Misha Hobbes and Bidzina Kant

Ghia Nodia

At a recent international meeting, a senior official of the Georgian government described particular differences between the political visions of president Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili: the former follows the vision of Thomas Hobbes, whilst the latter that of Immanuel Kant.

If this explanation instantly causes an ironic smile to form on readers' faces, I would advise them not to jump the gun. Here we are dealing with the international PR of our government in its best form. It does not matter which politician has or has not read the works of either philosopher. The conflict between Hobbes and Kant has remained part of Western intellectual discussion to this day; the use of this analogy is often applied to the deep difference between the American and European visions of the international system. Americans are called Hobbesian and Europeans followers of the Kantian tradition. When a Georgian political official speaks to Westerners in this language, he/she simultaneously shows both that he/she is up to the mark and that he/she shares common values with them. It does not mean, however, that such a comparison is accurate.

Hobbesian America or Kantian Europe?

The first attempt to describe modern politics through a comparison between Hobbes and Kant was undertaken by an American analyst of a neoconservative persuasion, Robert Kagan, in his book Of Paradise and Power published in 2003. That was written at a time when the issue over Iraq was causing an especially deep rift in transatlantic relations: the United States was trying to persuade the international community over the necessity of using military force against the regime of Saddam Hussein, whilst its leading European partners, primarily France and Germany, strongly opposed that.

In Kagan's explanation, this disagreement stemmed from the reality that there is a principled difference between the two sides of the Atlantic's visions of the world. Americans rely on Thomas Hobbes' view, according to which, in international relations, in contrast to the domestic affairs of a state, "a war of all against all" is being waged; in other words, order in the international arena depends on the balance of power. Kagan postulated that the end of the 20th century saw the formation of an extremely favorable and unique situation for our planet, in which a coalition of democratic states, i.e. "the West" led by the United States, dominates globally. This creates the best conditions for the achievement of the highest quality of peace, welfare and freedom. However, this all results from the fact that the West has no competitor in terms of military power. Maintaining this condition requires that dictators entertaining hostile attitudes towards Western values remain afraid of the West and dare not to change the existing order. To this end, however, the democratic commonwealth will sometimes have to resort to the use of force against especially dangerous regimes. An example of that was the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999; also similar was the attack necessary against Saddam Hussein who openly opposed the international order.

In Kagan's view, Europeans could not or did not want to understand that perspective. They were spoilt by the long-lasting peace since 1945, when their security was actually ensured by another – the United States of America. They forgot that peace does not come by itself and, first and foremost, it requires their involvement in power politics. They were swept away with the idea that negotiations on various international forums and agreements upon common rules are alone sufficient to obtain stable security. At such times, Europeans often invoke Immanuel Kant's vision about a "perpetual peace" which is achieved, to put it in Kant's words, in "the Kingdom of Ends," i.e. where "a systematic union of various rational beings through common laws" is achieved. The prime example of such a "systemic union" is the European Union.

The mistake of Europeans, in the 2003 view of Kagan, was forgetting that the world does not share the principles of Kant and those of the EU and remains dedicated to power politics. Whilst this is still the case, Europe cannot remain untouchable. If Europeans deny this, it means that they have been captivated by illusions or merely act as a parasite: preferring that the dirty business of power politics be done by Americans, whilst they enjoy a safe paradise guaranteed by others and, at the same time, continue to ridicule the Americans.

The same analogy, but from the European perspective, was used by Robert Cooper, a diplomat and architect of EU foreign policy, in The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century, also written in 2003. He called the world built upon the Hobbesian vision the "modern" world and that on Kantian vision the "postmodern" world. The modern world is a universe of nation-states, in which every country cares for its own sovereignty. Temporary alliances and coalitions are set up, but not the stable architecture of security; in other words, the Hobbesian "war of all against all" is maintained in essence. This universe is inhabited by Russia, China, the United States, et cetera. At best, post-modern order can only be created by rejecting the principle of the nation state: something which happens inside the boundaries of the European Union. Stable peace and security can only be achieved in this way. The debate between the US and Europe is a debate between modern and post-modern visions. A stable order will be installed only if the more progressive, European vision gains the upper hand. An American, i.e. modern (meaning, outdated and obsolete) vision will leave us in a situation of constant wars and chaos.

Where Do Georgians Stand?

This makes it clear why the conflict between Bidzina Kant and Misha Hobbes is good PR: many Western partners of Georgia are happy as they want to hear exactly this. However, this is compounded by a specific factor: for many Western critics, Saakashvili was excessively close to George W. Bush's bad neo-Hobbesian vision; it is thus good that he was replaced by Kantian Bidzina of the European type.

For example, Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment, one of the most active Western analysts of Georgian politics, understands this language very well. His background unites Europe and the US: he is British, but in recent years moved to the US for work. In his opinion, the key problem of the entire Caucasus region, and particularly that of Georgia, is Hobbesian reasoning: national sovereignty is excessively cherished there; that's why the region faces never-ending conflicts. Thomas de Waal likes the policy of the new Georgian government more than that of the previous one because, in the actions of the new government, he sees "the beginnings of a European approach of seeing security as a matter of collaborating with your neighbor, not working against him." That is exactly what he told us during a Rose-Roth seminar held in Tbilisi in May 2013.

This theme is a refrain heard in many European exhortations directed towards Georgians: if you claim to be Europeans, you should no longer be obsessed with your sovereignty (consequently, with territorial integrity). Where are you standing? It is the 21st century!

The Narcissism of Small Differences

Let's now consider whether this analogy is correct. Are the European and American visions of security indeed so different? Does Georgia really face the necessity of choosing between the two?
It was no coincidence that I emphasized that the books of Kagan and Cooper were both published in 2003, at a time when different attitudes towards the Iraq war deepened disagreements between Europe and the US. It would have been very unlikely that either would have written those books several years earlier, when NATO was bombing Yugoslavia in a concerted effort, or in 2011 when Britain and France took the leading role in the NATO military operation against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, with Barack Obama's US standing in the shadows.

This does not mean denying that both Kagan and Cooper made many good observations. There is indeed a significant difference in mentality between the US and Europe (especially Western Europe), which, amongst other things, is related to the institution of the EU as well as the post-WW II experience. This may explain the higher readiness of Americans to pursue power politics than Europeans.

But this difference is one of degree and not of quality. In contrast to views of both Kagan and Cooper, Americans and Europeans do share common basic principles and values, even if they sometimes disagree on their interpretation. Therefore, the unifying notion of the "West" is still legitimate. These common principles and values essentially distinguish the West from countries such as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the like. On a global scale, this difference is incomparably weightier than the internal disagreements of the West. But inhabitants of Paris, Brussels or Washington may still develop the illusion that the most important thing is the internal differences between them. This illusion is called the "narcissism of small differences." Likewise, a Telavi inhabitant may view a conflict with an inhabitant of Gurjaani to be the central one, but this does not mean that the rest of the world agrees with that.

Both Hobbes and Kant

In reality, both Americans and Europeans (at least, the rational majority of them) are simultaneously Hobbesian and Kantian. "A systematic union of various rational beings through common laws" exists not only inside the EU but also inside the entire West. No matter how much the Greeks call Angela Merkel a "Nazi," a Germany-Greek war is unimaginable in the current world.

imilarly unimaginable is a war between the US and France, or, for example, Norway and Canada. In this regard, the decisive factor is not EU membership and the adoption of its regulations, but sharing the basic principles of liberal democracy.

Both sides of the Atlantic share the "Democratic Peace Theory," which is based on the teachings of Kant according to which the broader the democratic world, i.e. the greater the number of countries, recognizing and establishing values of liberal democracy, the wider the zone of peace and security. In this sense, the argument of Hobbesian neo-conservatives justifying the Iraq war was, in reality, a Kantian argument: if we introduce democracy into the Middle East then peace will be established there too. How realistic this assumption was is a subject for a different discussion.

However, as any rational person would admit (or has no other option but to admit), the zone of democratic peace is still limited. We cannot deceive ourselves that everyone shares those principles that the West relies on. Therefore, the global world remains an arena of power politics, i.e. one of Hobbesian politics, and, at the end of the day, both Europeans and Americans agree on that. The disagreement over the Iraq issue was a single distinct case which should not necessarily be generalized: after all, in another example already cited, the Europeans denied Kant and attacked Gaddafi's Libya in an absolutely Hobbesian manner.

Georgia is at the border of the Kantian world and very much wants to enter it. It is in this world that relatively stable security exists (this is, of course, only relative – nothing is absolute in this world). That was exactly why Misha, a friend of Hobbesian Bush, strived so hard to get into NATO. It would be welcomed if his successors and critics continue his politics in reality. But we should also keep in mind that it is Hobbesian reasoning that prevails in our neighborhood and we cannot change that. If anyone, as Bidzina Ivanishvili has done, says that the barbed wire fences installed by Russia along Georgia's occupied territories are not of great importance and, in response to this act, we must merely send Georgia's special representative for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, to his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, with texts from Kant and EU charters in hand, then he is not a Kantian. He is an idiot.


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