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Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Sunday Debate: Point, Counterpsychopath

Writing in the Times of London Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, warns of the dangers we face in Russia and its hodgepodge of rogue contemporaries:

The world has become normal again. The years immediately after the end of the cold war offered a tantalising glimpse of a new kind of international order, the hope that nations might grow together or disappear altogether, with ideological conflicts melting away, and cultures intermingling through free commerce and communications. That, however, was a mirage – the hopeful anticipation of a liberal, democratic world that wanted to believe the end of the cold war did not end just one strategic and ideological conflict but all such conflict.

The world has not been transformed: nations remain as strong, as ambitious, as passionate and as competitive as ever. While the United States is the only superpower, international competition among great powers is back. The United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran and others vie for regional predominance. It is a time not of convergence but of divergence of ideas and ideologies. The old competition between liberalism and absolutism has reemerged, with the nations of the world increasingly lining up between them or along the fault line of tradition and modernity – Islamic fundamentalism against the West.

The Islamists’ struggle against the powerful and often impersonal forces of modernisation, capitalism and glo-balisation is a significant fact of life in the world today, but oddly this struggle between modernisation and tradi-tionalism is largely a sideshow on the international stage. The future is more likely to be dominated by the ideological struggle among the great powers than by the effort of radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety.

The enduring ideological conflict since the Enlightenment has been the battle between liberalism and autocracy. That was the issue that divided the United States from much of Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and divided Europe itself into the 20th. It seemed plausible in the 1990s that the death of communism would bring an end to disagreements about the proper form of government and society, when both Russia and China were thought to be moving towards political as well as economic liberalism. Many hoped the end of the cold war might herald a genuinely new era in human development. But those expectations proved misplaced. China has not liberalised but has shored up its autocratic government. Russia has turned away from imperfect liberalism decisively towards autocracy.

Many assume that Russian and Chinese leaders do not believe in anything and therefore cannot be said to represent an ideology. But that is mistaken. The rulers of China and Russia do have a set of beliefs that guide them in both domestic and foreign policy. They believe autocracy is better for their nations than democracy. They believe it offers order and stability and the possibility of prosperity. They believe democracy is not the answer and that they are serving the best interests of their peoples by holding and wielding power the way they do.

This is not a novel or, from a historical perspective, even a disreputable idea. The European monarchies of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were thoroughly convinced of the superiority of their form of government. They, too, disdained democracy as the rule of the licentious and greedy mob. Only in the past half century has liberalism gained widespread popularity around the world. Even today some American thinkers exalt “liberal autocracy” over “illiberal democracy”. If the world’s two largest powers share a common commitment to autocratic government then autocracy is not dead as an ideology.

This has implications for international institutions and American foreign policy. It is no longer possible to speak of an “international community”. The term suggests agreement on international norms of behaviour, an international morality, even an international conscience. This idea took hold in the 1990s at a time when the general assumption was that the movement of Russia and China towards western liberalism was producing a global commonality of thinking about human affairs. By the late 1990s it was already clear that the international community lacked a foundation of common understanding. This was exposed most blatantly in the war over Kosovo, which divided the liberal West from both Russia and China and from many other nonEuropean nations. Today it is apparent on the issue of Sudan and Darfur. In the future, incidents that expose the hollowness of the term “international community” may proliferate. As for the United Nations security council, after a brief awakening from the cold war coma, it has fallen back to its former condition of near paralysis. The security council on most major issues is clearly divided between the autocracies and the democracies, with the latter systematically pressing for sanctions and other punitive actions against Iran, North Korea, Sudan and other autocracies, and the former just as systematically resisting and attempting to weaken the effect of such actions.

American foreign policy must be attuned to these more critical ideological distinctions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its sabre at pro-western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency towards solidarity among the world’s autocracies as well as among the world’s democracies. For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals – perhaps a new league of democratic states to hold regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia and India with the European nations – two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance – and would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the G8 and other global forums.

In time, such a signal of commitment to the democratic idea may become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations, able to bestow legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance – just as Nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

Writing in the The Moscow Times and responding to Kagan, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, expresses his pathetic frustration at no longer being able to fool us with his cheap, neo-Soviet head games. We publish Lukyanov, but just try to find his counterpart in the mainstream Russian press, bashing the Kremlin. Notice how although the is so-called objective scholar states that "Russian policy can be criticized for many things" he doesn't name a single one of them, instead launching a totally one-sided attack on the U.S. even while claiming to oppose cold war politics. This is naked Kremlin propaganda, and it's important to study it so we continue to be vigilant against it.

George Kennan, the U.S. diplomat and historian who popularized the Western strategy of containment, is broadly considered the ideological father of the Cold War. This is despite the fact that he later lamented the manner in which his ideas were ultimately realized. Pentagon and U.S. State Department officials were not particularly interested in Kennan's analysis of the political psychology of the Kremlin. In what has come to be known as "the long telegram," sent by Kennan while he was working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1946, they found not so much an explanation of the motives behind Soviet behavior as an ideological basis for the conflict for which many were looking. Nobody bothered to examine the details. Conflict was a condition more easily understood and, in many ways, more expedient than a difficult search for a balance of interests and areas of agreement.

Today, we can see the same mechanisms at work in the genesis of a Cold War with our own eyes. The absurdity of the situation is that there is no clash of ideologies, no arms race, and not even irresolvable geopolitical conflicts between Russia and the United States. There are the mutual jabs and little barbs that unwind into a spiral of irritation, but the real problem is an inability or lack of interest when it comes to making a sober assessment of the state of affairs.
Instead of trying to understand new problems, politicians are constantly looking for ways to revisit old ones. There is a discourse emerging from Western publications on the development of a new ideological conflict between democratic societies and authoritarian countries, with Russia and China provided as the prime examples from the authoritarian camp. This discourse calls on democratic countries to unite, not to be afraid that nondemocratic countries might also unite in response, and to stop placing their hopes on global organizations like the United Nations, based on the idea that their actions are just being blocked by authoritarian states anyway.

There are many examples of arguments of this type, one of the most shining of which was published a week ago in Britain's Sunday Times by one of the chief ideologists of U.S. neoconservatism, Robert Kagan. The essence of the piece is easy enough to grasp from the shoot-from-the-hip nature of the sub-headline: "Forget the Islamic threat, the coming battle will be between autocratic nations like Russia and China and the rest."

Kagan writes that "the world has become normal again," in the sense that we are returning to a divergence of ideas and ideologies. He calls for the abandonment of the idea of "international community," claiming that "the term suggests agreement on international norms of behavior, an international morality, even an international conscience." The refusal on the part of Russia and China to move toward "Western liberalism," in his argument, has lain to rest hopes that the world was becoming "a global commonality of thinking about human affairs."

Whenever discussions turn to formulations like "international conscience," it is hard to resist the inclination to flinch a bit. The politics of the 20th century should have trained us to understand that the more grandiloquent the rhetoric, the more unsightly the goals it is being used to achieve are. In the rapid developments of today's world, it is difficult to identify the true ideological opposition. This, of course, doesn't rule out the existence of serious conflicts, given conditions of competition and differences in ideas as to how problems should be solved.

Five years ago, Kagan attracted attention with an article in which he argued that the West can be divided along ideological lines into two camps: the old and the new world. The old world, Europe, has sunk deep into the sweet dream of the "end of history." Conversely, the new world, the United States, has not only maintained, but also continued to build on its ability to solve global problems. The piece was written at a time when the neoconservative establishment was at the height of its euphoria, and it seemed that declaring war on terrorism demonstrated that the United States was the sole international actor able to turn the planet around. But conceptions change, and the results of U.S. policy have meant that Washington is again looking for allies. Trying to mobilize them with a call to battle against a degraded Islamic threat is unlikely to pan out, so they are focusing on something more promising -- a tangible and traditional enemy.

George Kennan was a strident anti-communist, but his analysis was built on a deep and thorough knowledge of Russian history and culture, as well as of the realities of life in the Soviet Union. The ideologues of this "new conflict" display a much more shallow understanding. They are not interested in nuances like the fact that it is difficult to find, on closer inspection, much that Russia and China have in common. Instead, they offer simplistic formulations and jingoistic dogma. Can oversimplification to the point of caricature really form the basis on which decisions for action are made?

The quality of political analysis by Kagan and those who share his ideas is one result of the difficulties in Iraq. The current message means, for example, the following: "We were mistaken in our assessment in the 1990s, we overshot on the Middle East, but now we know who our real opponent is and what to do about it." Of course, the neoconservative position could simply be disregarded, especially since it seems that neoconservatives' days in the White House are numbered. But the problem runs deeper. Their attempts to construct a nonexistent ideological confrontation simply demonstrate their confusion in the face of current events and changes.

The current reality can't be folded into a simple system of "democratic and undemocratic" because this is not where the lines of demarcation lie. The claims and speculations of this democratic rhetoric end up discrediting the very ideas of democracy, which really are very important in maintaining some kind of point of reference in a chaotic world. The United Nations is, indeed, an ineffective organization. But we have seen the results of opting to work around it. The search for ways to solve the long list of global problems associated with this approach is difficult and nasty, making it simpler just to build new propagandistic bastions. This helps cultivate a general level of irresponsibility and, in the end, is evidence of intellectual bankruptcy.

Russian policy can be criticized for many things, but it has managed so far to avoid the inclination toward ideology. True, there have been some signs that something different is beginning to emerge from Russia's pragmatism. Moral overtones have slipped into more recent utterances, and something more messianic could always develop from the simple idea of multipolarity, with claims to be the defender of diversity in values. But this is the last thing Russia needs. There is no point in trying to compete with the missionaries on the other side of the Atlantic.

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