Friday, March 07, 2014

New rules or old?

A few days ago, Henry Kissinger, who will turn 90 this year, vainly tried to revive the realist tradition in an op-ed on the Ukraine crisis in the Washington Post.  Ukraine, he argued, had been too closely linked to Russia for centuries to be completely separated from it, and must be regarded as a bridge between East and West rather than the furthest point of advance of western civilization.  And while Putin might not meet western ideals of statesmanship, Kissinger hinted that we had to accept him as the leader of a major nation and pay some attention to his concerns.  President Obama, meanwhile, calls for rigid adherence to international law as we have come to understand it.  That, alas, is another fantasy of American foreign policy, comparable to George Bush's and Condi Rice's fantasies of a democratic Middle East eager to be born.  The peoples of Ukraine, the United States, Europe and Russia need peace and economic recovery, and they can only secure them upon a foundation of political liberalism.

In the last crisis of the 1930s and 1940s--the subject of my forthcoming book, due out exactly one month from today--the government of the United States stood unreservedly for international law, against international anarchy.  That had been Woodrow Wilson's goal during the First World War.  The Roosevelt Administration had practiced what it preached, most notably in Latin America, where it brought more than three decades of armed intervention to an end.  That gave the United States credibility when it warned against the spread of aggression in Asia and Europe beginning in about 1937.  Again and again President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull called upon nations to respect one another's territorial integrity, and warned that anarchy, once unleashed, was bound to spread to the western hemisphere.  In 1938 the American government, as my book shows, began planning to meet that threat.

We live in a very different world today.  The United States and the western hemisphere are not threatened with invasion, but anarchy threatens much of the world, including Ukraine.  The first Gulf War in 1991 was based upon the same principle stressed by FDR and Hull: the restoration of the territorial integrity of Kuwait.  That was no accident: President George H. W. Bush had fought in the war Roosevelt declared.  Boomer pretenders to his throne like Paul Wolfowitz and his own son, however, regretted and resented Saddam Hussein's survival, and began scheming to remove him from power.   Then in 1999 Bill Clinton led NATO into war against Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.  The Russian government and the UN Security Council did not bless that war, and thus began a chill in Russian-American relations.  For a few years before 1999, the foreign officer program at the Naval War College had included a Russian officer.  None ever returned after that.

There is no need to revisit the disastrous intervention in Iraq, but a variant of the Bush foreign policy has survived--like so much else--into the Obama years.  Wicked dictators, we still believe, must go as soon as a few hundred thousand people demonstrate against them in the street, and democracy will naturally follow.  Unfortunately in practice our embrace of this policy is inevitably limited by our interests.  Even at the height of the Arab Spring we allowed the Saudis to put down the Shi'ite revolt in Bahrain.  In Egypt the first democratic elections put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and we stood by when the military overthrew it, killed several hundred of its followers, and jailed its leaders.  Then in the last few months we applied the same policy towards Ukraine, where an unpopular President had rejected closer ties with the EU.  The government of the United States, as a released Russian phone tap showed, was discussing the membership of the new government of Ukraine that took power after the elected President fled.  This was too much for Vladimir Putin.

I do not have any real credentials as a Russian expert and I cannot say for sure what Putin is up to, but he has publicly decried the collapse of the USSR--which he loyally served in the KGB--and it seems to me he wants to restore Russia to a position broadly comparable to the one Prussia occupied in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918 within at least some of the former Soviet Union.  He snipped two small provinces away from Georgia in 2008 to show who was boss, and he now seems determined to teach the world a comparable lesson about Ukraine.  He wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union and out of the EU, and he wants a friendly government there.  While I still think it unlikely that he wants to detach Crimea from Ukraine and annex it to Russia, the referendum he has called on independence will be a club in his attempts to intimidate the government in Kiev.  As I heard a Russian explain patiently on NPR the other day, Putin also believes he has considerable influence in western Europe, exercised through his own financial resources and those of Russian oligarchs.  Many distinguished retired European statesmen are on his payroll, and the London banks profit enormously from the Russian underground economy.   I think Putin must know that an attempt to subdue Ukraine by force would be disastrous.  He does not have the military resources to hold a nation of 40 million people captive.  But he is playing a traditional game of power and influence in which his troops in Crimea and on the Ukraine-Russian border are one of several assets.  And he does not intend to allow street demonstrations in Kiev, backed by western governments, to drive out a friendly ruler. 

When Franklin Roosevelt explicitly went on a crusade for the defense of democracy in 1940-1, he disposed of another enormous asset: his stature as by far the most effective and inspiring democratic leader in the world.  Alone among elected leaders, he had struggled against the depression with some success and rallied a great nation behind him.  When he announced the Four Freedoms in early 1941--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear--they struck his countrymen and the world as much more than a slogan.  The millions of peoples conquered and oppressed by Hitler and the countless millions still unconquered, a world leader told FDR's envoy Harry Hopkins in the last few days of July 1941,  “could receive the kind of encouragement and moral strength they needed to resist Hitler from only one source, and that was the United States. . .. .The world infl uence of the President and the Government of the United States was enormous.”  It was not Winston Churchill who spoke those words, but Josef Stalin, and he was right.

The stakes today are not nearly so high as in 1941, when either racist totalitarianism or democracy might rule the industrialized world for decades to come.  Yet the future of a broad swath of the world is at stake, and the United States could exert far more influence if its domestic picture were the least bit inspiring now.  In contrast to 1941, we are deeply divided, deadlocked in Washington, and suffering the increasing influence of a financial and energy oligarchy.  American and Russian economic giants, it seems, have reaped the benefits of the American victory in the Cold War.  Putin is betting that Europe will not fill the void, and the evidence suggests that he was right.  The form democracy that ruled the industrialized world in the second half of the twentieth century did not simply having as the result of an evolutionary process, as the Bush National Security Strategy, following Francis Fukuyama, seemed to claim in 2002.  It arose because men and women in the United States and Europe consciously built it.  It shall not return until new generations do the same.  Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will inevitably win some victories in his very traditional, utterly cynical struggle for power and influence.


sglover said...

It almost doesn't matter how skillful Putin may or may not be, given the total, jaw-dropping amateurishness of American responses. Obama made his initial blunder with last week's silly remarks about "costs". Did it truly never occur to him how little leverage he has in this situation? Is he truly so clueless about where Europe gets its gas? About the supply lines running across Russia to NATO troops in Afghanistan?

Not that Obama's the only act in the StupidFest. Weeks ago know-nothings like McCain and other senatorial egomaniacs had to make their inane junkets to Kiev. And how in the name of god does a Victoria Nuland rate any responsibility higher than third-tier visa reviewer? Are there a lot like her attached to American embassies?!?

Like any competent head of state, Putin's foreign policy is simply a reflection of his domestic agenda, and I suspect he has to love foils like Obama and Kerry and pretty much every American "leader" bloviating for the cameras. I can imagine the drinking game in Smolensk now: Whenever Russian TV plays Kerry yammering on about the sanctity of sovereign borders, shout "Iraq!" -- drink -- "Libya!" -- drink -- "Panama!" -- drink. It's a game that can be extended for **lots** of rounds.

But I don't want to give the wrong impression. I've been to Ukraine three times over the last dozen years. I was actually in Sevastopol about 18 months ago. I have friends there whom I keep in touch with via Skype. This is a UKRAINIAN affair. Ukraine shares a border and several centuries of history with Russia, so naturally that state is central to this episode as well. My complaint isn't that America's doing the wrong thing, it's that America's trying "do something" when it manifestly lacks the competence and understanding necessary to do anything. Under the circumstances, the very best thing the U.S. can do is shut up, and stay out.

My own fear is that the Maidan people over-reached, refused some compromises that would have been pretty substantial victories. Yanukovych wasn't the "tyrant" that I hear Beltway hysterics talking about. The guy was a nobody, a grifter. Post-Yanukovych Ukraine is not going to be the next Holland, or even the next Estonia. Already it looks like the government is becoming a stage for a slightly different group of oligarchs. At a minimum, Yulia Tymoshenko's prominence in the new government is a very bad omen.

Now Europeans and especially Americans should really stay out, particularly if their "support" is going to nothing more than stirring words and niggling amounts of cash. (Though I note with some surprise that the EU is apparently going to pony up a respectable aid package.)

I've heard Obama critics blame his remarks (which, again, I think were flat-out stupid) for goading Putin into occupying Crimea. I've heard lefties write off the Maidan crowds as neo-nazi CIA creations. Neocons* are naturally getting all jazzed over the notion of Cold War II, and to them Obama's at fault because he didn't send the Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, or some such nonsense. All of these fantasies are narcissism writ large. We never controlled events in Ukraine, we surely don't now, and it's not all about us.

Zosima said...

Dr. Kaiser, thanks for yet another fine and wide-ranging essay.

FDR’s efforts to make America more humane at home and more principled abroad have always inspired me. Sadly, commitment to those ethics began to fall apart very quickly after his death. After the war ended we supported the reestablishment of colonial rule in places like Indochina. We supported a long list of brutal dictators with no commitment to those four freedoms, in places like Iran, The Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Spain, and all over Latin America and the Middle East. At home, the financial oligarchy began to reassert itself and by the 1980’s was firmly in control of both the economy and the government -- and it still is today, with no sign of change in sight. So with its brief commitment to humane principles long gone, both at home and abroad, its hard to see why rational, humane people around the world would look to the US for inspiration.

Kissinger and GHW Bush both fought in WW2. But neither had any respect for principles of respecting other nations’ territorial integrity. Bush and Kissinger both supported all the Cold War actions by the US which violated many principles of international law. Bush violated the territorial integrity of Panama to kidnap the leader of another country, and caused the deaths of hundreds of people. Nixon/Kissinger invasion of Cambodia showed no respect for territorial integrity. Your attempts to try to make a generational distinction between the current leadership and the previous Cold war leadership look to me to be rather forced. We had an unprincipled leadership during Cold War and we have an unprincipled leadership today. There were occasional exceptions like FDR, as you pointed out, and perhaps Jimmy Carter to some extent. BTW, the basis of our society is capitalism, which is based on the principle of selfish greed, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if a similar lack of ethics extends to all our society’s institutions and endeavors.

tructor man said...

"...Putin also believes he has considerable influence in western Europe, exercised through his own financial resources and those of Russian oligarchs. Many distinguished retired European statesmen are on his payroll, and the London banks profit enormously from the Russian underground economy".
Russian oligarchs send their kids to posh British schools to "launder" their kleptocracy, seeking legitimacy and skills to succeed in global markets, including the vast western underground economy of "derivatives" and concentration of wealth. How is this different than Mafia and Wall Street kids at Harvard & Yale?

Unknown said...

Maidan protesters were like everywhere else against a corrupt system. Of course it was hijacked by radicals wiith guns(Svoboda, Right Sector) and cynical power hungry types like Timoschenko(Jatsenyuk is her man) and Klitschko. They (and the right) got somebody to shoot up the crowd and staged a coup afterwards, forcing memebers of parliament to vote as they said. Now the nazis(12 cabinet members) and neo-liberals are in power and the govt. is more far right than in Hungary for example (condemned in Western Europe) and economically like Pinochet's Chile and under the thumb of the IMF impoverishing the people while the billionaire's get all the govt. positions and enrich themselves. This is all very 3rd world. Russian TV and internet is now being turned off to stop other influences reaching people's ears.

Whether any sort of fair elections could conceivably occur under an increasingly dictatorial regime without popular support is questionable. People are afraid to talk in the bus or in public about things for fear of being suspect of non-conformist opinion. Armed thugs threaten people in theri homes. People are getting rid of all internet blogs, faceboook accounts, etc. to protect themselves from reprisal. If these western Ukrainan thugs start getting very repressive and aggressive in the East things could blow up into an inerternal civil war whether Russian or western soldiers get involved there or not. Crimea is a special security area with its own history. What is really Ukraine is questionble depending on who you ask there, perhaps comparable to what was really the US south in the civil war. There were hard core states and edge areas.

The more pressure a hard core of west Ukrainians with special interests dominate, oppress the population or "Russian" ethnics and mixed population (like in yugoslavia many mixed marriages, people working in Russia) the more likelihood of real civil war(and foreign armed involvement and perhaps a broader conflict). The West(US/NAto) should look at the legality of the coup, as insisted upon by Russian govt and the legitimacy of self elected govt.

It is all already starting according to this article.

On the nazis controlling the govt. and consciously ignored by Western officials and press:

I hope that greater bloodshed will be avoided here as the West(Washington and Nato) have a kneejerk reaction that it is all Russia's fault even if a bloodthirsty nazi mob is killing Russian speaking housewives and pensioners protesting high food prices. It is all geopolitics in Washington's eyes without any parsing of details and facts on the ground. If Russia is involved they turn blind to facts, argumentation,etc.

It is well known that the minorities on the other side of a border, belonging to another ethnic group (German speakers in Northern Italy border, Danish in Northern Germany,etc.) are protected by by international treaties by the neighbouring country(Denmark or Austria) in these cases. If a Nazi type regime seized power by a coup this would cause problems (Hungary has large foreign minorities and got a right wing majority by free elections and recently and the neighbouring countries have made protests and the EU has condemned their policies).

Russia has a legitimate interest in protecting its own against violence and repression.

"Actually there’s no state control over public order and the so-called Right Sector calls the tune, the group that has resorted to terror and intimidation.”

sglover said...

@ed boyle -- You **do** know what the "R" in "RT" stands for, right? I mean, it's a very slick operation, and I've enjoyed RT coverage for years. But make no mistake, it is not, cannot be the go-to source for object reports of events in Ukraine.

Here's a side effect of the Russia-Ukraine standoff: It's provided near-case study quality examples of the inadequacies of many, many "respectable" news organizations.

Unknown said...

Does it seem inconsistent with Russia's strategic imperatives that it would jeopardize its warm water port at Sevastopol, which is its link to the strategic center of WWII in Europe, the Mediterranean? To what lengths would Russia proceed with its protection of access to this port? It would appear that influence in the whole of Ukraine would be secondary to control of the such a strategic asset.
That said, fearing the results of appeasement in the region, should Russia successfully annex Crimea, Western nations will take whatever action they can muster, short of armed conflict, to resist incursions into the territorial integrity of present day Ukraine. However, if Sevastopol is the crux of the issue, it does seem as if some deal can be brokered concerning Crimea, given that the USSR unilaterally gave it to Ukraine when the region looked much different, and when the Ukrainian government was solidly behind the Iron Curtain.