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Foreign Affairs journal, the US Presidential Candidates and Russia, going, going… Well, no, perhaps not. December 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, Russia, United States.


Interesting to see in the same week as Putin’s significant victory in the Russian elections an article by Dimitri Simes in Foreign Affairs journal.

Incidentally, Foreign Affairs is a great read. The last half year we’ve been treated to the ‘thoughts’ of the rival contenders for the US Presidency on foreign affairs. A dispiriting prospect I can tell you. Mitt Romney “Rising to a New Generation of Global Challenges” and telling us ‘we are a unique nation’… Barack Obama asserting that ‘today, we are again called to provide visionary leadership’, John McCain assures us that ‘since the dawn of our Republic, Americans have believed that our nation was created for a purpose, we are… ‘a people of great destinies’, and Hilary Clinton? Well actually she avoided the boosterism and gave a fairly solid and almost downbeat analysis of the situation… she concluded by noting that “Daniel Webster (secretary of state in 1825)… gloried not in American power but rather in the power of the American idea, the idea that ‘with wisdom and knowledge men may govern themselves’. And he urged his audience, and all Americans, to maintain this example and ‘take care that nothing weakens its authority with the world’.

Other than that you’ll find useful pieces on Burma, a rather entertaining and critical review of “The Israel Lobby” and some frankly bizarre thoughts on “After the War on Terror”. Which leads me back to Simes article.

Simes is President of the Nixon Centre, but let not that information put you off his central thesis. Realpolitik prevails.

In it he notes that the relationship following the fall of the Soviet Union was one where the US treated Russia as if it were a defeated nation. Yet as he points out Russia wasn’t defeated in any conventional sense. The USSR withdrew from Eastern Europe, it wasn’t forced. If anything the Soviet Union could probably have staggered on for a good decade more or longer. And he entirely dismisses the idea that the US ‘won’ the Cold War pointing out that ‘misunderstanding and misrepresentations of the end of the Cold War have been significant factors in fueling misguided U.S. policies towards Russia. Although Washington played an important role in hastening the fall of the Soviet Empire [i.e. Soviet influence in the Warsaw Pact countries], reformers in Moscow deserve far more credit than they generally receive’. He also makes the crucial point that if anything the U.S. ‘played even less of a role in bringing about the disintegration of the Soviet Union….by allowing pro-independence parties to compete and win in relatively free elections and refusing to use security forces decisively to remove them Gorbachev virtually assured that the Baltic states would leave the USSR. Russia itself delivered the final blow, by demanding institutional status equal to the other union republics. Gorbachev told the Politburo that permitting the change would spell ‘the end of empire’.’ [incidentally, for an analysis of this period you could do worse than read Virtual History (ed. Niall Ferguson, 1998) which has an excoriatingly conservative piece by Mark Almond which manages to simultaneously blame Germany and Europe for being too cynical in their dealings with the Warsaw Pact while also blaming Gorbachev for not being cynical enough and manipulating the CPSU in the aftermath of the failed coup in order to shore up his political position).

While this is fascinating, it is the subsequent relationship between the US and Russia which is of immediate interest.

Simes compares the Reagan/Bush administrations ‘respectful’ treatment of Gorbachev ‘without making concessions at the expense of US interests’ with ‘the Clinton administrations greatest failure… [which was its] decision to take advantage of Russian weakness’. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott admitted that US officials ‘even exploited Yeltsin’s excessive drinkign during negotiations. Many Russians believed that the Clinton administration was doing the same with Russia writ large. The problem was that Russia eventually did sober up, and it remembered the night before angrily and selectively’. It’s fair to point out that Simes is probably seeing this through a Republican filter. Yet..

…it also has to be said, some of what was imposed on Russia in the 1990s was – and there is no other word for it – criminal and explains (in economic terms, as any good Marxist analysis would) the roots of the new Russia which flexes muscles unused for almost two decades and finds them in markedly better condition than most would have expected.

The unconstitutional attacks on the Duma both political and physical by Yeltsin arguably delegitimised the democracy process by effectively cutting out the representative element of the Russian people from the equation as the polity hurled itself headlong towards a fully executive Presidency. That those in the Duma took a line which was leftish, or perhaps more honestly populist-ish, is in a way neither here nor there. They fell foul – indirectly – to Washingtons ‘pressure…for the harsh and hugely unpopular monetary policies’. Collateral political damage if you will. The tragedy continued throughout the 1990s as NATO effectively ignored Russian objections with regards to Serbia. It worsened as the US began to perceive Russia not as near-ally, but as adversary, and aligned itself with former Soviet states such as Georgia.

But, all had changed by 2001. A new US President. A new global threat. Putin threw Russian weight behind US international efforts to curb Islamist terrorism (indeed the Russians had offered just such a joint approach as early as 1999 but were turned down by the US – not unreasonably the latter was in part influenced by the Chechen morass). Yet… despite the positive moves new issues arose. Georgia was joined by the Ukraine as another state where Russian influence was beginning to somewhat decline and US influence to increase. The latter was seen as a worrying development by the Russians. And it is fair to say that relations between Russia and the US have become frostier and frostier.

Simes notes that ‘despite these growing tensions, Russia has not yet become a U.S. adversary’. Indeed he argues that ‘most importantly the US must recognize that it no longer enjoys unlimited leverage over Russia. Today Washington simply cannot force its will on Moscow as it did in the 1990s’. Simes notes that ‘the power of the United States’ moral advantage has been damaged’.

And Simes argues that ‘numerous disagreements do not mean that Russia is an enemy’. It has not ‘invaded or threatened to invade its neighbours’. It does not ‘support any terrorist group at war with the US’. But ‘Putin [and Russia] is no longer willing to adjust their behaviour to fit U.S. preferences, particularly at the expense of their own interests’.

Here is the thing. Today Russia has no over-arching ‘global’ ideology, albeit there are nods towards the ancien regime in terms of rhetoric and iconography. It has transitioned from global co-hegemon to near failed state and back to effective Great Power. It now operates purely according to its own national interest. And curiously that could bring it into greater conflict with the de facto hegemon the US which does have a near global ideology, that of a certain strain of liberal democracy. Granted the latter is near rhetorical in many instances, but… as a prevailing socio-political narrative it is of great significance and underpins the sort of thinking exemplified by the statements of Obama, McCain and Clinton above.

But Russia has legitimate interests, has a zone of influence, and an appetite to play the great game. It seems to me that Gorbachev envisioned a partnership between the US and the USSR – perhaps even thought aspects of the latter could influence the former. That now seems unlikely if only because of the disparities in global power. But this is a world in which the unipolar is being replaced by the multipolar. Russia is once more a player, along with China and the EU. One can point to some other nations in South East Asia and South America which are moving to join them.

I don’t share the stance of some of the former CP parties which appear to see Russia as a sort of hobbled continuation of the Soviet Union and therefore tailor their argument to position it within a framework of malevolent US imperialism and profound Russian victimhood. I think that’s a self-serving analysis. The USSR was a political, not a national, entity. Russia is a national entity more than a political entity. It is also a state with neo-imperial pretensions of its own, particularly as regards the zone of influence. This demands that it is treated with the ‘respectful’ approach noted by Simes above. If anything – while there are clear dangers, particularly where there are misperceptions of divergent (but not antagonistic) national interests – the situation is an improvement on a hegemon which has over the last four years been proven to have significant limitations. A strong Russia can, almost counterintuitively, provide both balance and support for an international system that badly requires it. But this can also tip into essentially a continuation of ‘business as usual’ which is also profoundly cynical where the respective ‘powers’ carve up the cake as they see fit. That is something to be profoundly wary of. So, two and a half cheers for a stronger Russia. But let’s keep in mind that powers do what powers must. Still, caution at the United Nations is no harm after a period of willful and energetic abandon. The sooner the better some might say.


1. korakious - December 21, 2007

I agree with most of what you say, but the matter of ideology is not a clear one yet. Every socio-economic system produces an ideology through which it expresses itself. The gang-ho imperialism of the US has adopted neo-conservatism and the age old manifest destiny, the EU – again because of its very nature – works within the discourse of liberal institutionalism.

Russia on the other hand, because the system is still in flux, is yet to fight her own ideological discourse. This should not be mistaken of course for a lack of ideology and at any rate, it is not ideology that drives conflict anyway.For now, “Sovereign Democracy” seems to be the dominant discourse in Russian politics, which is perfectly understandable given the 90s and the huge involvement of the state in Russian capitalism.


2. WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2007

korakious, I’d tend to agree with you. Systems do generate ideologies. But, I’d still agree with Simes that Russia doesn’t have a global ideology as it did under Communism, whereas the US does. Now, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t develop one…

Sovereign democracy. i like it…


3. korakious - December 22, 2007

But the thing is that Russia did not really have a global ideology under Communism either. As Moshe Lewin argues, by the late 60s, Marxist-Leninists where a small minority in the CPSU. While the forms of the system remained ML, their content had been supplanted by ideologies more suited to the interests of the bureaucracy, the chief of which was nationalism. While certainly the USSR did intervene on the global level in ways suggesting a socialist ideology (ie helping progressive states and anti colonial movements) it did so more because its historical trajectory had tied its “realist” interest to such rather than because of the personal convictions of its leadership. I think that this is aptly demonstrated by the USSR’s support for the Derg versus the EPLF in the war of Eritrean independence.


4. WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2007

Well formally they remained wedded to advancing ‘socialism’. And in truth they were happy to use force projection globally so whether we can disentangle their ‘true’ position from their ‘realist’ position is a difficult one to tell.

They certainly acted as if they had a global ideology, although I accept a lot of that was about retaining their hold on the satellite states. But, it’s hard not to see their close alliances with regimes in Mozambique, Cuba, Afghanistan (for a period), etc, etc as being born of both rhetoric and some degree of necessity. That of course leads us to a a question as to whether the formal aspects of a superpower, which the USSR was, lead to acting as superpower… in other words the logic of the situation takes over.

Re nationalism. I don’t know if I’d buy into that analysis. If anything they tended to eschew nationalist thinking – look at Gorbachevs CC which was drawn from across the SU. I also think it’s difficult at this remove, or indeed any, to be competely able to assess the sincerity or otherwise of many of those involved. Perhaps they were entirely cynical in their approaches, but I tend to doubt it. Mind you, being sincere doesn’t mean that they were broadly speaking completely wrong…

In any event, Moscow was always very very choosy about who it supported, in Ireland it seems to have played both the WP and the CPI but stayed well away from PSF.


5. korakious - December 22, 2007

Well formally they remained wedded to advancing ’socialism’. And in truth they were happy to use force projection globally so whether we can disentangle their ‘true’ position from their ‘realist’ position is a difficult one to tell.

They certainly acted as if they had a global ideology, although I accept a lot of that was about retaining their hold on the satellite states. But, it’s hard not to see their close alliances with regimes in Mozambique, Cuba, Afghanistan (for a period), etc, etc as being born of both rhetoric and some degree of necessity. That of course leads us to a a question as to whether the formal aspects of a superpower, which the USSR was, lead to acting as superpower… in other words the logic of the situation takes over.

Aye certainly, that’s what I said also. But it should be kept in mind that in both Cuba and Mozambique, the fact that the USSR came to support their revolutions had a lot to do with them eventually becoming Marxist Leninist. Almost every national liberation movement has a left wing ideology, but FRELIMO for example only become formally M-L in 1977. Again, I think that the forms of the USSR definitely conditioned the nature of its interventions around the globe, but I think the determining factor were its state interests, hence the ludicrous support for a military junta that talked left instead of an actually socialist movement.

look at Gorbachevs CC which was drawn from across the SU

When I said nationalism, I meant Soviet nationalism, or state patriotism for lack of a better term. By that I mean adherence to the Soviet Union as state, rather than the Soviet Union as a socio-political entity. Many of the present day Former SU leaders, now staunch nationalists, lamented the dissolution of the USSR when it was happening and even Putin has recently described the demise as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe.


6. WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2007

There’s a lot in what you’re saying in as regards the contradictions of their approach. On the other hand, it’s hard to expect any state to act in a ‘pure’ fashion, so perhaps we’re setting the bar unreasonably high.

As regards a ‘state’ nationalism, yes. I’d go some way with that. But again, how can we tell for sure?


7. Garibaldy - December 22, 2007

I’m no entirely sure how state patriotism is that different from raison d’etat. I will say that one needs only look at Soviet aid to see there was a clear idoleoligcal dimension to its global policy. It seems that transcripts of conversations between the Soviets and the Afghan government analysed the support (or lack thereof!) for the government in class terms as late as the early 1980s.


8. simon - December 22, 2007

I like foreign affairs but a bit pricey for my pocket


9. Worldbystorm - December 22, 2007

Well, it only comes out – what is it, every two or three months… and it’s a hefty read too.

Garibaldy, it is interesting. I saw those transcripts, or at least the Kabul side of them somewhere, was it the Guardian, and one can only wonder at whether it was as cynical as korakious suggests, or whether there was a residual belief in the system.


10. Garibaldy - December 22, 2007

The guy I heard talking about them was certain it was an indication of a genuine residual belief. Many of the people The WP dealt with in the CPSU and other eastern European CPs are still active Communists, and given the actions of the USSR in sponsoring other regimes and funding and organising international peace and socialist movements, I don’t think I would accept the argument that only a minority was Communist from the 1960s.


11. korakious - December 23, 2007

Many of the people The WP dealt with in the CPSU and other eastern European CPs are still active Communists

Certainly, but most of the CPSU and Eastern European CPs cadres are now bourgeois functionaries, bureaucrats, business owners and heads of state. If I go through my books (intellectual threat!!!!) I am sure I can come up with many a name of CPSU, Comsomol etc apparatchiks, even of the ideological departments, that have made statements to the effect “of course I was/am in the communist party, but I was/am not a communist”.

The upper echelons of the Soviet elite (which I assume would be the ones dealing with the Afghan government; in fact, I am quite certain, given Andropov’s heavy involvement) were, in my opinion, far more true to their beliefs. This is probably because they were both more exposed to the forms of the regime than the mid level bureaucrats, and because their position allowed them a quite good standard of living without them having to either move beyond the boundaries of socialist legality, or manipulate the regime in a cynical manner.


12. WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2007

I’m not entirely clear as to your point. That the ideology of the revolution didn’t permeate the society? Hardly surprising, most people aren’t political. They get by in any given situation. That the party/state was cynical? All states and parties are. And I don’t buy the line that a different ‘revolution’ or bunch of revolutionaries would have led to more optimal outcomes. People are both cynical and not cynical, manipulative and not manipulative. Damning with faint praise… it could have been much worse and during the high Stalinist period – 1930 to 1955 it was.


13. korakious - December 23, 2007

That the ideology of the revolution didn’t permeate the society?

No, that the ideology did not even permeate its vanguard, the Party, apart from its highest echelons.

And I don’t buy the line that a different ‘revolution’ or bunch of revolutionaries would have led to more optimal outcomes.

But there is a slightly important point here. Pretty much the whole of the revolutionary generation (that was politically active) was annihilated in the 30s and the party was turned from a political to an administrative body. If this had not happened, it is quite conceivable that the CPSU would still have been a political organisation of socialists in the 60s, even if it was infected by bureaucrats.

The contrast is clear when you compare the USSR of Brezhnevism to modern day Cuba precisely because the original revolutionaries (not just the Castro, but everyone who fought against Batista and then sought to build socialism in Cuba) are still in politics (both official and everyday life) and keep the flame so to speak.


14. WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2007

How can we be sure it didn’t permeate? Realistically it’s unknowable. Inside repressive single party structures there is simply no means of distinguishing genuine enthusiasm from the most cynical of timeserving. Even if it did permeate it still would be meaningless because enthusiasm or ideology are not independent of their effects, so you could have a hugely sincere CPSU which was simultaneously entirely wrong in its ideology, which seems to me to be probably close to the truth.

Taking your second point, I know where you’re coming from but I find it impossible to believe that even had the first generation survived that the situation would have been radically different in the 1960s. They would have aged, their perspectives would have changed and so on. Moreover there simply wouldn’t have been sufficient of them to exercise a hegemonic grip upon the ideology or indeed the sentiment of the party.

And while you’re correct – to a degree – about Cuba, we see the dangers of just such a concentration on the prime movers, the tendency towards a sclerotic political structure where at the highest point of the society you have people who have been around for ever. They’re utterly sincere, entirely genuine, arguably good people, but they’ve never let go. It’s the equivalent of the 1920s generation in Ireland who fought the War of Independence still being in power in the 1970s. They weren’t, but they did hold on far too long and had a dampening effect upon the society.


15. korakious - December 26, 2007

How can we be sure it didn’t permeate?

It’s evident by the swiftness by which the nomenklatura cast away the red flags and wrapped itself in their new national flags and that indeed, the reintroduction of capitalism and the breakup of the USSR was their action, rather than the result of a mass rebellion from below. I mean if going from Marxist-Leninist ideology bureaucrat to neo-liberal reformer within the space of two years is not proof that you were not a Marxist-Leninist to begin with, then I don’t know what is.

I find it impossible to believe that even had the first generation survived that the situation would have been radically different in the 1960s.

I think that’s a rather fatalistic point of view. I mean, do you not think that the situation in the 60s was the product of the USSR’s political trajectory, and don’t you think that this trajectory with the complete depoliticisation of the CPSU and the removal of the entire revolutionary generation, not by a gradual, natural process, but in almost one stroke?

As for Cuba, I certainly agree with you. I do not believe that Castro being in power for ever is the optimal situation; it is the product of an extremely negative environment. Which just proves that you can’t have socialism in one country 😉 (and no I’m not a Trot)


16. WorldbyStorm - December 27, 2007

k, interesting points, but I think the first one only demonstrates that the general societal shift was one which was profoundly antagonistic to M-L at the time. It’s entirely natural that people would go with the flow. The CP was screwed. That some shifted to the right is hardly unusual either… we’ve all seen examples of same in much less heated polities. In one where Marxism as a serious ideology was off the table for probably generations I’m surprised that it was possible for the CP to retain its integrity as it did for quite a while after.

As for fatalism. Yeah, perhaps. Or realistic. To be honest I see the trajectory of the USSR as a combination of political, international, economic and other elements. (For example I don’t think its demise in the early 1990s was inevitable but I don’t see how it could have sustained a global reach much into the early 21st century) I see no reason to believe that even had the first generation survived they wouldn’t have had to face exactly the same problems and I see no reason to believe they could have dealt with them much better.

In a way it comes down to your point about Cuba being in an impossible situation because you can’t have communism in one country. You’re absolutely right. But even with a ‘communist’ USSR that wouldn’t have been enough, and since there was no chance other communist regimes would arise in Europe post Warsaw Pact its hard to see how even the most enlightened first wave Bolsheviks could have seen through a more optimal situation.


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