19 July 2017

Anne Applebaum: The West needs to regain its ideals


Anne Applebaum is one of the most prominent foreign-policy commentators on the planet. A Pulitzer Prize winner for her history of the Gulag, she is a long-standing columnist for The Washington Post and recently became a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, where she is leading a new project aimed at countering fake news and propaganda.

At the recent Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies (CapX’s parent body), she spoke on whether the West has lost touch with its values. I caught up with her backstage afterwards for a special edition of the CapX podcast, touching on the threat from Russia, the importance of idealism – and the nightmare of President Trump.

Anne Applebaum on… the Russian threat (2 mins)

“One of Russia’s most important foreign policy goals – indeed, the foundation of its grand strategy right now – is its desire to destroy the West, or at least to undermine existing Western institutions which Russia finds to be a political problem. That includes the European Union, and it includes NATO, and generally the system of alliances that have kept the West unified since the Second World War”

“It’s not just that it builds up military assets along the borders. It also feels the need now to intervene directly in Western politics, and very specifically in its democratic debates… they were really the first country to understand the fact that political debate now takes place mostly on social media, which means that it’s really uniquely easy to manipulate by outsiders.”

Anne Applebaum on… British managerialism (12 mins 30)

“It’s very funny to watch British elections as a quasi-outsider and hear how much argument there is about one point up or down in the tax rate. People historically want more from politics than that. Mrs Thatcher was able to offer that – her speeches were about democracy and bigger ideas. But with Blair and Cameron there was this focus on economics above all, that the job of the government is just to give people better economic conditions. And of course that’s part of the job of government. But people want more than that from politics.”

Anne Applebaum on… Trump’s betrayal (14 mins 30)

“My greatest objection to Trump is that he seemed to offer people some kind of hope, and I think it was a con trick from the beginning. He never believed any of it. He has no idea – he hasn’t even thought about – what you’d have to do to make people’s lives better in the Midwest, or wherever else people voted for him. It was absolutely phoney. Corbyn, we don’t know because he hasn’t won yet – but I would worry about him in that regard as well. And this was my main objection to Brexit, too.”

Anne Applebaum on… the case for idealism (18 mins)

“Aren’t there things about our society that we believe are good? Aren’t those things we should be promoting and standing up for? Isn’t fanaticism something we’re against? Aren’t kleptocracy and nepotism things we’re against?

“Part of that argument should be ‘We’re going to enforce our own corruption laws, and we’re going to stop money-laundering in the City’. First of all, I think it would be incredibly popular. Why the Tory party hasn’t done it mystifies me. ‘We’re going to make it so that people who buy houses in London using shell companies, and are using those houses to launder money, can’t do that any more.’”

Anne Applebaum on… the challenge to democracy (23 mins 30)

“One of the mistakes we made after 1989 was to assume that now democracy has triumphed over communism, everybody would want to become a democrat. That the appeal of liberal democracy as an ideal and civilisation was now universal, the natural end state. It’s just a question of when everybody joins.

“But there is a profound appeal to authoritarianism, and to fanaticism. We need to think harder about why people are attracted to it – within our own societies. It’s not just a security problem, it’s an ideological problem.”

Anne Applebaum on… fake news (24 mins 30)

“We are at a moment which is very comparable to the moment the printing press was invented. There was this multiplication of narratives, traditional sources of authority were undermined, the Reformation happened – which we think is good here in Britain, but was nevertheless incredibly destabilising. It wasn’t the monks any more controlling who could read and who could write. Everybody could do it.”

Anne Applebaum on… the new authoritarianism (28 mins 30)

“Who were the first people who really understood the power of radio? It was Hitler and Stalin. Understanding how to use new media, how to reach people in different ways, is something that has been useful to authoritarians throughout history.”

“Trump is a master conspiracist, and a master inventor of fake stories. He does this thing of constantly undermining almost everything and everyone around him, in an incredibly disruptive way. The mark he’s going to leave on American institutions… the long-term damage is going to be pretty extreme.”

You can listen to the full conversation here:

Or our conversation with Jonathan Sacks from the same event:

Or catch up with last week’s special edition of the podcast, recorded in Parliament at CapX’s debate on immigration:

For more episodes of Free Exchange, please check out our archive or subscribe via iTunes or any other major podcast service.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX