Over the years, I have written various posts (here, here, here, here, and here) supporting Steven Pinker's argument that history shows a progressive trend towards declining violence and Liberal Enlightenment. But now Putin's invasion of the Ukraine forces us to consider whether this trend is now going to be reversed. Are we going back to an age of warring civilizations? Does this show that history is not progressive after all, and so Pinker was wrong? Pinker has just written an essay for the Boston Globe in which he tries to answer this question.
Here's the first paragraph of Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature:
"This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not--and I know that most people do not--violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children."
Notice that he says this decline in violence "is not guaranteed to continue," a point that he stresses in various parts of his book (xxi-xxiii, 278, 361-77, 480, 671). In his Boston Globe article, he restates this in conceding that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has "brutally halted" one of the historical declines in violence--"the Long Peace"--the absence of interstate war in Europe since the end of World War Two. And here he defines "interstate war" as "an armed conflict between national governments that kills at least a thousand people in a war."
Pinker identifies five factors--ideas and institutions--that supported the Long Peace: interstate trade, membership in global organizations, the United Nation's outlawing of wars of aggression, democracy, and Enlightenment humanism. The first three applied to Russia but failed to prevent the war. The last two did not apply to Russia.
The punishment of Russia through economic sanctions and international condemnation appeals to those first three factors. The sanctioning has not gone far enough, however. We need to sanction Russia's oil and gas industry, which is the big source of Russian wealth. It is possible that this punishment could either change Putin's mind or lead to his losing the power to rule in Russia. If this were to happen, this would show the power of globalization to force nations to pull back from aggressive wars of conquest.
Democracies put checks and balances on the power of potential tyrants to lead their countries into foolish wars. But Russia is an "electoral autocracy" rather than a democracy, and so there is no check on Putin's "malignant narcissism"--or what Pinker calls his "grandiose craving for glory, lack of empathy, and a petulant sensitivity to affronts."
The fifth factor favoring the Long Peace--Enlightenment humanism--is "the conviction that the ultimate good is the life, liberty, and happiness of individuals, with governments instituted as social contracts to secure these rights." Putin's ideology rejects this liberal individualism. Pinker writes: "Putin cleaves instead to romantic nationalism, in which the ultimate goodto is the prestige of ethnic nations. Governments and strong leaders are their embodiments, and they struggle to stake out spheres of influence and rectify historic humiliations."
How could the war in Ukraine be ended in a way that would satisfy Putin's romantic nationalism? One possibility, as some commentators have suggested, would be for the United States and the great powers of Europe to agree to meet with Putin for a new Yalta Conference, which was the meeting in February of 1945 in Crimea of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to plan for carving up their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe after the war. Biden and some of the European leaders could negotiate with Putin to divide up Ukraine--perhaps allowing western parts of Ukraine to be under European influence and eastern parts under Russian influence.
As Pinker indicates in Better Angels, Putin's romantic nationalism arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as one strand of "counter-Enlightenment thinking"--the revolt against Enlightenment liberalism and humanism that was explained in an essay by Isaiah Berlin (186-88, 240-44). It originated with Rousseau and was later developed in Germany by people like Johann Hamann and Johann Herder. These thinkers rejected the individualism, the rationalism, and the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment and affirmed collectivism, emotivism, and cultural diversity.
Part of this was Herder's romantic nationalism, which held that an ethnic group--such as the German Volk--had a unique cultural identity that could not be submerged in an abstract universality of humanity, and this ethnic identity was held together by bonds of blood and soil rather than by some individual consent to a social contract.
This romantic nationalism was often bound up with a romantic militarism--the idea that war was a healthy spiritual expression of heroic self-sacrifice and manly honor that was needed to cleanse society of the effeminacy and materialism of bourgeois hedonism. This romantic militarized nationalism now motivates Putin's wars of conquest and expansion as a glorious expression of the Russian Empire pushing back against the decadent materialism and individualism of liberal modernity. We can also see this in Alexander Dugin's Eurasianism and in much of the Alt-Right thinking, as in the case of people like Bronze Age Pervert, who argues that the best form of government (and the alternative to liberal modernity) is an ethnostate ruled by military dictators.
Does this mean that the Russian war in Ukraine signals a new historical epoch in which all the progressive trends favoring the Liberal Enlightenment--such as declining violence--are now going to be reversed? If so, that would refute Pinker's argument.
"Maybe--but maybe not," Pinker says. Maybe, as he says in Better Angels, history is unlikely to be completely reversed, but it is "jerky"--that is, there can be temporary backsliding (as happened in the first half of the 20th century), but not a permanent retrogression of history.
The renewal of the historical trends of liberal modernity will depend upon whether in the long run most human beings find liberal values--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--to be truly desirable because they are conducive to their human flourishing. This will also depend on whether the human devotion to liberal freedom motivates us to resist the illiberal tyranny of people like Putin.