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.