Screenshot by Rebecca Panovka

“A Catastrophic Loss of Faith in America” | An Interview with Pankaj Mishra

The Drift

Over the past few months, each day has brought devastating new reports from the war in Ukraine. Beyond the horror and grief, it’s been difficult to know quite how to react — and how to interpret the mainstream commentary. We’ve wondered, at times, if there’s a reason we feel a bit out of the loop, as if everyone else is having a conversation for which we’ve missed the subtext. Maybe it’s that we’re too young to have witnessed the Cold War firsthand — we’ve only ever heard the term “end of history” as a punchline. Or maybe it’s that we managed to mostly avoid cable news for the four years during which liberal anchors were busy trying to prove Putin had stolen the election. Or it could be that our understanding of the U.S.’s role abroad was shaped by the catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — we have trouble with the idea that our nation has a right to lecture any other. 

To take the longer historical view and make sense of the broader geopolitical conditions, we spoke with essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, one of our foremost public intellectuals and the author of ten books and countless incisive pieces of journalism and criticism. Age of Anger, from 2017, is widely considered one of the most astute accounts of the recent right-wing turn around the world. In this wide-ranging conversation, we discuss why Mishra disagrees with the use of sanctions, how humiliation is shaping Russia’s narrative, what to make of China’s calculus in all of this, and why, despite everything, he still has hope for the future. 

We were born in the ’90s — the Cold War has never been particularly urgent or present-tense for us. Our sense is that people of our generation are reacting to the current conflict in Ukraine very differently from those who were around in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. What Cold War-era prejudices and holdovers are mainstream commentators, and even scholars, operating under? 

The big divide today on these matters is indeed between people who were around when the Berlin Wall fell and younger people who only saw the Twin Towers fall. After 9/11, there was a moment of unity in the United States — and a moment of international sympathy — which was quickly shattered by the actions of the Bush administration and its open-ended war on terror, which ended up essentially destroying large parts of the world. For people who were born in the 1990s, it’s been a nonstop experience of political trauma, beginning with 9/11, then the horrific insurgency in Iraq, then the failures of the Bush administration during Hurricane Katrina, then the corruption of the financial elites being revealed by the crash of 2008, and then the deception of the Obama years, which was revealed when Trump suddenly emerged ‘out of nowhere.’ It’s been very difficult, I imagine, for people in your generation to adopt a moralizing position vis-a-vis the world, or to think that after everything that has happened we can simply assume leadership of the free world. 

About a month before the Ukraine invasion, The New York Times was running pieces about how there might be civil war in the United States. People were giving serious thought to this question — editorials and op-eds were being written about the demise of democracy in the U.S. Then the war in Ukraine erupts and suddenly Joe Biden is the leader of the free world. That’s the tone the newspapers started to take — war, I suppose, is the health of journalism and not just of the state, as Randolph Bourne said. The Pentagon and the CIA, which have barely shaken off their recent fiasco in Afghanistan, start leaking stories to the press about how they are behind Ukrainian military successes. The Times and the Financial Times rush to print sage advice from Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger and other war criminals. What happened there? There’s a disconnect between what we know of American politics today — how polarized, how bitter, how rancorous it is, how difficult it is for any kind of progressive politics to succeed — and this notion that the spirit of freedom abroad is fighting, with American help, a great battle with autocracy. I just don’t think that younger people suffer from this intellectually fatal disconnect, because they simply did not form their worldview during a moment of unipolar dominance.

But the gap of perception is not confined to American generations. Ukraine has revealed yet again the great abyss of experience and memory between the West and the rest. I was talking to some Indian and Pakistani friends about this: how the reactions of the people around us differ so sharply, because we’ve seen wars in our neighborhood, continuously, for a very long time. We’re all a bit baffled by the kind of response that we’ve seen — certainly from politicians, but also from mainstream journalists — as though something unprecedented has occurred. There’s something inside us insisting that actually, this is not so unprecedented, and if you think it is, then you’ve got a serious problem with your historical memory. Not just memory. We don’t really know where to look when Biden or Boris Johnson start talking about Modi’s India as a great democracy and a likely ally in the new global battle against autocracy. It is hard to decide if these leaders of the free world are blind or sinisterly cynical. 

Russia plays a very strange role in the Anglo-American imagination, especially for people who were alive when the Cold War ended, who were aware of a great epoch coming to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was a sense that some great battle that they had all been vaguely part of — even if that participation amounted to no more than feeling fear that nuclear war might happen — had ended, that this great shadow over their lives had now lifted, and that the great adversary was gone. 

It was in this moment of relief and euphoria and ideological intoxication that Russia embarked on this catastrophic project of joining the global economy — along the lines prescribed by Americans, the so-called Harvard Boys led by Larry Summers, let’s not forget. That was the big ’90s effort, which ended in complete humiliation and catastrophe for Russia: social, economic, medical, a massive collapse of living standards. Putin is a consequence of all that. He comes at the end of that period of failed Americanization, promising to restore order. And that’s one reason why he remains popular today. These memories have gone missing — the extent to which the United States was implicated in the calamities of the post-Cold War Soviet Union. Or that Russian leaders like Gorbachev and Yeltsin sought and received assurances from their American patrons about NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders.

Today, we’re still talking about defeating Russia, and making Ukraine win — even though the world has changed enormously since the 1990s, Ukraine is being devastated in a war in which it can have only short-lived victories, a flailing Russian leader is openly threatening nuclear escalation, and China and many other non-Western countries are refusing to join the Western alliance against him. Yet we’re stoking a proxy war in Ukraine without any regard for what the consequences might be, not just for Europe but for large numbers of countries that are deeply affected right now, as we speak, that are suffering a serious crisis of inflation, potentially facing mass famine — countries dependent on Russia and Ukraine for trade, especially in wheat and fertilizers. We are looking into the abyss of a serious political and economic breakdown in several countries in Asia and Africa as a result of this war. But the Cold War framework remains hegemonic.

How should we read the geopolitical situation right now? The United States’s reluctance to be the policeman of the world, China’s increasing power in a decentralized world — how do these things factor in?

Again, the Cold War frameworks are dominant here. What do those frameworks mean today, apart from higher defense budgets, more fracking and coal mining, and increasing indifference to the climate emergency? That we have to rebuild the alliances against potential threats to our power that were disrupted or undermined by Donald Trump. That we cannot afford to lose Europe right now. That we’ve suffered some setbacks in the Middle East and in South Asia, and we are locked into a contest with China in the Asia Pacific. And so for all those reasons, it’s important to maintain our presence in Europe, even if it’s through supporting what could be an endless, very bloody war in Ukraine, even if it’s in partnership with illiberal regimes like Poland and Hungary. The idea that we have to get Europe on our side for this larger contest against China — that, to me, seems to be driving American policy right now.

In that sense, I think there’s a slight shift from the Trump years. Trump thought he could take on China without getting the Europeans on board. But the Biden administration is very Europhile in its composition. The people running the State Department right now know far more about Europe than they know about Asia, or large parts of Africa or Latin America, for that matter. So they have affinities with Europe, and they’re deepening those affinities right now. The main target for American strategic planners, and indeed for the service-class intellectuals who assist these planners — people in think tanks, people writing editorials or op-eds in the mainstream newspapers — is China. 

There’s a broad recognition everywhere, I think, that Russia has made a calamitous mistake in Ukraine, but also that this war will have losers on both sides. For other reasons, too, it would be very difficult to persuade countries both inside and outside Europe to sustain any kind of American alliance against China. China has been making deep inroads in Europe — not with the European Union on the whole, but through separate alliances and relationships with specific countries, especially with Germany, which is the weakest link right now in the American alliance against both Russia and China. Meanwhile, there is this idea that China is also interested in territorial expansion, and so we keep hearing, over and over again, that China is about to attack Taiwan. I don’t know if China has those kinds of territorial ambitions; I feel that it cannot afford them. China is more interested in protecting its extremely fragile economy and securing energy supplies and commodity supplies. Everything it does, whether the Belt and Road Initiative, opening up ports in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, investing in infrastructure in poor countries, are attempts to secure those supplies. China is fully aware that the Americans are patrolling those narrow sea lanes, whether in the Persian Gulf or in the Asia Pacific, and wants to create its own networks. We forget that it’s the United States, not China, with a global network of military bases; it’s the United States that’s policing large parts of the world where China is a major economic player. Though China is still very much on the defensive, it is constantly described as a threat by the U.S. military and intellectual establishment. The massive U.S. assistance to the Ukrainian war effort is part of this larger containment strategy for China that keeps the military-industrial and intellectual-industrial complexes humming away.

You told us over email that you’d like to discuss the role of humiliation in personal and collective lives and nationalist narratives. Why should we think about humiliation here? And more broadly, how are the Russian people feeling and how is Putin marshaling or manipulating those feelings? 

I don’t know to what extent we should trust his opinion polls, but it seems that a very large majority of Russians think that Putin is doing a great job. This is very disturbing at one level, but also understandable if you consider that the particular narrative that Russians have been exposed to for three decades now is mostly one of Western malevolence, of NATO expansion, of American experts screwing up their country. American politicians and journalists backed some of the most unscrupulous and inept politicians in Russia, such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais. I remember those days in the late ’90s, when The Economist, the Financial Times, and The New York Times would build up these supposedly ‘pro-West reformists’ — mayors of cities or particular officials in the Yeltsin administration — who all turned out to be total crooks. Putin is the one who brought the kleptocrats to heel, and he was of course helped by Russia’s re-emergence as an oil- and gas-producing giant. 

When I was growing up, India was a close partner of the Soviet Union. I was a Russophile along with many Indians, and we saw the Soviet Union as a great power helping various people around the world resist Western imperialism. This was not just some delusion. The Russians were indeed helping a lot of people, including the black majority in South Africa fighting against the apartheid regime, which was being armed by the so-called free world at the time. The Russians helped India liberate Bangladesh in 1971 from the genocidal Pakistani regime supported by Nixon and Kissinger.

These neglected histories matter not only because India and South Africa oppose sanctions against Russia today. If you think about how people in Russia would have responded to the collapse of that kind of international reputation, it starts to make sense why humiliation would again become such a politically potent narrative within Russia — the idea that the West is ganging up on you, that NATO is ganging up on you. How disconnected or connected it might be to reality is a separate matter altogether. But the fact is that we all live within certain narratives, and those narratives are very persuasive to people who have grown accustomed to certain kinds of power and prestige, and then have seen them decline very rapidly. After all, even a small relative decline in the fortunes of white supremacism helped exalt a figure like Donald Trump.

In many different parts of the world, we see this narrative being played out whereby someone doing absolute evil — and what Putin is doing right now is absolutely evil — still comes to be supported by large numbers of people. Let’s not forget, a lot of people supported Hitler because of their very strong feeling that Germany, a great power, had been deliberately and extensively humiliated after the First World War.

In India, China, and many other countries in Asia and Africa, autocrats and demagogues have locked citizens into a narrative of humiliation, and a compensating fantasy of national virility. Of course, Russian intellectuals and novelists were the first to describe and even enact the role of humiliation in public and private life. Think of Chaadaev’s Letters, Gogol and Dostoevsky’s petty officials, and Turgenev’s nihilists. Think also of even so subtle an artist as Pushkin turning into a Russian chauvinist and anti-Polish bigot. We have become very familiar since then with the pathology of belatedness in history — what really happens when you’re from a poor country, not fully industrialized, trying to catch up with the modern West, and then you suffer because you’re constantly comparing yourselves to the richer, more powerful people in the Western countries, and painfully aware of just how inferior your society is, materially and culturally. These feelings can become very deeply grounded in national psychology, and I think the peculiar evil talent that demagogues possess is to bring them out into the public sphere and make them potent again. We tend to forget, too, the role collective memories of trauma play out in geopolitics. Russia, for instance, barely survived a Nazi war of extermination seven decades ago. People who witnessed it are still alive. It would be extraordinary if Russia was not paranoid about NATO’s expansion to its borders. 

You’ve said you disagreed with the sanctions now being imposed on Russia. How come? And why are sanctions the first thing that nations like the U.S. reach for in times of crisis? 

Well, I think it’s a way of asserting power, especially when direct military intervention is not available to you. I think there are really no good examples of sanctions being effective. Sanctions affect some of the weakest people in any society. We’ve seen that in Iraq. Do you remember when Madeleine Albright was asked about the half a million children who died as a direct result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United States, and she said, “we think the price is worth it”?

The kind of sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, that have been imposed on Iran, are very, very far-reaching, and they will damage the life chances of some of the weakest, poorest people in these societies. I think, equally importantly, it’s not just the Russians who are going to suffer from the sanctions, but all the countries that are deeply connected to Russia, mostly through trade links. I mean, a country like Egypt imports an enormous amount of wheat from Russia. It was planning to buy some from India, one of the top wheat producers, but India has just banned wheat exports — many other food-producing countries are becoming obsessed with food security and worried about the major crisis ahead. And you’re going to see a really terrible situation where people are simply starving — they can’t get wheat, because of the blockade by Russia of Black Sea ports, and even if they can get it, they can’t pay for it in the way the Russians would want. So I think sanctions are an incredibly blunt and globally destabilizing weapon wielded by rich countries.

When sanctions were imposed on North Korea, or Cuba or Iraq or Iran, the idea was that the people would get so fed up with the sanctions that they would fall in love with the United States and overthrow their rulers. Now, that is a fantasy that’s never been realized. And it’s very unlikely to be realized in Russia, either. In fact, it makes things more difficult for dissenters within these countries, who are more easily identified and persecuted as agents of foreign enemies. 

How do you think about the West’s selective outrage and concern when it comes to Ukraine, as opposed to conflicts, invasions, occupations, and refugee crises that are taking place elsewhere in the world? 

It’s strange to think that only a few months before the invasion of Ukraine, we saw those last images of people clinging desperately to the wings of airplanes as they were taking off from Kabul’s airport. But then we forget about Afghanistan. Months go by and we barely hear about Afghans being punished. As you know, Joe Biden froze the Afghanistan National Fund, and there’s been very little discussion about that. Tens of thousands of babies died in Afghanistan this year due to malnutrition. On the other hand, you see doors being flung open to Ukrainian refugees. These are such moving acts of compassion — allowing Ukrainians victimized by the war to travel to different parts of Europe, putting them in the homes of families, temporarily making other arrangements for them. And yet, for many, many people outside Western Europe and the United States, it’s hard to see these acts of compassion without the tint of cynicism, because you know that other people are damaged by the wars that the United States engaged in, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but not offered even a fraction of this hospitality. 

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan not only destroyed those particular countries, but also the regions around them. We don’t recall what happened in Pakistan, for instance, the way that country was ruined by the war, what happened in Iraq’s other neighbors, and the rise of ISIS — we don’t think of all that as a consequence of the botched assault on Iraq. All the lessons of these catastrophic wars are being disregarded today, and the same warmongers boldly assume hawkish positions — people who supported the catastrophic invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, people still in positions of power and influence, completely unchallenged. 

There’s that line that goes around a lot, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. And sometimes you think, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of a discredited ancien régime in mainstream journalism. So many of these media organizations still have people whose careers should have ended when they were implicated in acts of intellectual forgery, publishing fake stories about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The scope for honest analysis and redemptive reflection is so severely limited by the very presence of these intellectually spent yet powerful people. I sometimes find myself in great despair over this, because in politics you have an opportunity once every four years to choose new rulers — I mean, the choice is, of course, limited by the two-party structure. But there is absolutely no choice at all when it comes to the Fourth Estate, that so-called sturdy pillar of democracy. And the persistence of antiquated intellectual frameworks, and the absence of fresh thinking — that is a big, big obstacle for all of us. I find it absurd that the shape of the world order is still being debated with reference to what establishment men like Kissinger, Francis Fukuyama, and Samuel Huntington did and said decades ago. I suppose this is where small magazines come in periodically and break narcissistic habits of thought. This is where, you know, The Drift makes a difference. 

What do you make of Modi’s strategy on Ukraine? How is he positioning India geopolitically? How should the West respond to him? 

In the new Cold War, India’s position and the position of many countries in the non-West, including Latin America, would be very much informed by the experience of the old Cold War, where you were asked to take sides, but you discovered that actually taking sides might make you lose out on the advantages of an ambiguous position.

India is formally committed to anti-Chinese and anti-Russian coalitions; the Indians have been doing military exercises with the United States and other countries, like Japan. Yet it has refused to join the American and European alliance against Russia. There are very straightforward, pragmatic reasons for this, and they have very little to do with Modi. They have to do essentially with long-term economic and military interests. 60 percent of India’s arms supplies come from Russia. This is the legacy of the old relationship with the Soviet Union. Even though India has diversified its arms procurement, it’s still very dependent. If you need spare parts in an emergency, you have to turn to Russia, so there is no way you can antagonize Russia. You’re also dependent now on Russia’s energy supplies, and you’re suddenly being offered cheap oil. 

I disagree with the Modi government on everything, but I do agree with them when they say, why are you asking us to stop buying oil from Russia when all of Europe is still doing it every day. Every day, you’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars to Putin to pursue his war in Ukraine. And you want a relatively poor country to stop buying cheap oil? 

Countries that are being asked to join the American coalition against China are hedging their bets because something huge happened in the last four years: the United States was exposed as an incredibly weak and unstable power. If it could elevate to a position of power a man like Donald Trump, there’s a possibility it could happen again. So other countries are not going to stand with the Americans if they’re going to elect such erratic leaders, when the country has such an ideology-addled Supreme Court, and such a steep death toll from Covid due to hard-right ideologues, when it has such a polarized domestic politics to the point where people are worrying about civil war in the United States today. I have yet to read something about how perceptions of the U.S. hardened internationally during those four years of Donald Trump. And, you know, in no country did they harden more than in China, which saw one trade tariff after another imposed by Trump. And I think the decision was made there that they have to find their own way, they have to start decoupling, de-Americanizing, becoming self-reliant in many areas. 

Whatever happens in Ukraine, de-Americanization is going to accelerate. And by that I mean something other than moving away from American financial and payment systems. The United States once represented for many people — and I would include my younger self in that category — different kinds of possibility for emancipation. All of us had grown up in post-colonial societies that were flailing, that were not really delivering on their original promise of equality or stability, let alone prosperity. We thought of globalization as a wonderful thing. 

The American ideology, the global ideology that replaced so many different postcolonial projects of national dignity, of collective welfare, was a highly individualistic ideology of meritocracy, individual prosperity, self-fulfillment, finding yourself, expressing yourself. All these notions were quite alien to many of us in conservative, hierarchical, and stagnant societies, and very thrilling, and they became truly global in the 1990s. That American ideology really collapsed in the last decade. And a lot of what we’re seeing today, whether it’s Modi’s Hindu chauvinism, Chinese supremacism, or Russian imperialism, is an attempt to resurrect or recreate or forward some kind of ‘indigenous’ ideology.

Because there’s a big vacuum there, left by a catastrophic loss of faith in America. The American ideology of empowerment, of self-improvement, of meritocracy and prosperity has been revealed as utterly hollow — as much a trick played by American elites on the American people as on the rest of the world. So there is this other thing being offered to people now: go back and find some Russian essence or Hindu essence, different ways of acquiring power. Power is really the name of the game here, whether we are speaking of Putin, Modi, Trump, or the liberal cold warriors. That said, I worry more about the countries that possess supreme power, cultural as well as military and economic, but continue to misuse it. Macron said in 2019 that NATO is brain-dead. I worry that, and we don’t discuss this as much as we should today, future historians will marvel at how the brain-dead institutions of the West led us all into catastrophe. 

Amidst all this, is there any hope for left-wing politics? How can we keep nurturing nascent leftist movements in the U.S. and elsewhere? 

I feel hopeful, because for the first time in my own lifetime, there is now an intelligentsia in Western Europe and in America that is actively engaged with the question of what left-wing politics can achieve. Last week, as the U.S. Supreme Court went more rogue than usual, I came across a headline that read something like, “Spain’s socialist government eases abortion limits for over-sixteens and allows menstrual leave,” and I thought, well, this can also happen. I’ve lived most of my life without anyone in the mainstream media ever being receptive to left-wing politics of any kind whatsoever. I’ve lived through such a long period of right-wing extremism and centrist deference to it that I cannot stop being amazed and thrilled that actually, there are people who are now talking about these things we’re talking about — what socialism can achieve, what socialist ideas we should be refining in order to also deal with things like the environmental crisis.

This all really started to happen, I think, post-Occupy. Occupy was the first sign that some other energy was entering the public sphere. It was also an early sign that Obama had failed and we needed something new. Since then, we’ve seen the rapid development and mobilization of that political energy. I feel the prospects for left-wing politics today are brighter than at any other point in my lifetime. You have a generation today without illusions of national omnipotence, without illusions about the liberal international order and related fantasies. However strange it may seem, I’ve never been more hopeful than at this moment of total despair.