Institutionalizing the West

On Saturday I took part in an online conference organized by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute on the topic “Why Canada Should Leave NATO,” which you can watch on Facebook here . Note that the conference title was not phrased as a question! To be honest, I was a bit of a fish out of water, ideologically speaking, in this group, but it gave me a chance to develop my ideas on the topic of NATO in light of some recent reading I’ve been doing.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was in the process of reading some works on late Soviet thought and the origins of perestroika, for instance Robert English’s book “Russia and the Idea of the West.” What I got out of all that is that among dissidents and what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats” of the late Soviet era, there was a strong desire to “return to the West” as it were. A certain element within the Soviet intelligentsia, some of whom were to strongly influence the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wished to end what they considered to be their country’s isolation from the West, and to reintegrate with it, so that Russia could again become a “European” country.

In another book I read last week, Daniel Thomas’ “The Helsinki Effect,” Thomas shows how this desire then collided with the fact that the Soviet Union had agreed in 1975 to include human rights in the Helsinki Final Act. With this, human rights became a norm of international relations, leading to a situation in which Soviet reformers who wanted to “return to Europe” concluded that such a return was impossible without a liberalization of the Soviet Union, to bring the country into conformity with these new international standards.

Thomas thus concludes that Western pressure on human rights did have an effect on the Soviet leadership. But I think that one needs to go one step further. It had this effect only because there was an influential element within the Soviet leadership that yearned to be part of the West and believed that if it did the West wanted it would be appropriately rewarded. This situation, I think, is not the case to day.

Sadly for the Soviet reformers, it didn’t work out the way they wanted. The Soviet Union reformed, then collapsed, but it never became part of the West. In fact, something else happened.

Historically speaking, the West has never been a real thing, in the sense of actually existing anywhere other than in peoples’ minds. The West – and more narrowly, Europe – has been more of an idea than anything else. As such it was always possible for Russia to be part of it, if it so chose.

Moreover, politically Europe was always divided. Alliances came and went in ever changing combinations, and Russia could be part of the European network of international relations as one of the members of this continually fluctuating system. When the Iron Curtain came down across Europe in the late 1940s, the situation changed, with Europe divided into two rigid blocs. But the collapse of communism seemed to provide an opportunity for Russia to once again join in the wider European system.

What actually happened, though, was something different. The institutions of Western Europe – the EU and NATO – spread eastwards up to Russia’s borders, in effect dividing Europe into two pieces – “Europe” and Russia. In the process, the West, which had previously only been an idea, became institutionalized, and institutionalized in such a way as to permanently exclude Russia.

We are therefore now in an entirely new historical situation – something that I don’t think that most people understand. The problem with EU and NATO expansion is not that they threaten Russia, but that they have institutionalized the dichotomy between Russia and the West. This has serious implications.

There is no point in modern-day Russian reformers arguing like their Soviet forebears that that they need to change the way that the Russian government operates in order to facilitate Russia’s “return to Europe”. Such a return is now impossible. For the same reason, it’s naïve of people in the West to imagine that the human rights agenda today can have the same impact that it did in the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond that, the institutionalizing of the West can in the long term only weaken Russians’ sense that they are Western, and so weaken also their desire to seek the West’s approval.

This is, of course, not an irreversible process. For now, Russia for the most part still looks West. But the more the institutionalized West seeks to exclude Russia, and the more that the new Iron Curtain solidifies, the harder it will be to convince Russians that they have a European future. In this context, it’s difficult to see how a new generation of Westernizing reformers could come to power in the way of the enlightened bureaucrats of Gorbachev’s era.

Of course, few people saw Gorbachev and co. coming, so you never know. It could yet happen. But I wouldn’t bet the house on it. The situation now is very different, and in some respects not for the better.

28 thoughts on “Institutionalizing the West”

  1. Isn’t there a school of thought that holds that Russia is Europe that the West is not? The third Rome. The defender of European traditions against decadence, cultural decline, self-destructive behavior, etc.

    These days it sometimes (more and more often) feels like a reasonable attitude. So, perhaps Canada could “join in” and “return to Europe”.


    1. This is a common attitude among Russian conservatives – ‘Europe has become decadent and ceased to be European. We are the true inheritors of European values! As such, it is our mission is to save Europe from itself.’


      1. If I’m not offhand mistaken, Lavrov (following very recent three way Russian, German and French talks regarding Ukraine) said “we Europeans” (or something meaning the same) are concerned about provocative moves to incite violence within the former Ukrainian SSR.

        He wasn’t referring to any supposed provocations from the Russian side.


  2. “the institutionalizing of the West can in the long term only weaken Russians’ sense that they are Western, and so weaken also their desire to seek the West’s approval.”

    The desire does not only seem to be weak, but the idea of Russa being a European country barely seems to exist:

    “A recent poll by the Levada Center, a research group branded a ‘foreign agent’ by Moscow, revealed that only 29 percent of Russians consider Russia to be a European country, which represents a drastic decline from 52 percent in 2008. A generational shift is underway, as younger Russians lead the way in dismissing the European identity of their country, with those aged 18 to 24 polling at only 23 percent.”


    1. That’s a mistake IMO if factually true. Gives support to the anti-Russian view in the West, which is wrong about Russia relative to Europe.

      The EU has high jacked the actual meaning of being European.


  3. Russia is still suffering from a Stalinist hangover. The Old Regime clung onto this ideology long past its expiry date. The tension that built up was resolved – under pressure – with the collapse of the state structure in a very short time. Just as Trotsky said it would only it took longer in time to reach that crisis.

    The point is there isn’t any other stable route or path for Russia to proceed along. It is really socialism or barbarism. The Ukraine has chosen barbarism. Russia has chosen to lean or rely upon Chinese Stalinism or state capitalism. Because without the physical and economic association with it then Russia would be just a bigger Ukraine. In the absence of a China, Russia would not be strong enough to avoid the siren’s call of ruin. While Putin is a Lenin-like leader of great strength he would not be enough to stabilize Russia were it not for the ascending power of China.

    The U.S. deteriorates into its own late-stage Stalinism. Sort of. The EU and UK slide into their slough of despond. The ‘West’ is and always was a mirage construct. All Russia has to do is steer a stable course and buddy up to China. The gravity of history will tend to sort this all out in due course. Russia will edge back towards collective ownership of the means of production whether it understands the process or not. And the U.S. will slide into its own barbarism towards which end it is already moving along very smartly.

    As the great Tom Lehrer put it – in the 1960s: “In German and English, I’ve learned how to count down and I’m learning Chinese” said Wernher von Braun.


    1. Sorry, John Thurloe, but this is such a heap of baloney! Russia is not suffering from any such thing. That past is pretty much dead&gone, and the 30-to-50 year olds who mostly run the country now only remember SU as a distant dream – if at all.

      Have you ever lived in Russia? Lately, especially? I am guessing not, ’cause otherwise you’d have known it’s on a completely, totally different path.

      If I were to describe the prevailing mood, I’d compare it to the pure joy of a kid finally getting to play with the Lego set he’d coveted for months. State technocrats are literally getting a huge kick out of building things – you gotta hear them talk! Since mid-2000’s, for the first time in many decades, everyday life and everyday things in Russia are improving palpably – monthly, weekly, almost daily. Services, education, transportation, medicine, city life -everything. Everybody is swept up in this renovating&redecorating frenzy, like a new homeowner. Only the home being renovated is the whole country.

      Communism, socialism, capitalism, libertarianism – no one wants to think about -isms anymore, apart from a handful of intellectuals. Whatever tool does the job, it’s good enough, no need for consistent theoretical base. People revel in the concrete. This is the time of simple, attainable goals – good homes, good food, good roads, good schools&hospitals. Good fun, too! Good life for everyone, as soon as possible. This is the current Russian -ism.


      1. Thank you, Lola, for the correction! What fascinates me, rather, is the central role of the Russian State in the processes you describe. Whether “white”, “red” or today’s blue-white and-red, “gosudarstvennyi interes’” seems always to have been, historically, and is today also the central, driving force of these developments. I have absolutely no bias against this, since it is an historically determined arrangement, not least of all because of centuries of continued military pressures on Russia’s western borders: mobilization of the resources of the nation for the defense of the nation’s sovereignty was always the prime objective, as the pithy statement made by Aleksandr III about the Russian army and fleet stands as only a single witness. Yet it also seems to me, having said that, that Russian government has matured enormously in its general approach to an evolving, multi-stranded interrelationship with the society at large and that, while the State may still administer “from the top downward”, that vital interrelationship is something qualitatively new and portends well for Russia’s future. I haven’t been to Russia since 2009 so I’ve missed a lot of the new developments of which you speak, but I always had the most positive experience of the people and the settings in over the fifteen years of my travels in the country.


      2. Thanks Miller! Wish more Westerners shared this perspective… And yes, totally – it has indeed evolved & matured. I am keeping my fingers crossed it continues on this track. There’s certainly still room for improvement 😉


    2. “While Putin is a Lenin-like leader of great strength he would not be enough to stabilize Russia were it not for the ascending power of China.”


      Putin and yours truly wouldn’t say such.


  4. >In this context, it’s difficult to see how a new generation of Westernizing reformers could come to power in the way of the enlightened bureaucrats of Gorbachev’s era.

    “Westernizing reformers” don’t make sense anymore. In those early days many had an illusion that the US&Co would welcome Russia as an equal partner. It’s become clear quite a while ago that the collective West can only accept Russia as a sidekick, anything beside such a role is out of the question.
    Now the only way out of this is a “Gorbachev” in the West. This won’t happen w/o some deep crisis.


  5. For the more or less marginalized masses of intelligentzia thinkers, “Europe” and “West” were always mutually indistinguishable things – perhaps, the legacy from olden times when Russian Tsardom did not extend past Pskov and Smolensk (approximately the western borders of current Russia). Now the educated people know the difference very well. The idea of “West” lies at very core of the European civilization, and many achievements of the entire world is associated with it, especially industrialized civilization as we know it. It is natural that many countries look towards West – not because they want to do like they say, but because they want to do what the West does.

    This core of that idea doesn’t belong to Europe anymore, not exclusively, not since it’s been burned by two total wars and torn between the winners, and if anybody wants to resuscitate what is left of it in the Europe, they would have to start with abolishing their total dependence of US military and economic might. They may as well try to use some of the experience of Russia, which has been declared clinically dead too many times to count.

    “European” ideas and sensibilities seem to be more simple and historically based, and if anybody would ask me how I understand them it is more or less the following: “If your country is west of mine, our attitude may vary, but if you are to the east, we are to conquer you dirty barbarians as soon as we deal with out treacherous neighbours.” Every century or so, another European nation, who for some reason managed to unite enough forces under their banner, decides that instead of solving their major and pressing problems and dealing with major opponents, it is more important to liquidate a minor obstacle at the east reaches of their empire so to proceed to the glorious future unhindered.


    1. “If your country is west of mine, our attitude may vary, but if you are to the east, we are to conquer you dirty barbarians as soon as we deal with out treacherous neighbours.”

      Do the Greek roots of barbarian, as peoplle that speaks in a seemingly somewhat incoherent tongue–something like bar–bar, bar fit into your grand theory?


      1. I am not as well informed of Greece relationships in modern politics, but I suspect they are regarded not so much as barbarians (though it is also an option because of the religion), but as decadent peasants.


      2. I was babbling:

        Wikipedia, Barbarian, Etymology:
        The Ancient Greek name βάρβαρος (barbaros), “barbarian”, was an antonym for πολίτης (politēs), “citizen” (from πόλις – polis, “city-state”). The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek, pa-pa-ro, written in Linear B syllabic script.[6][7]

        The Greeks used the term barbarian for all non-Greek-speaking peoples, including the Egyptians, Persians, Medes and Phoenicians, emphasizing their otherness. According to Greek writers, this was because the language they spoke sounded to Greeks like gibberish represented by the sounds “;” the alleged root of the word βάρβαρος, which is an echomimetic or onomatopoeic word. However, in various occasions, the term was also used by Greeks, especially the Athenians, to deride other Greek tribes and states (such as Epirotes, Eleans, Macedonians, Boeotians and Aeolic-speakers) but also fellow Athenians, in a pejorative and politically motivated manner.[8][9][10][11] The term also carried a cultural dimension to its dual meaning.[12][13] The verb βαρβαρίζω (barbarízō) in ancient Greek meant to behave or talk like a barbarian, or to hold with the barbarians.[14]

        Strictly a passage in your comment rang a bell.


    2. Every century or so, another European nation, who for some reason managed to unite enough forces under their banner, decides that instead of solving their major and pressing problems and dealing with major opponents, it is more important to liquidate a minor obstacle at the east reaches of their empire so to proceed to the glorious future unhindered.

      This is a comic/gamer version of history.


  6. Main problem with “West” is not so much Europe as the United States. USA is the source of most of the conflict and violence in the world.
    It is beyond my imagination how Soviet “reformers” could ever have regarded this Empire as anything other than sheer evil. Especially after seeing what they did in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1970’s), and then creating Al Qaeda (1980’s), one of the most evil organizations ever. How could the Soviet leaders look at this and NOT feel repulsed?

    I already know the answer to my own question: They were enticed by the consumer goods. At that time, America could manufacture anything, and pretty cheaply, and fairly good quality. It was for that, not because of ephemeral “human rights”, the Stalinist bureaucracy and Nomenklatura were enticed by “Western” values. Not unlike the “Sausage Emigres” who abandoned and betrayed their country for better sausages.


    1. American soft power was also a powerful factor.

      The music, the films presented an America that was appealing, dynamic, innovative, fresh, that believed in justice, fairness. The idea of the American dream was powerful.

      I’m not sure when the soft power ceased to work


    2. To stay within your story as told, did you consider your parents as “Sausage Emigres”? And at what age exactly? Immediately? At a later point in time?


      1. Hi, moon, No, I don’t consider my parents to be “sausage emigres”, because they never actually had any illusions about America. Neither about the quality of the sausage, nor anything else. It’s a complicated story, sorry I cannot be more open about it, but certain things must remain private….


  7. I agree with the general premise of the article but for me it is the ‘West’ that has changed most dangerously and egregiously. Of course they have the platitudes about human rights but pay absolutely no heed to them any more, trampling over countries at will, killing millions, breaking international law and committing war crimes for which they deem themselves unaccountable. Constant breaches of foreign sovereign territory, extra judicial drone assassinations which kill hundreds, the list goes on. Who is it that is offering a sane multi polar view of the world? Who is it that abides by the UN and international law (perhaps not to the inch but …) We are looking East now, not West. Whose vision of the future includes the UN at it’s center, with real muscle, not a rubber stamp for ‘Western’ war and plunder. If I was Russia I’d be moving East too, the West is in a disastrous state, collapsing economy, through sheer greed and stupidity, rising poverty (20% in the UK only 13% in Russia) mass homelessness (they discovered bubonic plague and typhus in LA recently, amongst the rat population) mass unemployment, an economy kept on life support by printing money … complete failure of state in the West as regards Covid (again, through greed and profit seeking) It’s embarrassing.
    In terms of understanding we still have the same old problem and that is that Western commentators are still looking East from a western perspective, (reading endless books written by middle aged white Europeans or Americans, mostly written a long time ago, racist, stereotypical, ignorant) you need to look at it from THEIR perspective, in the East, culturally as well as politically. Once you do that you see things in an entirely different way. For pretty much the last decade I have known that the ‘West’ aren’t the good guys any more (it could well have been the last 2 decades in reality) there is little to be proud of here and as history unfolds and the West is stripped of its myths what we see laid bare are the old bones of some ideas that died a long time ago. Has there ever been anything more ridiculous and groundless than the western ‘rules based order?’ as espoused by the likes of ‘we cheat, we kill, we steal’ Pompeo? The so called RBO is nothing more than ‘Do as we say, not as we do .. or else.’
    No, the reality is that the problems aren’t in the East, they’re in the West but the solutions are no longer in the West, they are in the East.


  8. Ok, before I check other responses, I prefer to listen to the exchange. Just in case anyone else has troubles with the Facebook link, below a YouTube one:

    Great Paul, liked it.


  9. What a great post. Thanks Paul!
    At first, I was unconvinced, but having thought about it for a bit, I believe you’ve really hit the nail on the head! A useful and original framework to think about Russia-Europe issues.


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