When the chronicles of this period have been written and we all have returned to dust, achievements have fallen into history and the perspectives on America’s primacy and todays American – Russian antagonistic relationship all will be part of the chronicles to eternity.
As the smallest minority, the minority of one, the realist in me recognizes all nations, regardless of regime, struggle for power and we live in a world in which liberalism is a force for good and strongly to be preferred to communism and fascism. I have been fortunate to have mostly lived in countries which had regimes and a way of life which protect individual rights and liberal values, nevertheless it’s an impossible dream to think liberal democracy is a potential universal form of government or that human values underlying this are necessarily superior to those underlying nondemocratic societies.
In Francis Fukayama famous article The End Of History published after the end of the cold war he argued there is no viable alternative except that the world would eventually be entirely populated by liberal democracies, nations would have no meaningful disputes, and wars between the great powers would cease. In his thoughtful book After the Neocons-America at the Crossroads Fukuyama gives a welcome clarification over the End of History and the Last Man validation of the omnipotence of Liberal Democracy and Capitalist economy and a powerful critique on the mistakes made by the President George W Bush administration.
But following the wisdom of Machiavelli, humanity never has had and likely will never have a common culture and given the multiple ideological and ethical, moral and political value differences there always will be distinctions, which will have to be recognized and if possible accommodated.
This accommodation is in contradiction with the American principles and believes as Dr Henry Kissinger noted “Americans belief that their principles are universal implies that governments with other principles are “less than fully legitimate “and that much of the world “lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement.”
Given the tensions which exist between Liberalism, Nationalism and realism there is no universal truth or a world state. To try and remake all foreign nation states in our own western liberal image is like a utopia as this requires the underlying nature of the regime must be changed, which also means to change the way of life, nature and believes of their citizen.
As the scholar John J Mearsheimer points out in his excellent book The Great Delusion- Liberal Dreams And International Realities, liberal hegemony is a recipe for endless wars and its preferable to opt for a strategy of restraint based on the balance of power politics. This also applies to the US–Russian relationship, a relationship which in the words of President Jimmy Carter was based on a “inordinate fear for Communism.” Neoconservatives were never able to share this realistic view and have continued to bear the torch of the earlies Cold War view about communism as a unique evil.
The US-Russia antagonistic relationship has been greatly influenced by George F Kennan (1904-2005) a career diplomat, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union. who’s hatred of Soviet communism and the true horrors of Stalinism was not matched by any such feelings toward Nazi Germany. Kennan believed that communist totalitarianism represented a unique kind of evil, but had respect like many at the time for Germany and was indifferent about the prosecution of the jews in Nazi Germany.
George F. Kennan articulated the “containment and encircling” doctrine that defined American policy toward the Soviet Union and detailed his containment idea in a 5000 word document that eventually became known as “The Long Telegram” of February 22, 1946.
In his 1947 article in Foreign Affairs The Sources Of Soviet Conduct (1) Kennan argued for “either the breakup or the mellowing of Soviet power,” to be pursued through a policy of containment and an effort to increase the strains under which the Soviets operated.
Kennan warned against cooperation and political intimacy with Russia and argued Europe should be divided in spheres of influence. Eastern Europe should be written off, Germany divided between eastern and western zones and the notion of shared interests was rejected and he favoured the military encirclement of the Soviet Union with the aim the collapse and modernization of the Soviet Union.
Russia has always been A Great Weak Country (2) a shadow of its perceived capabilities. A country which has been in decline since Catherina the Great and has been asleep during the last decades.
Change in Russian society as Mikhail Gorbachev remarked in William Taubman Gorbachev His life And Times is always a controlled process of reform “from above” as to defuse the potential for upheaval. This as Taubman writes can be best described as the “Hungarian complex,” the fear that attempts to reform “from below” were fated to morph into mob rule, the same sort of complex, one might add, that seems to animate Russian President Vladimir Putin, although Putin’s position is much stronger than Gorbachev position ever was given the opposition to the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika by the party apparatus.
Nevertheless, the internal and moral weaknesses and contradictions in communism with 20 million party members controlling 200 million citizens, have always been evident and made a collapse of the supply and command economy unavoidable.
The dilemma Russian reformers like Gorbachev have always faced is the monolithic party dictatorship predecessors have always preserved and the zealously protection of the boundaries of socialism and centralized authority. The nature of ‘Russian freedom’ and Russia’s long standing lack of freedom makes it difficult to come by this and reform the country, also given the party apparatus opposition and the balancing game which is being played thereby avoiding blackening Soviet history and the Stalin past.
After WWII Russia was a barely self-sufficient country, nevertheless in the US there has always been a national obsession and paranoia with Russia and communism in general as evidenced by the wave of McCarthyism, between 1950 and 1954, a period of intense suspicion during which the U.S. government was actively engaged in a witch hunt in countering Communism. Russia and Communism have always been a useful monstrosity for the U.S. military industrial complex, a fact what Kennan later came to recognize when he noted
With President Harry Truman yearly “the sky is falling in” rhetoric the annual increases in the defence budget started and after seven decades the US has become an overstretched hegemon with a defence strategy out of balance with the foreign policy it supports and the internal needs.
Under the 1947 Truman Doctrine the policy of containment was articulated by President Harry Truman, under which the United States pledged to contain communism by providing political, economic and military support to all democratic nations under threat from external or internal authoritarian forces.
Also in 1948 the instrument of economic sanctions was applied against Russia when a broad range of restrictions on doing business with the Russia-led Soviet Union and an Iron Curtain around eastern European nations when the US Department of Commerce restricted the export of strategic materials, equipment and weapons to the USSR and the countries of the “socialist camp” in Eastern Europe. In 1949, these restrictions were enshrined in the Export Control Act.
It was not the last time this instrument was used against Russia, as evidenced by the sanctions during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) which also called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and also the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all imposed sanctions against Russia from 2014 until today.
This is how the world looked for a long time, from George F. Kennan to Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brett Scowcroft all had the same great power realism, a strategy based on the balance of the powers theorized by Metternich and George Kennan’s containment doctrine.
In his excellent book The Grand Chessboard of American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives Zbigniew Brzezinski bluntly outlined his vision for American pre-eminence in the 21st century and argues America is to become the sole arbiter in Eurasia and is to prevent the emergence of any rival power to challenge the material and diplomatic interests of the United States.
“How America “manages” Eurasia is critical. Eurasia is the globe’s largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and to America’s historical legacy.”
Brzezinski expressed also a warning in the late 1990’s which applies to today:
“Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an “antihegemonic” coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
In the 1980’s Russia and our world order was greatly changed by Mikael Gorbachev (1985- 1991) attempts to reduce Cold War tensions and to reform Russia with his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) with aspirations of democratic governance, freely organised civil society and rule of law.
Soviet leaders recognized in 1985 nuclear war must be avoided at all costs and the main task according to Mikhail Gorbachev was “any thought about starting a nuclear is madness” and “to stop the nuclear arms race” was essential, which arms race the US wanted to keep going to weaken Russia and to prevent Moscow from shifting military resources to civilian needs. Also the effects and dangers of climate change entered into the calculus of Gorbachev.
This momentous event, the fall of Berlin wall, the subsequent unification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union confirmed for our American friends the triumph of capitalism over communism and in the words of Ronald Reagan communism headed “ for the dustbin of history.” For Europeans this meant moving forward with the completion of our European house of which Russia as our common history shows is politically and culturally an integral part.
But as the writer Turgenev observed in the 19th century
Russia, given its own sense of exceptionalism and poor judgement, failed to make use of the opportunities which presented itself and to associate itself more deeply with the European order and transatlantic institutions, albeit in a reduced role in the world.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski noted “Russia’s only real geostrategic option – the option that would give Russia a realistic international role and also maximize the opportunity of transforming and socially modernizing itself – is Europe.”
In the years of great changes (1989-2001) both H.W. Bush and Mikael Gorbachev played a pivotal role by working together in the spirit of cooperation ending the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, significantly cutting both countries arsenals as laid down in the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
START also led to the removal of nuclear weapons and infrastructure which were under control of the Soviet Union, from the Ukraine. This started with the Lisbon Protocol in 1992 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. With the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 this agreement was violated by Russia and made clear in time security assurances face challenges and can devalue.
At the time the disintegration of the former Soviet Union created a black hole at the very centre of Eurasia, which allowed Turkey to increase and re-establish its influence in the Black Sea region and Central Asia, which influence in combination with Iran and Pakistan is a source of serious security concern to Russia.
The U.S. was faced with the dilemma as to what extent should Russia be helped economically—which inevitably would have strengthened Russia politically and militarily and had the danger it would become powerful again enabling it to regain its lost imperial domain.
The choice was made to leave Mikhail Gorbachev to his own designs and place Russia on the periphery, an ineffective short-term strategy as it failed to see the long-term benefits of Russia as a partner in the global equilibrium, rather than an adversary.
This approach to ignore Russia, seen as a regional power after the collapse of the Soviet Union was a missed opportunity and also contributed to the breakdown of democracy in Russia. The flame of liberty and freedom was soon smothered and brought President Yeltsin to power in 1991. After President Yeltsin this was followed by a return to the winter of authoritarianism with the choice for totalitarianism over individualism.
The Yeltsin years show how this potentially great country became once again hijacked both politically and economically by the vested interests around the leader at the expense of the Russian people.
In the 1994 Moscow Declaration between President Clinton and President Yeltsin, the US relationship with Russia was qualified as a, “Mature strategic partnership” which was deceptive as also noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, for the U.S. was never inclined to share its increasing global power with Russia and it was naïve of Russia to give this illusionary and disingenuous concept serious consideration.
The same can be said about the EU-US so called, “Equal partnership” which is established rhetoric, but it’s fair to say the US does not want an equal partnership in world affairs, especially not in affairs concerning Israel, the greater Middle East area and on a range of other subjects.
There have been different occasions (Bush, Obama, Trump} when weak kneed and spineless Europeans have accepted the abuse, by the unilateralist Bush, by the weak but erudite Obama and by the bankruptcy artist Trump.
The conclusion is warranted that to our own detriment Europe has shown itself to be a devotee, not a leader. Europe has made the choice to continue to rely on its US patron, instead of emancipating itself both militarily and politically from the U.S. in order to not weaken Europe, but strengthen Europe as a political and military counterweight able to challenge the US on geopolitical matters. This applies particularly to the Middle East in which a more substantive European presence would have made sense, instead of theoretical conception.
The EU has allowed itself to become a beachhead for the U.S. to expand its economic and geopolitical influence and interests. At best the EU can be qualified as a junior partner to which the U.S. listens politely and then does what Washington has already decided. But the EU is essential for the U.S. because without Europe the U.S .ceases to be a global hegemonic power in the 21st century.
For our Russian friends, after years of stagnation during and before the Brezhnev years, the dissolution of the former Soviet Union has left deep emotional traces which are still felt today and led to feelings of humiliation within the public and have until today stoked the forces of resentment, revenge and revanchism within the Russian security establishment. This are the same feelings of humiliation and resentment which will have to be dealt with once we have left the Ukraine regional conflict behind us.
In fact after the period of Glasnost and Perestroika Russia has been unwisely marginalized within most international institutions and in the decision making process on major global and regional issues which marginalization and the often bemoaned lack of respect by the west have left its traces.
The events of today confirm Zbigniew Brzezinski view “The costs of the exclusion of Russia could be high— creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in the Russian mindset—but the results of dilution of either the EU or NATO could also be quite destabilizing.”
After Mikael Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin Russia found with Vladimir Putin (3)an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host who was parachuted in this position of power by the Yeltsin inner circle and was elected in 2000 with 53% of the vote.
But in hindsight, the moment Vladimir Putin was elected President in 2000, on a platform which welcomed foreign investment, Western Liberal democracy was rejected since these values have no basis in Russian values. Vladimir Putin made no secret of establishing a Andropov-style absolute authority, while limiting the control of the capitalist oligarchs and gaining full government control of the strategic industries such as Gazprom, Rosneft and Rostec.
While Vladimir Putin was applauded in the west as a pragmatist and President George W Bush noted in 2001 “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
This seems to indicative for the level of (mis) understanding and naivety the U.S. has about the world at large often based on the idea of superiority of the Anglo-American version of capitalism and U.S. global military hegemony.
The American unawareness or even willful ignorance with the world at large, its culture and history makes it often complicated to deal with issues confidently or competently.
With President George W. Bush administration at the arrival of the 21st century the “winds of times” changed with policies tracing back eight decades ago Henry Cabot Lodge’s “free hand” in rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, Lodge and his supporters argued that minimizing constraints on America’s ability to conduct foreign policy maximized its security.
President George W Bush, with his attack on multilaterism, which Richard N Haas qualified as “multilaterism a la carte,” with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and by encouraging Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 to join NATO can been seen as the main catalyst of today’s issues.
This pick and choose, “Multilaterism a la carte” is confirmed by the rejection of numerous treaties, among them The 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty; 1972 convention on biological and toxin weapon; The nuclear test ban treaty; ’The Kyoto treaty; Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
With President Bush assault on international law, which is far too weak to enforce the rules, the U.N. and the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague the U.S. added insult to injury and so did Guantanamo and by employing rendition and torture methods. With the war in Iraq the US squandered away its moral authority and global leadership. In doing so the Bush administration laid the seeds for the decline and ultimate end of the era of Western dominance over world affairs that began roughly 500 years ago.
The negative dynamism in the Russia-US relationship, a sense of pervasive mistrust in the changing international and security environment have also influenced Vladimir Putin and Russia’s policies and attitudes and have been burdened by the Russian claim that after the Cold War the United States took advantage of Russia’s misfortunes and weaknesses, against the promises expanded NATO eastwards, which claim has some merit, even if there was no formal written agreement.
This view is also supported by George F Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War policy of the 1940s and ’50s. Kennan perceptively warned in a May 2, 1998 New York Times interview about what the Senate’s ratification of NATO’s first round of expansion would set in motion, ”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war.”
Kennan noted, ”I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”
Kennan called the NATO’s expansion in 1998 “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era,” and would be perceived to encircle and weaken the country. Nevertheless, U.S. and NATO leaders proceeded with new rounds of expansion, including adding the three Baltic republics, which brought NATO directly on the border of the Russian Federation.
George F. Kennan was hardly alone. The case has been made by many that the U.S. and the Allies have acted deceitful after the German unification and during the enlargement. Trying to bring both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was reckless, ignoring what Russia considered to be a threat directed at Russia and at its vital national interests.
Much of the same conclusions about the underlying issues are reached in the memoirs The Back Channel of CIA head William J. Burns, one of the few Russian specialists and backed by the former Defence Secretary William Perry and by the noted scholar John Mearsheimer. Also Zbigniew Brzezinski noted “admittedly, not all of the Russian concerns lacked legitimacy or were motivated by malevolent motives.”
As noted in Ukraine, A Conflict Thirty Years In The Making (4) and Ukraine A Pawn On The Eurasian Chessboard (5) Russia has adamantly opposed the expansion to the east, from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin.
In March 2007 when Vladimir Putin addressed the annual Munich Security Conference he made Russia’s position clear “NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders, NATO expansion represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact?”
Also the bombings of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq, the intervention in Libya and the open support of Secretary of State Hillary for the White Revolution in Russia from 2011 to 2012 and providing assistance to Georgia and Ukraine contributed substantially to the increased tensions.
This interference in the internal affairs of Russia was based on the well-known U.S. concept of election meddling and encouragement of democracy via NGO’s, which have taken over the role of the CIA, like the National Endowment for Democracy.
Since the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000 the West has failed to understand and underestimated the events in Russia, which were also influenced by the “a la carte multilateralism,” hypocrisy and self-serving approach to international law. This approach can be taken in a “Unipolar world,” whereby the “Unipolar power” makes the rules, but in a, “Multipolar world” the rules are not the same anymore.
During the period behind us the war in Iraq and the Russian invasion in Crimea and Ukraine have laid bare the difference which exist within the international community, the lack of pragmatism and how the American-Russian relationship has turned since 2014 into direct confrontation as We Are Sleepwalking And Tings Of The Past Come Part Of The Future Again (6).
This diatribe expresses my personal views and observations.
1. Foreign Affairs 1947 The sources of Soviet conduct
2. Russia A Great Weak Country
3. Russia, Vladimir Putin, Ivan Ilyin And The Bitter Fruits Of History
4. Ukraine, a conflict thirty years in the making
5. Ukraine, A Pawn On The Eurasian Chessboard
6. Sleepwalking To Nobody Knows Where, And Things Of The Past Become The Future Again