The nations of the world are remarkably united in opposition to the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine launched in late February 2022. Russian aggression has (for the most part) been understood as unprovoked and unjust. But even in the world’s unified call for peace, respect for persons and national sovereignty, and maintenance of a rule-based liberal order, racist frames have been repeatedly used to advance liberal claims.
In a reporting segment that quickly went viral, CBS’s senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata remarked in the early days of the invasion that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Lucy Watson, a correspondent for the British ITV News station reported that “the unthinkable has happened to them,” emphasizing to her viewers that Ukraine “is not a developing third world nation. This is Europe.”
D’Agata, Watson, and their audiences are aware of the brutalization of the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, and specifically contrasted what was happening in Ukraine with these other situations. Their shock at the war in Ukraine was not a general outcry against modern armed aggression. They were shocked because the aggression was directed at white Europeans.
Mises and the deep roots of racialized opposition to war
Recent incredulity at the idea that a war of conquest could be waged against a white, European nation like Ukraine has deep roots, going back at least a century to the aftermath of the First World War. After the First World War the nations of the world, but especially the European powers, resolved that war could no longer be a tool for settling European disputes. Ludwig von Mises exemplified this view in his 1919 book Nation, State, and Economy. Of course, that peace set in motion an even greater conflagration two decades later, but that was not known to Mises or his contemporaries.
Mises was skeptical of utopian pacifists who were anticipating a new era of peace. However, he was a firm opponent of future wars of conquest in Europe, even though he had served in the government of the recently dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire and valued the model of a multiethnic empire that it represented. But the achievements of past aggression offered no justification for modern war, Mises argued:
It is true that those colonies were not taken with smooth talk, and one can think only with shudders and anger of the fearful mass murders that prepared the basis for many of the colonial settlements flourishing today. But all other pages of world history were also written in blood, and nothing is more stupid than efforts to justify today’s imperialism, with all of its brutalities, by reference to atrocities of generations long since gone.Mises, 2006 , 63
However, Mises’s admonition that historical bloodshed could not justify modern aggression had clear racial limits. He continued, “It must be recognized that the time for expeditions of conquest is past, that today it is at least no longer acceptable to use force on peoples of the white race.”
It was not therefore imperialism per se that Mises objected to, but the use of force against “the white race.” Like D’Agata and Watson (and many others who apply a racial lens on the Ukraine war without stating it openly), Mises was most concerned with laying out the appropriate way to treat Europeans as distinct from other people. Of course, in 1919 the principal target of Mises’s criticism was Germany (the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ally in the war), whose crime was to direct the violence and subjugation normally reserved for people of color against “the white race” instead. He contrasted Germany with other European powers:
While the other nations brought their imperialistic efforts to bear only against the peoples of the tropics and subtropics and treated the peoples of the white race in conformity with the principles of modern democracy, the Germans, precisely because of their position in the polyglot territories in Europe, directed their imperialistic policy against European peoples also.Mises, 2006 , 66
German aggression threatened the liberal order because it threatened the European civilization that built and maintained that order. But Mises was clear that this did not mean imperialism itself was inconsistent with liberalism. After all, the preeminent liberal power of the nineteenth century, Great Britain, was also the preeminent imperial power. This historical coincidence of liberalism and imperialism was not lost on Mises, who argued that the two ideologies could coexist, provided an appropriate racial hierarchy was maintained. Mises assured his readers in practice liberalism and imperialism could go hand in hand:
This liberal dogma cannot be shaken, either, by the assertion—on whose correctness we offer no opinion—that there are peoples who are not ready for self-government and never will be ready. These lower races supposedly must be politically governed by the higher races, without economic freedom being in any way limited thereby. Thus have the English long interpreted their rule in India, thus was the Congo Free State conceived: the open door for economic activity of all nations in free competition both with the members of the ruling nation and with the natives.Mises, 2006 , 64
Freedom from imperialist intentions, for Mises, was thus unambiguously the special privilege of “the white race.” His belief that force was “no longer acceptable” against Europeans was not extended to Indians or Congolese people. According to Mises, even the infamous Congo Free State, which committed horrific atrocities against the Congolese under the rule of King Leopold II, did not challenge liberal dogma because the king set up the state as a free trade zone. Although he did not endorse Leopold’s reign of terror, Mises cited the Congo Free State to make it clear that economic liberalism had nothing directly to do with the recognition of the rights of non-white subjects. Continued imperialist control of these people was not only an arrangement that Mises accepted as a practical reality, but also as a political order that he did not consider a threat to the “liberal dogma” of “the open door for economic activity … both with the members of the ruling nation and with the natives.”
In fact, Mises saw colonial possessions as potentially important pawns at the disposal of the Great Powers for easing European tensions. He mused that tariffs and war could have been avoided if Great Britain had offered Germany colonial possessions in exchange for a defensive alliance against Russia. South Africa was proposed as a possible fair trade for such an alliance, or even British assistance to Germany in an expedition to reconquer parts of independent Brazil, Argentina, or Western Canada (Mises, 2006  56). Clearly, Mises’s line in the sand against imperialism and conquest ended at the borders of Europe.
Mises as a racial liberal
Mises’s assessment of imperialism in 1919 is a pitch-perfect case of what the late Charles Mills called “racial liberalism,” or a liberalism “in which key terms have been written by race and the discursive logic shaped accordingly” (Mills, 2017, xv). “Racial liberalism” encompasses both overtly racist expressions of liberalism and the nominally color-blind versions of liberalism that shape much of modern discourse. Mills’s recent book Black Rights/White Wrongs uses the case of two racial liberals in particular, Immanuel Kant and John Locke, to explain how the racist assumptions of founding thinkers can shape the development of ideas. Like Mises, the racism and racial hierarchies in Locke and Kant were explicit, but over time their views on race were sanitized from philosophical instruction and largely forgotten. However, Mills argues that race continued to structure liberalism and liberal categories even after the explicit racism of founding thinkers had been forgotten.
A quintessential racial liberal, Mises’s commitment to liberal economics, free trade, and freedom from coercion is emphatic, but explicitly racialized. Freedom from conquest is upheld but only for “peoples of the white race.” Free trade and “the open door for economic activity” are championed globally by Mises, even outside Europe, but non-white capacity for self-governance is a question on which Mises will “offer no opinion,” and which he sees as not directly relevant to a liberal, global economic order. An alternative liberalism, such as Mills’s proposed “Black radical liberalism” would reject this demarcation between political liberty and economic liberty that allows for continued architectures of domination. It would also offer a vision for rectificatory justice to correct the material impacts of racial liberalism.
To his credit Mises would later reject European imperialism abroad (even earlier than many of his peers). In 1919 Mises did not challenge British claims to racial superiority or consider British imperialism antithetical to liberalism. Freedom from conquest was the privilege of the white race. And yet, by 1927 Mises was actively calling for decolonization in Asia and Africa. In his 1927 book Liberalism, Mises wrote that European imperialism in Africa and Asia “stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition” (Mises, 2005 , 94). Even so, Mises did not abandon his view that white Europeans had a civilization that was superior to the people of Asia and especially of Africa. He simply felt that imperialism was not an appropriate vehicle for promoting white civilization. Also in Liberalism, Mises writes,
If, as we believe, European civilization really is superior to that of the primitive tribes of Africa or to the civilizations of Asia—estimable though the latter may be in their own way—it should be able to prove its superiority by inspiring these peoples to adopt it of their own accord. Could there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?Mises, 2005 , 93
Even as an anti-colonialist, Mises not only personally believed that European civilization was superior to others, but he was also confident that other (white Europeans) shared that belief. The text of Liberalism also provides his hierarchy of racial civilization. White civilizations are superior, some Asian civilizations are “estimable,” albeit only “in their own way.” But African civilizations consist of “primitive tribes.” So Mises’s evolution between 1919 and 1927 – his rejection of all imperialism and not just conquest of “the white race”—illustrates how racial liberalism’s deep roots in white supremacy can continue to shape liberalism, even as it changes. Mises’s civilizational chauvinism and acceptance of racial hierarchies remained embedded in his thought, including his anti-colonial thought.
So what are the implications of Mises’s racial liberalism (or for that matter the racial liberalism of Kant and Locke)? Certainly the point is not that modern Misesians, Kantians, or Lockeans always embrace explicitly offending texts, those bits about “the white race” and “peoples who are not ready for self-governance.” Instead, the point must be that racial liberalism builds racist biases into even apparently commendable ideas and impulses. Support for Ukraine against Russian aggression is a commendable application of liberal principles to world affairs, but even that is freighted with a deeply rooted white supremacy that makes Ukrainians a more sympathetic victim of aggression than Syrians or Iraqis. D’Agata and Watson didn’t have to think about it when they lamented a war in “civilized” Europe. They didn’t have to think about it because the assumption has long been built into Western liberal ideology.
Charles Mills also emphasizes that liberalism is big enough and dynamic enough to have an anti-racist future, but this requires confronting racial liberalism and the way that it operates today. Mises did not create, but he did promote, a racial liberal view of the international order that privileged markets and trade over democratic self-government for people who are not white. Even after colonialism, these concepts express themselves through reactions to the war in Ukraine. Our best impulses to defend the rights of the Ukrainian people are still colored by the darker features of racial liberalism. A first step forward is to make sure that we do not treat the war in Ukraine as a singular event, but rather as another extension of a system of domination that is more often than not directed at people of color, outside of Europe.
But how we talk about Ukraine is only a symptom of the ideologies embedded in Western concepts of war, imperialism, human rights, and the very idea of Europe. At a structural level, even after decolonialization the original design of international diplomatic and monetary institutions preserved the power of predominantly white colonial era power centers, despite the nominal colorblindness of universalist projects such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A more emancipatory liberalism has to respond to the war in Ukraine with solutions and reforms that not only respond to aggression in an even-handed way, regardless of the race of the victim, but that also restructure the role that historically oppressed nations play in these international institutions. Furthermore, international justice cannot just be conceived of as arbitrating between the current set of belligerents—it has to be restorative and address the damage wrought by past aggressors.
Mills, C. W. 2017. Black rights/white wrongs: The critique of racial liberalism. Oxford University Press.
Mises, L. von. 2006 . Nation, State, and Economy. Liberty Fund
Mises, L. von. 2005 . Liberalism. Liberty Fund