Thursday, November 27, 2014

Cold War Comforts

NEW YORK – Western relations with Russia have rarely been worse than they are now, in the aftermath of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and decision to annex Crimea. But US President Barack Obama has sought to assure the world that this is not the beginning of a new Cold War.

Even so, hawkish American liberals and hardline conservatives are comparing Obama’s leadership unfavorably with supposedly tougher presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Never mind that Eisenhower did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or that Reagan had no intention of supporting Solidarity activists when they rose against Poland’s communist regime.

In many ways, the Cold War made things easier for US presidents. There were only two great powers – China did not really count until recently – and their spheres of interest were clearly defined. The Soviet Union’s ruling ideology was equally clear: a Stalinist version of Communism.

Stalinism, like Maoism in China, was in fact deeply conservative, aimed chiefly at consolidating the regime’s power at home and its domination over satellites abroad. The ideological enemy was the capitalist world, but the immediate enemies were “Trotskyists,” “revisionists,” and other “reactionary elements” inside the Soviet sphere. In times of crisis, old-school Russian nationalism was mobilized in the service of Soviet interests.

China was similar. Mao was not an imperial expansionist – he never even bothered to ask the British to give back Hong Kong. Mao, too, focused Chinese nationalism almost entirely on the brave new world of Communism.

Everything changed, however, after Mao’s death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Communism, as a ruling ideology, disappeared in Russia and has become so diluted in capitalist China that little more than its symbolic trappings – and a Leninist party with a monopoly on power – remain.

This left a vacuum in both countries, with Russia’s government struggling to justify an elected autocracy, and China’s one-party dictatorship seeking a new source of legitimacy. Old, discredited traditions were suddenly revived. Putin quotes half-forgotten philosophers in an effort to show the spiritual superiority of Russia’s national soul. Chinese officials now talk about Confucianism as the basis of a new political identity.

Much of this is half-baked, at best. Most Chinese, including government officials, have only a patchy knowledge of the Confucian classics. They tend to cherry-pick quotations that support their own grip on power, stressing such “traditional” virtues as obedience to authority, neglecting to mention that Confucian thought upholds the right to rebel against unjust rulers.

Putin’s favorite philosophers are a mixed bag of mystical nationalists who all conceived of Russia as a spiritual community based on the Orthodox faith, but whose ideas are too diverse in other ways, and too obscure, to provide a coherent ideology. Nor are their thoughts always in line with Putin’s own. Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a major calamity; yet he freely quotes Ivan Ilyin, who became a ferocious opponent of the Soviet regime and was banished by Lenin to Western Europe in 1922.

It may be that Putin genuinely believes that Russia is a spiritual bastion against the decadence of a Western world that has been corrupted by materialism and homosexuality. It is also possible that China’s current rulers, whose families have grown rich through political favors, are convinced students of Confucian philosophy. But the governments in Russia and China are guided by something much trickier to deal with: nationalism based on resentment.

Maoist dogma in China has been largely replaced by something called “patriotic education,” manifested in school textbooks, history museums, and an assortment of monuments. Chinese grow up with the idea – not wholly wrong – that China was deeply humiliated by foreigners for more than a hundred years, especially during the nineteenth-century Opium Wars and the brutal Japanese invasions. Only a strong China, under the firm leadership of the Communist Party, can protect its people from future depredations.

In Russia, Putin, too, is manipulating old grievances and a traditional sense that the wicked West is bent on undermining Russian unity and destroying its soul. As is true of China’s leaders, Putin accuses the West of ganging up on Russia.

One can call this paranoia, but it is not completely irrational. After all, both Russia and China are surrounded by countries allied to the US. And, by pushing NATO as far as the Russian borders, the West has hardly been sensitive to Russian security concerns.

The problem with nationalism based on resentment is that it impedes diplomacy, which is based on give and take. Criticism is quickly seen as a sign of hostility or disrespect. Unwelcome moves by American or Japanese politicians are officially branded as “insults to the people.”

Of course, much of this is intended for domestic consumption – a way to mobilize public opinion behind authoritarian rulers. But these powerful autocracies’ resentful nationalism still makes them harder to deal with than their more brutal, but less unpredictable, Communist predecessors.

Given that military confrontation would be extremely dangerous, the best formula might still be the one framed by the US diplomat George Kennan in 1947. If China and Russia cannot be treated as friends, conflict can be managed by recognizing their different interests, by constant vigilance, and by maintaining the strength of our own democratic institutions. If, pace Obama, we are at the start of a new Cold War, so be it. The whole point of the Cold War was to ensure that a hot one would be prevented.

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    1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      If hawks see the Ukraine crisis "the begining of a new Cold War", no doubt they are looking for parallels. As Obama has been reluctant to intervene, Mr. Buruma compares him with Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan saying "Eisenhower did nothing to stop Soviet tanks from crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or that Reagan had no intention of supporting Solidarity activists when they rose against Poland’s communist regime".
      Eisenhower knew firsthand account of World War II as the supreme Allied commander in Europe. The Hungarian uprising took place between 23 October until 10 November 1956, days before he ran for re-election. Reagan did support the "Solidarity activists" in Poland financially - with an aid of some $50 million. There was no immediate danger of military crackdown on the movement.
      If the "Cold War comforts" lie in the fact that ideologies made "things easier for US presidents", President Obama is right that he prefers not to see the emergence of a "new Cold War". Back in the old days, the US had only Russia as its counterpart, as "China did not really count". Today it has to deal with a resurgent Russia and a rising China. Both are determined to challenge the good old order established by the West, under the US' auspices.
      The Cold War ended, leaving China and Russia confounded, as both struggled to reinvent themselves to fill the ideological vacuum left in the wake of Maoism and Stalinism. They started to focus on their domestic affairs and problems. As their economy thrived thanks to to state capitalism, raised the question of their political system. Both saw no reason to change, because "Communism as a ruling ideology" in the past helped preserve power. For Russia it's crucial to "justify an elected autocracy", and China has to seek a "new source of legimtimacy" for its "one-party dictatorship".
      Both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are determined to rule with an iron fist. Their uncompromising stance on the world stage vis-à-vis the West means to show their own people that they are strong and tough leaders. While Maoism is history in China since Mao's death in 1976, Xi has no intention to revive the ideology, other than to keep the Communist Party in power, with him as the "helmsman". Putin, on the contrary has been accused by critics in and outside Russia of creating a new Stalinism, by being authoritarian and enhancing the military might. Nevertheless both leaders face enormous challenges in the coming years. Their citizens know what their rights are. Freedom is like a genie. Once it is let out of the bottle, there is no way put it back in.

    2. CommentedYuriy Gorodnichenko

      It is surprising how relevant the long telegram is today. The parallels are striking

    3. Commentedhari naidu

      Like Peter Singer you're (also) trying to avoid looking into the mirror - I mean Western decision-making mirror(s) including US Beltway.

      Let's take your analogy and nostalgia a bit into the future:

      1. Imagine mainland China decides after Putin's annexation of Crimea to reassess its strategic policy framework and focus on cementing bilateral relation with its neighbor India - after the Indian elections - with the rise of BJP nationalist Modi as PM.

      2. 1962 Himalayan boarder conflict was caused principally by then PM Nehru who imposed a boarder in southern Tibet on Mao's China which he knew was based on false maps (UK). The subsequent Sino - Indian War was an eye opener for Nehru...and it continues to this day!

      3. However China finally decides to cement its boarders with India in southern Tibet and compromises on its historical claims; PM Modi accepts it with a view to strengthening bilateral relations with Beijing and reducing defense budget layouts in favor of economic development.

      4. India-US relations sours and Sino-Indian relations moves on to a new political paradigm including a Trade and Investment Agreement which provides for JVs from mainland China in Indian infrastructure and energy development projects.

      5. At G20 China and India use their renewed joint economic and political power to reform postwar Bretton Woods Institutions and finally China supports India's membership of UNSC.

      6. Neither Russia nor USA have the wherewithal to interfere with blossoming bilateral Sino-Indian Panchila.

    4. CommentedPatrick Lietz

      What kind of give and take does prof Buruma talk about?

      The West has taken a lot more than it has given to both China and Russia. It is an inherent trait of modern nation-states that they will seek to maximize their own interests.

      Now that China and Russia have started to (re-)gain economic and military strength, they are less likely to give. Mr Buruma's complaint about the lower likelihood to give by Russia and China is very much the pot calling the kettle black.

      However, the article makes good points about the logical fallacies of the world views that Chinese and Russian elites have adopted. It also acknowledges that the palpable resentment may not be entirely unwarranted.

      The article may come across as less biased if it would have included the logical fallacies in the worldview of US and EU elites.

    5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I really don't think the western countries have any reason to mock the ideology, philosophy Russians or Chinese leaders base their policies on.
      The present western civilization has achieved a complete white wash, by now we deleted any moral, cultural, spiritual norms, boundaries, even the classical family model is dead, the most basic human relationships are corrupted.
      Apart from clear corporate interest, consumerism, ruthless competition, blatant narcissism, self-pleasure nothing has remained.
      There are no coordinates people could start planning from, and there are no long term goals, future prospects people would aspire for.
      We are entering the new "dark ages", when all the make-up, gloves, pretense are coming off and everybody simply tries to grab whatever they can for themselves, even at the expense of a global meltdown.
      Whatever we think about Russia or China it is not them who create the unpredictable and very volatile scenario.
      We are in a very explosive situation because our maximally grown, expanded, inherently self-centered, egoistic human nature is in complete contradiction with the globally interconnected and interdependent human system we evolved into.
      And the system is not man-made, it is here to stay.
      If we want to solve any facet of the deepening global crisis, if we want to build a sustainable future, or even survive, we have to change ourselves.
      Regardless how much we hate each other, how much we do not trust each other, we are all sitting on the same sinking boat.
      So, together, mutually we have to figure out how to keep the boat afloat.
      If we can grab this one, single mutual point in between us, perhaps we can build on it.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        In short, the West has become a ball of narcissist, hedonism bought-off citizenry, in a pseudo-democracy de facto if not de jure, run by economic and political oligarchies on the basis of self and national (read "the business") interests.

        In short, while the 20th Century saw Russia and China go with Orwell's 1984 vision, it also saw the West go with Huxley's Brave New World vision. [25 years after the original book, Huxley did a retrospective in Brave New World Revisited, and demonstrated striking evidence even then (far more the case now) that he perceived the trend and its underlying factors correctly).]

        When Russia hears our protests against its Gay ban, it does not perceive a freedom-loving West defending human rights. What it sees are Russian pro-family values under attack by what they largely hear is the sexual-freedom uber alis characters of Brave New World being disgusted by the concept of a "mother." Communism is gone (from Russia if not China), but the view of Western society as decadent--and with good justification--has only been reinforced. Its not just Communist propaganda anymore.

        Decadence is rightly perceived as weakness, and given that whether under the mask of Czars, the Commissars, or the "democratic framework," Russia--and similarly China--always pursued raw-knuckle nationalism.

        The only way out for the West is not to conquer, but become more than the Hollywood starlet model of the "good life" -- an illusion anyway rapidly slipping away from the vast majority of those even actually living in the West. The key is to clearly realize how vital it is to match human conscious actions to the subconscious evolution towards complete globalization. The key is to educate in terms of the vital necessity of integration, and that grand egoistic tendencies--be they the driving force for whole civilizations devoted to hedonism, or to nationalist expansion or isolationism--is the true spiritual enemy of humanity.

        The answer to all is mutual responsibility. This was never to be found in Communism, certainly not Capitalism. It will only be found in putting basic human relationship as the highest priority--networking all of us all into one single family.

        Families do not support decadence of their children to exploit them, and they don't put hate and disdain above love.

    6. CommentedDaryl stevens

      Well said.

      Lotsa dialogues, for awhile have been revolving around the pseudo-spiritual, pop-cultural, pop-psychological, pop-scientific....add to your writing, "Who has the most original native people?", "Who has the strongest family values", and you have the modus operandi of anocrats, nationalists, in the undying political philosophical battles of more realist based thinkers. Then, more widely, people more similar, fight about differences between the closer cousins of Social democracy and a Liberal Conservatism, acting as if each are the enemy, while far more villainous ideologies arise. People who are nearer the center of great philosophical discussions, better-would see a narrowing of the ranks, as they seek more balanced perspectives to confront, rather different manifestations that should not be confused for lamb, rather they wolves that they are.