It cost some labor to put these musings of mine together because I am not a scholar on Russian history or the Cold War, but an obsessive reader who turns to books to try and figure out what is happening in certain areas of the world. And it seems to me that the suspicious superiority with which we greet Russian pretensions today is not new, unique or surprising.
John Dewey once said that “habits are conditions of intellectual efficiency,” but when reactions to something new is habitual, we are in a lot of trouble. There have been many warnings by distinguished historians who claim that failures in international diplomacy are chiefly due to a certain national willfulness in pushing ahead idealistic conceptions to save the universe, combined with an inability to see events from another’s point of view. We see this today in the Ukraine crisis. We Americans don’t see other countries for what they truly are, because when a conflict comes, we look for similarities where we should be looking for differences. When we don’t find similarities, we become bitter. We Americans believe that if other nations had made more strenuous efforts to adopt our priceless values, our structures, and worshipped our innovation and hard work, their countries would have turned out to be more like ours — not good to be equal to us, but sufficient enough for history. There is only way to salvation in the world, we have taken it.
What lies at the base of many of our attitudes of judgment is national conceit. We don’t see others as being different from us. We don’t attempt to see events of another’s history objectively, but through the narrow lens that idolizes our national self image, an image that has never truly existed, but which never gets repudiated by U.S. public opinion because it is so flattering to us and to our pretensions of virtue. In our eyes, the events of our history seem just another testimony of our unique success in the world.
President Wilson’s Illusions
The Obama administration seems to me a cracked bastion of outdated Wilsonian principles. President Wilson, as you recall, framed foreign policy preconceptions based on a peculiar idea of human nature and worldly order. Man, he said, was essentially a peaceful creature and because of that, democracies were more peaceful than countries who weren’t democratic and people of other countries who became democratic and who were granted the right of self-determination, would have no reason to go to war. (The naiveté of this leaves one speechless.) Unfortunately, in the words of the French diplomat Talleyrand, this was not simply stupid, it was a mistake.
We all know what our values are — the promotion of democracy, human rights, collective security, and economic prosperity. The result is that s a nation, we enjoy a loathing of anything that smacks of realpolitik; and we despise the concept of the balance of power or any policy based on spheres of influence because of its immorality. And because we are always right in the eyes of God or men, our assumptions are rarely logically vulnerable.
When we try to promote democracy or try to impose a moral framework on countries where it is simply not applicable, we run into trouble because the history of others can’t be duplicated — their traditions, necessities, and historical imperatives, the habits and customs of their populations, are driven by their own unique past and culture. We Americans allot ourselves infallibility there should be uncertainty, trial, exploration, groping for a keener discernment, reaching for finer perceptions in order to get used to what is unfamiliar to us, and because it is unfamiliar, threatening to us. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, our own national conceit, the idea that our history has already found the answers that will bring harmony to the world and requires no others, thus has a tendency to deform what we explore.
What is the source of this overestimation of America’s virtues and conduct? What is the source of this excessive, national self-regard? We see in American policies all sorts of posturing, ostentation, competitiveness, envy, self-display and a lust for power, not only in politics but in the public imagination. When it comes to comparing ourselves with other nations, we always triumph, but why? I believe it is because of an error of perception – a defect of sight so grave that what is merely small is seen as gigantic, a mere speck is perceived as a planet, the needle is perceived as a tree, the lowly scuttling crab is seen as a dinosaur and so on.
There is another factor as well.
I think it was George Kennan who said that it is hard for any us to come to a reasonable and honest self-estimate, either as individuals or as a nation. As a very small boy, the first inkling I had that someone found me interesting was my grandfather. I was a good singer with one of that high-pitched boy’s voice, and he would collapse in joy as I belted out Rodgers/Hammerstein songs like “Oklahoma.” In other words, our self estimate is mainly founded on the reactions of others to our personalities, and it is the same with nations. They, like us, want to be seen, recognized, praised and approved and thought well of. Favorable recognition is every human being’s unacknowledged god, but it is also the god of a every nation as well. Every country craves for first-rank standing. The thirsts for the glorification of the national ego are always present everywhere. Unfortunately, in America, the exalting consciousness of our virtue often blots out our ability to examine accurately our faults. We are incessantly engaged in an all out scramble to be seen as more talented, resolute, fearless, industrious, morally upright and virtuous, and we pretend that our competitors in the world, who are vying for the same thing, are simply doing so from the wrong basis. Conceit is always slanted, partial and unjust. In our lust for self-admiration, we forget that our worship of our predominating power in the world implies another’s subordination to us, or that the expansion of our national power implies the relative powerless of someone else in the world community.
Russia and Its Fears
“In what is truly tragic,” wrote Hegel, “there must be valid moral powers on both sides that come into collision. Both suffer loses and yet both are mutually justified.”
We in America are quite at home with the Monroe Doctrine. We are completely complacent about it. Competing nations with their own idea of national interest were never consulted. We simply announced unilaterally we would control the affairs of North American and Latin American countries. We had secured our own sphere of influence in North and South America, yet we bridled when a country like Russia, with a system hostile to ours, did basically the same thing in its own areas of national security after WW II.
Stalin’s takeover of Eastern Europe was a very calculated, vast, sinister and brutal plan for expanding and consolidating Russia’s power. Beginning in 1944, the Soviet Union swept into the Baltics, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, northern Norway, Poland, etc, and the Soviet government used its armies to impose communist power on helpless, conquered states and peoples. Stalin once said of WWII, “This war is different from wars in the past because the armies will spread their own social system as far as they can reach.” (This is not the actual quote, but close enough.)
The West was off balance in the early days of 1945-47. The United States had expected that the Russians after the war would to rebuild, institute economic reforms etc. U.S. actions in 1945-7 were designed not to jeopardize U.S. Soviet relations. Speaking of Eastern Europe, Churchill said of Stalin that he did not want war but he wanted to enjoy the fruits of war. Stalin was obsessed with security of the countries bordering Russia, and he quickly set about recovering all the Russian territories that had been lost at the end of WWI. What was startling and off-putting was the Soviet ideology – the belief that Leninism would one day conquer the world and extend its faith and power over the whole Earth, and that anything that furthered that aim was right, and whatever hindered it was wrong. Any objections of historical fact were merely bourgeois pedantic niggling. There were no such things as “truth” any more, there was no need for trust, and the Soviets felt it was fine to falsify facts and they would feel no shame if their truthlessness was exposed.
For the United States, WW II was fought for solely for military victory and American policy eschewed any diplomatic goals beyond that victory. We had no Eastern European policy worth mentioning. President Franklin Roosevelt cared about the Poles because America had six million Polish voters. He disliked the idea of spheres of interests, but it is indicative of the shallowness of his thought about any sound or realistic diplomatic settlement with the Soviets in the East by casually telling Stalin that U.S. forces would leave Europe within two years. What had been balanced became sharply askew.
It should be remembered too that Russian forces were the chief agent in bringing about Hitler destruction chiefly because of Moscow’s command economy that had mastered the techniques of mass production where the Nazis had not. So after World War II, the Soviet Union left its huge armies in Eastern Europe, keeping the East Europeans under the frightful rule of the secret police and military domination. But the Russians had gained those prizes at a frightful cost, and they intended to keep them for its own security.
So we sat back there, passive, and hoped that the corrosion of time would curtail and weaken the Soviet Empire. Again, at the time, we did not want to challenge the Soviets directly. We had no means to. Except for a few American diplomats like Bohlen, Kennan, Harriman, Soviet expansion was not something to get alarmed about yet – Russia had been expanding since Peter the Great. In fact, in 1946, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said that a European war was most likely break out between Britain and Moscow, and the early American analysis of Eastern Europe tended to ignore that any country’s policies are extremely influenced by internal conditions and degrees of strategic necessity. Clearly, the predominance of power of any country offers the temptations of abuse to its neighbors. Many nations including France, Spain and Germany became aggressors when circumstances gave them the chance to. Russia was no different. I know of no country where its virtue is free of conditioning circumstances. Russians and Americans have a habit of portraying the path of virtue as being the same as self interest, but it is a bad habit.
Poland was the nation state that rubbed Stalin where he was very raw. For Stalin, Poland was the key corridor for any hostile country whose intent was to invade Moscow, and he would go all out to subjugate Poland and close that corridor. He felt no pity in his nature and nowhere is this more evident than when he let his armies withdraw during the Polish Uprising, and simply looked on, unmoved, as the Nazis put down the rebellion, slaughtered the rebels and razed the city.
So one can imagine the feelings of Putin, the Russian leader of a collapsed empire, who looks on today as Poland, now a NATO member, is conducting joint war exercises with the U.S. Air Force. You can imagine the dire fear and truculence that shivered down his spine at the sight.
Putin’s outlook, his anxiety about Russia’s security, is an indelible feature of Russia’s history. The S.U. was incessantly obsessed by external threats to its power, constantly obsessed with appearing strong, continually obsessed by the fear of being encircled. In this, it was much like 20th century Germany or today’s Israel. Underneath Russia’s policy of appearing to be strong at all costs, there has always existed a layer of nervous uncertainty. Communists or no, the Russians have always paid homage to some mystical national unity, and the Soviet system, like the Tsars, had, from the beginning, been addicted either to the use of force or the threat of force, as the chief instruments of negotiation. Russian policy thought that it was more important to inspire fear than to inspire confidence, more important to intimidate than accommodate. The Russian fear of encirclement left the Russians unaware that it was their own methods and menaces that had produced the very resistance and reactions that they had feared. And it must be asked, how many wars have been fought by nations to make the world safe for their own national system, ignoring the legacy of resentment that their actions have produced? For many countries, there is no need of lucid persuasiveness if they have enough troops to threaten people.
The Rickety Empire
The Soviet Union was a sprawling structure that actually operated from a very narrow base of power. It was established in the desperation of 1917, when the Tsar collapsed and small, terrorist groups, crammed full of Marxian principles, seized power and then were able to survive famine, a civil war, and the interventions of outside countries in its first years. This was a system of a centrally planned government ruled by intimidation and terror under a Communist ideology.
The realization was somehow lost that in spite of its vast military power, the Soviet Empire remained an extremely backward country.
U.S. foreign policy has always been slow to separate a political threat from a military one. After WWII, two hostile systems had squared off, centralized socialism versus capitalism, democracy versus totalitarianism, both claiming their happy triumph would cap the history of the world. Both countries had a system and national beliefs that pretended they were universal, when they were actually hostile and mutually exclusive.
Soon the two hostile systems began to see each other as the seat of all evil in the world. They had an eye only for each other’s atrocities. They saw each other as two poisoned, separate wells of life. Thanks to the propaganda of both sides, the U.S.-Soviet rivalry was soon seen as a struggle between good versus evil, and the tragedy is that soon such a struggle turns foreign policy into a melodrama, involving mischaracterizations and oversimplifications on each side. Many American leaders felt that any opponents
of the United States must be lacking in virtue or they would not be opponents, so the United States approached the war with a screen of official and self serving stances, instead of seeing it as a predicament, not simply the product of someone else’s wicked will. All too often in a contest, moral judgments are merely political ones in disguise.
Kissinger and others argued that America’s power had to be focused on national interests or a “balance of interests” that were to be bolstered by American ideals, but he and others maintained that while ideals were a key requirement for American foreign policy, ideals and principles were not the main requirement for framing a sound policy. Calculation, the astute reading of personalities, and knowledge of history were key elements in framing policy, not ideology. When you saw nations in terms of their ideals, you got a false idea of what was at stake, and when you saw history in terms of melodrama, you got a deeply flawed picture. No great power in the world is ever competing for sainthood. Neither side in the Cold War seemed aware of the fear caused by their own actions and responses, as I said earlier. We Americans are addicted to the concept that the ambition of evil is to destroy anything better than itself. We believe that opponents of the United States must be lacking in virtue or they would not be opponents. We perceive Evil is always vicious, predatory, exploiting, destructive, and murderous because it locked in a war with the more sound, more generous and more elevated principles. Unfortunately, this fake melodrama leaves us with very harmful characterizations and oversimplifications that aren’t vulnerable to logic.
The Soviet Collapse
The collapse of the Soviet Union was an event without precedence in history. It wasn’t invaded, it wasn’t subverted, it wasn’t defeated, it simply imploded, settling into the ground like a huge, rot-ridden house. Its believers no longer believed. The fearful lost their fear. The activating moral impulse behind conduct had died out. The system’s moving spirit had died out, and nothing had taken its place. True there was some fighting in Lithuania and the Baltics, but on the whole its demise was peaceful, and America, in the end, was not a major player its downfall.
Long before the collapse, it was known that wherever the Soviet system went, it depressed the standard of living in all of the Soviet satellites. At the time of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the standard of living in Czechoslovakia was comparable to Switzerland’s, but it soon plummeted near the bottom. As time wore on, every country in the Moscow’s orbit was seen to suffer from a system that saddled them with despotism and an underperforming economy that stood like a foot on its throat. It also acted to suffocate local traditions and circumstances and made its subjects chafe under its weight. In return, the Soviet puppet governments felt themselves a beleaguered minority, besieged by oppressed nationalists, and they feared that liberalization in the satellites would collapse the whole system.
As Kissinger once said the S.U. collapsed because, while trying to ceaselessly expand, it became bloated and suffered from inner weaknesses and lacked a sense of proportion. The country wasn’t strong enough or “dynamic” enough or “creative” enough for the role that its leaders had assigned to it. It was a rigid system characterized by stagnation and inefficiency, and it rejected policies that would have helped transform it. I was stunned to discover that the Soviet-style economies were actually subtracting value from their system – that the raw materials they dug out of the ground were worth more than the finished goods they produced. The GDR, for example, was wasting billions of marks on goods that weren’t wanted or which were available at a lower cost and of a better quality on the world market. The system ended by dooming itself. Only the high-technology defense industries and the black market worked efficiently, the latter servicing needs ranging from plumbing to prostitution. The Socialist joke became “You pretend to work, and we pretend to pay you.”
Now, try to put yourself in Putin’s place here.
Imagine that your country, which was one of two Superpowers in the world, and then have to absorb the demise of the very thing on which your country based its pride. Suddenly all the sense of accomplishment, your standing in the world, your pride in being formidable (which formed the main pillar of your foreign policy) were all destroyed. Russia, like America, was a monster country, a vast industrial, military economy whose very size was intimidating and whose very extent made its inhabitants prey to dreams of glory and expansion, just like the United States. Yet that colossal power that had unnerved and awed the world, had suddenly vanished. Suddenly, different parts of the empire flew apart. The Soviet Empire was shattered into a horde of little successor states, most of them ruled by Soviet autocrats who soon became managers of the new structures. Many were former KGB officers who had been part of the “shadow economy” in Moscow and grown rich. With the collapse of the system, they tried to recreate and re-impose the same authority they had enjoyed under Moscow. It was simply the old, corrupt Soviet system “downsized,” according to the historian Tony Judt.
In the aftermath, some Russians and former communists looked with rueful yearning at the Soviet Union’s demise. Many new states were very much under the influence of the Soviet central planning system, and many contained in their borders, vulnerable minorities, including many Russians, who felt unprotected in the new state of affairs. The world soon discovered that nationalism and communism had much more in common with each other than they had with democracy, and virulent nationalism became the chief unifying force. Nationalism was the method, after all, that Milosevic used to enslave Serbia. Soon, former communist party functionaries transformed themselves “in a matter of months from nomenklatura yes-men into glib practitioners of pluralist party politics,” Judt said. He pointed out that their survival depended on “recalibrating” one’s public allegiances with the novel alignments of a liberal political culture. He also noted that the nationalists and communists both had a common enemy which was capitalism, and both liked to blame post-communist woes on foreign interference. We can see precedents in what is happening today in Ukraine in what happened in Romania in the early 1990s where the Greater Romanian Party combined nostalgia for Soviet domination with attacks on Hungarian minorities and an open promotion of anti Semitism.
It is hard to fathom statements such as those made by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that declare that the rule of the protestors constitute a “legitimate” government, headed as it by unsavory and corrupt oligarchs. The following was written last week by Max Blumenthal for Salon, and its insights echo those of former U.S. intelligence officials:
“One of the “Big Three” political parties behind the protests is the ultra-nationalist Svoboda, whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has called for the liberation of his country from the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” After the 2010 conviction of the Nazi death camp guard John Demjanjuk for his supporting role in the death of nearly 30,000 people at the Sobibor camp, Tyahnybok rushed to Germany to declare him a hero who was “fighting for truth.” In the Ukrainian parliament, where Svoboda holds an unprecedented 37 seats, Tyahnybok’s deputy Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn is fond of quoting Joseph Goebbels – he has even founded a think tank originally called “the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.” According to Per Anders Rudling, a leading academic expert on European neo-fascism, the self-described “socialist nationalist” Mykhalchyshyn is the main link between Svoboda’s official wing and neo-Nazi militias like Right Sector.
“Right Sector is a shadowy syndicate of self-described “autonomous nationalists” identified by their skinhead style of dress, ascetic lifestyle, and fascination with street violence. Armed with riot shields and clubs, the group’s cadres have manned the front lines of the Euromaidan battles this month, filling the air with their signature chant: “Ukraine above all!” In a recent Right Sector propaganda video [embedded at the bottom of this article], the group promised to fight “against degeneration and totalitarian liberalism, for traditional national morality and family values.” With Svoboda linked to a constellation of international neo-fascist parties through the Alliance of European National Movements, Right Sector is promising to lead its army of aimless, disillusioned young men on “a great European Reconquest.”
“Svoboda’s openly pro-Nazi politics have not deterred Senator John McCain from addressing a EuroMaidan rally alongside Tyahnybok.”
With the Soviet collapse, the United States and the West moved to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. One can imagine that Putin gazed at this event with a sense of sickening dismay.
After the Soviet collapse, a lot of the liberated communist countries wanted to join the European Union but were refused either because their corrupt financial systems and their ravaged economies were not up to operating under the strict fiscal regulations that the Union imposed on future members. Instead, countries like Poland, Hungary and their neighbors were offered membership in NATO as a sort of booby prize. The symbolic value of being a member of NATO had a certain flattering effect, and many hurried to join. (Washington has strategic interests of its own that favored this as well.)Which bring us to our present crisis.
Sitting athwart Russia’s access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the Ukraine had been the mainstay of the Russian economy. It was rich in titanium and coal, it had a huge agriculture, and its importance remains undiminished. Many Soviet leaders including Khrushchev came from there. The most enduring and virulent of nationalists were Russians who resented NATO absorption of what was called “the near West” of Russia, and the country’s helplessness in the face of NATO expansion. The resentment and they fear lie at the root of Putin’s policies.
According to numerous independent polls conducted over the past few years, Ukrainian public opinion that favors belonging to NATO is low. According to news reports, a 2009 Gallup asked Ukrainians whether they saw NATO as a threat or protection for Ukraine; 40% saw NATO as a threat, 17% saw NATO as protection, and 33% saw NATO as neither
I worked on this article for three days, when I happened on an article that scooped my own. It said, “I believe that the root of the current crisis is fear, Putin’s fear, of NATO expanding into areas that make Russia vulnerable to additional outside threats. To Putin, any attempts by the U.S. and the West to try and move Ukraine out of the Russia orbit into the obit of the West he views as both criminal and dangerous. NATO is now in the Baltics and is in Poland, and the Ukraine is already is involved with NATO. Many Ukrainians don’t like it.” I was edging towards the same conclusion.
The author of this was John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who wrote a book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” and he is dead-on.
To continue: Mearsheimer adds, “The Obama administration then made a fatal mistake by backing the protesters, which helped escalate the crisis and eventually led to the toppling of Viktor F. Yanukovych, (the elected president.) A pro-Western government then took over in Kiev. The United States ambassador to Ukraine, who had been encouraging the protesters, proclaimed it ‘a day for the history books.’”
Mearsheimer is right. The initial plans for Ukrainian membership to NATO were shelved when Viktor Yanukovich came to power. He wanted to ensure that the Ukraine became a non-aligned state, rejecting the goal of integration into the Euro-Atlantic security and NATO membership. Yet the situation was already complex and confusing because some portions of the country still considered its relations with NATO as a kind of partnership, and NATO and Ukraine were still holding joint seminars and joint tactical and strategically exercises and operations, giving additional horrors to Putin.
We will let Mersheimer conclude because he is better informed and more intelligent than I am: “The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand.”
I have provided a link to the whole article. Getting Ukraine Wrong – NYTimes.com www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/opinion/getting-ukraine-wrong.html.Mar 14, 2014 · … Russia by imposing sanctions and increasing support for Ukraine’s new … John J. Mearsheimer, … New York Times. Order Reprints …