Friday, January 02, 2015

"It has been a bad year. .. .Next year will be worse."

So wrote the now-forgotten Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat, novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and diarist, on December 31, 1938, 76 years ago.  Things hardly look so serious today.  We have no enormous conflict raging in the Far East like the Sino-Japanese War, no civil war limping to a bloody conclusion in Spain, and no power in the heart of Europe overturning frontiers.  Yet a large, far more populous swath of the world, from the eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan, is threatened with anarchy.  Most crucially, then as now, the world lacks an organizing principle around which to build peaceful international relations, and long-term economic and demographic trends threaten political stability in some key areas.

The United States remains the leading world power--but the foreign policy elite of the United States, in both parties, believes in false assumptions.  As I blogged months ago in Time, we are stuck intellectually in the early 1990s, when Francis Fukuyama postulated that liberal democracy and capitalism had now achieved a Hegelian triumph over all alternatives.  American foreign policy makers, led by President Obama, still assume not only that we know what is best for everyone, but that history, with only a slight push from us, will make it happen.  Yet the evidence is overwhelming that much of the world, led by China and Russia, the second- and third-most powerful states on the globe,. do not share are values and are not moving towards them. 

My contemporary Michael Ignatieff, whom I first met when I was about three years old (our parents were friends), pointed this out very effectively in a Ditchley Foundation lecture that was reprinted in the September 25th edition of the New York Review of Books. (The original lecture is available here.)  Both Russia and China have become thoroughly capitalist, but they have also developed new forms of authoritarian rule. In China an increasingly corrupt Communist Party still monopolizes political power but works with economic oligarchs for their mutual benefit.  Russia is a sham democracy in which both the state and state-sponsored organizations intimidate and terrorize the opposition. Because of Russia's energy resources, its oligarchs are major players in western European economies and other important areas of western European life, such as the leading soccer clubs.  More importantly, Russian political life and public debate now revolves around the idea of a noble Russia beleaguered by enemies foreign and domestic--just as it did under the Communists.  This is the real link between Putin's KGB roots and his political strategy today.  Putin is also using milder versions of totalitarian techniques to secure his rule.  Netflix subscribers can stream a fascinating documentary, Putin's Kiss, about a youth organization, Nashi, which mobilizes young people to march and chant against Russia's enemies, led by home grown dissidents and human rights activists.  The climax of the movie involves the nearly fatal beating of a young leftist journalist by Nashi thugs.  The group reminded me very much of Mussolini's black shirts or Hitler's SA, but with two significant difference: they included women and well as men, and they wore no uniforms.  We no longer live in a uniformed world, but states can still build a consensus by rousing hatred against enemies.

Putin is, of course, now in the midst of a desperate gamble to carve several slices out of eastern Ukraine.  His forces are doing just fine on the ground, but the combination of western sanctions and the slump in energy prices has left the Russian economy in a very bad way.  It is tempting to western Hegelians like David Brooks to argue or imply globalization is dooming Putin's projects, but I am not so sure.  Neither Hitler nor Mussolini created any kind of economic paradise in their states in the 1930s, but they retained the essential support of their people.  In the absence of any mechanism for political change or of an effective broad-based opposition, economic distress may simply be an excuse for Putin to tighten his rule. 

Because, moreover, the world is no longer rigidly divided into ideological camps and because Russia is in its own way an economic power, Putin has other assets he can use to extend his influence.  A New York Times story just detailed how he managed to maneuver the Bulgarian government into agreeing to a new gas pipeline through the Black Sea that would open up much of the Balkans to Russian supplies.  The project is now on hold, but the story remains important.  He is also feeding money to extreme right-wing parties in European countries, including France, presumably because these parties oppose the postwar consensus and the EU.  And these parties are gaining, as Paul Krugman points out today, because the powers that be have been so shamefully unable to deal with Europe's economic crisis--a very troubling echo of the 1930s indeed.  Putin has made gains precisely because he does not believe that history or economic theory will inevitably breed human happiness, either at home or abroad.  He is actively trying to reshape his corner of the world and extend his influence into critical areas.

In response, the United States, apparently, continues to trust to history.  Nine months ago, on March 21, I suggested here how the U.S. might more reasonably have reacted to the Crimean and Ukrainian crises in a post entitled "Another Long Telegram."  There were indications during the summer of a possible compromise, but now the Ukrainian government, whose legitimacy Putin denies, is going on a diplomatic offensive of its own, abandoning its non-aligned international stance and, in effect, threatening to join NATO.  (Bulgaria, it is worth noting, where Putin successfully corrupted the government over the pipeline issue, is already in NATO, but that obviously has not turned it into a reliable democratic ally.)  The Ukrainian move drew negative comment from some independent observers in the United States, but I cannot find any authoritative report of the official attitude of the U.S. government. 

The Chinese government is not showing the same aggressive spirit in foreign affairs, although it continues to claim maritime rights that the rest of the world denies.  It has successfully coped with the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong.  But it is equally hostile to the idea of universal principles of human rights which all are duty-bound to observe.  And for the whole of the Obama Administration, US policy has focused on organizing a regional coalition against China, not on trying to find a basis upon which the two nations can peacefully co-exist.

Once again I conclude with my  most serious warning: the West's defense of its values depends on making them work at home.  Writing his famous "X article" in 1947, George F. Kennan described what the United States had to do to make progress against Communism.  "It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally," he said, "the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time."  Yet we are not coping successfully with our domestic problems, and our increasing tolerance for inequality--a parallel, ironically, with what has happened in Russia--makes it much, much harder for us to assert any spiritual superiority over anyone.  The spectacle of our warring political factions and governmental paralysis will almost surely get worse during the coming year, as the Republicans try to use their majority to dismantle more of the government.  Meanwhile, things have already gotten much worse in Iraq and are likely to get worse in Afghanistan.  We do not face the threats that loomed on the horizon 76 years ago yet, but we do not have a Franklin Roosevelt at our helm, either.


Energyflow said...

Essentially I diiffer in opinion with you. As many during the Vietnam war I have lost trust in US institutions. This occurred gradually during the Bush jr. presidency and has become complete in 2014 due to the Ukraine crisis. My research since then has turned up repeated occurrences of similarly crude US dealings to attain and extend its power, start wars illegally, depose elected govts., repress its own people, etc.

To say that the western politic is better than putin's is akin to comparing lucifer to Beelzebub. Realpolitik of a neutral citizen wishing respect, freedom, development in career, etc. would trust no govt. as politicians are in general corrupt, selfish individuals. Belief in the artificial construct of the nation state as the basis of modern civilization has replaced religion as the main human superstition. Unfortunately one cannot survive if one does not fight with the same weapons as others. So all people let their identity be subsumed in a culture of millions, as in a sport competition, enemies are automatically created so that the institutions maintain a reason to exist. This ,even if they no longer serve their original purpose, i.e. in USA to serve the people against rich and powerful.

I hold the USA to a much higher standard of behaviour than others due to its basis, origins, ideals. These have all been betrayed often and the ruling clique(at every level) is cynical and selfishly interestd only in maintaing power against the people at home and abroad. When power is the only rationale then an elite has usurped power from the people and cannot lead by example(at home or abroad). American ideals of founding fathers have lost legitimacy.Nobody buys anymore what US politicians, media say. A shining beacon is different.

Since underdogs win sympathy the fact that the usa has troops in most countries, the largest military, a global reserve currency and exports its culture, business, language everywhere its motives in all cases are mistrusted by the locals in smaller 2nd and third world countries and by ever more citizens in usa, europe and japan who have lost, since 2008 hope and trust in economic fairness and incorruptability.

I know in the 90s eastrn europeans and russians and chinese admired the usa. For russians usa behaviour against yugoslavia was a wake up call that nothing had changed. Nato expanded to eastern europe. The IMF policy implemented, as now in greece or elsewhere, destroyed life in russia. In ukraine it was not repaired as no powerful autocratic figure pushed back, as putin did in russia. After decades of decay ukraine was ripe for destruction, like iraq now under isis. Putin is like roosevelt to russians.

Your blog entry cherry picks those data points in time and space which fit your preformed nationalistic american view of patriotism, which disallows foreign history and culture and perceives other countries as a threat to usa systemic global power,currency, financs, military. One can for example understand israeli paranoia due to holocaust. Russia lost 5 times as many people. Why the nato expansion as thanks for withdraw of troops? Why obvious coup and support of openly russophobic fascist govt. in ukraine?

Read Brzezinski and neocon literature. They wanted to take down Iraq and syria, lybia, etc. and take russia apart into smaller countries, easier to deal with. Imagine cuban paranoia of a renewed usa colonial policy of 100%usa corporate ownership. Russia would suffer the fate of a latin american dictatorship controlled from usa embassy, which is what is now the case in ukraine.

Connecting the dots in this picture should not be difficult.

sglover said...

For a start, I'd love to know if the NY Times spends as much time penetrating the veil behind. say, the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, as it has investigating the South Stream deal. Some quick googling finds very little NYT interest in the TPP. What there is seems to be op-eds, i.e., worthless gas.

For sheer irony, nothing beats this quote: “If this happens in the U.S., the whole government would resign,” said Martin Dimitrov, a minister of Parliament from Bulgaria’s Reformist Bloc. “Not in Bulgaria, apparently.” This only days after Citigroup had congressional stenographers insert its own preferred measures in the 2015 budget bill.

Anyway, the legal suppression of shale gas surveying is an interesting angle, but otherwise the article mostly substitutes innuendo for honest research. In the NYT's telling South Stream can't be a vehicle for shipping a commodity to its customers. Instead, it's a nefarious means of "keeping Europe hooked on Russian gas".

In fact bypassing Ukraine has always been a major impetus for South Stream (and the Baltic counterpart, Nord Stream). Years before the Maidan/Crimean crisis Russia and Ukraine have feuded over gas being diverted from transit pipelines.

Now, it might be true that Bulgarian officials sold out, but I suspect you'd have to look long and hard for any Bulgarian who didn't want South Stream to land on Bulgarian territory. It would have been a substantial investment in one of the poorest economies in the EU.

I think that pretty much the only information this article conveys is of the between-the-lines kind: Namely, that American corporate "news" sources simply aren't trustworthy. You're much better off following overseas news sources and trade journals, than anything coming out of DC or NYC.

Bozon said...


Interesting post.

Our recent ideological and political climate resembles, to me, how Quigley had described that of Russia, in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, in a passage early in Tragedy And Hope.

Interestingly, Nicolson's name figures at many points in Quigley's earlier work, The Anglo-American establishment, a chronicle of the blunders of the liberal establishment, mainly in Britain in spite of the title, although I would note the the CFR etc grew out of the Milner Group and Round table.

all the best