The Russian think tank ‘Rethinking Russia’ has published an article I wrote about Henry Kissinger’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin. This follows a piece on the same subject by Russian political philosopher Boris Mezhuev, which the think tank published a couple of days earlier. You can read my piece here and Mezhuev’s here.
In my article, I take the opportunity of Kissinger’s visit to Moscow to call for a return to pragmatism in Russian-Western relations. In my view, the neoconservative obsession with the analogy of 1930s appeasement has led to an unhealthy belief that talking to those with whom one has disagreements is a sign of weakness which will invite aggression. But whereas I support the idea of dialogue between Russia and the West and a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, Mezhuev favours separating Russia and the West and adding a new ideological element to their relationship.
Mezhuev suggests that if a Republican wins the next US presidential election, he will have to take heed of Kissinger’s Realist advice. But any attempt to put a Realist policy into effect will inevitably founder on the rocks of the appeasement analogy. As Mezhuev writes, the response to such a policy will be: ‘Why does the West have to cave in? … Prudence, as we know, implies the appeasement of hotheads … Ted Cruz or even young Latino Marco Rubio will hardly wish to gain the reputation of a new Chamberlain.’
According to Mezhuev, the only way of avoiding conflict between Russia and the West is to separate them with a buffer zone including Ukraine. For that, he says, ‘we need something else besides prudence, some ideological trigger that will justify a buffer zone. … We need a new discourse, which will portray these concessions as indispensable, as inalienable to the very nature of phenomena. To put it crudely, we need the language of civilizational geopolitics’. In other words, we must adopt Samuel Huntington’s civilizational discourse. Mezhuev ends by saying:
I am afraid that is the only option available. Either a new American administration will regard Russia as a distinct civilization marked by its own value code and special rights sanctified by history, or it will treat Russia just as a target. … We [Russia and the West] both need to understand that the language of civilizational geopolitics guarantees Europe’s survival, it is a diplomatic tool to avert World War III.
This is certainly an interesting thesis, and I see where Mezhuev is coming from. Westerners often seem far more upset by Russia’s failure to become a fully-fledged liberal democracy and by its opposition to Western foreign policy than they are by much more despotic and uncooperative regimes elsewhere in the world. Sinopobia, for instance, seems much less intense than Russophobia. I suspect that this is because people in the West recognize that China is different. They don’t expect the Chinese to behave like them and so aren’t particularly cross when they don’t. This isn’t true with Russians – they are thought to be if not exactly Western then at least not unWestern. Recognizing Russia as a separate civilization would allow us to tolerate each other more easily.
The problem with this idea is that it is based on a fiction. The reason why Westerners do not for the most part consider Russia to be a distinct civilization is because it isn’t. Yes, there are definite differences between Russia and, say, Canada, but there almost equally pronounced differences between countries in what is called the ‘West’. For instance, American attitudes towards guns, God, health care, and imprisonment (such as locking up a man in solitary confinement for over 43 years) completely baffle many Canadians. The ‘West’ is not a monolith, and Russia has a great deal in common with much of it. You can’t just declare Russia to be a separate civilization and expect everyone to believe it.
More precisely, I don’t think for one instant that neoconservative appeasement-analogy thinkers would go along with it. They believe that ‘American values’ are universal. If they were to accept the idea that there are different civilizations with distinct values, they would have to abandon this core belief. I see no way that American leaders will ever accept the ‘language of civilizational geopolitics’.
In any case, Mezhuev’s position is far too pessimistic for me. It suggests that Russia and the West cannot live together, and need to be physically separated. I do not see why this should be the case. Current crises will pass. American exceptionalism and universalism will decline. New opportunities for working together will arise. We should be speaking to one another in order to improve our relations, not making it harder to do so.