Streetwise Professor

August 30, 2008

Throwing Cold Water on New Cold War Skeptics

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:22 am

There seems to be more than a little whistling past the graveyard in the mantra of those who deny that a new Cold War is in the offing. The most common distinction drawn between then and now is that Cold War I was an ideological struggle, and that this ideological element is missing in the Yet-to-Be-Named-War. There are two objections to this reasoning. First, the ideological component of Cold War I is likely overstated. Second, the ideological dimension of the current contest between Russia on the one hand, the US, Eastern Europe, and even if they don’t believe it yet, Western Europe on the other, is often understated.

Even at the height of Cold War I, there were prominent voices who argued that Soviet actions were driven more by traditional Russian (nay, Muscovite) imperatives than Marxism-Leninism. Prominent among those were George Kennan, who claimed that Bolshevism had merely restored:

The spirit and practices of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy: the defiant, xenophobic sense of religious orthodoxy, the breakdown of communication with the West, the messianic dreams of Moscow as the Third Rome, the terrible punishments, and the sultry, intrigue-laden air of the chambers of the Kremlin.

Moreover, Kennan argued that “traits were indeed becoming visible in old Muscovy that were destined later to play an important part in the psychological composition of Soviet power.” Traits that included:

A tendency to a messianic concept of Russia’s role in history; an intolerance of foreign outlooks and values; a pronounced xenophobia of Russian officialdom; an insistence on isolating the Russian people from foreign contacts; a secretiveness and deviousness of diplomatic practice; a seeming inability to understand anything in the nature of a permanently peaceful and equal relationship between states; a tendency to view every treaty of peace as being in the nature of a provisional armistice; a tendency to think of conflict as normal, peace as the provisional and abnormal.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it, boys and girls?

Kennan and other observers of Russia considered its actions as broadly a continuation of a deep historical trend stretching back to the days of the Mongol Yoke. The words and rationalizations were Marxist-Leninist tropes, but the fundamental motivations were as old as Muscovy.

Viewed in this light, Putinism, especially in its revanchist turn, is of a piece with the Soviet imperialism, which, in turn, was a piece with its Muscovite and Imperial predecessors. Ideology is a gloss. Not the essence. Thus, in the lack of a lack of unifying revolutionary ideology is cold comfort indeed. In its essentials, Russian motivations and Soviet motivations were the same. If there was a Cold War then, a Cold War is developing now.

Moreover, there is an ideological component to both current Russian and Western (especially American) thinking. In Russia, there are a variety of nationalist strains of thought that are very attractive to the populace at large, and to many in the leadership (although the latter’s affinity for them may be more pragmatic–which may also be a parallel with Soviet times.) One of the most notable of these is Eurasianism, or perhaps more properly, Neoeurasianism (to distinguish it from its interwar predecessor.) Neoeurasianism is built on a Russian exceptionalist world view; claims that Russians (and “Eurasians” more generally, which include Germans and Chinese and myriad others in some versions of the theory) are more spiritual and communitarian than the materialist, individualist “Atlantans” or “Oceanists” ; predicts a struggle for world domination between the Eurasians and the Atlanticists (or, as they also phrase it , between “tellurocracy” and “talassocracy”); argues that the United States is attempting to isolate Russia; and is profoundly anti-liberal.

One can see many elements of this philosophy in the statements of Putin, Medvedev, and Kremlin ideologists. Moreover, some recent policy proposals, notably Medvedev’s proposal to create a “new security architecture” in Europe that would cleave the Continent from America, and possibly Great Britain as well, has been advocated for more than a decade by prominent Neoeurasianists, such as Aleksandr Dugin.

It could be argued that the new ideology is different than the old in that Marxism-Leninism was universalist, and Neoeurasianism is not. This distinction should not be overdrawn, however. The anti-liberal, anti-globalist, anti-American core of Neoeurasianism is potentially exportable, just as Marxism-Leninism was. There are many anti-liberal, anti-globalist, anti-American elements around the world–even outside of Eurasia (e.g., Chavez’s Venezuela, Morales’s Bolivia, Middle Eastern and African authoritarian states.) Eurasianism won’t sell in the US (outside of the nutroots left who share its anti-globalism and anti-liberalism), but Marxism-Leninism never got traction here either.

Ideological considerations also influence the West, and in particular the US.   Those who argue that   promoting democracy, free trade, and liberal values should be a policy objective are taking an ideological position.   Indeed, paleocons who criticize American policy, many of whom support Russian actions in Georgia, criticize the ideological bent of American policy.

In brief, ideological competition was arguably only a secondary or tertiary factor driving the Cold War.   Moreover, ideological considerations are different today than in the 1945-1991 period, but they are not absent altogether.   Thus, the oft-cited difference between today’s contest between Moscow and Washington and Cold War I is no reason to believe that Cold War II has not begun, or may begin soon.   Great Power imperatives and historical Russian traits were arguably more important than ideology in driving Cold War I, and these factors are present today, and ideological differences also divide Russia from the US.

Loath as many are to admit it, the Cold War has returned, and the absence of the Marxist-Leninist vs. Liberal Capitalist divide doesn’t mean it hasn’t.

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