Why We Could End Up at War with Russia
Noam Chomsky's latest book (more info here)
by Gaius Publius
Scheduling note: I'll be on travel for much of the next two weeks, so no posting until early July.
We've written in these pages about the history of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War (examples here and here). We've also written, with trepidation, about how a new, post-Obama "even more muscular" U.S. foreign policy could lead to, frankly, an actual shooting war with Russia (see here).
Now I'd like to point to this comprehensive analysis of post-Cold War U.S. relations with Russia and Eastern Europe via an excerpt from Noam Chomsky's new book, Who Runs the World? (These excerpts are only a portion of a much larger group of excerpts published by Tom Engelhardt in two installments at TomDispatch.com. First installment here, the article from which this excerpt was taken. Second installment here.)
Adam Smith on the "Masters of Mankind" and their "Vile Maxim" — “All for ourselves and nothing for other people”
We'll get to Russia in a moment. First, I'd like to share three introductory paragraphs that deal with the subject of the book's title. As Chomsky points out, states are rarely unitary, ruled from one head, and he makes a very important point about the modern capitalist state as including actors that Adam Smith called, derisively, the "masters of mankind." We would call them the Kochs, the Rubins, the big-money CEO class in general, and, on Wall Street, the "masters of the universe." The money class, in short, that directs our political class, as much or more so than they are directed.
Look for the phrase "masters of mankind" below. Adam Smitth's comment on them is surprisingly modern, surprisingly accurate. Chomsky:
When we ask “Who rules the world?” we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are states, primarily the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not wrong. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.“All for ourselves and nothing for other people” sums up the pathology of our real ruling class quite well. It's a recipe for disaster, of course, a recipe for a zero-growth world, but I doubt they're looking that far ahead.
States of course have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is often marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and obviously for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while ignoring the “masters of mankind,” as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires, and the like. Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the “vile maxim” to which the “masters of mankind” are dedicated: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people” -- a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the detriment of the people of the home country and the world.
In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power, not only in the international arena but also within their home states, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means. When we consider the role of the masters of mankind, we turn to such state policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled “free-trade agreements” in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the crucial details. The intention is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with “fast track” procedures designed to block discussion and allow only the choice of yes or no (hence yes). The designers regularly do quite well, not surprisingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.
It's also a recipe for war, as you'll see.
The View from Russia: What Happened When the USSR Collapsed
In the extended excerpt from which the above is taken, Chomsky looks at the challenges today in three regions of the world, East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Islamic World. Here are his comments on Eastern Europe. Please note carefully the history of U.S.-Russian relations starting from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
If you remember nothing else from reading this, I hope the "view from Russia" remains firmly in your mind. It's not that I'm justifying their behavior. I'm helping you to understand it, so that you can anticipate what kind of response will come back from which kinds of what will look to them like provocation.
Chomsky again, from the middle of Engelhardt's first long excerpt (my emphasis):
The Challenges Today: Eastern EuropeA great deal is indeed at stake. What will another Warrior President do to the world? Will that warrior drag us down further, as we've been dragged down already into the world of a U.S.-created ISIS (or Daesh, as they should be called)?
Turning to the second region, Eastern Europe, there is a crisis brewing at the NATO-Russian border. It is no small matter. In his illuminating and judicious scholarly study of the region, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Richard Sakwa writes -- all too plausibly -- that the “Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was in effect the first of the ‘wars to stop NATO enlargement’; the Ukraine crisis of 2014 is the second. It is not clear whether humanity would survive a third.”
The West sees NATO enlargement as benign. Not surprisingly, Russia, along with much of the Global South, has a different opinion, as do some prominent Western voices. George Kennan warned early on that NATO enlargement is a “tragic mistake,” and he was joined by senior American statesmen in an open letter to the White House describing it as a “policy error of historic proportions.”
The present crisis has its origins in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were then two contrasting visions of a new security system and political economy in Eurasia. In Sakwa’s words, one vision was of a “‘Wider Europe,’ with the EU at its heart but increasingly coterminous with the Euro-Atlantic security and political community; and on the other side there [was] the idea of ‘Greater Europe,’ a vision of a continental Europe, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, that has multiple centers, including Brussels, Moscow and Ankara, but with a common purpose in overcoming the divisions that have traditionally plagued the continent.”
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the major proponent of Greater Europe, a concept that also had European roots in Gaullism and other initiatives. However, as Russia collapsed under the devastating market reforms of the 1990s, the vision faded, only to be renewed as Russia began to recover and seek a place on the world stage under Vladimir Putin who, along with his associate Dmitry Medvedev, has repeatedly “called for the geopolitical unification of all of ‘Greater Europe’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok, to create a genuine ‘strategic partnership.’”
These initiatives were “greeted with polite contempt,” Sakwa writes, regarded as “little more than a cover for the establishment of a ‘Greater Russia’ by stealth” and an effort to “drive a wedge” between North America and Western Europe. Such concerns trace back to earlier Cold War fears that Europe might become a “third force” independent of both the great and minor superpowers and moving toward closer links to the latter (as can be seen in Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and other initiatives).
The Western response to Russia’s collapse was triumphalist. It was hailed as signaling “the end of history,” the final victory of Western capitalist democracy, almost as if Russia were being instructed to revert to its pre-World War I status as a virtual economic colony of the West. NATO enlargement began at once, in violation of verbal assurances to Gorbachev that NATO forces would not move “one inch to the east” after he agreed that a unified Germany could become a NATO member -- a remarkable concession, in the light of history. That discussion kept to East Germany. The possibility that NATO might expand beyond Germany was not discussed with Gorbachev, even if privately considered.
Soon, NATO did begin to move beyond, right to the borders of Russia. The general mission of NATO was officially changed to a mandate to protect “crucial infrastructure” of the global energy system, sea lanes and pipelines, giving it a global area of operations. Furthermore, under a crucial Western revision of the now widely heralded doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” sharply different from the official U.N. version, NATO may now also serve as an intervention force under U.S. command.
Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.
Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”
“Who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asks, pointing out that “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it.” That should not be too difficult. After all, as everyone knows, “The United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders.”
In fact, the U.S. stand is far stronger. It does not tolerate what is officially called “successful defiance” of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared (but could not yet implement) U.S. control of the hemisphere. And a small country that carries out such successful defiance may be subjected to “the terrors of the earth” and a crushing embargo -- as happened to Cuba. We need not ask how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well. The merest hint of the first tentative steps in that direction would have been “terminated with extreme prejudice,” to adopt CIA lingo.
As in the case of China, one does not have to regard Putin’s moves and motives favorably to understand the logic behind them, nor to grasp the importance of understanding that logic instead of issuing imprecations against it. As in the case of China, a great deal is at stake, reaching as far -- literally -- as questions of survival.
The View from Russia, in Maps
Again, "The West sees NATO enlargement as benign. Not surprisingly, Russia, along with much of the Global South, has a different opinion." Here's the world as Russia sees it (not just Putin; all Russia). Here's what Europe used to look like. NATO nations are in blue:
Europe immediately before the collapse of the USSR. NATO nations in blue (source).
In contrast, here's what Russia sees today (NATO nations again in blue):
Europe after the collapse of the USSR. NATO nations in blue, NATO applicants in green (source).
German reunification (with a united Germany joining NATO) was agreed to by Gorbachev and the West, and occurred almost immediately, in 1990. By 1991, NATO was looking at expansion, starting with Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The march to Russia's borders hasn't stopped. If Ukraine and Georgia are admitted, the only non-NATO nation on Russia's European border will be Belarus, the former Soviet Republic of Byelorussia.
Imagine, as Chomsky writes, "how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well." Imagine how fast we would have killed that possibility dead — "terminated with extreme prejudice" in Chomsky's phrase.
I'll say this plainly. Russia is a nuclear state, and they've had about enough of U.S. triumphalism and expansion. The next "warrior president," flush with hubris and spoiling for a fight, could get us all killed.
(Note: Many think we're already waging war with Russia economically, a war the Russians haven't begun to respond to aggressively. Yet. Start here.)