Kissinger and Civilization

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.

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28 thoughts on “Kissinger and Civilization”

  1. Since 2010, when I became interested in the whole “Russia coverage” from the Western POV, when I discovered the world of “Russian commenters”, one particular blog that, among others, picked my interest was agoodtreaty.com. In those days it was bustling with activity (including from some people you already seen here commenting on your blog, Paul).

    The main message of its author Kevin Rothrock was that the West needs a (wait for it!) Good Treaty with Russia. Later, he revised it a bit, going as far as claiming that Russia needs a new Tilzit treaty vis-a-vis the USA.

    Idea is rather good. But in my “head-canon” I revised and reviewed all those years. Yes, I agree that Russia and the US (as the mouthpiece of the collective West and its flagship) need a new “treaty” which will formally recognize the change of the status-quo of the unipolar world which ascended after 1991. In the name of the “deconfliction” (ugh, what an ugly word!) the West must:

    1) Recognize Russia’s sphere of influence. Easy and simple. Yeah, Barak Obama called Russia a “regional power” – but the region of this power stretches from Europe to the Far East, covering in between Arctic, Caucasus, Middle East and Central Asia. You know – the bigger part of this tiny landmass known as Eurasia.

    All those talks about “spheres of influence are soooo 19th century” are nothing but hypocrisy. Now every neolib/neocon and their dog screech with outrage that “Russia feels the vacuum left after the US abandoned the Middle East”. Clearly, this people see the region as America’s sphere of influence. In fact – they see the whole world as their oyster and personal turf.

    2) Stop attempts to enact the regime change in Russia or in its near abroad. This includes stop feeding pathetic losers who are known as the so-called “Russian liberal opposition”, toning down the level of Russophobia in the Western Media, and not trying to have things run “their way” via financial lobbying groups.

    Because these all are called “aggression”. Just because its done via the so-called “soft power” changes nothing.

    3) Treating Russia equally on a world stage. No attempts to circumvent the UN decisions and going full-NATO on some poor “undesirable countries”. No trying to ignore Russia’s offers to mediate in international crises. Stop stuffing supposedly “international institutions” with Westerners only.

    And, yes, these points of such Treaty are also unacceptable for the neo-cons. So what? Only Russia’s unconditional surrender and return to the blessed 90s (this time with even more partitioned Russia) is acceptable for them. Doesn’t mean that we will bow to their demands. Such treaty is in no way harming America – unless you consider being a global empire to be an indispensable trait of the country without which it can’t live anymore. The world is heady to become multi-polar anyway, so instead of shutting your eyes and ears better to face it and accept what’s coming for you.

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  2. IMHO, the western values are colonialism, imperialism, racism, and genocide. Most directly expressed by the Nazi ideology. Before the Nazis (from the ancient Greeks and Romans), and after the Nazis to this day, and for the foreseeable future, the western values are exactly the same values.

    The reason Russia is important today is exactly the same reason it was important to the Nazis: vast territory, and multitude of natural resources. The vitriol and hatred are best explained by the fact that Russia has a hell of a lot of nuclear warheads, making it not only a difficult prey, but also a rival. IMHO.

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  3. There is another problem with the premise, that “Western” animosity towards Russia comes from not recognizing their differences, besides the obvious enthusiasm with which Russia embraced most western values.

    What adds a special edge to this animosity is when Russian foreign policy mimics American foreign policy by making benevolent interventions to protect its interests. It’s like this awful mockery that drives the US foreign policy crowd absolutely insane, to have to see a version of themselves from the outside.

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    1. ” besides the obvious enthusiasm with which Russia embraced most western values.”

      Pray tell me, what are these western values which Russian embrace with “obvious enthusiasm”.

      And Russia was doing “benevolent interventions” even before the USA were a thing. The entire world did that, actually long before the US.

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      1. “western values: materialism, consumer capitalism, individualism”

        – Comsumer capitalism is not a “value”
        – “Individualism” in Russia is not even close to the near Randian levels that are the norm in the west
        – Define “materialism”

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      2. – Comsumer capitalism is not a “value”
        – “Individualism” in Russia is not even close to the near Randian levels that are the norm in the west
        – Define “materialism”

        I put Consumer capitalism as a value because it’s an implicit social-contract type situation, where as long as you’re provided with a reasonable standard of living, you don’t criticize the capitalist system. Part of this is a faith that a (relatively pure) capitalist system is the least defective system available, from the materialist point of view. This faith is an additional thing that does not automatically follow from materialism alone.

        Individualism … for the U.S. in particular I can see the contrast. but compared to China, or societies organized along religious lines, I think Russia is in the category with Europeans. I think we can get around the ambiguous term “the West”, by asking: from the point of view of the U.S., would the “clash of values” due to Russian “anti-individualism” be worse than that found in Europe?

        Materialism … that wealth / material resources is the first organizing principle among groups of people, the first principle of analyzing the situation of an individual, and that it trumps other considerations.

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      3. “I put Consumer capitalism as a value because it’s an implicit social-contract type situation, where as long as you’re provided with a reasonable standard of living, you don’t criticize the capitalist system. Part of this is a faith that a (relatively pure) capitalist system is the least defective system available, from the materialist point of view. This faith is an additional thing that does not automatically follow from materialism alone.”

        I’m going to disappoint a lot of people right now. Accroding to the most recent LEVADA center poll, 52% of Russians support planтув economy model and only 26% support market capitalism.

        As for the rest 2 – where did you get that Russians are indeed “embracing materialism and individualism”? Are these two categories more prevalent in modern Russia than in the SU? Yes. Are they on the “standard Western level” (whatever it is)? No.

        And since when did the West monopolized the “individualism” and “[non-dialectic] materialism” as its values?

        What, that’s all “Western values” you can name that “Russians” (which one?) are embracing?

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      4. “According to the most recent LEVADA center poll, 52% of Russians support planned economy model and only 26% support market capitalism.” – Which just goes to show that 52% of repondents either have extraordinary bad memories and can`t remember the woeful lack of decent consumer goods in Soviet times, or weren`t alive at the time and don`t know any better, or are just plain stupid. There is a reason why everybody but North Korea has abandoned the planned economy – it stank.

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      5. “or are just plain stupid”

        Really, that’s your analysis? The opinion polling dynamics (the last time ‘market capitalism’ was higher than ‘planned economy’ was 1992) of a society that experienced both socioeconomic systems within one generation is dismissed as ‘they are stupid’? Oh, dear.

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      6. I was being unnecessary glib with the `stupid` remark, but it was not meant to refer to everybody, just a final subset of respondents, which is why it was last – but, there are people to whom it might be fair to apply the label: those who actually know the facts about the relative performance of market and planned economies and yet still prefer the latter (bearing in mind, of course, that there is no such thing as a totally free market economy or a fully planned one – we are dealing with generalizations here).

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      7. Like a lot of surveys, this one doesn’t seem to define its terms very clearly. If by “planned economy”, we mean the full-out Soviet model, I’m highly suspicious of the result, since not even the CPRF supports that anymore. I suspect what the survey reflects is a general sympathy for dirigiste economic management, combined with some hazy nostalgia for “the good old days”. In any case, I feel pretty confident saying we won’t be seeing any mass movements for the restoration of collective agriculture or internal passports.

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      8. “Which just goes to show that 52% of repondents either have extraordinary bad memories and can`t remember the woeful lack of decent consumer goods in Soviet times, or weren`t alive at the time and don`t know any better, or are just plain stupid.”

        Wow. Paul! That was rather… unbecoming of you. To quote great Russian dissident Lev Nathanovich Sharanskiy: “Как из душа окатило. Стало совестливо и гадливо на душе”. For you to resort to such knee-jerk reactions? Also – I didn’t know that you are also an economist with diploma who can freely discuss the absolute EVIL of the planned economy and objective GOOD of the market capitalism benevolently guided by the “Invisible hand of the Market” ™

        I also have to ask you – Paul, have you clicked on that link that I’ve provided? Maybe (just maybe) you better read it first – and fully? But even without reading it – is it so surprising that after the criminal “prikhavitzatsia” and rise of the oligarchs Russians don’t like the capitalism at large?

        Maybe instead of linking straight to the Duetsche Welle interview discussing the results of the poll I should have linked directly to the poll. Well – sorry for that. But results are the same. Besides – that’s not a rocket science to find that poll referenced in the article on LEVADA’s site.

        Check it out. An amazing read. You will get here a picture of Russian views on the subject from 1996 to 2016 and see how much (or how little) have changed in that period.

        There are a lot of other points discussed at that poll. And their results won’t make you happy either. 37% of polled would’ve preferred the Soviet political system, while 23% were quite happy with the current one. And only 13% supported “democracy of the Western type”.

        You may hate and disagree all those people in Russia who give “wrong” (according to you, Professor Robinson) answers – but you can’t dismiss them completely. Neither can you ignore the factors that made the people in Russia to answer like that.

        And that was my way of answering about supposedly more “consumer capitalist” Russians.

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  4. Individualism (liberalism), socialist collectivism, and nationalism – all three are indeed western ideas of the Enlightenment.

    But the most important and the most potent one is the idea of “enlightenment” itself and its unquestionable superiority; the idea and firm belief in our, the westerners, superiority over the savages populating the rest of the world. We are the rational beings, the highest form of humanity. Now, that’s a value.

    And this is one truly common fundamental western value. Note how it clearly manifests itself in all three competing enlightenment concepts: liberalism, marxism, and nationalism.

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  5. @Lyttenburgh,

    Wow, didn’t realize I was starting into such a sensitive topic.

    The Levada poll is eye opening. Given the adventures with exploitative privatization, it makes some sense. The Russians I know, including in my family, all emigrated, mostly to the U.S., around the late 80’s to early 90’s, give or take, and were from a segment of society that did pretty well, so that is all certainly a huge bias. Nevertheless, I’m still saying that believing in any kind of inherent incompatibility, and saying that is the source of current tensions, is a bunch of crap.

    I’ll stand by my description of western values too, that’s what I can see here as the central elements. I don’t claim those views are exactly my own, by the way. Also, individualism is the trickiest and most interesting one, and we didn’t even get into that, which is probably good.

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    1. “The Russians I know, including in my family, all emigrated, mostly to the U.S., around the late 80’s to early 90’s, give or take, and were from a segment of society that did pretty well, so that is all certainly a huge bias”

      Given that new information, can I wager a theory that they were Jewish?

      Also – I take it you have no contact with Russians in Russia?

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      1. “Some have been going back and forth. The majority, including my family, are Jewish. Would you be kind enough to explain the significance of this to you?”

        First of all – are you familiar with the difference between terms “Russian/Rossiyanin” and “Russian/Russkiy”?

        Second – in late 80-s – early 90s Soviet Jews were granted opportunity to emigrate en-masse from the USSR. This is a well known fact confirmed by the statistical data that it was them, embittened by the their previous status of “otkazniks”, who constitued the largest part of the emigrants from the Soviet Union in that period. Most of them were not turners, fitters, milling machine operators or the like – they were members of the creative class or artistic intelligentsia. If you insist on me saying it out loud – they were a tiny unrepresentative mminority of the multi-ethnic people of the USSR and later Russia.

        But they bacame the representatives of “Russia” in the eyes of the West, its elites and punditocracy. Because

        a) They were nearby
        b) Had an “underfog” status
        c) Said all right and handshakable words about “horrible and bloody” regime in “This Country”.

        When this sunday evening Leonid Iosifovitch Raichelgauz (1947, Odessa) in “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” poltical talk show, live, said that for him the “90s were the best time of life” – and that there are no neo-Nazis in Ukraine, ‘caase he didn’t saw any – you can’t help but notice certain… values dissonance between the people like Raichelgauz and the rest of Russians.

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      2. That Russian Jews are not Russian was made quite clear to me at an early age, thank you very much. I’m mostly ok with that, as my Russian family was as well in previous generations, since the formal meritocracy of the soviet system provided quite decent social mobility, and they did well despite having to endure neverending comments (and worse, in the past) from people like you. That was one of the many contradictions of the USSR.

        Now, do you seriously believe that if the mass emigration of Russian Jews had not happened, then the post-USSR development in the 90’s would have been less exploitative, or that the current bizzare mix of US foreign policy, which I probably don’t like any more than you do, is somehow the result of Jews immigrating to the U.S.?

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  6. “That Russian Jews are not Russian was made quite clear to me at an early age, thank you very much. I’m mostly ok with that, as my Russian family was as well in previous generations, since the formal meritocracy of the soviet system provided quite decent social mobility, and they did well despite having to endure neverending comments (and worse, in the past) from people like you. That was one of the many contradictions of the USSR.”

    1) You call your family “Russian”? What, according to you, every UK citizen is automatically “English”?
    2) What “people like me”?
    3) What comments?

    For clarity sake – my second eldest brother is married to the Jewish girl. Actually, she is ¼ Jewish, but one won’t say that after seeing/talking to her. They have a daughter – my niece. Her parents (who hail from Belarus and Murmansk) emigrated in late 90s (thanks to their relatives who emigrated in late 80s) into States. They are currently living in Madison, WN. They are microbiologists.

    I know that you are different. I was exposed to that. What I object though is you speaking on behalf of all Russians.

    “Now, do you seriously believe that if the mass emigration of Russian Jews had not happened, then the post-USSR development in the 90’s would have been less exploitative, or that the current bizzare mix of US foreign policy, which I probably don’t like any more than you do, is somehow the result of Jews immigrating to the U.S.?”

    That some kind of troll logic here. Where have I ever said that mass emigration of Russian Jews should’ve been prevented? Or that if they’ve stayed they would’ contribute mostly positively to Russia’s development in the 90s? Even before them there were waves of Russophobic/Anti-Soviet emigrants, who managed to hi-jack the general narrative of the West about the USSR/Russian Empire. But by saying that they were not the first ones doesn’t mean that they didn’t contribute to the most recent wave of the official Russophobia – check put Julia Ioffe anytime you want to see that for yourself.

    How can certain categories of the people who hate Russia, its history and the vast majority of people with all their being ever contribute something positive to Russia’s development and/or perception in the West?

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    1. (1) By nationality, not ethnicity. You already repeated that point several times, like it’s some kind of magic thing that is supposed to make everything else disappear.
      (2) You’re not the first, likely not the last.
      (3) Read what you wrote.

      I did not claim to speak for the majority of Russians. I also don’t have the expectation that you represent anyone other than yourself. I described what I saw. You brought in a link to a poll that showed where you thought I was wrong and that’s fine too.

      Now after that you want to get personal, that is a different matter.

      “certain categories of the people who hate Russia… with all their being” … So who is making presumptions about what the other is saying?

      I am not here to provoke you, or insinuate myself into the part of your culture you want to keep me out of. Like I said, I’m fine with that. Nor am I here for the specific purpose of defending Russia, though it is something I appreciate, since it is in part where I am from. I certainly don’t hate Russia any more than the U.S. – they are both vulnerable to some damning criticisms, as expected from any large influential country.

      Since I now live in the U.S., my specific goal is to provide constructive criticism to U.S. foreign policy, which is badly needed, and that’s where we intersect. For better or worse. So try to have an open mind for a minute if you can.

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      1. Guys, we’re getting a little close to the edge of my comfort zone here. I will be putting up a new post this afternoon. I suggest that we shift to commenting on that, in a spirit of informed and good-natured debate, as is normally the case here.

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      2. “Guys, we’re getting a little close to the edge of my comfort zone here…”

        Fine, Paul. Although there are some times when you need to overstep your”comfort zones”. Brings in a… cathartic element, you know.

        To sum up:

        – User peteybee made a claim that “Russia embraced most western values… with… the obvious enthusiasm”, namely – materialism, consumer capitalism, individualism. Source of the claim – anecdotal evidence provided to said user by the emigrant relatives.

        – I argued using recent polling data that everything is not so cut and dry as it appears in someone’s narrative. And that I, speaking on behalf of the majority of Russian citizens, can support that claim.

        – Opponents starring in the “Irrusianality’ Weekly Duel show” remained each with their own opinion. Some were more offended at perceived slights than others.

        End of story, move on.

        Oh, and peteybee – if you want to continue this conversation somewhere else, beyond Pauls hospital blog – I’m open to suggestions.

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      3. @Lyttenburgh,

        Maybe another time. I don’t want this to take over my day and it easily can. There are parts of this that I want to follow up on, but not in a way that is provocative in a way that kills actual thought, which is where it was going.

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