine, they seem to see these interests as including the rights and freedoms of people in democratic states only if they are treaty allies. Even then there must be doubt, as many in the restraint coalition blame the US – including via NATO enlargement – for the war in Ukraine. They repeatedly call for a ceasefire and ‘peace’ negotiations that would reward Russia’s aggression, allow it to oppress Ukrainians in occupied territory, give it time to regroup and potentially incentivise nuclear proliferation.
Neo-Idealists do not see ‘national interests’ in such narrowly national terms. They draw on the potential of particular national identity for progressive purpose but deeply recognise the inherent entanglement of their societies with others. Understanding this interdependence, the indivisibility of democracies’ security and, thus, the essential value of liberal, democratic ordering comes more easily to smaller states.
Neo-Idealism pushes all democratic states to think smaller, in this regard at least, and not only to defend liberal ordering but to develop both new and deeper forms of cooperation between democratic states, to better shore up democracies and face down autocracies.
The future foreign policy direction of many of the key democratic states is uncertain and current doctrines seem ill-equipped to master the multiple transitions we face. The Neo-Idealists have opened the door to a new type of geopolitics and have made Ukraine into a clear case for this approach but there will be more ambiguous challenges to come.
The current Neo-Idealists and their successors must now develop and broaden their approach, while remaining consistent and deciding which challenges to prioritise. This would provide a genuine alternative to the inadequate model of the recent past and the chance to uncancel our democratic future – we should seize it.
Dr Benjamin Tallis is a Senior Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations and author of To Ukraine With Love: Essays on Russia’s War and Europe’s Future in which an earlier essay on Neo-Idealism appears. He tweets @bctallis.
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