The resurgence of a radical centre.
Luigi Vitali in conversation with Benjamin Tallis
As the two-year anniversary of Russian aggression against Ukraine approaches, Western politicians are focusing on avoiding escalation. This approach, however, is seen by many as an impediment to Ukraine’s success, highlighting the inadequacies of current political leaders in such a critical historical moment. In contrast, a new perspective is emerging in Central and Eastern European countries. The pressing need for defence against potential Russian aggression has led these countries to recognise that securing a decisive victory in this system-transforming war is needed and implies wholeheartedly defending democratic values and ideals through the total implementation of military deterrence. It’s on this basis that a new model of morally-driven foreign policy is taking shape.
Neo-Idealism is a new approach to (geo)politics which draws on the strong responses to Russian aggression from leaders such as Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kaja Kallas, Sanna Marin, Gabrielius Landsbergis, Jan Lipavsky, and others. Built upon the premise that values are conceived as ideals, this approach champions human rights, fundamental freedoms, democratic governance, and self-determination. It also upholds the right of individuals to aspire to a better future and a collective notion of progress.
What implications does this hold in the context of the ongoing stalemate in Ukraine, the tragic conflict in Gaza, and the urgent global challenges humanity is facing during this period of intellectual scarcity and crisis of values?
To provide answers to this question and delve deeper into the topic, we turn to Dr. Benjamin Tallis, the intellectual and political adviser who originally conceptualised the term Neo-Idealism. He’s a Senior Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and has previously worked for the EU on security missions in Ukraine and the Balkans. He has been a policy officer at the Berlin European Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management. DUST met with him to talk about his refreshing new concept of Neo-Idealism and to voice a much-needed perspective on the resurgence of a radical centre.
LUIGI VITALI – Idealism in international relations has its origins in the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau envisioning a world governed by reason, justice, and human rights. It regained prominence after WWI and WWII, resulting in the formation of the League of Nations (1920) and the United Nations (1945). What are the differences between Idealism and Neo-Idealism, and in what ways has one developed from the other?
BENJAMIN TALLIS – Certainly, if you’re going to call something Neo, there is probably a previous version of it. But it’s important to make a distinction. The Idealism I’m referring to is related to a tradition in international relations, not the Idealism in a more philosophical sense associated with thinkers like Hegel. There are links, but I’m not talking about that. The Idealism I’m discussing is an approach that emerged in international relations (IR) during the 1920s and 1930s, emphasising the belief that progress could be achieved in the international arena via trade and cooperation. And that was a big contrast to so-called realism. By the way, let me say that ‘realism’ is the greatest trick the IR devil ever pulled. Getting away with calling it realism is a remarkable thing to have done. I mean, who doesn’t want to be realistic? Yet realism imposes a vision on the world as much as any other theory. More than that, realism has a tragic view, which sees that it would be impossible to progress because of human inclinations in the international system or the anarchic nature of the world where there’s no higher authority. The idealists said no, that’s not the case, and promoted a vision where diplomacy, institutions, and trade could help prevent major wars between states, especially great powers. Interestingly, their critics referred to them as ‘idealists’ in an attempt to discredit their ideas.
Intellectuals of the interwar period, like Norman Angell, Philip Noel-Baker, and, above all, the politician Woodrow Wilson, embodied this vision. His Fourteen Points to make the world safe for democracy is a version of Idealism that did have an impact on the world. The problem was that Wilson, as we now know, was a nasty racist, amongst other things. And that certainly doesn’t speak to the kind of Idealism I’m referring to. Also, these interwar idealists were only aiming at a limited type of progress, primarily focused on preventing conflicts. I believe we can aspire to achieve much more than that.
L.V. – One of the main criticisms is that while prioritising theory over practical considerations, Idealism underestimates the centrality of real-world powers and national interests. How does Neo-Idealism overcome this kind of criticism?
B.T. – The accusation of naivety is often directed at idealists, accusing them of failing to recognise the darker aspects of human nature, the realities of power politics and the limitations of the international system in preventing wrongdoing. However, this perspective can be misleading because idealists of all kinds did focus on power—and Neo-Idealism is very hard-edged, as can be seen in relation to Ukraine and the need to arm ourselves to defend democracy. The older idealists did not forget about these ‘dark sides’ either, but they believed that power maximisation or mere state survival is not the only thing we should worry about. After all, realism offers no guide to a better life. In contrast, Idealism, by putting morals into play and also focusing on economic benefit, centres everything on the well-being of people. This emphasis on people—and not only on ‘the national interest’ or the Raison d’État, which are very abstract concepts—is crucial for any liberal approach to international relations. Understanding how this affects people provides a fuller understanding of how power works and explains why it should be used in the first place.
L.V. – Right. What distinguishes the Neo-Idealism approach from liberal internationalism or neoliberal economics, for instance?
B.T. – After the Second World War, you get what’s called liberal internationalism, which is about understanding that to make a world safe for democracy, you need to cooperate with like-minded powers first and foremost. But you also need rules and frameworks that will help govern the conduct of states in the world. This is when we created institutions like the United Nations, the European Union, the Bretton Woods Institutions, the WTO, the IMF, and so on, which all combine to form ways in which you can manage the economic and security interdependence of different countries and peoples.
But, underlying that, you also needed the military force to provide a way of managing the superpower conflict. And that’s where NATO came into play. Now, this is the system that helped democracy win the Cold War. There are many factors behind that, of course, but still, the inherent superiority of a well-armed and well-funded democracy, capable of unleashing the creativity of free people, proved to be economically superior to the state-managed economies under communism. Those institutions played a crucial role in maintaining this superiority, helping to keep the Western democracies united and ensuring the safety of the democratic world.
However, after 1989, with the dissolution of the Communist Bloc and the so-called ‘end of history’ period, we began to lose our sense of direction. The institutions that had once served a clear purpose started to lose their way, becoming ends in themselves rather than means to achieve broader objectives. During this time, we witnessed the corruption of what some referred to as the American hegemonic period. While some argue this global hegemony was aimed at preserving the democratic world system established after the Second World War, others believe it became primarily about maximising American power. This all became entangled when the neoconservatives rose to power during the George W. Bush era, and you started to get the imposition of democracy at gunpoint, with Iraq being the most famous and tragic example of this—and it undermined those liberal institutions—and the legitimacy of liberal internationalism. Simultaneously, with the erosion of the meaning and significance of these institutions, you started to see them being utilised by bad actors for very illiberal purposes—dictatorships and authoritarian states such as Russia and China. That’s why I call it ‘zombie liberal internationalism’. It’s there, but it isn’t really alive, and until we come up with a better idea, it can’t be killed—it just keeps going. Multilateralism and institutions were built to help us reach objectives, but they themselves became the ultimate goals, moving us even further away from liberal politics. This is why we need a fresh start.
On the other hand, this is closely related to the issue of neoliberal economics. The neoliberal globalisation model is now declining or being dismantled, with COVID having played a significant role in this change. This model primarily advocated minimal government interference in free markets and focused on supporting and creating institutions to facilitate free trade. However, what they referred to as free trade ended up mostly being about China’s economic domination, and although it did benefit Western countries, there were only a few people who truly benefitted from it. It was promised that the gains of opening up trade would help people who had lost their jobs by training them in new ones and sharing the wealth more evenly. But that didn’t really happen. While the world’s economy grew overall, telling people in places like the Rust Belt in the US that it’s okay for them to have lost their jobs because someone in China will be better off with it didn’t quite work as expected as a political or economic strategy. So, we need to find a better balance. The era of the Washington Consensus—which was all about these ideas—is coming to an end. This means that we must rethink our institutions, who we do business with and how we can share the benefits of that.
This is what I’m trying to do with Neo-Idealism. It’s a more well-thought-out idealistic way of thinking about Idealism. It looks at many different aspects: geopolitics, geoeconomics, and ecological, as well as technological transitions. Neo-Idealism asserts that we should focus on three main points: protecting, renewing, and spreading liberal democracy while learning from past mistakes.
L.V. – In today’s world, the West finds itself competing against authoritarian states like China and Russia in a sort of traditional ‘great power’ rivalry. But while authoritarian approaches may appear effective in navigating the complexities of the modern world, as they sidestep internal divisions and polarisation, how can progressive forces effectively organise and strategise to achieve a successful vision of the future? Is protecting, renewing, and spreading liberal democracy a good enough plan to accomplish this?
B.T. – It’s definitely a start. We are in a phase of competition of systems against a real competition of values and ideas. Indeed, it may appear on the surface that dictatorships are efficient and swift in their actions. However, as we have witnessed in Russia’s conflict against Ukraine and the West, an excessive reliance on central planning and top-down management can be remarkably inefficient. Notably, such an approach only seems to work because they don’t seem to care about the consequences—or their own people’s lives. It’s not acceptable, but it’s also neither efficient nor effective. That famous joke about Russia not having the second-best army in the world, but certainly the second-best army in Ukraine, has been made for a reason. We can also see China’s emerging problems with its housing market, investment bubbles, and failure to catch up with the West in a number of very high-level technological fields.
The second thing that is necessary to state in an extremely clear way is that anyone who thinks autocracy is a price worth paying has never lived in an authoritarian regime or has never spoken to enough people who have. I’ve spent a lot of my career working in Central and Eastern Europe, where memories of the communist regime are still very fresh in people’s minds. People will tell you what the human cost of this was on a day-to-day basis. And that’s a learning we’ve lost in the West. It has been forgotten to a far greater extent. So we need to relearn that, and we need to listen to countries like the Baltic states. We need to listen to the Czechs on this because they know, and we need to listen to Ukrainians about it, too, because that’s why they’re fighting: to prevent that from happening. And they are willing to die in the name of freedom. So there’s something important to emphasise, but how do we win it? How do we actually win that competition? The first thing is that we have to be able to defend ourselves, and that means investing in the military to be able to do so.
To effectively discourage nations like Russia or China from taking over, we would need robust military capabilities that would make leaders like Putin or Xi think twice about engaging in military confrontations by making them think: ‘Not today’. This would entail a serious investment in our armed forces. Additionally, we need to arm ourselves with a mindset that makes deterrence work. You have to show that you’re willing to use these weapons in order to avoid using them. And that’s another thing we’ve unlearned in the West, particularly in Germany, where there’s very little understanding of how deterrence works. The third aspect is arming ourselves with compelling arguments and narratives in order to gain public support for these efforts, as there will be costs associated with them. These costs must be perceived as investments in a better future, so we need to clearly spell out why these investments are worthwhile.
This ties into the second dimension of Neo-Idealism, which revolves around revitalising liberal democracy and, as mentioned earlier, getting away from neoliberal economics. We must ensure that more people have a real stake in their future and in the future of our societies. This involves sharing the benefits of freedom more equitably, addressing wealth and income inequality, and restoring optimism about the future, especially for our children. We must focus on material progress and live up to our societies’ claims of delivering both moral and material improvements, similar to the social democratic approach during the Cold War. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than pure, ruthless competition and better than what we have now—although we do need to balance redistribution with economic dynamism. We need to reinvent our approach for a time when we’re facing an ecological crisis and find a way to manage this ecological transition. We can achieve this by embracing ecological modernism and being more open to technological possibilities—so that a green future doesn’t mean a future of less but instead of more in a sustainable way.
We’ve been overly cautious and unwilling to take risks. To maintain our competitive edge, we must leverage our technological breakthroughs and make them tangible for our people. But, crucially, what I believe this would lead to is, if there were material progress and societies where people felt included and had a stake in them, then we could have diverse societies that are also cohesive and resilient.
L.V. – The fascinating aspect of Neo-Idealism is its ability to go beyond traditional political divisions, appealing to a wide range of people. In practical terms, which political platform could effectively implement this vision?
B.T. – In a way, it’s a revival of genuine political liberalism. It’s a resurgence of a radical centre. And here, the hope for progress is essential to this vision. Naturally, it will attract a diverse group of people, and it has already started doing so. Some notable figures include Sanna Marin in Finland, when she served as prime minister, a Social Democrat, Kaja Kallas in Estonia, and Jan Lipavsky in the Czech Republic, both from liberal parties. There are also conservative politicians like Artis Pabriks in Latvia and Gabrielius Landsbergis in Lithuania who have expressed ideas and taken actions aligned with the neo-idealist model. Even Ursula von der Leyen, a German Christian Democrat—a centre-right conservative—has undertaken initiatives in line with neo-idealist views.
Moreover, you can identify elements of this vision in the approaches of political movements like New Labour in the UK, for instance, or in the pre-Gazprom era policies of Gerhard Schröder in Germany—the ‘Neue Mitte’. Thus, it represents a centrist political stance aiming to reclaim the centre for shaping the future. Naturally, this may lead to disagreements on various fronts.
But it also provides a common ground for people to come together—and have those disagreements in a reasonable way. It should particularly resonate with those intellectuals and activists who recognise that, in democracies, we mostly share more common ground than divisions. And so, it is also an attempt to address polarisation and the highly antagonistic politics that have characterised politics lately. We seem driven by entrenched beliefs and the conflation of identity with belief, which has led to some of our worst moments in recent years. Part of the Neo-idealist approach is also about addressing what has gone wrong in liberalism, which, for me, includes the identitarian turn, what some people might call ‘ultra-wokeism’. What I mean by this is to question the notion that people’s identity is both fixed and a determining factor in their lives. Those rather belong to features like racial identity, sexual identity, gender, and, to a certain extent, national identity. By taking those characteristics as immutable and essential, you set people up in opposition to each other.
And you end up saying things like, “only someone who looks like me, who talks like me, who screws like me, can represent me.” And that is a remarkable—and remarkably silly—thing to say. Because it’s saying that we don’t have the human empathy to be able to understand and bridge differences while recognising our common humanity and, potentially, common politics. We ought to address that because this represents a poison in our society. Let me explain my point with a quick example. In the UK, where I grew up, there used to be four popular radio stations that people popularly listened to. Radio One was pop music. Radio Two was for caravan park-goers and truckers. Radio Three was classical music, and Radio Four had news, current affairs, drama, etc. Radio One had such a broad selection of music, from hip hop to Italo disco to the latest electronic dance music, from indie to bubblegum pop, all across the spectrum of genres. People who listened to this got a broad range of things they would be exposed to. In the year 2000, the BBC, in all its wisdom, set up something called BBC One Extra, focusing only on ‘urban music’, which meant Black music. And so all the hip hop, all the UK garage, all of the other music that was coded in this way was transferred to One Extra. Now, of course, people can listen to two stations. Still, at the same time, the point was that, as a collective experience, this was about saying, “That’s for you, that’s for me, and we are fundamentally different,” rather than saying, “This is potentially for everyone.” What I would love to be able to do is reclaim that mass modernism and that mass experience that says we can all enjoy these things. It is also about reclaiming a common-sense approach to dealing with multiculturalism and identities while addressing all forms of racial inequality, gender inequality, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity. We really don’t have to essentialise these things completely—or treat them as the lodestar of politics.
L.V. – In this sense, what are your thoughts on the current and dominant new morality derived from the oppressor-oppressed dynamics? A binary through which the left, from the critique of colonisation and white dominance, tends to interpret the world. How does Neo-Idealism fit specifically into these new narratives?
B.T. – Neo-Idealism could easily stand as a reaction to those debates while firmly recognising that we do have colonial legacies and a colonial present to deal with, a present that is also, though not only, one of discrimination and oppression. But the question is, do you want to do something about it or not? And how do we do something about it? It’s interesting to note that many of the best post-colonial critics and critiques of Eurocentrism have come from Europe and have come from the institutions that are supposed to reproduce these dynamics of oppression. I think we have to be able to see the subject in a bit more of a nuanced way. We have to get back to an intellectual culture that can deal with complexity, nuance, and people speaking from different positions who have something sensible to say. And that’s about rebuilding some of our immaterial infrastructure in democratic societies, which is also about not recognising every critique thrown at us and being bolder in dismissing flimsy or badly motivated and tendentious critiques.
Still, colonialist views are real and present, especially in high-level politics. That is something that we have to address. For example, think about the ‘garden’ and the ‘jungle’ speech of top EU diplomat Josep Borrell last year, with Europe as the garden and the rest of the world as the jungle. This was a truly awful thing to say. It’s politically unwise. If you want to deal with the rest of the world sensibly, don’t refer to them as ‘the jungle’, for one thing, and don’t promote yourself as ‘the garden’ when we have many problems to fix at home. The second thing is, what a way to see people in the world! This was precisely the worst kind of representation of European chauvinism, in my view, from a politician at the very top, supposedly from the left. This is the kind of colonialism we should be addressing in our practice. And, of course, don’t forget that only two years ago, for Borrell and others, Ukraine was also ‘the jungle’.
As I see it, we should approach collective identity differently. We should consider it as performative and civic, meaning that you can adopt that identity if you demonstrate certain behaviours. Whether being an EU European or identifying as British and so on—it should be based on your actions within a legal and societal framework rather than being determined solely by where you were born or specific characteristics.
This approach is inclusive and not exclusive, avoiding the chauvinistic tendencies of essentialism. These are the two perspectives on identity that we must embrace to truly move past colonialism. Rather than solely dwelling on our historical wrongs or engaging in superficial self-criticism for virtue signalling, we should focus on building the political capital necessary to bring about meaningful change.
For instance, defending Ukraine has shown us why a democratic Europe is something worth protecting. What Ukrainians are fighting for is to be part of Europe. I’ve worked in and on Ukraine for a long time. That’s how they would talk about it: they want to be part of the ‘real Europe’. If you have a lot of Western leftists saying there’s no good in Europe, it’s only about colonial history, violence, etc., why should Europe go about defending itself, let alone Ukraine? It’s essential to approach this issue politically and acknowledge that European history has had many dark moments but also give credit to its positive aspects. To move forward, we must provide people with reasons to identify with the better parts of their history. It’s been Zelensky’s genius to remind people around the world of having been at their very best. Saying: “Even if you haven’t always lived up to that, you have at other times done exceptionally well.” So take that forward. That’s your political capital to gain belief.
L.V. – That’s very Neo-idealist of him.
B.T. – It is! It’s about bringing together the right values with strategic thinking. That’s why I believe that Neo-Idealism can be an effective ‘grand strategy’ for liberal democracies—one that looks after our interests by asserting that our values are our interests. If you are at your best when you strive for human rights, fundamental freedom, societal progress, cultural and social liberalism, and tolerance, and when you have the hope of progress, then we should treat these values as if they were your interests. Pursue them, and the rest of your interests will naturally fall into place. This is precisely what Ukraine has demonstrated, and it’s evident in the approach of the Baltic states as well. Some may argue that they pursue this approach because it serves their interests, but that’s the point. Too many politicians pursue actions that benefit immediate rather than long-term interests and undermine our collective values. The genuine political aspiration should be to align the two, and it’s surprising how many people tend to overlook this. This is what we are striving for. Continuing with this hard distinction between values and interests is nonsensical or, as German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock put it: “total crap.”
L.V. – To quote Gloria Anzaldúa in Towards
Consciousness (1987): “It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank shouting(…). A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed, locked in mortal combat(…). The counter stance refutes the dominant culture’s views (…) and is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. (…) It’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once. (…) Or we cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.” Could Neo-Idealism be the hope to bridge divisions and unite factions around shared values, overcoming dichotomy and polarisation?
B.T. – Neo-Idealism exactly aims at achieving this overcoming. Pursuing this approach from the centre is much more appealing because it avoids the left-wing and the right-wing baggage often associated with essentialism, racism, chauvinism, and illiberalism of various sorts. I believe there has been movement and evolution on both sides of the political spectrum. Neo-Idealism serves as a meeting ground to acknowledge that we share more in common. Let’s discuss the different approaches to achieving our shared goals, which is the essence of politics. It’s about revitalising an agonistic rather than antagonistic relationship and exploring other methods of reaching our objectives rather than clinging onto entrenched positions where everything must be defended at all costs, leading to implacable divisions. Our goal is to bring people together across these divides for constructive dialogue—but it’s also about vigorously defending that liberal ground from the illiberal actors who threaten it.
I’ve come to realise that neoliberal economics have played a significant role in the problem. Previously, I didn’t view it as such and saw the positive aspects of globalisation, such as removing more people than ever before from extreme poverty (mainly in China) in a relatively short period. However, I now see the need for alternative approaches that could also alleviate poverty while prioritising the well-being of our domestic populations and avoiding the creation of chauvinistic relationships abroad, which have undermined our democratic institutions on both global and national scales.
When approaching these political issues, we must accept that not everyone can be reached, and sometimes, it’s their responsibility to change rather than ours to reach out. This same principle applies to global systemic competition. There are states with which we should never compromise, such as Russia and China. We must maintain an uncompromising stance to protect our interests. However, there are other states where we can exert influence and demonstrate the superiority of the liberal democratic system.
We are aware of the neoconservative blunders, misadventures, and disasters that they imposed on the world. We’ve learned that imposing democracy at gunpoint is not the way to go. But does that mean we should abandon the mission of spreading democracy? No, far from it. Some argue that this attitude is unpopular in the so-called Global South, a term I personally dislike, but I haven’t found a better one yet. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that undemocratic rulers in the Global South indeed oppose this approach. But what about the people they rule over and who aspire to live in freedom? I’ve spent considerable time engaging with democracy activists, promoters of freedom, and human rights advocates in authoritarian regimes or places where democracy is on the edge. They want freedom, and they want the democratic West to take an uncompromising stance.
So, how can we best support these individuals without repeating the mistakes of the past? It begins at home. We must strive to become the attractive beacon that we claim to be, giving substance to our assertion that our model is superior, both in material and moral terms. Our mission should be to spread it more equitably.
The second aspect involves our trade relationships. We should aim to minimise our trade with authoritarian regimes as much as possible for two compelling reasons. First, it is morally wrong. Second, it places us in a precarious position of dependency on regimes we cannot trust. Furthermore, by redirecting our trade and investments not just toward friendly nations (often referred to as ‘friend-shoring’) but also toward swing states and middle-ground countries, we can still exert a positive influence if we do so in a way that is fair to those societies and considers the interests of our own people. Balancing these aspects is challenging and requires further detailed work, but I believe we are progressing in our strategic thinking.
If we genuinely push for change, we can leverage our trade relationships and demonstrate positive examples to the world. Therefore, we should pursue such strategies while remaining true to upholding our values.
Creating a more inclusive global order is undeniably crucial, but we must be clear that inclusivity doesn’t mean that anything goes. It should be about making a world where democracy thrives, and free societies can prosper, both at home and abroad.
L.V. – Remembering the very first days of Ukraine’s war, some far-left people were saying, “Why should we care about white-on-white war?” whilst Asian Russians were executing the most vile atrocities and Jewish and Muslim Ukrainians were resisting. It seems that a lot of Western academics don’t know basic Eastern European history, nor do they value it. There’s a lack of understanding that is becoming more and more evident with time. What could this history bring to the European consciousness, or rather to the Western consciousness? And how come this New Europe, in the last decades, grew into a Neo-idealist mindset?
B.T. – Let me address two points on that. Firstly, it’s distressing and reprehensible that someone would view human suffering through such a narrow lens. This highlights the shortcomings of extremist identity politics. If your immediate response to innocent people being killed is to determine sympathy based on preconceived notions of binary political relations, then you really have to examine yourself first. Instead, consider whether this is the appropriate frame for forming a political judgement, especially for the left. This situation in Ukraine is undeniably one of the most morally straightforward cases since World War II. Arguments for equivocation now resemble the ones made to appease Hitler in the past, which is a bad position to find oneself in. And this desperate search for the good Russian and culpable Ukrainian, or to simply declare ‘a plague on both their houses’, is really a morally as well as politically dead end.
So, I think that is something that needs to be seriously re-examined. And part of it does come, as you say, from ignorance about Central Eastern Europe’s history. This is a long-standing problem—as Larry Wolff put it back in 1994: “There is a Europe that knows and a Europe that waits to be known. That Europe that waits to be known is always Eastern Europe.”
And Central Eastern Europe has a particular position amongst the left. It’s the place where communism died. And that has meant it’s rarely been a region that many leftists have been sympathetic towards and for many reasons, whether these are fair or not. The way we should perceive Central Eastern Europe is in the fight for freedom and people toppling authoritarian regimes. They are moving from there to build their own worldview and strategy.
I think it’s essential to start from a core principle and expand gradually. Trying to do everything at once is not a viable strategy. Building success and momentum from a solid foundation is a strategic lesson, even for leftists. You establish your base, gain momentum, achieve victories to accumulate capital, and then progress further. Just because some Eastern European politicians don’t have a perfect stance on the global economy or the Israel-Palestine issue doesn’t mean we should dismiss them and the entire project. Ideas are a work in progress, an evolving project aimed at something better. I prefer believing in a path of improvement over giving up hope and abandoning the struggle for progress because of its current imperfection.
L.V. – We can consider Europe and the EU as fertile ground for Neo-Idealism development, an approach particularly nurtured by Eastern European countries as a defence against Russian imperialism. How do you view the relationship between the central powers of Old Europe and the emerging nations of New Europe after the war drew more attention to the Eastern Front?
B.T. – Many people frame this issue as Central and Eastern Europeans working through historical grievances against Russia and its imperialism. However, most politicians in the region emphasise that while they have learned from their past, this is more about their future. They recognise the high price of ‘unfreedom’ and the consequences of being occupied and subjected to Russian Empire colonialism. But their focus is on future generations, not just memories of their grandparents. As Zelensky stated when addressing Congress last year, this is about the world our grandchildren will inherit. It’s a question of whether it will be a world of freedom or tyranny. They are very clear in their commitment to this cause. Additionally, they draw inspiration from the 1990s, a time of hope in Central and Eastern Europe that many experienced as kids or teenagers. It was a period when positive change and improvement seemed achievable, and you could imagine a bright future ahead. So, the contrast between Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe is noticeable in several ways. In Central and Eastern Europe, the memory of totalitarian or authoritarian rule is more recent, and this drives a strong commitment to safeguarding freedom and democracy. These countries are also focused on reviving hope, especially for younger generations.
While in Western Europe, the experience of such enthusiasm is gone. Some Western European intellectuals may seem detached and express cynicism about liberal values. They benefit from a liberal society but criticise its values. Another challenge is the sense of hopelessness many people in Western countries feel.
II view this as part of the autoimmunity of the West. It’s partly due to our political economy, the cynicism in our public debate, and the loss of leadership. We’ve considerably lost the ability to help people connect to something bigger than themselves, to be part of a larger project, to embolden themselves.
Yet, Zelensky and the above-mentioned leaders of Central Eastern Europe can directly connect their people to the war in Ukraine and the fight for freedom, and it resonates. It’s much more challenging in the West because our leaders have often abandoned this rhetoric, possibly due to their own lack of fundamental belief in our societies and their future.
The biggest challenge is reigniting that belief, but not naively or superficially. It requires actual substance. If we can achieve that, I believe Western Europe can be re-engaged. If not, we’ll continue to face similar problems because people won’t see the point. This challenge extends even to the seemingly comfortable parts of the West, which hide deep inequalities and one too many smaller daily tragedies. We have to start fixing those cracks in our societies to help people feel reconnected.
L.V. – Totally, it seems like the central power in Western Europe is more about damage control and bureaucracy, while in the East, you have new energy, vision, and fundamental discussions. This would inevitably shift the centre of Europe from the Western part to the East. How do you think Europe would adjust to this?
B.T. – Great way of putting it. I like that. Also, Chris Alexander, Canada’s former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, said that we’ve put democracy on cruise control, so we have damage control meets cruise control, and you have a real lost highway effect there. Most leaders in Western Europe recognise a shift going on and are very nervous about it. They don’t quite know what to do. We’ve not seen any genuine attempt to rebalance power within the EU. There hasn’t been a substantial effort to rebalance power within NATO. Olaf Scholz, for instance, has been blocking Ukraine’s NATO membership despite the wishes of Central and Eastern European countries. There’s also a lack of willingness to reshape German production’s value chains, which rely heavily on Central and Eastern Europe but keep these countries in a middle-income and middle-influence position.
On the other side, Emmanuel Macron, though somewhat late in recognising the gravity of the situation, eventually understood the importance of engaging with Central and Eastern Europe. He delivered a speech at Globsec in Bratislava, known as ‘the Bratislava Agenda’ within the French diplomatic circles. In this speech, he acknowledged past mistakes and expressed a commitment to strengthening ties with Central and Eastern European countries. He actually said Eastern European countries were correct about Russia, and their insights have been accurate on various issues. This recognition signifies a notable power shift in Europe. It also highlights that Germany has yet to formulate a coherent strategy. This situation allows another major European power to step in and take a more active role in shaping relations with Central and Eastern European countries.
Macron must take concrete actions to build trust for this shift to be effective, especially given past French policies and approaches toward Russia. Nevertheless, there have been positive signs, such as France’s support for Ukraine’s NATO membership at the Vilnius summit and its increasingly tailored forward presence in Romania. The key lies in implementing and solidifying these initiatives, including strengthening support towards Ukraine’s EU membership.
L.V. – For Western people who think Ukraine is some local conflict, how could you explain its importance and critical role in a soon-to-be-happening new world order? Why does Ukraine have the potential to be a system-transforming war?
B.T. – Because if Ukraine wins, it will accelerate the systemic competition between autocracies and democracies. And, in my view, that’s a good thing. We should recognise that competition exists, and we should plan to win. But that’s precisely what Olaf Scholz and others don’t want to see happen because that would accelerate the decline of the old neoliberal globalising order and make that kind of free trade or Chinese mercantilism much more difficult. It would mean managing change, which Scholz, in particular, and some other politicians of our generation, are spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with. They’re not the kind of thinkers and doers you want to manage change. They are slow to react. They are reluctant. They hide behind public opinion rather than trying to lead. And also, I genuinely think they don’t believe it’s better. They’re ideologically opposed to dealing with that change. So, it’s no wonder they don’t want Ukraine to win. To be clear, Scholz doesn’t want Ukraine to lose, either. He just wants the endless present to continue. He wants to prevent the birth of that new world order. So he wants to stay in that Gramscian interregnum and profit from it in the meantime. This basically means Germany is going back to hiding behind others, not fulfilling its security responsibility, which it declares for Europe but doesn’t live up to. You can witness this principle in action, particularly when the focus shifts to Taiwan. Because what we do or don’t do in Ukraine will send a very clear signal to China about what we are willing to stand up for and what we’re not. But also, who is the ‘we’? Because the Americans will stand up to anything that happens in Taiwan. They are prepared for it and continue to prepare for it. The question for Germany arises when geopolitical pressures become imminent. In that scenario, how does your equivocating strategy come into play? So, being ill-prepared and hoping nothing will happen is not a viable approach. What if, heaven forbid, something does happen? For instance, if China were to sink a US warship in the Taiwan Strait, it could spell the end of Germany’s green transition—and its trade model.
Germany’s heavy dependence on materials from China and the massive investments in the major companies there while also heavily relying on the US for security is untenable. There is a lot of talk in Berlin about the possibility of a Trump-like figure coming to power who would continue the competition with China and be lenient on Russia, so it seems that experts are indeed aware of the risk to NATO’s security guarantee. However, instead of genuinely preparing for such a scenario, Germany appears to be only making token efforts regarding rearmament. That needs to change—and there should be a more substantial discussion on extended deterrence, addressing questions like where Germany should seek its nuclear deterrence if it can’t rely on the US and whether it needs to develop its own nuclear weapons. I mean, imagine the discussion on that here, given that the debate on civil nuclear power is already one of the most polluted and nonsensical debates I can imagine. Now, imagine having to talk about Germany developing its own nuclear weapon.
What are the alternatives? Well, properly support deterrence now, show your resolve, so you won’t actually need to go to war in the future because enemies will have already been deterred.
Not investing in deterrence now is a false economy. There are certain clear things that we could benefit from. Ukraine is an incredibly clear-cut moral case. It’s evident that Ukraine’s victory would serve the long-term, significant interests of most Western democracies if they assess their interests correctly.
I don’t think Scholz and company are evaluating their interests properly. They continue to perpetuate short-term, geoeconomic thinking that benefits specific sectors of the German economy but doesn’t truly benefit Germany and the German people as a whole. If you can’t get that right in such a clear-cut case, I don’t believe you’ll handle the more complex Middle East case properly. But one way to help you get it right is, once again, to build your core and solidify it.
So, you ensure you have a solid platform to stand on, ensure China is deterred, and ensure Russia is deterred. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend too much of your money and GDP on defence, making your other projects much more difficult to achieve. So, I think there is a shift in the global order. The time of the ‘Zeitenwende’ (epochal shift) that Scholz announced is over, and, despite his best efforts, a new world is being born, albeit with difficulties. Unfortunately, the other Zeitenwende, which was Germany’s response to this geopolitical shift, remains unfinished, and much more work must be done. No genuine or appropriate strategic approach is being taken, and Germany is unclear about its foreign policy identity or role.
L.V. – We’ve discussed strengthening European borders to foster unity among European peoples. But how does Neo-Idealism address the challenges associated with border crossings and immigration? Why do you think this has been such a significant blind spot for the European Union?
B.T. – Again, the kind of thinking behind Borrell’s comment, the ‘garden’ and the ‘jungle’ analogy, continues to surface in our migration policy and permeates many aspects of our interactions with the rest of the world. This idea that Europe is somehow intrinsically better, while at the same time Europeans beat themselves up all the time, is a bizarre complex that we have. Migration, in general, is a massive blind spot. Sometimes, we’re too stupid to realise when we’re being told we’re beautiful, and we need to recognise that people wanting to come here is a good thing. It’s something we economically need and must be managed and organised to ensure safety for migrants and benefits for the receiving societies. This is supported by extensive academic literature on migration, which used to be one of my areas of expertise.
Research demonstrates that increased migration benefits all key stakeholders: the sending country, the receiving country, and the migrants themselves. However, we have erected numerous obstacles in the migration path, partly because we have not adequately addressed the issue. The challenge lies in the fact that the advantages of migration are long-term, broad and general, while the challenges it poses are immediate, localised, and personally felt. Overcoming these obstacles requires resolve and a commitment to uphold our values—while also pursuing our interest, which is to have more inward migration.
For instance, the incident in Cologne a few years ago, where groups of migrant men engaged in mass sexual assaults on German women, and the inadequate police response should have been handled with the full force of the law. We have rules and law enforcement agencies in place to address such situations. We must assert our confidence in enforcing these laws and send a clear message that such behaviour is unacceptable—and dare to dismiss spurious critiques of racism when we do so. Simultaneously, we should create more legal pathways for people to migrate. Economically, this is essential and will also contribute to our cultural enrichment.
We should also be more aware of the success stories of multiculturalism. Returning to what I mentioned earlier about my childhood in the UK, I’m not alone in holding this perspective. Paul Gilroy, a prominent thinker on the left and one of the founders of critical race theory, also refers to himself as the last Humanist. He celebrates the achievements of British street-level multiculturalism while expressing regret over poor government policy decisions. We must acknowledge these successes, even shout about them from the rooftops, because this is really important to help people understand that migration is not a problem. Migration is a wonderful opportunity for all concerned—if it’s allowed to happen safely for migrants and with clearly defined conditions for receiving societies like those I mentioned above. The second thing is that we’ve delegated the production of knowledge on migration to law enforcement agencies, to those whose job it is to see the bad in the world and to see the negatives and the threats. If we all saw through the police’s lens, we would only see the wrong. You need to balance that. And so, for all the risk analysis that we have, which is the dominant model of managing migration, we need an opportunity analysis to balance that out and fairly see the picture. And that should be mainstreamed into all political discourse. Politicians need to be a bit more courageous to do that. We don’t have that many brave politicians at the moment—but we should be demanding such people to represent us and promote those who already are.
L.V. – That is indeed the problem. On the left, the emphasis is on welcoming, while on the right, it is on security. But why is it challenging to merge welcoming and security into a hopeful vision that could benefit everyone?
B.T. – You would think that this agenda is waiting for someone to grasp it, and that’s the problem with the evacuation of the centre ground and the polarisation you discussed earlier. It’s indeed a centrist argument, and there hasn’t been enough strong advocacy for it. The radical centre has disappeared to a great extent. That’s why we also look at progress in other fields. For instance, consider the success of gay marriage in Estonia and the election of a gay president in Latvia. Many people in Western Europe might view Central Eastern Europeans as right-wing chauvinists, not liberals. However, if you observe the changes they’re making, you get a different picture—but, at the same time, we’re not there yet when it comes to migration.
Interestingly, however, Artis Pabriks, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Latvia, recently told me that one of the reasons they need to be tough on migration is to protect gay rights and preserve their liberal values. They welcome migrants who respect these values but won’t accept those who don’t. Pim Fortuyn made a similar argument in the Netherlands 20 years ago and, tragically, got killed for it. So, this argument has been made for some time – and it’s a good one if it doesn’t tip over into associating certain behaviours to particular ethnic groups. It certainly doesn’t have to, and that shouldn’t be confused with evidence-based calling out of behaviours that are engaged by migrants who haven’t understood or who willfully go against our societal values and laws—similarly to those in Cologne.
Of course, this game has high stakes, but we should be making precisely those kinds of arguments. We can have migration and protect our values. You don’t have to give in, but for that, you have to have a bit of belief in yourself, and that’s probably the last blind spot related to European institutions.
The idea that the European Union will continue no matter what is misguided. If we don’t revive it as a liberal political institution, its existence will be at stake. If we just keep relying on rules written by another generation that are not adequately enforced and are increasingly used as an excuse not to act politically, then I think the European Union is doomed.
This way of following rules represents a retreat from the true politics of what we need to address. That would rather mean finding a way to deal with Hungary and addressing the violations of the rule of law in Poland. Simply saying: “We’ve done all that we can. We have followed the rules”—and then watching the institution be destroyed is a remarkably shortsighted political stance, and future generations won’t thank us for taking that approach.
So, we need to get away from this fixation on legalism, understand the purpose of those rules, and then live up to them. This is related to Europe’s position in the world. Regulating the world will not save us. The Brussels effect will not win the systemic competition against autocratic regimes. So get political.
And to get political again, you need that self-belief combined with honesty and a real calculation of our interests and values.
L.V. – When applying the Neo-idealist approach to various political scenarios, such as in the Middle East, complexities arise as violence is often employed as an integral means to achieve political goals, and religion or ideology plays a central role in shaping worldviews. Above all, the conflict in Gaza serves as an example whereby the West initially expresses support for the right of democracies to defend themselves, in this case, Israel. However, it becomes embroiled in a dire situation where disproportionate force, war crimes, and violations of international laws remain part of the equation. What would be the appropriate stance for the EU if it were to embrace Neo-Idealism as a guideline in this conflict?
B.T. – It’s a great question and obviously a very emotionally and politically charged one. Undoubtedly, new Idealism supports freedom, human-rights, and self-determination, along with the rights of democracies to defend themselves. In this case, Israel, as a democratic state that has a right to exist, should be able to defend itself, including against the kind of attacks that were unleashed by Hamas. An organisation which I have no problem calling barbaric and brutal. No one with any sort of progressive or liberal mindset should have an ounce of sympathy for Hamas, who don’t even have consideration for its own population. These regressive, barbaric forces in the world simply should not be allowed to exist. However, the right for Israel to defend itself should come with responsibility and precautions. No question about that. Palestinian human rights have to always be protected, even in impossibly difficult situations, such as this current conflict in which Hamas has embedded itself within the civilian population of Gaza. Israel’s hard-line approach and disregard for basic rights, risk of continuing radicalising generation of opponents. Many of us who are familiar with extremism and radicalisation literature observe that when individuals perceive their legitimate options as exhausted, they often resort to violent means. This has been the history of the overthrow of colonial regimes. It’s been the history of freedom and liberation movements around the world.
Nevertheless, in this context, I think the question of how that situation can be resolved relates to how the Palestinians can govern themselves as much as it does to how the Israeli government allows them to do so. What has been done in the last 20 years? How did they pursue that? But also, what did Europe or the international community do to facilitate and encourage this process? Anyone seeking to intervene in this conflict in a discursive, diplomatic, or military way should bear in mind that there are two legitimate national claims on the same piece of land. Both need democratic regimes which will not threaten each other and recognise each other’s right to exist. That’s what we, for instance, should be pushing for instead of propping up corrupt actors or celebrating barbaric ones.
On the other hand, any neo-idealist should be concerned about the erosion of Israeli democracy that Bibi Netanyahu has presided over. Hundreds of thousands of people marched earlier in the year in protest at his latest power grab and the latest move to undermine checks and balances in the Israeli system. There’s a lot of work for neo-idealists to do; on the one hand, they must safeguard the democratic system, and on the other, they must encourage its development, acknowledging that democracy cannot be imposed but should instead be actively promoted and advocated for. You have levers to pull, and the EU needs to find where those levers are and not be hesitant. Whether through aid distribution and its methods or through diplomatic actions, efforts should be made to establish a situation in which Israel is secure in its right to exist while refraining from obstructing the path to peace. The same consideration applies to the Palestinians, who, at the same time, should be assured of living in their own democratic and sovereign state. It’s about securing democracy where it exists, renewing it, and spreading it where necessary.
L.V. – What is frustrating is seeing how the discourse remains controlled by two extremes: the ultra-right Israeli government and extremist Islamist factions on the Palestinian side, who are silencing or pushing aside the majority of moderate individuals on both sides who remain unable to participate in the conversation. How can the EU become more vocal about this? Why do you think it hasn’t done more in the past?
B.T. – I think this is because many people in Europe have difficulties dealing with the legacy of anti-Semitism and the charges of anti-Semitism that are sometimes thrown, whether legitimately or not, at anyone who criticises Israel. On the other hand, there’s also a challenge because we often find ourselves in a dilemma when we have sympathy for the Palestinian people, but they lack democratic and responsible representatives. In some cases, the individuals who claim to speak for them are extremists, making it challenging to support their cause effectively—because they so obviously don’t share the values we strive for.
That’s the complexity that I think we’re struggling to get through, but trying to keep some of those principles in mind can help us actually work towards a longer-term solution. In this sense, we shouldn’t let the pursuit of perfection restrain us from doing good where we can, when we can. It’s about choosing the right battles and making a difference where possible rather than insisting on an all-or-nothing approach. The latter sometimes reminds me of a philosophical moment at the end of Giorgio Agamben’s The
Community, where he seems to suggest that if we can’t achieve universal human rights and a new form of loving social consciousness worldwide, then there’s no point in trying. I don’t think that’s a practical political philosophy. It may work in a seminar room or social media, but not in the real world. We must reject the lazy comfort of intellectualism and inject some common sense into our thinking and actions, focused on real practical improvement while keeping the big goals in mind—and progressively moving towards them.
L.V. – How do you envision the concept of Neo-Idealism expanding beyond international relations and becoming a mindset not only in policy-making but also more broadly in culture, art, music, and fashion? How could it become a mindset for the new generation?
B.T. – Not a simple question, but now that you mentioned this, Kraftwerk just came to my mind. The German band most known for their pioneering electronic music. They are my best example of the commitment to inventing the future and reviving a sense of the future. Recently, in Hamburg, I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Rother, who was part of Kraftwerk and later founded the band Neu! with Klaus Dinger. He’s a real hero of mine. When I asked him how and from what he managed to create something so new, he said: “From the old, of course, but it’s the way you do it and how you combine the old with other aspects, and what technologies you use to express that combination.” That’s my point:
Instead of obsessing over our past failures or engaging in institutional critique, artists can contribute by inventing the future and delivering what Ernst Bloch called ‘concrete utopias’.
That’s about how art can foreshadow politics, offering glimpses of a future that we can then work in more mundane ways to turn into reality. That’s the concrete utopia concept that I dearly love.
Kraftwerk embodied this idea, and I believe other futurist artists can do the same. Neo-idealist artists could do that, too. I envision a form of democratic futurism where we embrace avant-garde boldness and willingly embrace change. We should be unafraid to say: “We need to tear that down and start again.” I imagine a kind of futurism that takes on shared democratic and inclusive meaning.
A futurism that, instead of just moving fast and breaking things, moves fast and creates something, looks forward, looks to the new, pushes those frontiers, and experiments—but takes people with it, too. And that might be across all fields. We see Ukrainians experimenting day by day. And that’s why I call it the frontier state of our better future. In many ways, they are willing to take the kind of risks that we often aren’t. And I think it’s about recovering that risk-taking. And if artists can’t take risks, who can? I would love to see it. And if anyone amongst your readers thinks their stuff fits the bill, get in touch. I’ll come to talk at your gallery. We’ll do whatever you want. We’ll do a music show, whatever. And we can put politicians and artistic, creative people together because that’s how changes happen. So I would love to. Here’s the challenge. I’ve thrown the gauntlet down. Who’s going to pick it up?