The end of the Cold War did not harbinger a golden age of peace, love and understanding between Washington and Moscow. There was talk, once upon a time, of the Russian Federation joining NATO, but it was never a serious option. NATO had been founded in 1949 to prevent Moscow annexing Western Europe. It exists today to prevent Moscow annexing Eastern Europe. We might spot a pattern here. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro are never again going to countenance Russia being in a position to offer them “fraternal assistance” (à la East Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, Prague 1968). For those nations, at least, the idea of Moscow assuming the role of key strategic power on NATO’s eastern flank must have sounded like the old Latin proverb Ovem lupo commitere—“To set a wolf to guard sheep”. None of this, however, is to suggest that configuring Russia as our implacable foe in any way serves the interests of the West.
Russia, even in its darkest moments during the 1990s, had little desire to be absorbed into an American-orchestrated New World Order. The West, then, did not lose Russia, because Russia has never been ours to squander. Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilisations?” thesis, which first appeared in a 1993 edition of Foreign Affairs, provides some of the reasons why. Huntington divided the world into nine major civilisational entities. He did not include Russia as part of “Western civilisation” but, rather, categorised it as a major part of “Orthodox civilisation”. Russia, despite its apparent similarities with the West, had been on a different civilisational journey—eschewing the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, parliamentary democracy, and so on—and had arrived at a very different destination. The end of the Soviet Union could never guarantee entirely harmonious relations between Russia and America, since each has its own geopolitical interests to pursue. George Kennan said something similar in his famous commentaries at the commencement of the Cold War: the demise of communist rule would not eliminate all civilisational frictions.
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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Even Huntington’s apparent mistakes confirm the fundamentals of his thesis. “The Clash of Civilisations?”, for instance, posited a geopolitical fault-line running through Ukraine, with the Catholic population in the west oriented towards Europe, and the Orthodox contingent in the east far more sympathetic to the overtures of Russia. Vladimir Putin, as it happened, bungled the power grab for Ukraine in 2014 so badly that only a relatively small portion of the people of eastern Ukraine retained their traditional loyalty to the Kremlin. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine, as a consequence, sought and received, on January 6 this year, the documentation of its independence from the Patriarch of Moscow—the tomos of autocephaly—courtesy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s comment at the time entirely corroborated the veracity of Huntington’s view: “Autocephaly is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian state strategy.”
There is an argument to be made, of course, that under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s customary Westophobia is back with a vengeance and the country is, in fact, better positioned to indulge its anti-West paranoia than in the era of Late Communism. In other words, although the Berlin Wall, or the so-called Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier, was dismantled by the East Germans themselves in 1990 and Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, the Great Bear is back in “the Great Game”—an expression, used as long ago as the nineteenth century, to describe Tsarist Russia’s ambitions in Persia and Afghanistan. Russia’s invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008), seizure of Crimea (2014), military intervention in the Syrian Civil War (2015, continuing), economic, military and political support for “Bolivarian” Venezuela and so on, would seem to confirm the view that Russia still has Great Power pretensions.
Still, we should not overlook three things about Putin’s quest for renewed superpowerdom. First, tensions between the West and the Russian Federation were already present during the Yeltsin era. The Kremlin, for example, protested against the invitation in 1997 for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join NATO; and President Yeltsin also roundly condemned NATO’s intervention in the break-up of Yugoslavia. Second, the Cold War stripped Moscow of much of its global significance. In 1991, for instance, the Soviet Union had a population of 290 million; today the Russian Federation has 150 million people, a number that is shrinking fast. The Soviet Union comprised 22.4 million square kilometres, almost a sixth of the world’s land surface; today the Russian Federation comes in at 17.1 million square kilometres.
Leaving aside military expertise and energy resources for the moment, there is nothing especially world-beating or vital about modern-day Russia, especially if we are comparing it to the dynamism of China. Finally, President Putin’s popularity dropped sharply in 2018, not least because of a rise in the qualifying age for state pensions. Even Putin’s twenty-four-seven propaganda machine will not save his authoritarian, not to mention kleptocratic, regime if the economy remains grounded. In 2017, Russia’s nominal GDP per capita was ranked sixty-first in the world, just behind Costa Rica. You can only hang your hat on being a better economic manager than Boris Yeltsin for so long.
Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin remains a force to be reckoned with. For Dana Milbank, a leading political columnist at the Washington Post, it is not enough to say that Putin’s Russia has regained a measure of its old imperial self after almost coming apart in the Yeltsin era. The judgment of history, according to Milbank, must now be reversed courtesy of the 2016 US presidential race: “It’s official. We lost the Cold War.” Milbank, one of the most widely syndicated commentators in the USA, seriously believes Donald Trump is a secret agent for Moscow: “The TV series The Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which Nazis won World War II. But we don’t need an alternative-history show to imagine a Soviet victory in the Cold War. We have Trump.” Our high-profile and highly remunerated correspondent is, like so many other members of the “resistance”, a firm believer in the Great Kremlin Hoax: “Now, 29 years after the wall fell, Trump is handing Moscow the Cold War victory it could never win.”
If President Trump really were a (not-so-secret) Russian agent, he has performed badly. Consider the way he has challenged Putin on the economic front. Russia’s only world-standard industry, apart from the armaments business, is energy production. Seventy per cent of Russia’s total exports are oil-and-gas related. This incredible asset has been used by Putin to leverage countries near and far in a way that the moribund Soviet economy never allowed. Who needs the Warsaw Pact when you are an energy behemoth and can freeze Europe into submission? Commentators such Milbank feign unawareness of the purpose propelling the Trump administration’s frenetic quest for not only energy independence but the activation of a genuine oil-exporting operation.
America is now in a position to reduce the European Union’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, a development that at least the nations of the Visegrad group, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are keen to embrace. While Germany remains complacent about its reliance on Russian energy, a country like Hungary—formerly the Hungarian People’s Republic—is now pushing for American companies to invest heavily in prospective Romanian oil fields in the Black Sea. The Hungarians have an expectation that President Trump will back this because he instinctively understands what academics such as George Kennan and Samuel P. Huntington long ago theorised about. Russia is not a part of the West, and we each have our own interests to pursue, and yet there will be times when we can form a tactical alliance.
The Republic of Poland, by contrast, could be said to embody the very heart of the West, if not geographically then in other significant ways. Most importantly, perhaps, in its providential conflict with Nazi totalitarianism (the 1944 Warsaw Uprising) and Soviet totalitarianism. Soviet Russia might have overrun Central Europe after the First World War if patriotic Poles had not vanquished the Red Army at the Battle of Warsaw in the 1919-20 Russo-Polish War—a humiliation Stalin never forgot. Eastern Poland was seized by Moscow (in league with Berlin) on September 17, 1939; and it has never been returned. The Polish People’s Republic was a captive state of the Soviet empire between 1945 and 1989.
Nonetheless, the Polish workers’ movement, Solidarity, and the Polish Catholic Church shook Late Communism to its very foundations. Solidarity’s electoral victory in 1989 resulted in the first non-communist prime minister in Central and Eastern Europe since 1945, and inspired anti-communist revolutions throughout the Soviet empire. Poland (along with Hungary and the Czech Republic) was admitted to NATO as a fully-fledged member in 1999. If there is any enduring advantage from winning the Cold War, it might be summarised in one word: Poland.
Confirmation that Trump is a Russian agent, according to Milbank, can be found in the President’s repeated hectoring of NATO members to pay 2 per cent of GDP towards the military alliance. There has been, concomitantly, much ominous commentary about President Trump not stating explicitly (or regularly) enough his commitment to Article 5—that is, NATO’s obligation to collective action. The Washington Post, for its part, now publishes editorials by military historian-journalist Max Boot with headings such as this: “Here Are 18 Reasons Why Trump Could Be a Russian Asset”. One of the so-called reasons, to echo Dana Milbank, is “Trump’s regular attacks against the European Union and NATO”. Another alleged reason is President Trump’s support for “pro-Russian leaders in Europe, including Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán”. There is a kernel of truth in this, given that Prime Minister Orbán mostly refrains from making negative comments about Putin, and yet there are moments when the Hungarian leader admits the obvious: Russia is Hungary’s greatest security threat and membership of Visegrad and NATO happens to be Hungary’s only option for long-term autonomy. Donald Trump, the former real-estate developer and reality television celebrity, knows this; Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, does not.
President Trump’s Warsaw Speech, delivered on July 6, 2017, in Krasinski Square, scene of Poland’s uprising against Nazi occupation, made nonsense of the Great Kremlin Conspiracy. Here Donald Trump could not have articulated a West-versus-the-Rest (which would include Russia) leitmotif any more clearly: “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” The Washington Post, inevitably, ran with an article by Jonathan Capehart that spoke of “white-nationalist dog whistles” in Trump’s appeal to “preserve our civilisation”. So, President Trump is damned for being a Russian agent and, at the same time, vilified (as a white nationalist) for expressing solidarity with Poland’s desire to deter Russian encroachment upon its sovereignty.
To fully grasp the roots of our modern-day Great Kremlin Conspiracy we might have to return to the Great Kremlin Conspiracy of the late 1940s and early 1950s, also known as the Red Scare. There is still debate about whether this was a conspiracy at all, given the declassification of the Venona Project (a Cold War counter-intelligence operation) in 1996 and the confirmation that “martyrs” such as the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss and Klaus Fuchs were all Russian agents. Be that as it may, American-style liberals assumed that the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the (unconnected) histrionics of Senator Joseph McCarthy were, to borrow from playwright Arthur Miller, a “witch hunt”. Today, it is as if the perceived inequitableness of the Red Scare, all those decades ago, has given our current progressives—Democratic Party politicians, activist judges, activist educators, Hollywood celebrities, media proprietors, journalists, television personalities—the right to mount a contemporaneous witch hunt against a Republican administration. It is in this sense, at least, that the Cold War damaged what we might call the psyche of America. In other words, America and the West in general did not lose the Cold War in 1989–91 and nor has the US, as Dana Milbank insists, lost the Cold War through the perfidy of Donald Trump. Nonetheless, on its way to defeating the Soviet empire, America sustained wounds from which it has never recovered.
The case of Lee Harvey Oswald is remarkably instructive on this subject. In 1953, after reading a pamphlet protesting against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Oswald embraced radical politics. In his un-American fervour he defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. His subsequent disillusionment with Really Existing Socialism led to a pro-Castro view after returning to the US in 1962. Though failing to slay General Edwin Walker, a fervent anti-Castroist, on April 10, 1963, he managed to assassinate President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy was not the only one to lament that JFK had been murdered by “some silly little communist” rather than a member of the Texas chapter of the KKK. Those who, like Lee Harvey Oswald, blamed the Cold War on America, found solace in conspiracy theories that absolved the “silly little communist” of his crime and blamed everyone else for it. There is always a victim in a conspiracy theory, and in this case the victim was America, twofold in that the United States lost its leader in the most brutal way possible and because the nation’s would-be guardians—from the CIA and the FBI to the vice-presidency—were defamed as bloody assassins.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s un-American political trajectory was catastrophic in its own tragic way, but it echoed and (because of the conspiracism associated with the Kennedy assassination) exacerbated the notion among progressive thinkers that the United States was inherently toxic. President Truman and President Eisenhower were reconfigured as promoters of home-grown fascism. It became increasingly acceptable in academia, even before the advent of the Vietnam War, to construe America as the antagonist in the Cold War. William Appleman Williams’s seminal The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, published in 1959, popularised the idea that Franklin Roosevelt’s “open door policy” or insistence on the universality of trade put its Grand Alliance partner, the Soviet Union, in an intolerable situation. David Horowitz, who later famously reneged on his historical revisionism, blamed Truman in From Yalta to Vietnam (1967) for instigating the Cold War. Most of these New Left accounts were careful not to exonerate Joseph Stalin as a blameless domestic leader, and yet he was habitually afforded the role of victim in the origins of the Cold War.
The Cold War revisionists could not even permit themselves to be magnanimous in their interpretation of the end game. John O’Sullivan’s The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World (2008) is something of an outlier with its insistence that President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Prime Minister Thatcher all played key roles in the downfall of Soviet communism. The naysayers, conveniently enough, rarely acknowledge how close the Soviet Union came to winning the Cold War. Without a credible response to the massive deployment of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles (SS-20s) in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1977, West Germany would have had a gun pointed at its head by Moscow. A compliant West Germany providing the technology and investment required to transform the failing economy of the Soviet Union into an energy colossus is something to ponder. That particular development would have to wait until the advent of the Russian Federation.
NATO’s counter-placement of Pershing II and cruise missiles in West Germany in January 1984, thanks to the Reagan-Thatcher alliance and the courage of Chancellor Kohl, went ahead despite the protestations of the so-called Peace Movement in Western Europe, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the United Kingdom. The unilateralism of these protest groups—that is, block NATO’s weapons upgrade without attaining any concessions from the Warsaw Pact—could have been scripted by the Kremlin. (And may have been, given that leading figures in the CND, including Vic Allen, were later found to be in the pay of the Stasi, the East German secret police.) Fortunately, Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl et al did not yield to the hysteria of the ill-informed peaceniks. And so, the die was now cast. Following the demise of Soviet leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo promoted Mikhail Gorbachev by the slenderest of margins to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party on March 11, 1985. Gorbachev was chosen to initiate Détente II with the United States: the comrades feared that any more costly Cold War misadventures, such as the failed SS-20 gambit, would result in the economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reforms (glasnost, perestroika and demokratiya) may have accelerated the demise of the Soviet empire, and yet the writing was on the wall before he ever took power.
The end of the Cold War was predicated upon an astonishing peacetime military build-up under President Reagan, which contrasted sharply with the preceding one-sided concessions of Détente (1969–79) and the diminished state of the armed forces during the Carter years. The peacetime military build-up under President Trump, which last year reached an estimated figure of $717 billion, might be compared to spending in the first years of the Reagan era. The Trump administration’s outlay on the military is now criticised by the Left as too much and, on the other hand, by NeverTrumpers as too little. More likely, it signals an end to President Obama’s attempted placation of all the West’s geopolitical adversaries: Russia, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and so on.
Obama’s post-America doctrine, as outlined in his 2008 Berlin address and put into action over the subsequent eight years, was intended to achieve global peace, with America offering a mea culpa to the world (for the injustices of the Cold War and the two terms of George W. Bush) while extending the hand of friendship to the traditional foes of the West. The 2014 Bowe Bergdahl farrago illustrates the point, although the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal might be considered the apotheosis of the Obama Doctrine. We can only assume that a Sanders Doctrine, given that Bernie Sanders supported the Really Existing Socialism of the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua, would bring nearer to fulfilment the admonition outlined by James Burnham, in The Suicide of the West (1964). The point to make here, critically, is that although America defeated the scourge of Soviet communism, we have to allow for the possibility that this victory came at the cost of America’s belief that it was, as President Lincoln famously declared, the “last best hope of Earth”. The very type of anti-America ideology Lee Harvey Oswald espoused has, paradoxically enough, helped transform the optimism, self-confidence and enlightened patriotism of the United States into something far less sanguine.
A key feature of the Cold War was the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”, which ensured that neither the White House nor the Kremlin would ever activate the nuclear button since doing so would mean the simultaneous destruction of the assailed and the assailant. Less commented upon is the fact that America and Russia engaged in a very different kind of mutually assured destruction which was activated. There are many instances of Washington and Moscow attempting to score a short-term advantage over their Cold War adversary but, in actuality, only inflicting long-term damage on themselves. The case of the People’s Republic of China stands out as the perfect exemplar. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, perhaps against his instincts, was co-opted by Chairman Mao Zedong to provide China with the Bomb. The Soviet Union was rewarded with a nuclear-armed foe on its eastern border and, of course, the 1969 Sino-Soviet War. A decade later, President Richard Nixon, the “mastermind” of Realpolitik, spurned Free China (Taiwan) and brought the People’s Republic of China in from the cold. The United States has been rewarded with a regime that now seeks to bury Uncle Sam in a way that Khrushchev could only have imagined. As Senator Marco Rubio recently observed: “The Chinese effort to supplant America has no precedent.”
Influential progressive forces in America have reasons to promote the Great Kremlin Conspiracy over and above the need to defame President Trump, rationalise the 2016 election defeat and cover up their own (real) covert and corrupt dealings with Moscow. There is also the delicious irony of pointing an accusing finger at their conservative opponent and shouting “Russia! Russia! Russia!” It is an overdue payback for the Red Scare all those years ago. There is the added factor that they do not much care for Russia’s treatment of local LGBTQ demonstrators. Finally, they will never forgive Vladimir Putin for repeatedly humiliating “their” Barack Obama on the world stage. President Putin made a mockery of their “one world one people” millennialism (although so did President-for-life Xi Jinping and a host of other national leaders). It is in this context, I submit, that we might begin to understand the histrionics of Dana Milbank and a thousand other activist-journalists like him.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is now apologising to Mitt Romney for having mocked him during the 2012 presidential campaign. Albright, who supported Obama against all Republican challengers, lashed out against the Romney for suggesting that Russia was America’s “geopolitical foe”. President Obama derided Candidate Romney in a televised debate with a rehearsed line prepared for him by one of his talented writers: “The ’80s called. They want their foreign policy back.” But that was then, and this is now. Today apologists for the Democratic Party, especially the would-be intellectual ones like Madeleine Albright, have to square the circle if their Great Kremlin Conspiracy is to make any sense. So now, when it does not matter one jot, they can praise a failed Republican presidential candidate from many years ago so they might malign a currently successful Republican presidential candidate. Russia, very clearly, is alternatively a good guy or bad guy depending on what advances their domestic political agenda. This is no way to form foreign policy.
Amongst our shameless commentariat, moreover, a consensus has developed that Barack Obama was tougher on Russia than Donald Trump. This implausible idea is based on Obama calling out Putin’s Russia as a “regional power”, which had acted out of “weakness” when it annexed Crimea. And did not the Obama administration impose trade sanctions on Russia? But why, we could ask, was it that Putin’s territorial intercessions, including his audacious intrusion into the Syrian civil war, all occur on Obama’s watch? President Obama ended up disappointed with not only Russia but also China, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen, North Korea, the Philippines and probably others. Surely, if everybody let President Obama down, as he intimated in his long interview with Jeffrey Goldberg during his final year in office, then maybe the Obama Doctrine departed from geopolitical practice or, to be frank, simple common sense.
Obama’s policy of “re-set”, “flexibility” and all-round appeasement was doomed to fail because Barack Obama, as a progressive ideologue, did not have the wherewithal to comprehend his counterpart in the Kremlin. Obama, among other acts of mollification, reneged on his promise to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with a modern missile defence system out of deference to Vladimir Putin. (President Trump, contrariwise, gave the go-ahead to such a deal.) Even more alarmingly, the Obama administration allowed Russia to renege on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had been so pivotal in the negotiations between Reagan and Gorbachev that brought the Cold War to an end. Obama did nothing to challenge Putin’s duplicity, according to the New York Times no less, except to write a stern letter to his counterpart. President Trump, in contrast, took the United States out of INF Treaty in January 2019 and has opened up the possibility of an arms race with Russia, one that Russia can never hope to win and which will only immiserate its population and add to President Putin’s growing domestic unpopularity.
Russia, from the standpoint of Samuel P. Huntington, is a “swing” civilisation. That is to say, Russia could be either a friend or a foe of the West depending on the circumstances—with those circumstances, in turn, being shaped disproportionately by America, victor of the Cold War. Moscow will form a tactical alliance with Washington on an issue-by-issue basis, and that includes everything from containing China (which is in the long-term interests of both) to defeating Salafi jihadism (which is more than the Islamic State). The ideologically-driven President Obama would have known about Samuel P. Huntington but only from the negative perspective of Edward Said, one of his many New Left mentors. For Said, the founder of post-colonialism, Huntington’s thesis represented “the purest invidious racism”. Barack Obama, the Radical-in-Chief, would have believed that Said’s naysaying was merely a case of truth-speaking-to-power. Then again, President Obama, as Mark Steyn unkindly explained in After America (2011), was trapped in an “elderly arrested adolescence”, his narcissism and naivety passed off as “nobility of spirit”. President Trump, vainglorious and glib, may not have read Huntington, or even heard of him, and yet he instinctively understands how the world turns.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann. He wrote “Progressive Ideology and the Ghosts of Nazism” in the March issue.