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Streetwise Professor

November 28, 2010

The Expiration of Clever Hopes

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:38 pm

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.

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35 Comments »

  1. Russia must repent… the usual dirge. Japan never repented (and they were real war criminals, almost making Nazis look civilized), and they’ve done OK. Russia has nothing to apologize for, no more than Britain or France or the US.

    Comment by So? — November 28, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  2. I don’t take anyone who considers today analogous to the 1930′s or groveling for past crimes as a prerequisite for modernization seriously.

    In fact his entire essay is just a long, nice-written set of tired tropes.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — November 28, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

  3. As I see it, the only prerequisite for modernization is… modernization. And that’s happening. Even with government corrupt as it is, Russia is converging on Europe in terms of living standards. I don’t see how one can say that going around begging forgiveness will help the economy.

    Also, this made no sense to me: “The United States, Germany and China all seek good relations with Moscow; no one trusts or respects it.”
    I was under the impression that countries act pragmatically, and trust/respect, if existant, are inconsequential. If they all seek good relations with Russia, what else should it want?

    Comment by Andrew #2 — November 29, 2010 @ 12:28 am

  4. Hi, I’m Howard Roark and I’m “Russia-obsessed.” Please help. :)

    Comment by Howard Roark — November 29, 2010 @ 1:21 am

  5. Thats OK Sublime Oblivion, nobody takes you seriously either.

    As to why Russia should apologise for its past crimes (which are legion and far worse than anything done by Britain or France), well if they don’t acknowledge them, they are bound to repeat them.

    Comment by Andrew — November 29, 2010 @ 1:30 am

  6. Hey Andrew, put your address out here. Even in New Zealand, Russians might catch up with you and repeat something.

    Comment by rusak — November 29, 2010 @ 3:07 am

  7. I’m sure Mead is correct in putting his first point first.

    Russia’s main problem – as demonstrated perennially by the pro-Russia propagandists on this site – is that much of its population is psychologically corrupt. They struggle to believe in objective values and continually demonstrate a reductive, materialist approach to motivation. This is down to the seventy years of lies enforced by violence that was imposed upon the Russian people.

    Until Russians can admit what happened to them they will be unable to move on. They will continue to believe – to take one example, but a damaging one – that the rule of law can only be a fiction used to mask the actions of the powerful. Whilst they continue to believe this, there can be no prospect of it not being true in their country.

    Without honesty there can be no trust and this is a foundation of a modern, pluralist, law-governed society. This is why an honest reckoning with the past is the only way to ‘build a better future’.

    Comment by Gaw — November 29, 2010 @ 5:13 am

  8. +++ Japan never repented (and they were real war criminals, almost making Nazis look civilized), and they’ve done OK. Russia has nothing to apologize for, no more than Britain or France or the US.+++

    We can take a Constitution written by the occupational administration in lieu of repentatnce :)

    Comment by LL — November 29, 2010 @ 7:28 am

  9. SUBLIME IDIOT:

    “In fact his entire essay is just a long, nice-written set of tired tropes.”

    That’s for sure the funniest thing you’ve ever written! Your comment itself, just like the rest of your spew, is exactly that and nothing more. Takes one to know one!

    Comment by La Russophobe — November 29, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  10. @So? So touchy, so not getting, as is so often the case. You seem to be focusing on some sort of reckoning for Soviet actions abroad, but it is also important for Russians to come to grips with the implications of the Soviet period for Russia itself. After all, the largest number of victims of Bolshevism and Stalinism were Soviet citizens, and the largest number of those were Russian. As Gaw notes, moreover, the poisonous legacy lives on, and again Russians are again the main casualties.

    Insofar as acknowledging atrocities committed abroad is concerned, yes, Japan has done well, but its failure to acknowledge its actions in 1930-1945 has damaged its relations with virtually all countries in Asia, including China, Thailand, and the Koreas. It has done well, but it could have done better; I (nor would I suspect Mead) don’t believe that acknowledgment is a necessary or sufficient condition for economic prosperity. But it is a good, not a bad, if done right. I would also note that many Japanese (e.g., Tojo, Yamashita) wound up on the end of a rope, so there was a reckoning of sorts. That said, I don’t dispute that the Japanese have not come to grips with the legacy of WWII in the same way as the Germans. But to bring them up is just more whataboutism of the two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right variety.

    Russia has also damaged itself by its stubborn refusal to deal honestly with the past. The significant impact of the limited hangout on Katyn is indicative of how important these things can be.

    And if you think that the US, or Britain, or France committed atrocities internally or externally on anything near the scale of the USSR, you are delusional.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 29, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  11. Would that be the same Walter Russell Mead who argued in March 2003 that war with Iraq was a preferred policy to containment? A week after his oped appeared in the Washington Post, the U.S. struck. How’d that work out, Walt?

    That shouldn’t imply he was the only “psychic visionary” to get the war in Iraq completely wrong. Paul Wolfowitz would be another giant head in the peanut gallery, with his fussy dismissal of General Shinseki’s troop estimates as “wildly off the mark” (they were not), and his own cost estimate which pegged the bill at $60 – $95 Billion (he later denied he ever said that, suggesting that nobody knew what it would cost beyond that it would be “expensive”) just sounds comical now, compared with the actual cost of around $745 Billion. They let that guy run a big bank? Steven Davis, Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel pulled together a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2006 that concluded the cost of containment up to the present (remember the war had been going for nearly 3 years at that point) was about $300 Billion. By my mathematics, the war option cost America more than double. When would you say I could expect my big cheque from the Council on Foreign Relations?

    To be completely fair, Mr. Mead and the National Bureau of Economic Research both concluded the war would cost less than containment based on the loss of Iraqi lives. However, ask Americans now if they’d be ready to do it again – or if they think it was all worth it – to save Iraqi lives. Neither agency considered how many lives might have been saved by simply dropping sanctions; which weren’t accomplishing much anyway (except killing Iraqi children, according to Mr. Mead), considering Saddam didn’t really have any Weapons of Mass Destruction after all.

    In fact, nobody is especially good at predicting what is going to happen in Russia based on what has happened already, or what is happening now. Remember The Atlantic’s 2001 article, “Russia is Finished”? Looks a little embarrassing now, considering only 8 years later Russia had repaid all its debts and had the lowest national debt in the G20. Japan, who – according to your analysis – has “done well”, has a national debt that is the second-highest in the world at 192% of GDP. All secondary, I guess, to owning up to one’s past sins.

    Comment by Mark — November 29, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

  12. It is interesting that in any straightforward science like math or physics a “what-about” question is perfectly fine. In fact, quite often it is the most important question. But folks from humanities and social sciences seem to hate it. Why?

    Comment by boba — November 29, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  13. @boba, neocon swine hate “what-about” questions because they show them for the hypocritical scum that they are.

    Comment by rusak — November 29, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  14. Professor,

    Russia, the Soviet union never had overseas colonies, so Western crimes are greater by default.

    Gaw,

    The fact that Russia is a lawless shithole now has nothing to do with the “Evil Stalin”. When it comes to “reconciling” with the past, none are better at it than the current Russian “elite”. Why are the roads so bad? – Soviet heritage, bloody Beria, Stalin, Sovok… Anything to draw attention away from their own incompetence. It’s been 20 years since the “hated Sovok” has given up the ghost, 60 years since Stalin’s death, yet everyone is keen to kick the dead lion. What have they done in the last 20 years? Nada, zilch, nothing. Road police shaking down motorists for bribes is Stalin’s fault? Incarceration rate higher than in 1937 is also Stalin’s fault? 99% conviction rate vs 80% in the 30s is also Stalin’s fault? The worthless Duma just passed the Katyn resolution. Yet there’s been not a peep from them about the grisly fate of Soviet POWs in the 1920 war. Poland may be ruled by chauvinists and religious fanatics, but Russia is ruled by kleptocrats who’d sell their mother if they could.

    Comment by So? — November 29, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  15. @ So? Russia, the Soviet union never had overseas colonies, so Western crimes are greater by default

    I think the Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Moldovians, Chechens, Daghesh, Ingush, Azeri, Circassians, Kazakh, Turkmen, Siberian natives, Chinese, Mongolians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and a few others might beg to differ.

    Comment by Andrew — November 30, 2010 @ 1:30 am

  16. Some of them were outright aggressors or their henchmen, some were caught in the crossfire. But boarding a ship, sailing halfway across the world and butchering natives is quite another thing altogether. Over*seas*.

    Comment by So? — November 30, 2010 @ 1:45 am

  17. Empire is empire, and murder is murder, whether you cross the sea or kill your neighbors.

    As for being aggressors, well thats funny So?, how exactly were the peoples of the Caucasus aggressors against Russia in the 19th century?, or the Siberian natives.

    Oh, and BTW, “overseas” really just means “foreign” or “another country” in common usage, being as how everywhere other than Scotland and Wales is “overseas” when you come from the UK.

    Interesting to note that not only was Russia responsible for the greatest mass killings of the 20th century, but also of the 19th.

    Of course the difference is that the Russians still insist on mass murder and ethnic cleansing in the name of Russia in order to maintain and in some cases increase their empire.

    Comment by Andrew — November 30, 2010 @ 1:58 am

  18. If you cannot differentiate necessity and opportunity, I cannot help you. The plucky little peoples of the Caucasus would raid Russia at best or fall to the Ottomans at worst. The African negro was of no threat to anybody.

    Comment by So? — November 30, 2010 @ 2:42 am

  19. So?, your ability to maintain your perfectly ridiculous arguments is testament to my point about the post-Soviet environment’s disregard for objective truth. To the rest of the world you seem a little insane.

    Comment by Gaw — November 30, 2010 @ 3:38 am

  20. Coming to terms with the horrors of the past, Russian style:

    The Prince pounced at the sound of that name. He told the Ambassador that he was a frequent visitor to Central Asia and the Caucasus and had noticed a marked increase in Russian pressure and concomitant anxiety among the locals post-August events in Georgia. He stated the following story related to him recently by Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev. Aliyev had received a letter from President Medvedev telling him that if Azerbaijan supported the designation of the Bolshevik artificial famine in Ukraine as “genocide” at the United Nations, “then you can forget about seeing Nagorno-Karabakh ever again.” Prince Andrew added that every single other regional President had told him of receiving similar “directive” letters from Medvedev except for Bakiyev. He asked the Ambassador if Bakiyev had received something similar as well.

    http://cablegate.wikileaks.org/cable/2008/10/08BISHKEK1095.html

    Comment by Ivan — November 30, 2010 @ 5:13 am

  21. Haha, that makes me like Medvedev even more.

    Just because Medvedev is using force to manipulate public opinion doesn’t mean he’s wrong. It costs Russia nothing to threaten Azerbaijan, and it helps the country.

    Comment by Andrew #2 — November 30, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  22. > It costs Russia nothing to threaten Azerbaijan, and it helps the country.

    Right. Helps the country alienate every single neighbor.

    Comment by Ivan — November 30, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  23. I read somewhere that if you use the same logic that Holodomor ‘historians’ use to prop-up their figure to 10 million dead that the amount of deaths that the British Empire inflicted in India during its colonial rule is 1 billion.

    Comment by jennifer — November 30, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  24. nice overseas empire, there

    Comment by jennifer — November 30, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  25. cc: the scramble and carving up of africa by Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and The Netherlands

    Western countries were and still are soooo full of themselves.

    We need Russia to balance the playing field or else all minorities (African, Asian, Latin American) would be up for the pickings.

    Comment by jennifer — November 30, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

  26. Gaw,

    I give you facts, you give me post-modern ad hominem. The Soviet Union was a far more humane and lawful society than Russia is right now. Stalin’s bad mmm’kay? Just keep repeating that.

    Comment by So? — November 30, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

  27. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rehabable, R. R said: Two very important articles from Dr. Pirrong re how worthless, pathetic & desperate Russia is http://bit.ly/hmuVMl & http://bit.ly/emtrAP [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » The Expiration of Clever Hopes -- Topsy.com — November 30, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

  28. “Right. Helps the country alienate every single neighbor.”

    Where are they going to go? Orange and Tulip revolutions, reversed. Saakashvili’s still in power only because of overwhelming Western support.

    Comment by Andrew #2 — November 30, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  29. > Saakashvili’s still in power only because of overwhelming Western support.

    So is Putin. In the meantime, Belarus is pumping Venezuelan oil via a Ukrainian pipeline from Odessa, despite Russia’s fierce attempts to prevent this. So much for “reversed” orange revolution and “union” with Belarus. Relations with the Baltic countries are rosy as always. Where is Russia going to go?

    Comment by Ivan — December 1, 2010 @ 3:18 am

  30. …?

    Putin is in power because of overwhelming Western support?

    Comment by Andrew #2 — December 1, 2010 @ 8:35 am

  31. Several times on the blog I’ve mused whether our current situation resembles more the 1930s or the 1970s

    Well, in terms of corruption, Moscow does bear some resemblance to Chicago or New York in the 1930s.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — December 3, 2010 @ 1:04 am

  32. Andrew,

    You have no idea what the word “overseas” means, do you? FYI:

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/overseas

    adj.
    Of, relating to, originating in, or situated in countries across the sea.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — December 3, 2010 @ 1:08 am

  33. The Professor:

    USSR/Russia did repent to its citizens profusely for the Soviet era wrongs. They did it in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. But such repentance doesn’t change much. What’s needed is a way to curb corruption. And that’s very hard. Many other countries all over the world are struggling with the same or even higher level of corruption and can’t shake it off. Do you know a practical, realistic way of doing this?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — December 3, 2010 @ 1:15 am

  34. 1937

    Comment by So? — December 3, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  35. [...] Craig Pirrong of Streetwise Professor comments on Walter Russell Mead’s current assessment of nations around the world. He discusses Russia at length, which you can read in the full post. 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.  … [...]

    Pingback by Pickerhead :: Pickings from the Webvine ::November 30, 2010 — November 29, 2011 @ 10:32 am

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