Climate Change And The Nation State by Anatol Lieven

The Blurb On The Back:

A major new book on why the most urgent issue confronting us all needs national solutions.

In the past two centuries we have experienced wave after wave of overwhelming change.  Entire continents have been resettled; there are billions more of us; the jobs done by countless people would be unrecognisable to their predecessors; scientific change has transformed us all in confusing, terrible and miraculous ways.

Anatol Lieven’s major new book provides the frame that has long been needed to understand how we should react to climate change.  This is a vast challenge, but we have often in the past had to deal with such challenges; the industrial revolution, major wars and mass migration have seen mobilisations of human energy on the greatest scale. Just as previous generations had to face the unwanted and unpalatable, so do we.

In a series of incisive, compelling interventions, Lieven shows how in this emergency our crucial building block is the nation state.  The drastic action required both to change our habits and protect ourselves can be carried out not through some vague globalism but through maintaining social cohesion and through our current governmental, fiscal and military structures.

This is a book which will provoke innumerable discussions.  

You can order CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE NATION STATE: THE REALIST CASE by Anatol Lieven from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a Fellow of the New American Foundation in Washington DC.  This book posits that a civic nationalist approach based on patriotism and common necessity is needed to tackle climate change rather than an internationalist approach but he’s more focused on what Greens and Liberals should give up than on getting US right-wingers on board and the constant criticism of immigration grates.

I picked this up after the recent COP26 conference was yet another disappointment in terms of getting global agreement on how to tackle climate change.  I wanted to see what an expert in security, terrorism and counter-insurgency had to say about the topic – especially given pronouncements that climate change will increase global insecurity.  Lieven posits his book as a “realist” case that needs to focus on a civic nationalism rather than internationalist efforts that focus on humanity because only civic nationalism can persuade the current generations to make the sacrifices needed to leave a better world for future generations.

Lieven retreads the familiar arguments about why it’s important to take action now on climate change and how time is running out.  He makes interesting and fair points about how there are sacrifices involved in battling climate change, from the economic effects on those who risk losing their jobs in the move from petroleum and coal to the potential impacts on living standards as consumers have to curb their spending habits.  As climate change efforts to date have demonstrated this is a difficult sell for western governments to their own populations (as efforts to date have shown) and he also makes the fair point that it’s part of the reason why it’s so difficult to get people to care about the effects of climate change on people in other countries when they’re more concerned about the impact on themselves.

Where Lieven lost me is in the constant attacks on Green and liberalism idealism, which seems focused on their “unrealistic” demands regarding migrant policy, protecting democracy, development aid and how these all alienate ordinary people because they’re “elitist” and “out of touch”.  He never passes up an opportunity to cherry pick those policies he dislikes or thinks are less important compared to the over-riding issue of climate change, e.g. he takes a page to poo-poo Green Intersectionality as a notion because it can’t be sold to the American Mid-West, which is itself selling.  The recurring motif here is liberal support for migration, with Lieven constantly alluding to the economic issues that migration causes (even though this is open to argument).  Particularly annoying to me was a throw-away comment where he suggests that migration is a cause of rising house prices in South East England, when the reasons for those house price rises are far more complicated than just migration, e.g. the tax benefits enjoyed by buy-to-letters and the influx of International buy-to-letters who are targeted by developers to sell off plan.  

In contrast, he doesn’t have a huge amount to say about right wing conservatives other than that they need to accept that climate change is real.  That might not sound much but it’s a big ask, particularly in the US where the Republican Party has made opposition to green policies pretty much a cornerstone of the party, in part because of what Lieven identifies as historic fights against state intervention.  There is no one in the Republican Party hierarchy who seems motivated to take on climate change and while this book was published in 2020 before Trump left office, it’s clear that he retains a stranglehold on the party’s thinking.  Lieven’s only suggestion is for the military to step up and highlight both the patriotic and the defence need for action, but I am always very wary of the military ever getting involved in the domestic political sphere and in any event, given the close interaction between the US military and defence contractors, I have to question to what extent the leadership can be persuaded to shift some of the spending towards more climate friendly/environmental matters.

Also concerning is that Lieven basically argues that Western states should not be seeking to engage in sabre rattling or Cold War games with Russia and China, which means not getting involved in China’s efforts in the South China Sea.  That’s pretty hard on the other countries in the region – indeed, it can be argued that there’s nothing that encourages short term thinking than concerns that Russia or China are going to invade or blockade you.  It also ignores the fact that Russia in particular is heavily dependent on gas exports, which it also uses in its international security policy so there’s no incentive on them to play ball even if the West does cease to engage with them.  

Ultimately, although I understood and agreed with some of Lieven’s points, I just didn’t get what was so “realist” about the arguments in this book and the constant liberal/Green bashing seems very short sighted if the idea is to focus on cohesion and mutual sacrifice when only one side of the political debate is having to make concessions and as such, I didn’t think Lieven really made a convincing case.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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