Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

Taking Exception To American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:

America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)

Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world.  Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam.  In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs.  Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.

In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th.  Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine.   Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse. 

Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole.  While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative,  in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former).  But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.

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Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50).  Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues.   In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense.  Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).

I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse.  Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address?  Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores?  The answer to both questions appears to be yes.  Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.

In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.”  Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.”   In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy. 

Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”  He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict.  But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks).  “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote.  “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”

Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy.  Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:

We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People.  We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.

Much  of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory.  Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.”  Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.”  While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless  “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”

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“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism.  As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13).  Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism.  But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.

 The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change,  based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction.  After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself.  When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.

A  telling example is an early 2020 article in  Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.  Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past.  It will define our future, as well” (p.16).  Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends.  By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16).  Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).

Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy.  The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans.  The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country.  And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic.  These failures, Bacevich intones:

 ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds.  The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high.  The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).

In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as  “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate.  Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52).  The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected.   By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46).  Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).

After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166).   Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170).  The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170).  In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51).  But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.

A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years.  Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes.  “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104).  Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.”  While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119).  The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich.  The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).

After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure.  But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia).  Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy  as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which   have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.

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To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine.  Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion.  But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression.  The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners.  Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.

Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate.  We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States.  Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article.  But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 30, 2022

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Eastern Europe, Politics

The Authoritarian Playbook for Uprooting Democracy

 

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020)

In late November of this year, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) issued its annual report showing democratic slippage and authoritarian ascendancy throughout the world, with the United States included among the world’s backsliding democracies.  The report’s ominous conclusion was that the number of countries moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving toward democracy.  Less than a month later, US President Joe Biden opened a “Summit for Democracy,” in Washington, D.C., attended virtually by representatives of more than 100 countries, along with civil society activists, business leaders and journalists.  Alluding to but not dwelling upon the increasing threats to democracy that the United States faces internally, Biden described the task of strengthening democracy to counter authoritarianism as the “defining challenge of our time.”

The short period between the IDEA report and the democracy summit coincided with the time I was grappling with Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, a work that provides useful but hardly reassuring background on today’s authoritarian ascendancy.  As her title suggests, Ben-Ghiat finds the origins of the 21st century version of authoritarianism in the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, appointed in 1922 by King Victor Emmanuel II to head the Italian government as Prime Minister, an appointment that marked the end of Italy’s liberal democratic parliamentary regime.

Ben-Ghiat defines authoritarianism as a political system in which executive power is concentrated in a single individual and predominates “at the expense of the legislative and judicial branches of government” (p.5), with the single individual claiming that he and his agents are “above the law, above judgment, and not beholden to the truth” (p.253).    A professor of history and Italian Studies at New York University and a leading academic expert on Mussolini and modern Italian history, Ben-Ghiat uses her knowledge of the man called Il Duce and his Fascist party’s rule in  Italy from 1922 to 1943 as a starting point to build a more comprehensive picture of leaders who have followed in Mussolini’s footsteps – the “strongmen”  of her title, or “authoritarians,” two terms she uses interchangeably.

Ben-Ghiat divides modern authoritarian rule since Mussolini’s time into three general historical periods: 1) the fascist era of Mussolini and his German ally, Adolph Hitler, 1919-1945;  2) the age of military coups, 1945 to 1990; and 3) what she terms the new authoritarian age, 1990 to the present.  But  Strongmen is not an historical work, arranged in chronological order. Ben-Ghiat focuses  instead on the tools and tactics selected strongmen have used since Mussolini’s time.

In ten chapters, divided into three general sections, “Getting to Power,” “Tools of Rule,” and “Losing Power,” Ben-Ghiat  elaborates respectively upon how strongmen have obtained, maintained, and lost power.  Each chapter sets forth general principles of strongman rule, to which she adds illustrative examples of how specific strongmen have adhered to the principles.   For Ben-Ghiat, the key tools in the strongman’s toolbox are propaganda, violence, corruption and, most originally, virility.  Each is the subject of a separate chapter, but they are “interlinked” (p.7) and each is referred to throughout the book.

Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters changes from one chapter to the next, depending upon its subject matter.  At the outset, she lists 17 “protagonists,” authoritarian leaders who are mentioned at least occasionally throughout the book, including such familiar contemporary leaders as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.  But eight dominate her narrative: Mussolini and  Hitler, who personified the Fascist era, with Mussolini making an appearance in nearly every chapter; Spain’s General Francisco Franco, a transition figure from fascism to military coup, a fascist in the 1930s and a pro-American client during the Cold War;  Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who modeled himself after Franco and embodied the era of military coups; and four “modern” authoritarians, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who served as Italy’s Prime Minister in three governments, from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011; Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who followed Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic attempt in the 1990s to establish neoliberal democratic institutions after the fall of the Soviet Union; Libya’s Muamar Gaddafi, more a transition figure from the age of military coups to 21st century authoritarianism; and yes, America’s Donald Trump.  Reminding readers how closely Trump and his administration adhered to the authoritarian playbook appears to be one of the book’s main if unstated purposes.

Among the eight featured authoritarian leaders, all but Gaddafi rose to power in systems that were in varying degrees democratic.  How authoritarians manage to weaken democracy, often using democratic means, is the necessary backdrop to Ben-Ghiat’s examination of the strongman’s playbook.   All eight of her featured leaders sought in one way or another to undermine existing democratic norms and institutions.  Ben-Ghiat excludes strong women political leaders, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, for this very reason.  No woman leader has yet “sought to destroy democracy” (p.5), she argues, although she does not rule out the possibility that a future female leader could meet the authoritarian criteria.

Among the featured eight, moreover, only Gaddafi could be considered left of center on the political spectrum.  The other seven fit comfortably on the right side.  While there would be plenty of potential subjects to choose from for an examination of strongmen of the left – Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro all come readily to mind – Strongmen is largely an analysis of right-wing authoritarianism.  For Ben-Ghiat, as for President Biden, combatting this form of authoritarianism constitutes “one of the most pressing matters of our time” (p.4).

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From Mussolini and Hitler to Berlusconi and Trump, the strongman’s rule has been almost by definition highly personal.  Strongmen, Ben-Ghiat argues, do not distinguish between their individual agendas and those of the nation they rule.  They have proven particularly adept at appealing to negative emotions and powerful resentments.  They rise to power in moments of uncertainty and transition, generating support when society is polarized, or divided into two opposing ideological camps, which is “why they do all they can to exacerbate strife”  (p.8).

A strongman’s promise to return his nation to greatness constitutes the “glue” (p.66) of modern authoritarian rule, Ben-Ghiat argues.  The promise typically combines a sense of nostalgia and the fantasy of returning to an imagined earlier era with a bleak view of the present and a glowing vision of the future.  In the chaos of post-World War I Italy, Mussolini invoked the lost imperial grandeur of the Roman Empire.  Putin speaks nostalgically of the Soviet era.  Trump’s 2017 inaugural address cast the United States as a desolate place of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” (p.58), the dystopian picture of contemporary America which underpinned his ubiquitous slogan Make America Great Again.

Franco and Pinochet were typical of right-wing authoritarians who organized the path to the glorious future around counterrevolutionary crusades against perceived leftist subversives.  But in what are sometimes termed “developing” or “Third World” countries,” the return to national greatness focuses more frequently upon the remnants of foreign occupation.  Rather than leading a revolt against pre-existing democratic institutions and norms, anti-imperialist leaders like Gaddafi use their peoples’ “anger over the tyranny of Western colonizers to rally followers,” while adapting “traditions of colonial violence for their own purposes” (p.36), Ben-Ghiat writes.

To gain and maintain power, strongmen utilize a style of propaganda which Ben-Ghiat describes as a “set of communication strategies designed to sow confusion and uncertainty, discourage critical thinking, and persuade people that reality is what the leader says it is”  (p.93).  From Mussolini’s use of newsreels and Hitler’s public rallies to Trump’s use of Twitter, authoritarians have employed “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the public will”  (p.93).

Propaganda, moreover, encourages people to see violence differently, as a “national and civic duty and the price of making the country great”  (p.166).  General Franco murdered and jailed Spanish leftists at an astounding rate, both in the Spanish Civil war, when he was supported by Mussolini and Hitler, and during World War II, when he remained neutral.  His claim to legitimacy rested on the notion that he had brought peace to the land and saved it from apocalyptic leftist violence.  But his real success, Ben-Ghiat writes, was in “creating silence around memories of his violence” (p.232).

Augusto Pinochet, fashioning himself in the image of Franco, also strove to present an image of Chile as a bastion of anti-communist stability.  But central to Pinochet’s rule was the systematic torture and execution of Chilean dissidents and leftists, “not [as] isolated sadism but state policy” (p.165), according to an Amnesty International report. Pinochet’s secret police agency, the DINA, drew upon neo-Nazis living among the country’s large German population to execute its mission of “cleansing Chilean society of leftist influence and making Chile a center of the international struggle against Marxism” (p.178).

Gaddafi envisioned himself as the center of an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist world, and bankrolled a wide range of revolutionary and terrorist movements across the globe while adopting terrorist methods at home to eliminate Libyan dissenters. He used television to present violence as mass spectacle, subjecting dissenting students to public, televised hangings, including the  entire trial and execution of a dissident in 1984.  And Donald Trump’s calls for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment and allusions to her being shot, shocking to many Americans, were “behaviors more readily associated with fascist states or military juntas” (p.62), Ben-Ghiat writes.

Almost invariably, strongmen use the power of their office for private gain, the classic definition of corruption.  In tandem with other tools, such as purges of the judiciary, corruption produces a system that tolerates criminality and encourages broader changes in behavioral norms to “make things that were illegal or immoral appear acceptable, whether election fraud, torture, or sexual assault” (p.144).  The term “kleptocracy,” much in vogue today, refers to a state in which the looting of public treasuries and resources often appears to be the central purpose of government.

Joseph Mubuto Sese Soko, the staunch anti-communist leader of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1997, appears here primarily to illustrate what US Representative Stephen Solarz termed in 1991 the “kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies,” in which Mobutu set the standard by which “all future international thieves will have to be measured” (p.14).   Mobutu’s country, awash in raw materials estimated to be worth in excess of $24 trillion, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s richest resource country with the planet’s poorest population, according to Tom Burgis’ insightful study of kleptocratic African regimes, The Looting Machine (reviewed here in 2016).    By the time he was forced into exile in 1997, Mobutu had amassed a $5 billion fortune, but Zaire had lost $12 billion in capital and resource flight and increased its debt by $14 billion.

New patronage systems allow the strongman’s cronies and family members to amass wealth, offering power and economic reward.  Vladimir Putin places oligarchs in competition for state resources and his favor, treating the country as an entity to be exploited for private gain.  While he poses as a nationalist defender against “globalists,” Putin uses global finance to launder and hide money.  He and his associates have removed an estimated $325 billion from Russia since 2006.  By 2019, 3% of the Russian population held 89% of the country’s financial assets.

Silvio Berlusconi maintained a curious and secretive relationship with Putin that almost certainly benefited him financially, typical of how Berlusconi normalized corruption by bending the institutions of Italian democracy to “accommodate his personal circumstances,” and by “partnering with authoritarians and elevating himself above the law” p.161).  He retained control over his extensive holdings in television, publishing and advertising, putting family members and loyalists in charge.  The vastness of his media empire “made it hard to police his mixing of personal and business interests”  (p.159).  While Italy remained a nominal democracy under Berlusconi, he turned the Italian government into what Ben-Ghiat describes as a “vehicle for accumulating more personal wealth and power on the model of the illiberal leaders he so admired” (p.246), alluding to his particular partnership with Putin and an even stranger partnership with Gaddafi.

Ben-Ghiat goes beyond other discussions of authoritarianism by highlighting the extent to which virility — a cult of masculinity —  enables the strongman’s corruption by projecting the idea that he is “above laws that weaker individuals must follow”  (p.8).  Displays of machismo are “not just bluster, but a way of exercising power at home and conducting foreign policy,” she writes.  Far from being a private affair, the sex lives of strongmen reveal how “corruption, propaganda, violence and virility work together.” (p.120).

In portions of the book most likely to appeal to adolescent males, Ben-Ghiat details the unconstrained sex lives of Mussolini and Gaddafi.   Paradoxically, Gaddafi afforded Libyan women far more independence than they had enjoyed before he came to power in 1969.  He promoted women as part of his revolutionary measures, while privately constructing a system – modeled, apparently, on that of Mussolini – to “procure and confine women for his personal satisfaction” (p.132).

Silvio Berlusconi “used his control of Italy’s television and advertising markets to saturate the country with images of women in submissive roles”  (p.134).  The young female participants in Berlusconi’s famous sex parties often received cash to help them start a business, a chance at a spot in a Berlusconi show, or a boost into politics.   Bare-chested body displays constitute an “integral part” of Vladimir Putin’s identity as the “defender of Russia’s pride and its right to expand in the world”  (p.121), Ben-Ghiat writes.

As to Donald Trump, the infamous Access Hollywood tapes which were released amidst the 2016 presidential campaign, in which he bragged about groping non-consenting women, did not sink his candidacy.  Instead, the revelations “merely strengthened the misogynist brand of male glamor Trump had built over the decades” (p.138).  Trump’s campaign and presidency seemed dedicated to “[r]eclaiming male authority,” Ben-Ghiat contends, which meant “creating an environment in which men can act on their desires with impunity” (p.139).

Gaddafi was the last of the authoritarians who used violence openly as a tool to maintain power.  In the social media age, mass killings often generate bad press. New authoritarians need to gauge the tolerance of elites and the public for violence.  21st-century strongmen like Putin and Recep Erdogan tend to warehouse their enemies out of public scrutiny, preferring targeted violence, information manipulation and legal harassment to neutralize dissenters.  They use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to “target critics and spread hate speech, conspiracy theories, and lies” (p.111), and attempt to impoverish opponents and potential opponents by expropriating businesses they or their relatives might own.

Ben-Ghiat’s book appeared just before the 2020 American presidential election, weeks before the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and before the notion of a “stolen election” took hold amongst a still-mystifyingly large portion of the American electorate.  But her insight that today’s authoritarians use elections to keep themselves in office, “deploying antidemocratic tactics like fraud or voter suppression to get the results they need” (p.49 ), reveals the extent to which former president Trump and a substantial segment of today’s Republican party, especially in key “battleground” states, are working off the strongman’s playbook.

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After an apt dissection of  the way authoritarianism threatens the world’s democracies, Ben-Ghiat’s proposed solutions may leave readers wanting.  “Opening the heart to others and viewing them with compassion” (p.260) can constitute effective pushback against strongman rule, she argues.  Solidarity, love, and dialogue “are what the strongman most fears” (p.260-61).   More concretely, she emphasizes that to counter contemporary authoritarianism, we must “prioritize accountability and transparency in government” (p.253).   Above all, she recommends a “clear-eyed view of how strongmen manage to get into power and how they stay there” (p.250).  This deeply researched and persuasively argued work provides just such a view, making it a timely contribution to the urgent contemporary debates about the future of democracy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 30, 2021

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, World History

Is Democracy a Universal Value?

 

Larry Diamond, Ill Winds:

Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Penguin Press) 

Stanford professor Larry Diamond is one of America’s foremost authorities on democracy – what it is, how it works in diverse countries throughout the world, how it can take hold in countries with little or no history of democratic governance – and how it can be lost.  Diamond brings a decidedly pragmatic perspective to his subject.  His extensive writings focus in particular on how to sustain fragile democratic governance.  He rarely dwells on classical theory or delves into the origins of democracy.  He is more likely to provide an assessment of the prospects for democracy in contemporary Nicaragua, Nigeria or Nepal, or most anywhere in between, than assess the contribution to modern democracy of, say, Thomas Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Diamond’s bottom line seemed to be that democracy had the upper hand in most corners of the world – the Middle East being at best a giant question mark – and was steadily extending to numerous countries that had hitherto been considered unlikely places for it to take hold.

That was then. Today, Diamond says that he is more concerned about the future of democracy than at any time in the forty plus years of his career.  He begins Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, a distinctly more guarded assessment of democratic prospects across the globe than his earlier writings, by noting that the march toward democracy began to slow around 2006.  The independent Freedom House, which tracks democratic progress worldwide, found that 2017 was the twelfth consecutive year that the number of countries declining in liberty significantly outstripped those gaining.

Rather than democracy, it is now authoritarian government — sometimes termed “illiberal democracy” and often associated with nativist, xenophobic “populism” — that seems to be on the rise across the globe.  Throughout much of the world, Diamond notes, authoritarian governments and their autocratic leaders are “seizing the initiative, democrats are on the defensive, and the space for competitive politics and free expression is shrinking” (p.11).  Today’s world has “plunged into a democratic recession” (p.54), with democracy finding itself “perched on a global precipice.”  If authoritarian ascendancy and democratic erosion continue, Diamond warns, we may reach a “tipping point where democracy goes bankrupt suddenly – plunging the world into depths of oppression and aggression that we have not seen since the end of World War II” (p.293).

Diamond’s sub-title reveals that the “ill winds” of his title are blowing chiefly from a Russia rife with “rage,” and a China abounding in “ambition,” while the United States stands by “complacently” rather than blowing in the opposite direction, as it once did.  If the United States does not reclaim its traditional place as the keystone of democracy, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and their admirers “may turn autocracy into the driving force of the new century” (p.11).  Emboldened by the “new silence from Donald Trump’s America,” the “new swagger” emanating from Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia have allowed autocrats across the globe to “tyrannize their opponents openly and without apology”(p.58).

Diamond starts his urgent and alarming assessment with general, introductory chapters that provide a working definition of democracy and summarize the present world wide crisis, for example, “Why Democracies Succeed and Fail,” “The March and Retreat of Democracy,” and “The Authoritarian Temptation.”  He then devotes a chapter to each of his three main actors, the United States, Russia and China.  From there, he moves to a series of recommendations on how established democracies can counter the forces that seem to be leading many countries away from democracy and toward authoritarian styles of governance.  His recommendations include combatting public corruption (the “soft underbelly of authoritarian rule;” p.192); and making the Internet safe for democracy (the “global fight for freedom is inseparable from the fight for internet freedom;” p.259).

In a book about the future of global democracy, Diamond’s recommendations are oddly U.S. centric. They are mostly about how the United States can promote democracy more effectively abroad and render its internal institutions and practices more democratic.  There is little here about what other established democracies – for example, Great Britain, Germany or Australia — can do to be more effective abroad or more democratic at home.  Diamond moreover breaks little new ground in this work.

Few readers are likely to be surprised to learn that Russia and China constitute the world’s major anti-democratic actors; that Hungary and Poland, both part of the European Union, the quintessential  democracy project, are among the most prominent countries moving away from democracy and toward authoritarianism; or that countries otherwise as diverse as Turkey, India, the Philippines and Brazil are moving in the same direction.  Nor does Diamond venture into unfamiliar territory when he argues that the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries.

But Diamond is an accomplished  salesman for democratic governance, the product he has relentlessly pedaled for over four decades, and his salesmanship skills are on full display here.  Amidst all the reasons he provides for pessimism about democracy’s worldwide prospects, readers will be reassured to find more than a little of the optimism that characterized his earlier works.  Although authoritarians may seem to be on the rise everywhere, people across the globe are not losing their faith in democracy, he argues.   Democracy for Diamond remains nothing less than a “universal value” (p.159).  The world’s democracies quite simply “have the better ideas” (p.225), he writes.  But is modern democracy up to the task of halting and reversing the world’s authoritarian turn?  Is it capable of countering effectively Russian rage and Chinese ambition?  These are the questions Diamond wrestles with throughout this timely and passionately argued work.

* * *

For Diamond, democracy at its core is a system of government where people choose and can change their leaders in regular, free and fair elections.  Such a system should also include strong protections for basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, press and religion; protection for racial and cultural minorities; a robust rule of law and an independent judiciary; trustworthy law enforcement institutions; and a lively civil society.   Diamond says little here about the economic systems of countries seeking to establish and sustain democratic institutions.  But at least since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most democracy experts agree that market economies allowing for free enterprise — along with ample room for state regulation in the public interest — are most compatible with modern democracy.

But sustaining democracy over the longer term depends more on culture than institutions, Diamond argues.  A country’s citizens need to believe in democracy and be “willing to defend it as a way of life” (p.25), in which case the level of economic development and the precise design of institutions matter less. When democracy lacks broad support, it will “always be a fragile reed” (p.25).   And the paramount component of democratic culture is legitimacy, the “resilient and broadly shared belief that democracy is better than any other imaginable form of government.  People must commit to democracy come hell or high water, and stick with it even when the economy tanks, incomes plunge, or politicians misbehave” (p.25).

Democracy is hardly restricted to those economically advanced countries we call “Western” (“Western” and “the West” include not just the countries of Western Europe and North America but also prosperous democratic countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Japan and New Zealand).  A country does not have to be economically well off to institutionalize democracy, Diamond insists. Many African countries have made earnest starts.  But successful transitions to democracy nonetheless remain strongly linked to economic prosperity, he argues, citing the examples of Greece, Spain, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.

But Russia and China are undermining democracy in all corners of the globe, each blowing its own “ill winds” across the planet.  In Russia’s case, they are the winds of “anger, insecurity, and resentments of a former superpower;” with China, those of “ambitions, swagger, and overreach of a new one” (p.130-31).  Both are investing heavily in efforts to “promote disinformation and covertly subvert democratic norms and institutions” (p.12).   Among today’s foes of democracy, only two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, have “enough power and ambition to undermine the entire global liberal order” (p.161).

Russia experienced some shallow and tentative moves toward democracy in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But since Putin assumed power in 2000, the movement has been almost exclusively in the opposite direction.  Deeply insecure about the legitimacy of his rule, Putin believes that the West is “seeking to encircle Russia and keep it weak” (p.111).   The 2013-14 “Eurormaidan Revolution” in Ukraine, which brought down Viktor Yanukovych, a key autocratic partner, infuriated Putin.   The United States had “toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself,” as an American journalist put it.  “All that money American had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off” (p.112).

Russia has mastered the use of social media to “stimulate division, increase social and racial unrest, and undermine the self-assurance of the major Western democracies – and work to divide them from one another” (p.112). Its most dramatic targets were Hilary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Clinton “would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention” (p.118), Diamond asserts, although he offers no evidentiary support for this assertion.  In hacking the 2016 US election, Putin succeeded in both of his apparent aims: to “sow division and discord in American democracy . . . [and] to punish Clinton and elect Trump” (p.118).

But the 2016 election was just one instance of Russia’s use of social media disinformation campaigns to undermine liberal democracy.  These campaigns, assaults “on truth itself” and  on the “very notion that there can be ‘an objective, verifiable set of facts” (p.119), often aim to strengthen extremist political forces within established democracies.  They “do not need to – and do not really aim to – persuade democratic publics that Russia’s positions are right, only that a democracy’s government and political leaders cannot be believed or trusted” (p.119).  Russia under Putin has sought to wreak havoc within the European Union, aiming in particular to end the economic sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed on Russia in retaliation for its aggression in Ukraine.  Russia almost certainly provided significant illicit funding to the Brexit campaign, Diamond contends, helping to tip Britain into leaving the European Union, a “major achievement for a Kremlin that has the destruction of European unity as one of its major aims” (p.121).

But Diamond emphasizes that Russia is a declining power whose “malign intentions and nationalist bravado cannot disguise its outstripped economy and shrinking importance to the twenty-first century world” (p.124).  In the long run, the “ambitions of a rising China, not the resentments of a falling Russia” represent the greatest external challenge to global democracy.  Today’s China, still recovering from what many Chinese consider a century of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West, is the world’s “most dynamic power” (p.144), with global reach and power that will “increasingly and inevitably dwarf Russia’s” (p.124).

China seeks hegemony over all of Asia and the Pacific, Diamond argues.  It also increasingly aspires to challenge the United States for global leadership, “economically, politically, and, some believe, eventually militarily” (p.131).  Its military spending is now second only to that of the United States and it may catch America militarily “sooner than we care to imagine” (p.142-43).  China has already established a claim to global dominance in such  transformative technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and electric cars.

Manipulating social media massively and aggressively, China is also building a “sweeping surveillance state that aims to assess every digital footprint of every Chinese citizen and then compile each person’s ‘social credit score.’” (p.236).  It readily shares its “Orwellian tools” with other a autocratic regimes, “threatening an ‘Arab Spring in reverse’ in which digital technology enable ‘state domination and repression at a staggering scale’” (p.237).

China’s foreign aid goes disproportionately to the world’s autocrats, many of whom think that China has developed a secret formula.  While some authoritarian regimes dislike China’s heavy-handed attempts to win influence and gain control — sometimes considered a new form of colonialism — others are lured to China’s side by “money, power, ambition, and simple admiration for its sheer success” (p.144).  In addition to assisting the world’s autocracies and countries that could bend in that direction, China also focuses on influencing the world’s democracies.

Diamond sees China playing a longer and more patient game than Russia in its dealing with the West. Through media deals, investments, partnership agreements, charitable and political donations, and positions on boards of directors, it is seeking wider and deeper infiltration into what Diamond calls the “vital tissues of democracies” (p.133): publishing houses, entertainment industries, technology companies, universities, think tanks, non-governmental organizations.  Favorable views of China, he notes, exceed that of the United States in much of the world.

Prior to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential candidacy, Diamond considered the United States uniquely qualified to lead the global resistance to Russian rage and Chinese ambition.  Since Trump became president, however, the United States appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries – or, at best, on the sidelines while Russia and China seek to extend their influence and undermine democracy.  If there is any upside to the Trump presidency, Diamond notes, it is that it provides a glimpse into the alarming consequences of world without American leadership and steadfastness, a “far more frightening and dangerous place, with muscular, corrupt dictatorships dominating large swaths of the globe through blatant coercion and covert subversion” (p.287).

Trump’s unremitting insistence that the United States is being cheated by its friends and allies has propelled the country “down the self-defeating path of ‘America alone’” (p.301).  His decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 2016 twelve-nation Pacific Rim free-trade agreement, “so visionary and so necessary,” constitutes in Diamond’s view the “most grievous self-inflicted wound to America’s global leadership since the creation of the liberal world order after World War II” (p.144).  US withdrawal from the TPP amounted to a “massive gift to authoritarian China and a body blow to democratic aspirations in Southeast Asia” (p.144-45), serving  as a “stunning symbol – and accelerator – of both China’s rise and America’s descent.  As the great democracy that dominated world politics in the twentieth century retreated, the great dictatorship that aims to dominate world politics in the twenty-first could hardly believe its luck” (p.145).

Diamond provides an extensive set of recommendations on how the United States and other advanced democratic countries can deliver more sustainable assistance to aspiring and fragile democracies to counter Russia and China.  Priorities need to be combatting kleptocracy, public corruption, and international money laundering; making the internet safe for democracy; and improving  public diplomacy through  smarter uses of “soft power” to counter Russia and China’s “sharp power.”

Kleptocracy, a recent term now frequently used for high level state corruption, involves the theft of state resources that could have advanced the public good but instead were diverted for private gain – hospitals and schools that were not built, for example – and by definition constitutes a crime against a country’s citizens.  Kleptocracy depends upon using the international financial system to “move, mask, and secure ill-gotten fortunes across borders,” posing the “single most urgent internal threat to democracy,” a threat which renders fragile democracies “all the more vulnerable to external subversion” (p.184).  Many of the world’s democracies, not least the United States, are complicit in providing refuge for the ill-gotten gains of the world’s kleptocrats.  Global transfers of untraceable funds have enabled a “stunning array of venal dictators and their family members, political allies, and business cronies to acquire property and influence in the West as well as to corrupt democracy and the rule of law within free nations” (p.184).

Diamond’s recommendations for combatting public corruption and international money laundering are for the most part US-oriented (e.g. modernize and strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act; empower the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to conduct its own investigations).  But he also offers some general recommendations that all the world’s advanced democracies could and should follow (e.g. end anonymous shell companies and real estate purchases).

Today, moreover, the Internet and related technologies – email, text messaging, photo sharing – have the potential to uncover public corruption, as well as highlight human rights abuses, expose voter fraud, and organize demonstrations.   These technologies played a major role in the protests in 2011 that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; and those that challenged Iran’s blatantly fraudulent 2009 elections.   But many modern authoritarian regimes – not just Russia and China — have developed sophisticated means to to “manipulate, manage, vilify, and amplify public opinion online” (p.234). Freedom House considers  growing state level manipulation of social media one of the leading causes of the steady eight-year decline in global Internet freedom.  Making the Internet a safe place for democracy requires a “concerted partnership among democratic governments, technology companies, civil-society groups, and individual ‘netizens’” (p.229).

Diamond also provides a set of recommendations for how the United States can fine tune its own internal democratic mechanisms through, for example, adoption of ranked choice voting, reducing the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the influence of money in politics — worthy objectives, but markedly out of line with the priorities of the Trump administration and today’s Republican Party.  Looking beyond the Trump administration, however, Diamond argues that the tide of authoritarianism can be reversed.

Few people celebrate authoritarianism as a superior system, “morally or practically” (p.225 ).  There are no large-scale surveys of public opinion showing a popular groundswell for authoritarianism.  Rather, in  surveys from every region of the world, “large to overwhelming majorities of the public, on average, said that democracy is the best form of government and that an unaccountable strongman is a bad idea” (p.159-60).  Within even the world’s most tenacious autocracies, “many people want to understand what democracy is and how it can be achieved.  Even many dictators and generalissimos know and fear democracy’s allure” (p.225).  In this networked age, “both idealism and the harder imperatives of global power and security argue for more democracy, not less” (p.200).

* * *

The best way to counter Russian rage and Chinese ambition, Diamond counsels, is to show that Moscow and Beijing are “on the wrong side of history; that people everywhere yearn to be free, and that they can make freedom work to achieve a more just, sustainable and prosperous society” (p.200).   Yet Diamond makes clear that checking the worldwide authoritarian tide depends to an unsettling degree upon the United States reversing its present course and prioritizing anew the global quest for democracy.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 26, 2020

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, World History

Why Isn’t Russia More Like Us?

Peter Conradi, Who Lost Russia?

How the World Entered a New Cold War 

             In Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, Peter Conradi, formerly Moscow-based correspondent for Britain’s Sunday Times and presently its foreign editor, looks at Russian history over the past quarter of a century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, “through the prism of [Russia’s] relations with the West” (p.x).  Given his somewhat overly dramatic title, there is an odd suspense to this otherwise straightforward, solidly written work, as the reader asks along the way, “Well, who really did ‘lose’ Russia?”  Conradi’s narrative invites readers to proffer their own nominees for the person or entity that “lost” Russia.  Only in the final pages does he inform us of his nominee – and no way will I reveal his selection here.  But the real question is not who “lost” Russia — that’s fine for a catchy title, evoking the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the question of the 1950s, who lost China.

            Rather, the questions at the heart of Conradi’s methodical study are why the once promising relationship between Russia and the West evolved into one best described today as adversarial; and, relatedly, why Russia did not follow the path toward Western-style liberal democracy after what looked like an earnest start in the 1990s. There are no simple or single answers to these questions but, by looking at post-Communist Russia’s relationship with the West during the years 1991-2016, Conradi manages to tease out a host of partial answers.  His book went to press in January 2017, during the earliest days of the Trump administration.  He alludes in an afterthought to the possibility of links between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and the Russian state.  With much on this subject having come to light since the book first appeared, Conradi’s observations are not a reason to read his book.  But the book does provide much needed context to help understand why Russia’s relationship with the West deteriorated to the point where no one should be surprised that Russia deliberately sought to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

          Conradi dedicates a substantial portion of his work to the personal interactions between the leaders of the United States and Russia over the 25-year period: George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton with Boris Yeltsin; George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin; Barack Obama and first Dimitri Medvedev, then Obama and Putin. He further includes speculation toward the end about how the relationship between Trump and Putin might unfold.  Numerous substantive issues bedeviled the leaders of the two countries between 1991 and 2016, but foremost among them were the intertwined questions of eastward expansion of NATO and Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

      Throughout the quarter century, Russia and the West maintained entirely different perspectives on NATO’s embrace of the former Warsaw Pact countries once under Soviet control, and its potential embrace of several former Soviet Republics, most notably Ukraine. While the West regarded NATO expansion as a benign extension of universal democratic values to newly independent states, Russia construed expansion as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and geopolitical interests. And although the Soviet Union dissolved peaceably, Ukraine’s independence proved particularly vexing for Russia from the earliest post-Soviet days.

         During the presidency of Vladimir Putin, differences between Russia and the West over these and related issues transformed an uneven and sometimes uneasy partnership between Russia and the West into an adversarial one.   Western triumphalism of the early 1990s, when both Western Europe and the United States basked in their Cold War “victory” over the Soviet Union, plainly fueled Russian resentment. The breakdown of the partnership finds its roots, Conradi contends, in the “inability of both sides to agree on what happened in 1991 . . . and, in particular, [in] Russian resentment at being treated as a vanquished foe” (p.341).  The West underestimated how badly the loses that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union “rankled with Moscow, and how much the Kremlin continued to consider the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence” (p.161).

         By the time Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, ending Dimitri Medvedev’s four-year interregnum, Russia had abandoned any pretense of striving for Western style liberal democracy.  It was now, Conradi writes, “positioning itself as a beacon of traditional, conservative values in a decadent, liberal world” (p,235).  The official narrative was that it had been “duped to believe in the promises of democracy . . . [which] did not work for Russia; the nation was corrupted by Western values and [was] under constant attack from those who would seek to dismantle it” (p.236).  Borrowing from the other portion of Conradi’s title, the world in the 21st century’s second decade had thus entered a “new Cold War,” with a level of hostility between Russia and the West “not seen even at the height of Soviet rule” (p.xiii).

* * *

            Conradi ably captures the momentous changes that ensued in Russia after the Soviet Union abruptly dissolved in December 1991.  He describes January 2, 1992, the first day of Russia’s transition to a free market, as a “life-defining moment. The previous six months had a seen a series of political events, each more dramatic than the last, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yet none had such a direct and immediate impact as the Yeltsin government’s decision to end the price controls that had been a feature of Soviet life since the 1920s” (p.20).  The end of price controls was part of a broader process that “challenged everything the Soviets had been brought up to believe in. Buying and selling for a profit had once been denounced as speculation and been punishable with jail. Now it was the foundation of the economy. Money-changing used to be conducted by shady characters on street corners; now it was carried out by financial experts sitting at rows of computer screens in swanky offices” (p.21).

           The early post-Soviet years were a wild and woolly time in Russia, with a mad grab for ownership and control of previously state-owned property. During the 1990s, Russia’s famous oligarchs emerged, some of the richest and, in many cases, most ruthless, businessmen on the planet.  Yet, Conradi notes, the early post-Soviet years also “created more losers than winners, and it took years before living standards drew level even with the last years of the Soviet era. Many people, especially members of the older generations, still felt a sense not so much of liberation but rather of disorientation after so much of what they had been brought up to believe in had been denounced as a lie. There was a feeling of wasted lives, of humiliation and wounded pride” (p.98).

           Conradi nonetheless gives Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin — a “charismatic larger-than-life figure whose ruddy cheeks betrayed his weakness for alcohol” (p.3) — high marks for avoiding the type of ethnic and nationalist violence that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Yeltsin also steered a new constitution through to adoption by referendum, representing a “break with Soviet practice by, among other things, abolishing the leading role of the Communist (or indeed, any other) Party and guaranteeing a pluralistic political system” (p.47).  Although George H.W. Bush was the American president when the Soviet Union dissolved and Yeltsin rose to power, most of the Yeltsin years corresponded to the Clinton years.

          In a chapter entitled “Bill and Ol’ Boris,” Conradi shows how the two leaders struck up what seemed from the outside to have been a productive relationship between the two countries, with the United States providing substantial assistance to Russia in the hope of establishing a framework for a functioning democracy with a market economy.  Ol’ Boris sometimes chaffed at the nature of the American-Russian partnership, with America always the dominant partner and Russia reduced to a supplicant. He saw a special role for Russia as a regional peacekeeper in the other former Soviet republics – what the Russians termed the “near abroad” — an idea that fell flat with Bill.   More than a little uneasy about Ukraine’s drive for independence, Ol’ Bois periodically objected to Bill’s dogged determination to bring the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe under the NATO umbrella.  NATO’s eastward expansion looked to the Russian president like a “brazen attempt by the West to exploit [Russian] weakness to take over countries formerly part of Moscow’s sphere of influence” (p.64).   “Got to get over it, Boris,” seemed to be Bill’s response. “We don’t mean ya’ll no harm.”

            In his 1999 televised New Year’s address to the Russia people, six months prior to the expiration of his second term, Yeltsin stunned his viewers and the rest of the world by announcing, “in a characteristic piece of theater” (p.106), that he was resigning immediately.  Previously, there had been speculation that he might seek to change the constitution to pursue a third presidential term.  Yeltsin announced that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, appointed Prime Minister the preceding August, would be his replacement.  Yeltsin was not obligated to anoint a successor. He could have “played the true democrat and not nominated anyone at all, instead creating a level playing field on which rival candidates could compete for votes”(p.322). Conradi suggests that Yeltsin had three candidates in mind; the other two in retrospect seem to have been more likely to continue the country along the road toward liberal democracy.  Yeltsin chose Putin, Conradi argues, because he, Yeltsin,  was “obsessed with securing a guarantee of immunity for himself and the ‘family’ from prosecution for their past misdemeanors” (p.322).

            As a 36 year old KGB agent based in Dresden in 1989, Putin had watched East Germany disintegrate and disappear, demonstrating for him the “frailty of political elites and the ease with which they can be toppled by ‘people power’”(p.110). Prior to his appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999, Putin had served as an assistant city administrator in his native St. Petersburg.   The literature on Putin in English seems to be growing on an almost daily basis, with many works seeking to probe Putin’s psyche to find psychological explanations for why he steered Russia in a direction outwardly different from that of Yeltsin. This is not one of them.  Instead, Conradi systematically shows how more than why the former KGB officer, unlike his predecessor, “pursued policies both at home and abroad that would inevitably challenge the West” (p.322).

* * *

            In the early years of his presidency, Putin, like Yeltsin, said many things that the West wanted to hear about Russia’s quest for democracy and its belief in individual freedom after years of Soviet oppression.  There was even talk about possible Russian membership in the EU and NATO, with Putin recommending that NATO’s focus be shifted to terrorism, piracy and cybercrime.  The initial meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, who had succeeded Clinton in 2001, augured well for the US-Russia partnership. Bush tried to avoid what he considered Clinton’s tendency to hector his Russian counterpart about free markets and attempts to curb freedom of speech.  He famously told reporters after his first meeting with Putin that he had been able to get a sense of the Russian leader’s “soul.”  Having “looked the man in the eye,” Bush said, he found his counterpart to be “straight-forward and trustworthy,” and “deeply committed to his country” (p.137)

            Yet, for all the warm talk, the Bush administration recurrently sent out signals of its “intention to treat Russia as a mid-ranking country rather than a superpower” (p.132-33).  Although Putin was the first world leader to express solidarity with the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 did incalculable damage to U.S.-Russia relations. “A really strong, anti-terrorist international coalition was created after September 2001,” Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister, said. “It was destroyed in 2003 when the Americans decided to start their war in Iraq” (p.203). In Putin’s view, Washington had given itself a “license to support regime change wherever it wished,” with countries closest to Russia geographically and economically “at the top of its hit list”(p.174).

           American support for the pro-Western “Rose” demonstrations in Georgia in 2003 and “Orange” in Ukraine in 2004 — the so-called “Color Revolutions”  – aroused Putin’s fury because of the “existential threat” which they appeared to pose to the Kremlin (p.173).  Georgians and Ukrainians had:

provided a compelling model of how ordinary people could mobilize in a post-Soviet society to prevent a discredited regime from clinging to office – with more than a helping hand from the CIA, in Putin’s view. Putin’s concern was that Bush, with his determination to promote democracy around the world, might now try to encourage similar such forces in Russia to challenge Putin’s own hold on power (p.173).

Conradi perceives a “growing assertiveness” to Putin’s governance after the Color Revolutions, in which he “consolidated political and economic power in his hand and marginalized his opponents” (p.177).

            Barred from running for a third consecutive term, Putin stepped aside in 2008 and his Deputy Prime Minister, Dimitri Medvedev, was elected president.  Medvedev, trained as a lawyer and a decade younger than Putin, was more polished and less paranoid.  But he was without an independent power base and thus dependent for support upon Putin, who became Prime Minister.  The Medvedev years, 2008-2012, overlapped with the last year of George W. Bush’s term and Barack Obama’s first term. Obama assumed the presidency with the idea of a “reset” in Russian-American relations. But neither administration in Conradi’s view ever fully figured out who was in control in Moscow during these years, Medvedev or Putin.

            Conradi observes a discernible shift in Putin’s style of governance when he was re-elected president in 2012.  During his first eight years, Putin had governed according to an unwritten pact: “citizens stayed out of the state’s business, and in return it guaranteed them growing prosperity, underwritten by surging oil revenues” (p.234).  After 2012, Putin sought a “new source of legitimacy,” described as “‘patriotic mobilization.’ This new direction was accompanied by tighter control of television and a tougher line against opposition parties and civil society. The move was given greater urgency by the Arab Spring, which provided a salutary reminder of the ease with which regimes could be toppled if popular protests were allowed to get out of hand” (p.234).

            The 2013-14 crises in Ukraine and Crimea marked the end of the last glimmer of hope for a workable general partnership between Russia and the West. When Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of an assistance agreement with the European Union in November 2013, massive pro-Western demonstrations erupted in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Yanukovych fled to Russia and sought Russian assistance. Putin followed in March 2014 with the boldest move of his presidency: military invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea, a largely autonomous region within Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population and several Russian naval bases. The purported basis of the intervention was to protect beleaguered ethnic Russians.

          Conradi cautions against considering Putin’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine as the “first staging in a carefully thought-out plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union” (p.301). His actions appear instead to have been prompted more by fear that Ukraine, a country still considered part of the Russian homeland, was “in danger of drifting into the Western camp.  He was also counting on a warm reception from the locals and gambled, rightly, that the West would do nothing to stop him” (p.303). The 2013-2014 crises “put a definitive end to any further expansion of NATO” and “allowed Putin to reassert his right of veto over any change in the ‘near abroad’” (p.295).

         If Russian governance today might be considered “Putinism,” it is based “neither on Soviet nostalgia nor on integration with the West” (p.235). Its distinctly anti-Western appeals are to an emotive Russian nationalism and ethnicity as the “backbone of the Russian state” (p.234); and to a social conservatism that is blatantly anti-homosexual, reinforced by the Russian Orthodox Church as “arbiter and enforcer of national mores” (p.234).  Oppressed during the Soviet era, the Orthodox Church saw a resurgence after the fall of communism and, as in Tsarist times, is once again “intimately woven into the affairs of state,” wielding “extraordinary power” (p.235).

            Putinism sees foreign policy as a “zero sum game” (p.339), where  plots and conspiracies against Russia abound.  Yet Russia’s role on the world stage, Conradi argues, is that of a “wrecker of the established order rather than as a positive force . . . The attempt to position Russia as a socially conservative rival to the liberal democracies of the West [has] attracted few takers in Europe beyond backers of the fringe parties on the right” (p.295).

* * *

            Conradi alludes to a common understanding of Russian history and culture divided between two camps: “Europhiles,” who look to the West for models; and “Slavophiles,” who look inward, rejecting Western values and celebrating Russian culture and history (a more elaborate discussion may be found in Steven Marks’ How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December 2014).   The interplay between these competing camps was largely kept below the surface during the Soviet regime. When Putin came to power in the year 2000, he appeared to have a foot in each camp. But at some point in the new century’s first decade, both Putin feet moved firmly into the Slavophile camp.  Setting aside Conradi’s answer to his question who lost Russia — you will have to read the book to find that answer – Conradi’s astute analysis leads to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin “found” or “refound” the traditional Slavophile Russia, a Russia that the West in the 1990s too readily assumed had disappeared altogether.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 8, 2017

 

 

 

 

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Lenin’s Century

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Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

* * *

            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union, Uncategorized

Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012

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