Real American "Power"
It Was All About The Ideas
Stephen Kotkin on Russia --
"It wants to stand out as a great power. Its problem has always been not this sense of self or identity but the fact that its capabilities have never matched its aspirations. It’s always in a struggle to live up to these aspirations, but it can’t, because the West has always been more powerful."
This, of course, is because it does not produce on anything like the scale of its potential or requirements, and there are countless reasons for it, spanning centuries of culture and political convolutions. In Russia, the human mind has never approached freedoms to apply reason to problems of preserving and enhancing life that have been exercised in the West for hundreds of years. Since Peter The Great, applied science, technology, and industry existed mainly at the indulgence of the imperial throne, to include foreign investments in Russia. The Bolsheviks and Soviets spent millions of lives aping the West, promising space travel to whole generations who waited for electricity and cars; all while the slave camps raged.
Connotations of the word, "power" in this context often conflate the power to destroy and the power to produce, which are two different applications of human will and ethics. The military element of the thing should always be emphasized in considering Russia. For centuries of the Empire, its rulers paid court to formal relations with Europeans, and even familial relations with their royals. All this, through various wars & skirmishes. Napoleon's adventure to the heart of the Motherland, however, was a thunderbolt that ratified ages-old suspicions and fears of that rumbling smoke on the western horizon; what powers of destruction ranged along those two thousand miles of border in the Industrial Age?
The Soviets' brutal practice of the very idea of communism was so naturally offensive to rational human ethics that it could only be maintained by military force, with the principle beginning against Russians themselves. The borders were enforced against escape attempts at least as much as against invasion, but that had nothing to do with the self-avowed communist intent to -- yes -- take over the world. The names of Prague and Budapest should suffice to illustrate determination in their intent, if not complete fulfillment of the dream.
It was not only world response to the observed ferocity of communism in the mid-20th century that made Soviet Russians sullen and mean. It was also a feral cunning which brought within their mental reach the sense that decent people didn't like them, and might try to do something about them.
Vladimir Putin was as born to sit the seat of 21st-century Russian power as anyone else who would want that job, now. He would have been formed in the character-press of a certain sense of a world-orphan; always looking-in at the fires of the West, but consigned to the cold by geography, centuries of ethical and political domination without the Enlightenment touch of individualism, and steeled as a machine in all the Soviet rationales and skills of brute force.
Aspirations to world power on these principles, combined with economic desperations at play in Russian affairs, represent the central engine of currents in international affairs since WW II. Mid-century U.S. diplomats were already practiced in the conduct of empire; practically since the invasion of North Africa in 1942, if not theoretically since Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt. The predatory nature of communism was starkly evident in the Soviet strangling of eastern Europe along nearly its entire military front in 1945, and every national foreign policy had to account for it.
That the United States assumed the international power that it did is a matter of doing the wrong thing for throbbings of the heart and not reasonings of the mind according to the principles that first set America down its course in history. Great whoops for "Democracy!" in the late throes of WW I drove U.S. military action as soon as a Lusitania could be exploited, and new principles of large-scale international responsibility were laid in blood. Not counting the interim of the 1920s-30s, the rest of the century would see constant increase of U.S. military interest in foreign affairs, augmented (not diminished) by sporadic attempts at international peace through super-bureaucratic efforts engineered in Washington D.C.
In their various memoirs, these people argue, essentially, that they meant well. Acheson and Rusk, Kennan and Henderson will all tell you of the struggles of managing what Russia had become. When the U.K. gave up its ill-advised attempt to save Greece from communism in 1946, it was an ad-hoc State Department committee working over the weekend that lashed-up what became the Truman Doctrine.
Presumably, somebody had to do it, and these people presumed.
Just about anyone can pore through history and look back at all the branches of roads taken, so that it’s all arrived at wide astonishment that the best efforts of seven decades of experts now teeter on the bloody edge of Ukraine. To anyone seriously thinking about America, the United Nations and NATO must finally be taken as dangerous delusions, down to their roots. They are the centers of power against which deranged aspirations like Putin’s are arranged; exploiting the moral and political confusions of their members with a criminal’s feel for an open window or a lawyer’s eye for the disputable clause.
The net effects of NATO throughout its existence have been to convince European countries that they could afford the fashions of socialism at the cost of their own defense, and Russia that all its worst fears for centuries became nuclear-true. Mere decency demands a word for countless unknown dreams of individual Americans who were forced to pay for all this: go ahead; you tell me what those dollars and cents were worth to them, if you dare.
World War I happened for reasons awfully similar to what The Bloodlands (in Timothy Snyder’s ringing appellation) are coming to right now. States forcibly binding their citizens to international agreements with all the intentions and dress of honor take enormous risks of having to live-up to them, and will ordinarily do so on stupid and venal impulses.
There is no telling what lies at the bottom of the real Western interest in the Ukrainian crisis. Pretenses to “honor” in today’s worldwide criminal politics still work as cynical cover for any & all interested to not know: through it all, people still trust their governments enough to write the checks and vote.
What should be obvious enough is that the gross arrangements of foreign relations in eighty years, since the best moral impulses of Americans took the torch of empire from Britain in 1942, have now run to unique dissipation of their country’s “power,” in either connotation of the word. Incalculable productive effort was devoted to worldwide maintenance of war conditions on demand, and no one will ever know how it might have shown the world better way to live, as America always had. At the same time and in result, the greatest military force in history is constrained and driven by thickets of various treaties, agreements, and mere implications, to the point where it is more frequently useless all the time. Kabul 2021 should have made the final case.
Only history will demonstrate whether most of a century’s folly can ever be peacefully regressed toward a foreign policy on moral principles that an American could endorse. All argument of the subject would be heavily laced with appeal to anachronism: “The times have changed!” This line brings the convenience of not having to causally analyze the principles at work today, as well as dismissing principles in general. It is to deny, in general, the idea that nations could benefit from moral leadership as well as people do and that, in particular, America could ever do it.
Certainly, it could not, today. If the statesmen of the mid-20th century were earnestly misgiven, they were serious about their work. We can only wonder at what they would make of Kamala Harris at a press conference with the president of Poland, giggling over a question about refugees in a context of deadly invasive combat as cause of the whole thing. Joe Biden must be widely understood as practically derelict by friend & foe alike, with the latter surely stimulated at the prospect. None of this is beneficial leadership to anyone, America least of all.
From where would the morals of a proper moral leadership come?
It’s a heavy complex of conditions that result in the question. Present political leadership is an expression of practice of government and preaching from academia, amplified by media, for more than a century: a concurrence of ideas so complete that it is constantly analyzed as conspiracies now. That’s not really what it is. It’s just that the steady culture of government, because of its basic nature, has wrought a society in which morals are subordinate to the expedience of force and its natural companion: lies.
The most fundamental lie in all of it is that government is better than freedom. That’s what most people have been raised to believe.
What America first demonstrated to the world was the moral and practical value of freedom. To say that “the times” or “the world” has changed and that there is no place now for what that means, is to ignore how America changed the world when it did, in defiance of thousands of years of human bondage. Even in the face of hourly horrible news, there could never be a better time to argue for precise analysis of what this country has been, is, and should be.
It’s possible that, after their centuries of confused misery, even the Russians might figure it out.