Several times on the blog I’ve mused whether our current situation resembles more the 1930s or the 1970s. As developments occur, I’m leaning more towards the former (although admittedly it is better to have the rogue states be Iran and North Korea, rather than Germany, Japan, Italy, and Russia, but even then the presence of nukes in the equation limits the comfort one can find in that). Renowned foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead is of a similar mind. He hearkens to Auden’s despondent 1939 poem, and is dismayed at the puniness of the world’s statesmen (and women) in the face of the current crisis.
He spares virtually no one. Europe comes in for particular criticism, and very rightfully so. To watch the delusional performance of the European “leadership” in its efforts to patch the gaping wounds in the Euro project (both the political and economic aspects)–which is doomed, utterly, in my view–is painful. They are so wrapped up in their dream that they defy reality. Mead is also quite critical of Japan–again with more than good cause. He is also harsh in his judgment of the US, but he does not elaborate much on that in this post because he has made his case at length elsewhere.
The most interesting parts of Mead’s analysis pertain to China and Russia. His analysis of China’s pressing problems, and the leadership’s apparent inability to cope with them, is a useful antidote to the conventional wisdom of China as Colossus, striding from triumph to triumph. (To those with long enough memories, current portrayals of China evoke the popular image of Japan, circa 1988: although no analogy is exact, the utter failure of conventional wisdom in that instance should give pause to the advocates of the conventional wisdom regarding China, circa 2010. Are you pausing, Tom Friedman?)
Since this is a periodically Russia-centric blog with a Russia-centric (and often Russia-obsessed) readership, I’ll quote his analysis of Russia in full:
If Europe offers the most shocking example of incompetence, and China faces the greatest possibility of explosion and crisis, Russia’s current suicidal course may be the most tragic example of poor policy intersecting with cultural failure to drive a great people down.Emerging from the sordid shadows of the Soviet Union, Russia faced four great challenges. It needed to come to terms with the horrors and failures of the past, recognizing the enormous evil that Russia both suffered and inflicted during the Soviet period. Just as Germany had to come to terms with the Nazi past to build a better future after 1945, Russia had to face the ghosts of Bolshevism and Stalin head on. It has failed, and Russian life and culture remain poisoned by the residue of unrepented horrors and uncomprehended crimes.
Second, Russia needed to build a modern and competent state that in turn could provide the framework for a new economy and a new society. Without a full reckoning with the Soviet past — and a full encounter in particular with the evils perpetrated by its security forces — this was not possible. Nevertheless Russia has fallen well short of what it might have accomplished. I remain glad that Vladimir Putin halted the disintegration of the Russian state that was visibly under way during the Yeltsin era, but with every passing year the critical failure of the Putin presidency to build the stable institutions and solidify the rule of law that a genuinely strong Russian state would require becomes more clear — and more costly.
The third task, of building the kind of capitalist economy that could provide its citizens with dignity and affluence, has also been left undone. There is no one who thinks that the rule of law is secure in Russia, or that investors (foreign or domestic) have any real security for their investments. Accumulating failures of governance ensure that Russia cannot enjoy the full benefits of its natural resources and this unhappy society remains a source of concern and confusion for itself and its neighbors.
The fourth task, of finding a suitable world role for a new Russia, has also been decisively botched. Russia has no real friends anywhere in the world; there are those it can bully and those (a much greater number) that it can’t. The United States, Germany and China all seek good relations with Moscow; no one trusts or respects it. Prime Minister Putin’s recent visit to Germany, a country that quite recently hoped that stronger economic relations with Russia would be a cornerstone of its national strategy, was an embarrassing flop. Putin’s call for a free trade zone including Russia and the EU was dismissed by Chancellor Angela Merkel; the Russian leader reportedly spent more time with the discredited former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (who now works for Gazprom) than in substantive talks with German officials.
Russia’s failures in this department are not simply its own fault. The United States, NATO and the EU have been horribly shortsighted in their Russia policies. Since 1989 there have been two great western projects in Europe: the expansions of both NATO and the EU. NATO expansion was seen by Russia as a great threat; EU expansion has the effect of marginalizing Russia both economically and politically. While Russia’s own many failures and bad behavior did much to determine the west on this course, paying so little heed to Russian interests and sensibilities was unwise; now both Russia and the west must cope with the unpalatable consequences.
It is intriguing that Mead puts Russia’s need to come to grips with its past as its foremost challenge, and its greatest failure. That resonates with many of the intense debates over Russia’s Soviet legacy that have taken place in the SWP comments.
I would say that Mead’s analysis is pretty fair (although I am sure that there will be outraged denials: bring ‘em on, folks.) Even the last paragraph has merit, although I would probably give more weight to the conclusion that “Russia’s own many failures and bad behavior did much to determine the west on this course.” The EU’s marginalizing effect also reflects what little Russia had to offer those who were clamoring to get into the EU and NATO.
There’s not much grounds for optimism in what Mead writes. But that’s because there’s not much room for optimism in the current situation. Reveries have been dashed, but realities have not been grasped. Good things seldom come of that.