“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
– Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Despite an interest in geopolitics, I haven’t really written anything on the concerning and worsening tension between the government of the United States and the government of Russia. I intentionally wrote government twice in order to emphasize the fact that 99.9% of Americans do not have real grievances with actual Russian people, and vice versa. This is a high-level conflict between powerful “leaders” playing a game of Risk with average citizen as pawns. This is how it’s always been. As human beings, we should never lose sight of this so the mistakes we make in the future aren’t nearly as tragic as those made by our ancestors.
One disconcerting thing I have noticed amongst some “liberty-minded” people I follow, is a knee-jerk tendency to pick a side in this affair. When it comes to powerful men running centralized nation-states with nuclear weapons, there are no church boys involved. I have noticed a desire to defend Russia every step of the way in what appears to be a simple-minded emotional reflex birthed in justifiable disgust with what they see happening in their home nations (the U.S. and UK in particular).
This behavior has always made me uncomfortable, and reminds me very much of how people get upset with one fake political party and then vote for the other guy simply because they are not a Democrat or a Republican. The best choice is to accept they are both useless and not vigorously defend either party. I take the same tact when it comes to battles between nation-states. Just because I am disgusted and horrified with what is happening in these United States, doesn’t mean I need to slavishly defend Russia, Vladimir Putin or pick any sides in a conflict in which the primary losers will always be powerless civilians.
I’ve never been to Russia, thus my opinion of the country is basically worthless. Nevertheless, based on what I have read and observed, I’d still much rather live in the U.S. than Russia despite all of our society’s failings and decay in recent decades. While this view could certainly change as time and events unfold, that is how I strongly feel at the moment. Putin is by all accounts an authoritarian cult-like leader who wants to ban Bitcoin, journalism can be a deadly affair, and oligarchs continue to run free (as long as you are friends with Putin). Recall my recent post: American Upper Middle Class Share of Wealth is Worse than Every Country Besides Russia and Indonesia. Yes, “besides Russia and Indonesia.” Russia is no economic utopia.
Nevertheless, this piece isn’t meant to be a pointless debate about which overly-centralized, archaic and corrupt nation-state is better than the other. Neither place has a political or economic structure that even comes close to providing a fertile environment in which human existence can reach its highest potential. Rather, both nation-states are controlled by a small group of ambitious, authoritarian and, when necessary, ruthless and violent men and women. That said, there are two reasons I think the following remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are so important.
First, as someone who spends much of his time analyzing and critiquing the many destructive policy decisions made by American “leaders,” I was shocked to find how accurate his description of the U.S. power structure’s mindset seems to be. He gets it, and he is more or less trying to warn the world that America’s leaders are basically power-drunk children. I concur.
Second, Lavrov also describes the negative impact that this behavior has had on the Russian psyche generally. He expresses dismay that the U.S. status quo sees the world as unipolar, and attempts to tackle every problem from the perspective that might is right. In no uncertain terms, Lavrov makes it clear that Russia will not stand for this. I don’t think the Russians are bluffing, so this is a very dangerous situation.
If there was actually someone in the U.S. State Department capable of such introspective and clear thinking, we might actually diffuse this situation. Don’t hold your breath.
Here are some excerpts from Mr. Lavrov’s remarks at the XXII Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy in Moscow on November 22, 2014. The whole thing can be found here, which I strongly suggesting reading in full.
I’m happy to be at this annual Assembly of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy (Russian abbreviation SVOP). It is always a great pleasure for me to meet people and feel the intellectual potential, which enables the Council, its leaders and representatives to respond to global developments and analyse them. Their analysis is always free from any hysteria, and its members offer well-grounded and solid arguments, taking a step back, since those caught in the midst of events can hardly adopt an unbiased perspective. We are inevitably influenced by the developments, which makes your observations, analysis, discourse and suggestions even more valuable to us.
Naturally, I will start with Ukraine. Long before the country was plunged into the crisis, there was a feeling in the air that Russia’s relations with the EU and with the West were about to reach their moment of truth. It was clear that we could no longer continue to put issues in our relations on the back burner and that a choice had to be made between a genuine partnership or, as the saying goes, “breaking pots.” It goes without saying that Russia opted for the former alternative, while unfortunately our Western partners settled for the latter, whether consciously or not. In fact, they went all out in Ukraine and supported extremists, thereby giving up their own principles of democratic regime change. What came out of it was an attempt to play chicken with Russia, to see who blinks first. As bullies say, they wanted to Russia to “chicken out” (I can’t find a better word for it), to force us to swallow the humiliation of Russians and native speakers of Russian in Ukraine.
Honourable Leslie Gelb, whom you know all too well, wrote that Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU had nothing to do with inviting Ukraine to join the EU and was aimed in the short term at preventing it from joining the Customs Union. This is what an impartial and unbiased person said. When they deliberately decided to go down the path of escalation in Ukraine, they forgot many things, and had a clear understanding of how such moves would be viewed in Russia.They forgot the advice of, say, Otto von Bismarck, who had said that disparaging the millions-strong great Russian people would be the biggest political mistake.
President Vladimir Putin said the other day that no one in history has yet managed to subjugate Russia to its influence. This is not an assessment, but a statement of fact. Yet such an attempt has been made to quench the thirst for expanding the geopolitical space under Western control, out of a mercantile fear to lose the spoils of what they across the Atlantic had persuaded themselves was the victory in the Cold War.
The plus of today’s situation is that everything has clicked into its place and the calculus behind the West’s actions has been revealed despite its professed readiness to build a security community, a common European home. To quote (singer/song-writer) Bulat Okudzhava, “The past is getting clearer and clearer.” The clarity is becoming more tangible. Today our task is not only to sort out the past (although that must be done), but most importantly, to think about the future.
Talks about Russia’s isolation do not merit serious discussion. I need hardly dwell on this before this audience. Of course, one can damage our economy, and damage is being done, but only by doing harm to those who are taking corresponding measures and, equally important, destroying the system of international economic relations, the principles on which it is based. Formerly, when sanctions were applied (I worked at the Russian mission to the UN at the time) our Western partners, when discussing the DPRK, Iran or other states, said that it was necessary to formulate the restrictions in such a way as to keep within humanitarian limits and not to cause damage to the social sphere and the economy, and to selectively target only the elite. Today everything is the other way around: Western leaders are publicly declaring that the sanctions should destroy the economy and trigger popular protests. So, as regards the conceptual approach to the use of coercive measures the West unequivocally demonstrates that it does not merely seek to change Russian policy (which in itself is illusory), but it seeks to change the regime — and practically nobody denies this.
We hear the daily repeated mantra that Washington is aware of its own exclusiveness and its duty to bear this burden, to lead the rest of the world. Rudyard Kipling spoke about “the white man’s burden.” I hope that this is not what drives Americans. The world today is not white or black, but multi-coloured and heterogeneous. Leadership in this world can be assured not by persuading oneself of one’ exclusiveness and God-given duty to be responsible for everyone, but only by the ability and craft in forming a consensus. If the US partners committed their power to this goal, this would be priceless, and Russia would be actively helping them.
However, so far, US administrative resources still work only in the NATO framework, and then with substantial reservations, and its writ does not reach beyond the North Atlantic Alliance. One proof of this is the results of US attempts to make the world community follow its line in connection with the anti-Russian sanctions and principles. I have spoken about it more than once and we have ample proof of the fact that American ambassadors and envoys across the world seek meetings at the highest level to argue that the corresponding countries are obliged to punish Russia together with them or else face the consequences. This is done with regard to all countries, including our closest allies (this speaks volumes about the kind of analysts Washington has). An overwhelming majority of the states with which we have a continuing dialogue without any restrictions and isolation, as you see, value Russia’s independent role in the international arena. Not because they like it when somebody challenges the Americans, but because they realize that the world order will not be stable if nobody is allowed to speak his mind (although privately the overwhelming majority do express their opinion, but they do not want to do so publicly for fear of Washington’s reprisals).
Many reasonable analysts understand that there is a widening gap between the global ambitions of the US Administration and the country’s real potential. The world is changing and, as has always happened in history, at some point somebody’s influence and power reach their peak and then somebody begins to develop still faster and more effectively. One should study history and proceed from realities. The seven developing economies headed by BRICS already have a bigger GDP than the Western G7. One should proceed from the facts of life, and not from a misconceived sense of one’s own grandeur.
In attempting to establish their pre-eminence at a time when new economic, financial and political power centers are emerging, the Americans provoke counteraction in keeping with Newton’s third law and contribute to the emergence of structures, mechanisms, and movements that seek alternatives to the American recipes for solving the pressing problems. I am not referring to anti-Americanism, still less about forming coalitions spearheaded against the United States, but only about the natural wish of a growing number of countries to secure their vital interests and do it the way they think right, and not what they are told “from across the pond.” Nobody is going to play anti-US games just to spite the United States. We face attempts and facts of extra-territorial use of US legislation, the kidnapping of our citizens in spite of existing treaties with Washington whereby these issues are to be resolved through law enforcement and judicial bodies.
According to its doctrine of national security, the United States has the right to use force anywhere, anytime without necessarily asking the UN Security Council for approval. A coalition against the Islamic State was formed unbeknownst to the Security Council. I asked Secretary of State John Kerry why have not they gone to the UN Security Council for this.
Francis Fukuyama recently wrote the book, Political Order and Political Decay, in which he argues that the efficiency of public administration in the United States is declining and the traditions of democratic governance are gradually being replaced with feudal fiefdom ruling methods. This is part of the discussion about someone who lives in a glass house and throws stones.
Indeed, describing, lamenting and suggesting remedies for the above is basically what Liberty Blitzkrieg is all about. Don’t forget, an academic study from Princeton and Northwestern already proved the U.S. is nothing more than an oligarchy. See: New Report from Princeton and Northwestern Proves It: The U.S. is an Oligarchy.
So far, those who are not guided by real problems, but rather by a desire to quickly grab things from freshly turned up ground. It is deplorable. Exporting revolutions – be they democratic, communist or others – never brings any good.
I can’t fail to mention Russia’s comprehensive partnership with China. Important bilateral decisions have been taken, paving the way to an energy alliance between Russia and China. But there’s more to it. We can now even talk about the emerging technology alliance between the two countries. Russia’s tandem with Beijing is a crucial factor for ensuring international stability and at least some balance in international affairs, as well as ensuring the rule of international law. We will make full use of our relations with India and Vietnam, Russia’s strategic partners, as well as the ASEAN countries. We are also open to expanding cooperation with Japan, if our Japanese neighbours can look at their national interests and stop looking back at some overseas powers.
There is no doubt that the European Union is our largest collective partner. No one intends to “shoot himself in the foot” by renouncing cooperation with Europe, although it is now clear that business as usual is no longer an option. This is what our European partners are telling us, but neither do we want to operate the old way. They believed that Russia owed them something, while we want to be on an equal footing. For this reason, things will never be the same again. That said, I’m confident that we will be able to overcome this period, lessons will be learned and a new foundation for our relations will emerge.
The similarities to the period just before WWI are indeed striking, as Niall Ferguson noted in an excellent Op-Ed in August. Hopefully we can be smarter this go around.