Doctoral scholar on neo-realism, researcher and columnist Sumantra Maitra, one of the sharpest conservative voices around, provides freewheeling answers to a few questions from Firstpost on liberalism, United States presidential elections, foreign policy and more. Following are the edited excerpts:
Do you see the culture war amid the poll battle in the US reflecting the larger ideological debate facing liberal democracies?
I do. It was inevitable and predicted by various scholars (Mearsheimer, Kaplan, Huntington, although no one was quite certain about how history will return. Liberalism as a theory is predicated on a worldview which is providential in nature, almost like a religion, a faith in a progressive arc of history; similar to Marxism in that way, which also has its own version of end of history. On one hand liberalism is a universalist idea, on the other hand, it values individual liberty which is particularist and naturally, those two are often in contradiction. It also refuses to acknowledge the concept of power and hierarchy in politics and thinks rational debate is the only way forward.
The theory which talks about diversity so much is intolerant of opposing worldviews. It prefers superficial diversity but is, in reality, an imperial, homogenising force. As we now know, the world is too big for one worldview and history isn't an arc of progress, but a cycle. The electoral wins of Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson, and Scott Morrison, the return of Turkish imperial ambition, the rise of China, narrow nationalism, and realism in Anglo-American foreign policy, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban are different rebellions against the homogenising universalist impulse.
Do you view Trump as the disruptor or a product of the disruption?
For American domestic politics, both. Ironic that it took a reality TV star to grasp and act on the reality of structural changes already underway. For all his rhetorical flaws, Trump has pushed back against aggressive campus feminism, critical race theory and other subversive forces within the country. That's more than any true-blue conservative president or prime minister in recent history. He is also correct about the massive geopolitical upheaval that is China's rise and has realised that the better way to achieve peace in the Middle East is through a balance of power. Refreshingly old school.
In foreign policy, however, it is irrelevant what type of individual Trump is. Structure matters more than an agency in international relations, and structural forces dictate that the US will retrench from Europe and the Middle East in order to focus on Asia. This overarching change will happen regardless, under any upcoming US administration, though the details might vary. US concerns about NATO freeriding, EU's rise as an economic competitor, China's rise as a military peer, wasteful wars and nation-building -- these issues predate Trump and will continue after him.
What's your take on Joe Biden's foreign policy that has been described as restorative? Do you see any change in policy towards India in a Biden White House?
Biden, for all his flaws, is comparatively decent on foreign policy. He is fundamentally a risk-averse man. He opposed the strike on Osama bin Laden, gave a cautious statement about the strike on Qasem Soleimani, as well as opposed interventions in Libya and Syria, and has a disdain for Gulf states promoting jihadists. That indicates how he thinks and decides. He also wants a return to a status quo in Europe. His China hawkery sounds shallow. Biden is not a hawk. That said, he will be mostly influenced by aides and cabinet, so that's something to observe.
India will be courted by the US as a counter-balance to China, and that broader strategy will not change. But India may face more criticism about domestic politics from a Biden administration than it would from a Trump return. The Biden team (Kamala Harris and others) are ideological about promoting liberalism abroad, something which Trump's team isn't. So, India should expect more push on domestic reforms, human rights, etc., which might strain ties a bit. But overall, the grand strategy won't change. The US needs local powers to balance China, and India is a major regional power, middle-class market, as well as a potential supply-chain base. Those simple facts determine policy. How smartly India plays it, is up to Indian policymakers. If I were to suggest a course forward, then I'd refer back to the golden rules of a realist great power grand strategy. Have a strong economy at any cost; maintain equidistance and hedge between various great powers and avoid costly long wars; and build a large, massive navy.
Is the obsession with Russia in US political discourse justified, or does it miss acknowledging the centrality and enormity of the geopolitical, geoeconomic and ideological threat posed by China?
It is not justified at all, but understandable given how partisan and ideological US politics is. China is the only overwhelming great power threat to the US; much, much larger than even USSR, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan ever was. But there are three factors which determine American policy towards Russia.
One, the smaller East European states, who try to bog down Americans for providing security in Europe, when they should demand more from Germany and France. Consider the Baltic states hyperventilating about Belarus, a country that is peripheral to American grand strategy.
Two, domestic politics. Russia is the Pakistan of the US, the original and perpetual adversary. Regardless of how weak it gets, every small act will result in a hysteria, which is mostly cynical and political. Russia is an adversary, sure, capable of mischief, but not an existential threat. It's a key difference. Law of international politics states that increased threat perception determines military rearmament. Russia has a demographic decline, no discernible soft power, second-rate technology, a mono-industrial economic base and a GDP smaller than Italy and California. Russians are bleeding dry in Syria and Ukraine, and if anyone studies Russian military journals, they'd know that Russia has no capability or will to go on conquest mode or quell an insurgency if it tries to conquer Ukraine or Georgia. It simply is not capable.
Three, there are liberal hawks in Washington who have made a career out of promoting a particular version of liberal democracy in Europe. They are the ones pushing Russia hysteria. If Biden wins, nothing will change much about actual policies concerning Russia, but we will see lofty rhetoric about how devastating Russian revanchism is in Belarus, Ukraine, Syria, and Georgia.
To what extent do you think a surge of violence in US cities will be a poll issue? Will Democrats be affected for failing to oppose looting and violence, or has Biden been able to sidestep that trap?
That's a million-dollar question and any foreign policy wonk should be careful not to give a deterministic answer. Anarchy is worse than tyranny, and the constant lawlessness usually leads the middle class to vote right-wing. That said, there are two complicating factors. Trump is not a normal president like Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. He is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. He lacks the real will to use the power handed to him. There's a lot that could be done, from intelligence, crackdown, economic punishment on anarchist cities, etc.
Instead, Trump is tweeting and biding his time hoping the voters would vote for him. It's a gamble. The voters might find him craven and spineless when a challenge finally came. Second, American media is overwhelmingly liberal to the point that it is capable of simply hiding the reality. The major outlets are all in on a liberal restoration. How that affects the election remains to be seen.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral scholar at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist, columnist for The National Interest, War on the Rocks, The Spectator and Quillette Magazine, and a non-resident fellow at the James G Martin Center, US.