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.