I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So before we begin, one last time, we are getting ready to do the Ask Me Anything episode. So if you’ve got anything you’d like to ask me about any issue, about the show, about me, send it your question to email@example.com with the subject line AMA.
Rewind a few years, and the idea of Europe seems exhausted. It’s buried in these labyrinthine regulatory projects of the E.U. It’s fractured by debt crises and Brexit. It’s dependent on Russian oil and gas. There’s very little idealism left in that Union. What was Europe at that point even for? To the extent that question had an answer, it was this — Europe was for an end to war in Europe. That was the European idea. As Tony Judt put it, Europe was postwar. But now, we are watching a land war in Europe, one that has trashed the assumptions of many European leaders. Building pipelines with Putin didn’t stop him from invading Ukraine. It gave him the money he needed to do it.
Opening a door for countries such as Ukraine to join NATO and the E.U. without truly deciding whether Europe wanted responsibility for their security, whether it would take responsibility for their security — doing that provoked Russia without giving thought to what would happen then, what Europe would do if Russia lashed out. And in outsourcing so much defense spending to the U.S. — well, that looked like a pretty bad idea after Trump and a pretty bad idea now that Putin has actually started a war. So Europe is changing. It is having to rebuild itself in the wreckage of so many treasured beliefs.
But what is it changing into? Ivan Krastev chairs the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. He’s a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book “After Europe.” And he’s just among the most interesting and erudite people you can talk to on the subject of Europe, of liberalism, of democracy, and all the tensions therein. As always, my email — firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ivan Krastev, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much for inviting.
So I had a first question. But when we were just talking beforehand, you told me one you’ve been thinking about, which is you feel that we are so obsessed with the question of what will happen that we miss what has happened. So tell me what has happened.
Listen, one of the things that strikes me is that the change is happening so quickly that people really are missing seeing some very obvious things. For example, for the last 10 years, Europe was very much shattered by at least three crises. One was first the financial crisis, which was a big economic issue, the fear of impoverishment of the population and what is going to happen. And then you have the Russia — first, kind of annexation of Crimea, war in Donbas. And then basically you have the refugee crisis of 2015.
The first thing that we are not seeing is that all these crises came back. If you’re going to see what is happening on the economic story, we are talking about inflation. We are probably going to talk about the decline of the G.D.P. That is, compared to what happened in 2008, 2009. If you see the refugee crisis, basically, you are going to see more refugees coming out of the Russia Ukrainian war than of the war in the Middle East. And by the way, this is going to be the biggest movement of people in Europe since the World War II. And then, basically if you’re going to talk about the first Russia Ukrainian war, when it started, now we’re going to see a totally different scale. So suddenly, all these three came back, but they came in a very different way. They came in a so different way that we didn’t see that this is the same crisis coming back. And for me, this is one of the things.
Secondly, I was surprised how quickly certain things that we have been taken for granted have been totally shattered. For example, just a year ago, Europeans have been convinced that a major war is not possible in Europe. If you basically go with the famous Tony Judt’s history of Europe after 1945 called “Postwar,” postwar was the very definition of what Europe was. Europe was a project — European Union born out of the World War II — but also a project that is based on the idea that a major war is not possible anymore.
And now it changed totally. Even before the Russian invasion, European Council on Foreign Relations did studies in several of the E.U. member states, and majority of people claim that there’s going to be a war to the end of the year. Or the very story of neutrality — there was talk and talk and talk. And then, over two months now, we expect that Sweden and Finland, two countries for which neutrality was their identity, probably are going to change it. Or Germany, a country that didn’t have a single drone for now — they believe it’s unethical. They never bought a drone. And now this same country is talking about investing a hundred billion euros in the rearmament. This is such a big changes, but because everything happens so fast, we are not understanding how dramatic all this is. And we’re just taking what is going to come next.
Let me take those three crises from the beginning and, practically, number one and number two, the economic and refugee crises, because I’ve been thinking a bit along the same lines, particularly around refugees. And one thing that is striking is how differently populations respond to stress when there is a story behind it. So a financial crisis caused by bankers or, to some in Europe, caused by the Greeks, that’s one thing, that you’re mad at your leaders, you’re mad at your fellow E.U. members. But it causes a lot of internal discohesion.
Refugees coming from Syria, which is a place that many in Europe feel very little connection to, is another kind of crisis — an invasion, right? It becomes a huge political problem. But the stories we’re hearing about the way Ukrainian refugees are being taken in are very different. The way people I assume are understanding some of the economic tumult right now is different. How much does it matter that there is a unifying external enemy in the person of Vladimir Putin, compared to when these crises felt, to many people, more like the fruits of poor liberal governance?
Totally. The narrative is critically important, because when people don’t see who is responsible for what is happening, the conspiracy theories come up. And the story was, of course, there was a major war in Syria. But people cannot identify because they don’t understand it. There was all this kind of a quite wicked talk about how the economic migrants — are they refugees?
And now, you see a war that you understand, particularly countries like Poland, that is receiving now three million people. This is the paradox. During the first refugee crisis, Poland was one of the countries that closed themselves totally for refugees. And suddenly, you see this same Poland — three million people volunteers, private persons volunteers going to the borders, driving their cars. Why? Because they understand this war. They can identify it. And I do believe also the pandemic has a role in this. Before people in Europe, particularly, felt protected against any major disaster. We have been complaining. Of course, we have been unhappy with this and that. But you had the feeling that you’re living in a world where nothing dramatic can happen to you. And then came the pandemic. And then came this war, and you identify with these people.
And the third thing which I found really important was that it’s not that the Ukrainians suffer. They suffer, but they fought back. This level of heroism, particularly in societies like Europeans where heroism was kind of perceived as something coming from the past, is critically important. Bertolt Brecht has said once upon a time that he feels sorry for nations that need heroes. But at some point, basically, we also should feel sorry for nations that do not need heroes.
And from this point of view, the Ukrainians — the very fact that they did something that nobody expected from them created this respect. So you’re not simply going to meet suffering people, refugees, but you’re meeting also and trying to welcome respectful people, people who are victorious in their resistance. I do believe this also has a huge importance to understanding. It’s not simply a narrative, but it’s a narrative of a heroic resistance.
How unifying is this story, in truth? Because another way of looking at it is that this is what is being reported. Germany is making this huge defense expenditure. People are taking in refugees in Poland. But then you look at the country that is currently undergoing a moment of small-d democratic accountability, France, where there’s an election going on. And Le Pen is making a very strong challenge to Macron.
In Hungary, Orbán was reelected easily. Now he has created a system where it’d be very hard for anything to happen but for him to be reelected easily. But still, in the two data points we have, Hungary and the race in France, the more pro-Putin politicians don’t seem to be suffering a complete exile from politics in the way that some might have expected.
You’re right, and it’s even going deeper. The problem is not simply how strong is this unity but how long it can last, because meeting people, hosting people living in your house for three months, for four months, for six months, for how more long — so this comes the problem of what is going to happen next for the governments. So I do believe it is a momentum, and this momentum is also dividing.
In the case of France, as you know, on the first round Macron prevailed. Now the second round is going to come on Sunday. If we trust opinion polls, he is going to win. But of course, this victory is not going to be the glorious victory that he expected.
But part of the story is that what happened in France is that, while Macron was focusing on the war, the major message of Le Pen was, everybody cares now about Ukrainians. Who cares about you, French people? So you start in Europe a kind of Olympics of suffering. Who is suffering most, is basically, the forgotten French farmer is doing worse than the Ukrainians, because his suffering is invisible.
And this is a moment in which there is a unity, but there is a very strong nationalist sentiment. And of course, both Le Pen and Orbán did it very clear that they don’t stand behind the invasion, so they’re against the war. But the major message was, we don’t like what Putin is doing. But the most important for us is that we care about our own people.
And here is something that they find is a major change compared with, for, example with the late 1990s. People now talk a lot about the impact of the Kosovo war and NATO basically bombing of Belgrade and what is happening in Russia and how the Russians were perceiving themselves. But one of the interesting story about the Kosovo war was that, from the Western point of view, the message of the war was, we care about people who are not like us, who are Muslims, and we are ready to die or at least to kill for a place in which there is no oil. So in a certain way, it was perceived as a classical humanitarian war.
So the idea was that, when we talk about rights, we normally talk about the rights of the minorities, of the most vulnerable group, and not only about people like us. I remember in 1999, during the war campaign, Tony Blair came to Sofia, and he gave a speech. And he said, what Gladstone did for Bulgarians in 1876 during the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, we are doing for the Kosovars. And he was wrong, because Gladstone interfered because Bulgarians were Christians, like him. And here, the major message was, these people were different than us.
What, in my view, is changing is that you see that people again start very much to focus on people like them. In a certain way, you identifying — for example, Poles identified with the Ukrainians because they do believe that they have an enemy, which is the same enemy. And this was not the same in Syria, regardless of the fact that it was Russians bombing Aleppo. But this was not a type of identification. It’s not simply that you have a common enemy, but you are seeing that you can be the next. And this kind of a moment in which people have a solidarity but it’s a solidarity of their own groups.
Yes, there’s a way of understanding the refugee story right now with the Ukrainians as very inspiring. But the more difficult and, I think, also true way to understand it is that what makes it inspiring is how different it is from previous refugee stories. And that question of who we care about and why, when do we care, when does it become front page news day after day after day after day — correctly, because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a big deal, but in terms of lives, in terms of geopolitics, it’s not like the starvation in Afghanistan isn’t a big deal or the war in Yemen isn’t a big deal or any number of other conflicts or catastrophes we can name.
So on the one hand, the solidarity with Ukrainians is a genuinely wonderful moment, I think, in the West. But it’s thrown into sharp relief by all the times we have not offered that solidarity or have even gone in the other direction.
No, I totally agree with you. But here, there is a basic problem, and in its most radical form it looks like this. Can you love all kids in the world as strong as you love your own kids? To what extent there are certain preferences that are so strongly embedded in all of us that, when it comes to solidarity, a certain type of a community suddenly ends up to be more important? And I’m saying this because, on one level, what you’re seeing is very true.
On the other, the fact that this is happening in Europe and this is Russia attacking Ukraine and not Syria also explained the fact why many countries outside of Europe and the United States do not care much about the war. For example, the majority of the countries that have been invited by President Biden on the Summit of Democracy do not sanction Russia. And some of these countries are important countries.
You have countries like India, but also you have a kind of a symbolic places like South Africa. They obviously don’t approve what Russians are doing. But for them, this is not so important, because it’s not so much about them and because they fear other things, because they have other calculations.
So in my view, this is one of the interesting stories that we can see in a moment in which the globalization is in crisis. The moment the world globalized, suddenly, universalism ended up in crisis. In a way, we had a much more kind of readiness to identify with different people and people not like us when these people were much more part of our imagination than part of our personal experience. So it’s not by accident that Immanuel Kant, the guy who basically come up with this universalist ethics and ideas, was famous for never leaving his town. So this is what I found kind of quite interesting.
Yes, there’s very much something to that. And to the point you made about those countries, another thing you hear in the reporting from them is that, when they look out and they see America and Europe rallying global opinion against Russia, as you say, they may not support what Russia did, but they see less difference than we do between what Russia did and what we do. And I, as a member of my own, we here don’t want to draw what I consider to be a false equivalence.
At the same time, I think we are seeing here that it has built a deeper reservoir of weakness than we always admit for America, I will say, to have violated international law so often, to have been an expansionist power many times over the past 20 or 30 years, to appoint itself the global policeman. There are real ways here where the case we make to ourselves is not believed, it seems to me, by other countries who say, well, I hear what you say. But look what you do.
No, listen, you’re absolutely right. And the major accusation to the West in all these countries is hypocrisy. And the major thing that, basically, Putin believes that he is doing is teaching the West a lesson. I’m just doing what you’re doing. Just see yourself. I’m the mirror of yours. He’s obsessed with the hypocrisy of the West.
On the other side, there is one major difference, which is at least important for me when I’m trying to basically decide for myself how right or wrong we are saying this or that. Listen, the tortures, atrocities — this is not the only thing. It’s not only the Russians that are doing this. We remember [INAUDIBLE] what happened during the 2003 and 2004 in Iraq. But there is a major difference. When this happened, there was a moral outrage. There was a Senate investigation saying, what was the chain of command? Who knew what is going on? This is totally absent in the Russian-Ukrainian case. The Russian president decided to make heroes of the people that have been accused of committing crimes against civilians, and this is a major difference.
So the major difference is not what the military do. The major difference is basically, to what extent societies are ready to face the evils that they’re doing? And from this point of view, there is a famous Italian historian who said something that I found particularly convincing. He said, in order to understand which is the nation to which you belong, this is not the nation that you love most, but this is the nation that you are ashamed of.
So the fact that you feel kind of a much more certain kind of uneasy about the things that America is doing in the world is simply proof that you are American.
And the thing that basically makes the Russians losing a lot of the moral respect that they have gained because of what their parents and grandparents did during the World War II is exactly this. Do not apologize. Do not confess any type of wrongdoing. Try basically to dismiss any type of suffering that you have injected on others. And in my view, this is becoming an issue, because this is demoralizing nations.
I want to use this as a bit of a bridge to a different question of projection here, which is projection from Europe, as to what Europe is internally, and from Europe, as to what other countries are externally. And let’s begin with the latter. You wrote that Europeans made a mistake by universalizing using their post-World War Ii experience to countries like Russia. Tell me about that.
Listen, this is a very interesting story. If you go back to the 1990s, not immediately — 1991, 1992, when there was a lot of kind of uncertainty, and by the way, the fear of chaos and disorder, so there was no triumphalism immediately after the end of the Cold War. But in the last part of the 1990s, the beginning of 2000, suddenly, because something that we did not expect happened — I mean Soviet Union collapsed — we decided that we know what is going to happen in the future. Our failure basically — this is, a German colleague of mine who made this great observation. The failure to basically predict the Soviet Union collapse made the West confident that we know what is going to happen next.
And here the story was, Russia is going to follow the development of Germany after World War II. But then, three things happened. One is, you’re a victor, but your economy collapsed. I’m always giving this example. But if you’re coming from an alien planet and you don’t know anything that happened after 1990, 1991, you’re just going to see the G.D.P. of the countries and what happened to them in this first five or six years. You look at Soviet Union, and this is a country that lost a major war. There lost one third of their G.D.P. So you have this.
Secondly, while Russians were quite happy that communism ended, and I do believe a majority of them were, for them, the end of the communism does not meant the end of Soviet Union. It was true for many people in the republics. It was quite natural for the West. But for them, this was a surprise.
And thirdly, this was the mystery of defeat. Can you imagine? Even now, I do believe if we’re going to repeat what happened, we’re going to understand how strong the shock was. You have a nuclear power that basically cannot be defeated militarily, because the moment you’re going to defeat them, they’re going to destroy the world. That has survived gulag, World War II, major misery.
And suddenly, they collapsed overnight. And nobody decided to defend the Communist system. Nobody decided to die for the Soviet Union, even the intelligence officer who was in G.D.R. at this moment, Putin. None of these people basically did it. I’m saying this because this sense of guilt and misunderstanding — you don’t understand what happened — this pushed a very strong conspiracy thinking about politics.
One of the things that is absolutely amazing not about Putin but about Russian political debate is that they really adopted a very conspiratorial view of how the world functions. When you see 5,000 people on the street, you’re not asking questions why they’re there. You’re asking questions who sent them, who paid them. So this created a situation in which, in my view, our expectations that Russia is simply going to be the repetition of what happened to Germany after World War II was wrong. Or in a way, it was right, but it was not a repetition of what had happened to Germany after World War II, but what happened to Germany after World War I.
I really like the point that the West took the collapse of Soviet Union, an unexpected event, as proof of the predictability of human events, right, of the end of history, at least as a relevant hypothesis. And one thing that’s interesting about that I think gets into some of the assumptions that have been wrongly applied in recent decades is that the story that is applied to the Soviet Union’s collapse, I think correctly, is that it is economic, that economics are destiny, that communism was a bad economic system. And eventually, its own internal contradictions around an inability to provide a better life for its citizens, to keep economies growing, to produce efficiently in comparison to democracies and more capitalist systems, that that is what makes their collapse predictable. And then, applied broadly, those are the forces that allow you to predict anything.
And this, I think, is something that ends up informing the way the United States and Europe treat China, of course, but also Russia. And you have this nice line that falls in the same piece where you write, “Capitalism is not enough to temper authoritarianism. Trade with dictators does not make your country more secure. And keeping the money of corrupt leaders in your banks does not civilize them. It corrupts you.” Do you mind talking a bit about the assumptions behind that, the assumptions that I think were particularly dominant in Europe, that you can civilize other countries through trade?
This was very much the European experience. As Thomas Bagger, a German diplomat, said, “The end of history was an American book but a German reality.” And what was so appealing to the Europeans was that, basically, all the rationality is economic. The only thing that you’re really interested in is your G.D.P., the welfare of your people. Anything which is based on identity, pride, resentment, humiliation should not be important.
So from this point of view, have you seen to what extent any time that we cannot explain, we are trying to explain by corruption? For example, all these years when we’re trying to understand what is going wrong with countries like — be it Russia, be it China, be it Hungary, we’re going to focus on corruption. And corruption is there. It’s part of the system.
But the most important thing that people, for example, missed is that, through corruption, you’re not going to understand what President Putin is going to do, because there is something very naive and, to be honest, ridiculous, to believe that the president of a nuclear power who is preoccupied with history and who is writing an essay himself why the Russians and Ukrainians are the same people is going to have this-or-that policies simply based on his economic interests, particularly private economic interests. The idea that the Russian oligarchs can prevent the war simply because they want to keep their bank accounts shows the fact that we totally eliminated the non-economic motivations of states, of politicians, but also basically of human nature. So as a result of it, we reduce human nature to the economic activities.
And by the way, we reduced economics to the G.D.P. and to the standard of living, while in front of our eyes, we’re seeing that people were motivated by totally different things. Most of the big protests that we have seen in the last decade in the world cannot be simply explained in economic terms. We like to talk dignity, but dignity cannot be explained simply by economic factors. It’s something different.
And here, to be honest, Fukuyama was more interesting than some of his critics because, following Hegel, he really made a strong point that recognition and struggle for recognition is critical to understand what is happening to the world. By the way, his article, not so much the book, is interesting because it was totally misread, because people read Fukuyama’s article as if it was written in 1990.
This being “The End of History” article?
“The End of History?” — always a question mark.
And listen, it was written in the spring of 1989. Fukuyama did not expect Soviet Union to collapse. For him, the end of history was that it was communist leaders that stopped believing in communism. Suddenly, basically, they accepted the fact that the major utopia that justified their political order is dead.
And suddenly, what happened after the end of communism, in fact, was the disintegration of the last European empire. Suddenly, in Europe after the end of communism, almost 20 and more new states have been born. So from this point of view, Europe in 1990s was like Africa in the 1960s. It was the major site for newly born nations.
This was kind of an absence. And one of the things that I do believe we went totally wrong is, we very much marginalized the experience of the Yugoslav wars of 1990s. Suddenly, it appeared that many of the problems that we saw in the period of the disintegration of Yugoslavia were not problems coming from the past. They were problems coming from the future. We, in my view, misrecognized the sovereignty moment for democracy moment.
Say more about that.
Listen, we continued to talk about the post-Cold War period in terms of the Cold War. But in a big way, it can turn out the decolonization that started with, basically, the end of the First and then Second World War, is a much more important narrative for the other part of the world. Simply, the Cold War has arrested this narrative. And with the end of the Cold War, what happened was the emergence of a new states, that they’re looking for identities.
And from this point of view, Europe is a great story, because the European Union was created by former empires. But for East Europeans, and this was quite interesting, they were sharing very much the sentiment of this same African nations, because they were seeing themselves as being the product of the disintegration of Hapsburg Empire, Ottoman Empire or Russian Empire. So this kind of change of narratives, in which we continue to describe what we have been seeing in terms of the Cold War, namely democracy versus authoritarianism — and it was true to a great extent.
But the much more important was, what was the meaning of sovereignty in the interdependent world? And then this is going to explain us the rise of people like Orbán, the rise of people like Le Pen, who are basically obsessed with what it means to be sovereign in an interdependent world. And of course, in European Union this has a much more important meaning because of the nature of the European project.
Is the way to think about this. — and I’m just thinking about this on the fly — democracy versus sovereignty, or is it liberalism versus sovereignty? Because we often collapse liberalism and democracy into liberal democracy. But as many people pointed out, Yascha Mounnk among them, those can be quite intention. And often what the demos wants is not to be as rule-bound, as cosmopolitan, as respectful of rights, as neutral in its treatment, as what the rules and ideals of liberalism would want.
And when I think of a Le Pen, when I think of an Orbán, I think something they have understood is that democracy is relatively easy to co-opt. It can be altered, right? It can be shaped, corrupted the way Orbán has. But it’s also possible for you to just win, right? And I hope Le Pen won’t. We will know that by the time this comes out, but it could happen.
And Donald Trump, who’s not a very small-d democratic figure just won in America. And so one of the weaknesses in this period, it has often seemed to me, has been believing liberalism is something that has simply won, that you can take for granted, while others understood it as something — an, in fact, a weakening target that you could fight against.
You’re very right. And there were two things that, in my view, are critical for understanding this. The first is, when the Cold War ended, the assumption in the West was that this is going to change, but the West is going to remain the same. To a certain extent, the Western democracies were quite blind to what extent their existence, their political and social system, was very much preconditioned on the Cold War and the existence of the Soviet Union.
I think this is a very, very underdone point.
Yeah. Because listen, this is extremely important. When you have Soviet on the other side claiming that they represent the proletariat, you should very carefully think how your workers are perceiving what is going on. It’s so important for you, your workers to be on your side. So the welfare state was not simply an economic project. The welfare state was a security project.
But the second thing. — and here, of course, the West is to be blamed but also can be excused — because in 1990, and what you saw for this first decade, is that our East European societies ourselves, if you’re going to ask us, what do you want, we’re going to say, we want to be like the West. So imitating the West became our understanding of what it means to have a good society, to be a liberal democracy. And then you’re imitating. First of all, we’re writing constitutions. We’re doing this. We’re inviting advisors. But the problem with imitation is that, if I imitate you, I basically claim that you’re better than me. And what about my identity? And here comes the idea of the sovereignty. I also want to be different. I like to be like you, but also I want you to recognize my difference. And from this point of view, if you’re going to see, particularly, through some of these European populist regimes, be it Hungary, be it Poland, they have the same psychological kind of a trajectory that we know from the second generation of migrants. The first generation comes in being very kind of willing to accept and to integrate in the host society, because it was their choice.
But the second generation, which is born there, and in a certain way much more internalized some of the things, they start to see basically the glass ceilings. They see basically the walls of their own authenticity and identity. And this is very difficult, because you have the cultural environment in which the message is, be unique. Be yourself.
And on the other side, the political imperative is, be like us. Fulfill all the obligations and all the criteria of the European Union if you want to join. And in my view, this created this clash between, yes, liberalism and the idea of sovereignty, liberalism and the idea of the will of the people, which was very skillfully used.
And one of the major message that came also in the first years of transition was, we have been asking for justice, and we have been given the rule of law. And then came people like Kaczynski who said, do you really need an independent court? Do you really need an independent central bank? How I can make a revolution if somebody is constraining my power all the time?
Let me then ask about a hypothesis that I can’t decide if it is the same or different than the one you’re offering here, which is that one of the continuous difficulties of liberal democracy, even when it is a term intention, is that you’re promised an idea and what you get is governance, and that, over time, this is a continuously difficult problem for any system, to be fair. It’s a problem for communism. It’s a problem for Vladimir Putin moving from the idea of invading Ukraine to the reality of invading Ukraine.
But I’ll take the European Union as the example here. The European Union is such a remarkable idea when it emerges that its forerunner, which is a pact to trade coal around, is understood historically as this great, inspiring moment of postwar turning. But then eventually what you get is bureaucrats and the harmonizing of regulations and trade. I cover elections, obviously, in America quite often, and you see this in miniature constantly. Elections are exciting. You’re promised the idea of a candidate, the idea of their platform, and then you get the disappointments of their governance.
And it does seem to me that one of the difficulties is that, as liberalism went from being an idea to being a reality, one problem is that it simply lost ideologists. People stopped making really the argument for it, particularly after the Cold War. But the other problem is that it actually is disappointing. It’s disappointing to live under these rules. Rule of law is frustrating, constantly frustrating. And it’s more frustrating the bigger the area that law needs to rule is.
You are absolutely right. Albert Hirschman, one of the social scientists for whom I have the highest regard, was claiming that, nevertheless of what you were doing in life, we get disappointed. For example, you get involved in politics, and in 10 years, you get disappointed. You go in your private life, and you say that you are not interested in politics. You get disappointed.
So normally, the major strength of democracy was that democracy, better than other societies, was dealing with disappointment. You are disappointed, and you are going to change a government. You are going to change this and that, and you are getting a kind of a new license for being re-engaged. What is changing?
And in a certain way, I saw this in Eastern Europe in one way and in America in different. In 1990s, you are changing the government, but you have the feeling that you cannot change the policies. And this creates this kind of angry position in which you are ready to vote for anybody who is ready to challenge the system, even when you don’t agree particularly with the ideas that he comes from, because this is just to try to assert your agency. I can make it.
Because if the change of government does not mean much, if there is too much consensus — and this is the crisis in places like France and others. You see the crisis of consensual politics. So the politics of citizens was very much replaced by the politics of fans. Political leaders really started to treat their voters as their fan clubs. And by the way, this is true also for non-democratic regimes like Russia.
If you see the annexation of Crimea, annexation of Crimea was like a sport performance. Everything is changing when, basically, it’s not sport anymore, when you have all these people, including Russian soldiers, being killed in Ukraine. So this story that you have a leader, that you should deliver gifts to the public, and on the other side, you have fans who are not citizens anymore, because they are totally uncritical to their own, and the loyalty is only unconditional loyalty.
From this point of view, I do believe President Trump basically has the best understanding of loyalty in this type of a world. The loyal is somebody who defends you and he knows that you are totally wrong, and also wrong in moral terms. If you’re supporting somebody when he’s right, that’s not loyalty. This is just common sense.
So this is where the problem with dissatisfaction goes, because dissatisfaction assumes a meaningful change, a change that you can achieve. If you don’t believe that you can achieve this change, your goal is this kind of hysterical reactions in one direction or the other, where everything is about expressing how you feel. And this is what I find kind of dramatically changing, and also this is slightly generational.
Talking about the first round of the French elections — if people older than 65 were not allowed to vote on the French elections, President Macron was not going to reach the second round. The second round is going to be between the candidate of the far Right and the far Left. And this type of a centrist politics, which is very much based on compromise, on achieving, on governing, is very much, in my view, replaced by politics of self-expression, where, for me, the most important is how I feel, because this is the only thing that I really believe I can do to express how I feel. I don’t believe any more in a collective project that can be realized.
And to express who you are.
Like the — one thing a vote is, is an expression of self-identity.
Totally. And from this point of view, this is the biggest story of identity politics that is going. And this is also very much in the way we got wrong what Putin will do, because people believe that he’s going to be very much guided by economic considerations. This is true also in our societies about how people vote.
This is a big theme of my book, “Why We’re Polarized.”
Yes, I know, very much. That’s why I like the book.
If you want to try to predict the way people vote, people always want to go to material incentives. They always want to go to who’s going to give them the most money. Pundits do. And that does not describe it. That does not describe the way people vote.
They vote based on who they are and who they want to be seen as in the world. And they vote based on who they think is going to raise up people like them. And we’ve tested this 100 different ways in many, many countries, and it is always true. Identity trumps policy.
But this is true also on the level of the states, because basically what you see in Ukraine is identity trumps interests, economic interests. Listen, Russia is going to be economically devastated, regardless of how the war is going to end up. But basically, the idea to keep your status of a great power, of an imperial nation — the fear of being irrelevant in global politics is the one not simply that is moving what the government is doing. In my view, it also explains why people are ready to support policy that is going to hurt them.
So from this point of view, we have a global spread of identity politics. Identity politics stopped to be kind of characteristics of a certain groups, normally minority groups. It stopped to be the characteristic of small nations, because small nations were used to be much more tended, for very obvious reasons, to identity politics. Suddenly, everybody is in identity politics. But the interesting story is that the powerful want also to be perceived as the most vulnerable. So when Russia is trying to position itself as the victim of Ukraine —
When Russia is positioning itself as a victim of cancellation.
I mean, the metaphor is being drawn very, very directly.
And this is quite interesting because, at the same time — and this is also quite important — is that, when everything is identity politics, the majority cannot be taken for granted. Normally, in a classical liberal democracy of the 1990s, the idea was that democracy works very well for the majority groups, and this is why all the rights discourse was focused on minority groups. In a certain way, majorities has power, minority has rights.
And suddenly, majorities have the feeling that they don’t have power anymore. And when majorities has the feeling that they don’t have power anymore, minorities don’t have rights anymore, because then suddenly everybody starts feeling as a kind of a persecuted group. And I do believe, particularly in European politics, which I know better, the threatened majority, the majorities which also, for demographic reasons, believes that they are the minorities of tomorrow, is becoming the major driving force in politics.
And by the way, Ms. Le Pen — Zemmour during the first round much stronger than her is the classical example of this, and by the way, also Russia, because many of the things that you see in the politics of President Putin are driven by demographic fears. In the last months, because I have been following all his statements, he’s repeating that, if it was not for the revolution, if it was not for the World War II, if it was not for the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there were going to be 500 million Russians in the world.
This idea of the fear of a demographic decline, which in the eyes, particularly of these much more traditional politicians, mean also decline of power, decline of prestige. It’s pushing you to do many things that — better that you have not done.
Yeah. One of my deep beliefs about the way politics works is that you see identity politics when the dominance of single identities begins to wane, that identity politics is much stronger 50 years ago. It’s just that a small number of identities had so much control. A small number of groups had so much control, such unquestioned majority, such unquestioned power, that you don’t see the politics of it. They’re able to make the politics of it invisible. That’s just the boundaries of debate.
An example I always like to use on this in America is religion. There was not an open atheist in the House of Representatives until 2007. Until 2007. There have been atheists around for a lot longer than that. And I assure you, there were some non-believing members, non-theist members of the House of Representatives, but it was something you could not say.
And so now, we have what feels to me like more and more fierce religious conflict in American politics than we did when I was younger and a lot of religious radicalization, this rising Catholic radical integralist group and a lot of collision. But it’s coming because secularization has made Protestant dominance far less total. And as such, now more identities are able to assert a politics. When that happens, then we say, oh, there’s all this identity politics. But what it really is like a breakdown of the dominance of certain identity groups.
You’re absolutely right, because this also — the moment when you see the breakdown of your dominance, two things are happening. All the elections are basically perceived as the most important, as the last elections. And all the war is perceived as the most important, as the last war.
I’m absolutely sure that if somebody is going to have an interview and ask President Putin why he decided to invade Ukraine and to do what he did, one of the arguments that probably he’s going to tell this kind of invisible interviewer is that he realized that time does not work for him, that in 10 years there are going to be less Ukrainians who speak Russian. In 10 years, there are going to be better Ukrainian armed forces. In 10 years, there are going to be stronger Ukrainian identity.
So suddenly, you have the feeling that either you’re going to do it now, or you’re going to do it never. And I do believe also President Trump was very powerful in 2016 when he was telling the Republicans, this is the last elections. Either you’re going to elect me or, if you’re not going to elect me, the demography is going to change in such a way that you are never going to win.
And in my view, this explains also very much your favorite topic of polarization, because out of the title of the Fukuyama’s book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” probably we parted with the idea of the end of history. But now, strangely, the world is populated by the last man. Everybody believes that they’re kind of a last of a kind, that if they’re not going to defend their position, their power, then everything is going to collapse. And this is also explains the fact why future disappeared as a kind of a mobilizing project, and societies become very nostalgic.
It was three years ago that Bertelsmann Foundation was asking Europeans, do you believe that the past was better than the future? Majority in every single European country, including among the young people, believe that past was better than the future. And of course, if you’re going to ask which past, then you’re going to have a huge differences. But suddenly, people who are dreaming for the past — this is a classical understanding a crisis of this basic dominances that you are talking about, because what was better about the past? That I knew, basically, that I was more powerful. That is, I was younger. I was —
But identities change. People tend to think of them as groups and religions and races, but nationality is an identity. European is an identity. And so one of the things that I’m interested in is how the identity of European is changing under this kind of pressure. You made this very, very good point, I thought, at the top of our conversation, that there’s a period when the identity of Europe, the reality of Europe, is war.
Then there’s the postwar period, as Tony Judt put it. The identity is that this is a place that is no longer at war, that is united through trade. And they are trying to extend the assumptions of that identity, the assumptions of that philosophy, over to Russia. But then, what is the next Europe? If it’s no longer postwar, what do you think the European identity is changing into?
Listen, this is a great question. I’m not sure that I’m going to give you a great answer. But if you go historically, in 1914, Europe was the world, at least in its own imagination, because basically the World War I was also called the European War, because it was the war of European empires. So all the power was concentrated in Europe.
And then comes World War II and the Cold War. And in the Cold War, the two non-European powers, the United States and Soviet Union, have been totally dominating. But Europe was the prize. It was the major stage. It was central. Basically, what it means to win the Cold War, it was basically to win Germany, to try to dominate Europe.
And then comes the end of the Cold War. And I do believe here it was interesting about the European project that Europe was not as important as it was, but Europe tried to build its identity of being the laboratory of the world to come. Europe suddenly said, we are the one which are kind of a post-modern state. We are about economy and soft power. We’re not going to fight each other. Everybody’s going to be like us. It simply takes time.
So suddenly, Europe’s made itself central, based on the fact that we have this unique experience which is exceptional but also universalist. So from this point of view, Europe slightly took from the American playbook. You’re exceptional, but it’s your exceptionalism that makes universal because, in 50 years, 100 years, everybody is going to be like you, because everybody wants to imitate you. What happened now is that Europe lost. Suddenly, Europe is becoming simply one of the regions of the world, probably the most prosperous, culturally quite interesting, but we lost our centrality.
And from this point of view, the war in Ukraine can have very different outcomes when it comes to European identity, because at this moment — by the way, based on a very legitimate moral outrage, most of the Europeans look at Russia in the way they have been looking at the Chernobyl reactor after the disaster. You simply want to isolate it. We don’t want to have anything to do with you. We don’t want your oil. We don’t want your gas. We don’t believe that we can change you anymore. This is who you are. Simply, we want to imagine the world without you.
So as a result of it, either we should start to be interested in other parts of the world, also for the reasons that you should buy from somewhere oil and gas and natural resources — and this could be quite interesting — or Europe is basically going to see itself as the appendix to the United States, which is also very much what is happening now in military terms but under the assumption that the United States is interested in this, because this is the problem when you’re not at the center. You cannot even take the American interest for granted. So as a result of it, this war basically challenged dramatically the identity of all the three players that are around it — Russia, because Russia cannot take its historical empire in the way Putin has been assuming it for granted, just the opposite.
And then, of course, Europe — who we are going to be? I mean, how economically sustainable, how politically sustainable? What is going to come out of our own project? Do we still believe in shared sovereignty? Do we still believe that economic interdependence is the major source of security? So all these questions are coming. And I don’t believe that we know exactly what the answers are going to be, because the answers are not going to be theoretical. They’re not going to be ideological. They’re going to be the result of certain decisions taken by certain people and certain governments, which are going to end up in a constellation.
And going back to your idea about the European narrative, now we tend to tell the story of Europe as a history of a project. But if you go back in closer to what happened, this was a compromise — certain type of a decision as a response to a certain crisis. Europe is a project when you look back or when you look very far ahead. But in the midterm, it’s not a project.
It’s something different. It is a mechanism for surviving. And I have a very high opinion of the capacity to political projects to survive, because what gives you legitimacy is the capacity to survive. If certain project manages to survive after different crisis, it is worth existing.
But that mechanism is interesting because, I think in that way, there will not be the capacity to forget about Russia. I do not know how any of this will end. I do not pretend to have any capacity to make relevant predictions. But I think a plausible path we might be on is Russia controlling much of Ukraine’s East and Zelensky and his government maintaining Kyiv and the other parts of Ukraine.
So now you have a carved up Ukraine. You have Russian expansion. You have a recognition that the dependence on Russian oil and gas weakened the ability to sanction Russia and strengthened Putin. And you have fear that Putin will go further, that he’ll do more, that he’s waiting to strike again.
And so Europe, to say nothing of Ukraine, of course, but Europe is going to be living with an external unifying threat. They might be trying to make Russia isolated, but that is an active practice, right? It is a practice of sanctions, a practice of getting yourself off of Russian gas, a practice, as you say, of trying to respond to crisis. And so it seems to me that one thing that is changing about Europe now is that it has something to fight, something to define itself against. You know, you go back six years, and it seemed like the fundamental fight was about the European Union. You have Brexit. You have this question of whether or not the idea has become exhausted. And now you have this new unity, but it’s aimed at an external enemy. I wonder, is that ground not just for responses but for ideas?
Listen, this is a great question. And in a certain way, it can develop very differently. One of the things that strikes me in the modern world, particularly in the modern democratic world, is the fading power of the external enemy to create domestic cohesion. When you see at the United States and if you compare, basically, America in the beginning of the Cold War with the America, what we see now was that Soviet Union created a lot of cohesion in the American society. You remember this famous quote from Updike, “What is the meaning to be American if there is not Cold War?” So in a certain way, Cold War was the identity — this one of his characters is basically saying.
And now what you see is that, yes, on artificial level, everybody, of course, is against Putin. But I’m sure that, for many Republicans, Biden is the real enemy, not Putin. And probably for many Democrats, Trump is the real enemy, not Putin. So this kind of external enemy that is producing an incredible political cohesion at home, this is not in the way it worked in a classical period either of the Cold War or even before in a classical nation state.
I always remember this famous poster which I have seen from 1848, the poster of a worker who has a ballot in one hand and rifle in the other. And the message was, ballot for the class enemy and bullet for the national enemy. So now you cannot understand which of the two are more important. And this is why Europe is going to either be unified because of the external threat or fragmented because of the external threat, because this is the problem of identity politics. They have different logics.
I very much agree with you that — and by the way, I found wrong our discourse talking about Russia in the way we have been talking before about democracy, as if we know how Russia is going to look like in the next 50, 100 years, this civilizational discourse. The moment when you know, you have the illusion that you know what a country is doing, you’re not interested. By the way, we really are not curious about what is happening in all of these places.
Instead of saying, we don’t understand why they’re doing this — for example, why Russians are not appalled killing other Slav Christians. What about all this religious discourse that was so popular with this government? How it happens that the Russian patriarch is blessing these people to be killed? So this is an interesting questions, and they have an answers, but they does not need to be obvious answers.
The moment when we defined Russia as a civilization different than others that never can be then what they are now, we don’t need to be interested. The moment we define Russia like the last Chernobyl’s reactor, then we’re in isolation, because the other parts of the world does not see it like this. Europeans can imagine the world without Russia, but the Indians, for their own reasons, the Chinese, for their own reasons, they are going to find a place for Russia in this world, for Putin’s Russia or post-Putin’s Russia.
So as a result of it, in my view, this is the story. Can this war unify Europe to the extent that Europe should build a new identity that did not exist before? And this identity can be based on many things. It can be also based on rediscovering what is European sovereignty, the famous topic of Macron, what it means for European Union to be sovereign.
Sovereign with respect to whom? Until recently, it was from the United States. But now? Russia? China? Where we do stay on this?
Let me end by ask you a couple of questions then about America. And I was going back to a piece you wrote shortly after Joe Biden was elected, building around a big poll across many countries in Europe. And you wrote that, while most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory in the November U.S. presidential election, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as a preeminent global leader. So tell me what you found in that survey, and then tell me if you think it has changed at all over this period.
Really, the majority of Europeans were very happy for Biden to come back, and this was true even on the European Right. There was a very small segment that had been devoted to Trump. Trump was a strange figure for the European politics. But what people start to fear, and I do believe that this fear has not disappeared, was that suddenly we see America so divided that every election in America looks like a regime change.
And President Biden did a great work of consulting Europeans. I do believe this was one of the amazing success of his foreign policy. And compared to his many other administrations, basically, this administration is very sensitive to things that are important to the Europeans, also to the asymmetrical, for example, nature of the sanctions, United States compared to Europe.
But several things are going to happen — first of all, midterm elections. If we trust what experts like you are telling, most probably you’re going to have a different Congress, a different Senate. And then the story is, is America, as a result of the war in Ukraine, restored certain type of a foreign policy consensus when it comes to Europe, or to what extent this is an elite consensus that is not endorsed, neither by the Trump Republicans nor by the kind of a more left wing of the Democratic Party, which are not particularly excited of American being over engaged and talking arms and so on. So for Europeans, this is a major issue, because Europeans before have been taking the American foreign policy consensus for granted, and not anymore. So from this point of view, Trump effect is still much more in the back of the mind of European leaders.
Secondly — and here, of course, President Putin is touching on something that I can also see in Eastern Europe — many of the things that you see as an identity politics and, too, we’re talking about happening into American universities are differently interpreted in Eastern Europe for many reasons. But the most important is communism was very sensitive on words. Communism very much was a linguistic regime. When Sinyavsky basically was put on camp and when he was asked why he was arrested, he said, I have some grammar disagreements with the Soviet government.
So basically, this kind of a major focus on language make the East Europeans nervous. And this could be right or wrong. This is — again, it’s about sensitivities. This is about identities. You cannot say that East Europeans are right or wrong. And of course, we don’t know much about what is happening in America, but you hear this.
And then one other question is how easily American progressive revolution can travel to some of these places where the composition of society is different, where the historical experience is different. China is a great example of this, too, coming from a communist period, too. So all these goals and the third, of course, the American economy.
During the pandemic where all of us has more time, you see the American stock market overperforming. And then you start asking yourself how it is related to the real economy, to what extent basically the stock market does not play in the modern system the same role that communist ideology plays in the Communist regime. Basically, this was life in the future and talk about the future. but it’s not very clear how the future is related to the present.
That’s a very, very interesting way of putting it. The other question, though, is there’s the uncertainty around the steadiness of American foreign policy. It’s also the question of simply American power. Something you found in that poll I referenced is that six out of 10 of the respondents felt China would be more powerful than the U.S. within 10 years.
Now, that might be economic. That also might be something else that the poll found, a sense that the American political system was breaking down, was returning crazy results. There’s a lack of ability to govern. So it doesn’t just have to be China rising in power. It can also be America losing power, losing the capacity to act.
But I wonder if, whether broadly or just to you, watching America in this period has made you think America is stronger or weaker in its ability to act abroad than you believed — you know, let’s call it a year ago.
It’s a great question. Of course, part of the Chinese advantage is that, when people talk about power, they always see the change of power. Even if America basically is stronger than China, what we’re seeing is that China basically became less weaker, with respect to America than it was. So people always impressed by change.
Secondly, unlike the United States, that everything is visible to everybody, everybody has the feeling that he knows how America works, China for most of us is a kind of a black box. You know certain things, but you don’t know how it worked. My colleague, Stephen Holmes, who made this argument, which I found extremely important — he said, America discovered that its major advantages are turning against it — for example, the spread of English language.
Because of the spread of English language, any kind of a terrorist can go and basically rent a plane somewhere in the United States and attack the Twin Towers, because American society was transparent for the foreigners, because they know the language but also the culture. The American culture is so much dominant. At the same time, also because of the spread of the English language, when an American goes to a society, you are always going to have an English speaker. So speaking to the English speakers, you have the feeling that what is happening in this society. But quite often, the English speakers are not the most representative parts of the societies.
So suddenly, because of the American power, America became transparent to the world. But the world became totally non-transparent to America. And when you’re asking the question, do I see America strong or not, I do believe that Biden did a very good foreign policy. I do believe also what Bill Burns and the American intelligence community did with this declassified intelligence as the way to prevent the war was amazingly interesting. But the strength of the American power very much depends to what extent American society is ready to allow the American government to use this power, particularly military power.
I don’t believe that, nevertheless, how well you’re armed, if your society has decided not to be involved, any government can achieve anything. Don’t forget the Soviet Union was very well armed. But in the late 1980s, after Afghanistan, after many disappointments which they had, Soviet power had disappeared, because society was not ready to support any involvement. And this is the biggest problem, and in my view, this is a problem both on the Republican Right and on the Democratic Left. For different reasons, both of them don’t trust American power.
That’s where we’ll end. Always our final question. — what are three books that have influenced you that you would recommend to the audience?
One is a book which I found really, really very important. And I see that this is now well read. This is a Lea Ypi’s book, “Free.” This is a young Albanian political philosopher teaching in the London School of Economics who is reflecting on the idea of freedom, just telling the story of Albania of the 1990s and the idea of freedom of her father, her mother, her grandparents, and her home, and the relations between political freedoms and economic freedoms — beautifully written book, really worth.
I’m a great fan of Fiona Hill’s book, but I know that Fiona was with you very soon, so I’m not going to give her as example. But I’m going to recommend Mark Leonard’s in my view very good book on international relations called “The Age of Unpeace.” All this story of economic interdependence and the weaponization of interdependence, in my view, is very well captured there.
And the third is going to be a fiction book by Bulgarian and a friend of mine Georgi Gospodinov who is called “Time Shelter.” And this is an interesting book, and part of the book is also when Europe was very much kind of haunted by referendums. He comes with the idea asking different European nations to have a referendum where back in history they want to go and trying to understand basically the new identity politics of Europe through the sentimental nostalgia of European societies. It’s also a very, very good book which makes, in my view, the most beautiful assertion that the only time machine that exists is a man, human imagination.
I love that. Ivan Krastev, thank you very much.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Annie Galvin, Rogé Karma and Jeff Geld. This episode was fact-checked by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones. Mixed and engineered by Jeff Geld. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristina Samulewski and Kristin Lin.