Liberal Optimism

In a new article for RT today (that you can read here), I discuss how reform in Russia has generally come from above, often with the help of what one might call ‘enlightened bureaucrats’. Western politicians who imagine that dissident oppositionists will liberalize Russia are probably deluding themselves. If change comes, it will most likely come from within the system.

Anti-liberals among you will no doubt notice that my analysis contains a definite liberal bias in that it accepts the inevitability and necessity of liberalization. I stand by that. It would be absurd to say that liberalism is the ‘End of History’ – mankind will probably around for thousands more years, and there is no telling what social, economic and political systems and values will be appropriate in the year 3021, let alone 1,000,021. That said, within the context of our own times, liberalism offers many advantages – freer societies tend to be more vibrant, more economically successful, and more politically stable. This means that there are strong incentives for state leaders to liberalize. They needn’t be liberals, but if they want their states to be powerful, liberalization makes sense.

That said, certain economic and cultural preconditions are necessary for liberalism to take root and not to collapse in disaster. The fact that liberalism is in some abstract, generalized sense, desirable, doesn’t mean that one ought to demand it immediately in the particular circumstances of a given society. Don’t force it, in other words. Let societies discover its advantages for themselves.

Given this, it seems to me that if we wish others to liberalize, our focus ought to be on creating the preconditions I mentioned above and on making it easier for societies – and in particular their rulers, the ones who will enact change from above – to realize the benefits that come from liberalization. That means doing pretty much the opposite to what Western states have done in recent years. Rather than seeking to impoverish what we like to call ‘authoritarian’ states via sanctions, we should be doing what we can to help them prosper.

At this point, some might object that this strategy doesn’t work, pointing for instance to China. But that is a mistake. China does indeed retain an authoritarian political system, but it is undeniably a much more liberal place than it was 40 years ago, before it opened up to the world. Moreover, that liberalization has brought huge benefits to the Chinese. Compare China with North Korea – the one we have helped prosper, and the other we have helped impoverish. Which do you think is closer to having the necessary economic, social, and cultural preconditions for a liberal society? The answer, I think, is obvious.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It strikes me as rather paradoxical that many so-called ‘liberals’ believe in the universality of their ideas, but at the same time think that they need to be forced on others. Surely, if these ideas are bound to succeed, all you need to do is wait for natural processes to do their thing.

In this respect, I am an unashamed liberal optimist unlike so many contemporary ‘liberals’, who have abandoned their faith in progress and like to regale us with predictions of doom and impending ‘tyranny’. I tend to the view that things will work out in the end, if we just butt out and let them run their natural course. Maybe I’m wrong. Only time will tell. It will be interesting to hear if you agree or disagree with me.

Brits in Crimea: Scared of looking scared

It’s said that, when asked why he had escalated America’s military campaign in Vietnam, US president Lyndon Johnson pulled down his trousers, whipped out his male member, and said “That’s why!’

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s quite plausible. For LBJ, Vietnam was nothing if not a test of manhood. As he told his biographer Doris Kearns: “If I left that way and let the communists take over South Vietnam, then I would be seen as a coward … an unmanly man, a man without spine.”

It’s perhaps too harsh to say that 58,000 Americans died so that LBJ could feel like a man. But there’s something to it. And as I detailed in my 2006 book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, LBJ is hardly unique. Throughout the ages, war – like international politics generally – has been powerfully influenced by the search for honour, and perhaps even more by the desire to avoid dishonour.

One you realize this, a lot of international politics suddenly makes sense. Modern Westerners tend to be a bit uncomfortable with the language of honour. It sounds a bit archaic. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant – just that we’re not very good at recognizing it in ourselves. A case in point is the incident last week when a British warship sailed through what Russia claims are its territorial waters off Crimea. But before we get onto that, we first need to take a little diversion into academic theory.

Honour, as Aristotle put it, is “the reward for virtue.” What virtue consists of is something we’ll come onto in a moment, but the key point is that honour comes from displaying virtue. Honour also comes in two forms – external and internal, otherwise expressed by words such as prestige, reputation, face, etc. in the first instance, or like conscience and integrity in the second. Seen this way, honour is, according to a well-known definition, the worth of a person in his/her own eyes as well as the worth of a person in the eyes of others. Either way, it’s a measurement of worth. But of the two forms (internal and external) the first is the most important – the reason one wants to be considered worthy in the eyes of others is because it makes you feel worthy in your own eyes. Ultimately, honour is all about feeling good about yourself.

Another way of looking at honour is to divide it into two other types. The first is absolute, and is often associated with female honour. This type you either have or you don’t – you’re pure, and so honourable, until you aren’t and you’re not. The second type is relative and competitive – or “agonistic” in the technical jargon. This type is traditionally associated with male virtues – strength, courage, prowess, and so on. Honour of this type has to be perpetually defended, lest one loses one’s relative position. It requires one both to challenge others and to defend oneself any time one is challenged.

This latter type of honour tends to flourish where governance is weak, and people or institutions feel that they need to exert themselves in order to survive. This gives it an instrumental purpose. But it also tends to get detached from this purpose. Strength, courage, prowess etc are considered important in the sense of being necessary to defend against threats. Because of that, societies tend to promote them as virtues, rewarding their display. The result is that people internalize them and feel a need to display these virtues even when it’s not appropriate. Because virtue and worth have become associated with strength, courage, prowess etc, showing strength, courage, prowess, etc becomes almost an end in itself – or at least, a psychological necessity to avoid the sense of shame that comes from failing to live up to the standard of virtue.

The result is a lot of utterly unnecessary conflict, as individuals, including state leaders, feel the need to challenge one another and respond forcibly to anything that is perceived to be a challenge.

Which brings us on to the shenanigans of the Royal Navy last week off the coast of Crimea.

In a recent post, I speculated as to what inspired this particular piece of foolish derring-do. Now we have an answer, courtesy of some waterlogged Ministry of Defence documents found abandoned behind a bus stop in Kent. In these, anonymous defence officials predicted that the Russian response to a British incursion into Crimean waters might be fairly forceful. But they also concluded that this was no reason not to direct the British warship HMS Defender to sail through the waters in question. Were that to happen, said the documents, people might get the impression of “the UK being scared/running away.”

At which point, I hope, the connection with what I said earlier becomes clear. One might imagine that the Russian-British spat was a matter of high principle or national interest. In reality, it’s about not wanting to look cowardly.

In effect, the Russian annexation of Crimea was a “challenge” to the West. As such, the logic of honour requires a response. Failing to face up to the challenge by sailing around Crimea would have meant ducking the challenge, and as such was unacceptable. The fact that the Russians might respond forcefully made meeting the challenge even more essential. If there was no chance of a forceful response, there wouldn’t be any cowardice in failing to meet it. It was precisely the possibility that things might turn violent that made the escapade necessary.

This seems strange, but the logic is entirely in keeping with the perverse incentives provided by the honour code. The possibility that an incident might escalate into war isn’t a reason to back off; it’s actually all the more reason to press on.

The thing about this, though, is that the challenge in question was purely imaginary. It existed in the minds of the Royal Navy, but not anywhere else. People weren’t actually going to think that the British were a bunch of cowards if they decided to sail from Odessa to Georgia by some other route. In fact, nobody would have noticed, let alone cared.

Thus, going back to what I said earlier, the internal aspect of honour is what matters here – it’s all about self-perception rather than the perception of others. What’s driving this is a feeling in the British establishment that their status in the world isn’t what it was. The sense of internal dishonour this provokes makes them feel bad about themselves. And so they incite a conflict in order to boost their self-esteem.

If you have a spare hour, I recommend Bill Moyer’s documentary LBJ’s Road to War. A lot of it consists of recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls with his advisors about Vietnam. What comes out of it is that all concerned knew that escalating the war was a bad idea and wouldn’t succeed. But more important from LBJ’s point of view was that he didn’t want to look weak. And the rest as they say, is history. The lesson is obvious, and its one that the Brits – and everybody else – would do well to learn.

Banning Bard

In another article for RT, published today, I discuss the decision of the Russian prosecutor to ban New York-based Bard College. This is, I say, a ‘foolish and counterproductive’ decision that ‘will send a chill across the academic community, and deter anybody in Russia or the West who is considering future cooperation on even the most mutually beneficial matters.’ Read here.

Imperial Delusions

In a new article for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the adventures of the British warship HMS Defender off the coast of Crimea. In essence, I argue that while the British action was probably in accordance with the international law of the sea, it was strategically foolish. The British imagine that they are sending certain signals to the Russian Federation, but the signals Moscow is getting are almost certainly very different. Consequently, the Russian reaction is likely to be one that the Brits don’t like very much. In short, the action will prove counterproductive.

All of this raises an important issue – why don’t the Brits get it? For the past 20 years, I’ve been arguing incessantly that British defence policy needs a radical rethink, because the country’s endless military meddling in other parts of the globe is doing the United Kingdom no good and quite a lot of harm, as well as wasting national resources which could much more productively be used on other things. Yet it doesn’t seem to matter how many times things go tragically wrong – the invasion of Iraq, the failed British campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan, the continuing disaster that is Libya, the mess the Brits are supporting in Yemen, the growing confrontation with Russia, and so on – they fail to draw the pertinent lessons. The attitude seems to not be – ‘well that didn’t turn out so well, let’s not do it again’ – but ‘let’s do again, just better next time’. As a collective failure in lesson learning it’s quite remarkable.

So what’s going on?

It’s hard to say for sure, but various answers present themselves.

The first and perhaps most obvious is that the British ruling class is trapped in a sort of imperial nostalgia, yearning for better times when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’ and all that. The UK feels that it ‘ought’ to be a great power, that it is right and natural for it to be dictating to other pars of the world what they should do, and that national honour requires an assertive foreign and military policy. Brexit hasn’t helped with this, as it’s been accompanied by a lot of ‘global Britain’ guff, but it’s a problem that long predates it. The Blair government had its equivalent with its ‘force for good’ slogan for the British armed forces. It’s all a dangerous illusion, but a powerful one nonetheless.

The ‘force for good’ stuff (which the Johnson government has to some extent revived) also reveals another problem: moral arrogance. The ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union in the Cold War convinced the USA and UK that History, with a big ‘H’, had proven them right. Consequently, anybody who continues in any way to resist them is not mistaken, but profoundly Wrong, as proven by History. By contrast, Britain is Right. There can be no moral doubt. Again, it’s an extremely foolish attitude, but all too prevalent.

A third element is a rather exaggerated belief in the professional magnificence of the British armed forces. Brits really believe that their military is the best in the world. Somehow, the total hash the British army made of Basra and Helmand seems to have slipped them by. But that’s by the by. The belief is strong. Governments also like the military because it’s obedient and responds rapidly to commands. The rest of the ship of state is a horribly immoveable beast, which resists instructions in all sorts of frustrating ways. But when you tell the military to do X, it salutes, about turns, and does X (not always very well, but at least it tries). Politicians therefore end up rather liking it.

Fourth, there’s the whole ‘military industrial complex’ thing. The United Kingdom is the sixth largest exporter of arms in the world. It’s big business. This week’s escapade in the waters of Crimea was preceded by a visit by HMS Defender to Ukraine during which British and Ukrainian officials signed a deal for the UK to produce warships for Ukraine. So you see the logic: Ukraine pays the UK a bunch of money: the Royal Navy then pokes the Russian bear – quid pro quo, you might say.

Fifth and finally, foreign policy is always domestic policy. Because of Britons’ exaggerated sense of their importance, it pays British politicians to strut the world stage and engage in muscular moral posturing. Poking the bear might be stupid from the point of view of British foreign policy interests, because it provokes an unwanted response, but it sells well with the public. The UK doesn’t benefit from worsening relations with Russia, but British politicians benefit from being seen to stand up for Good against Evil. And so it is that the national interest suffers for the domestic political interests of our politicians.

‘Twas ever thus, alas, and doubtless ever will be. But it’s long past time for Brits to put aside their delusions of grandeur and their faith in military power. To quote Kipling:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

The Not-So Strange Death of Liberal Russophobia

Sunday’s edition of the New York Times had an interesting little piece by the newspaper’s token conservative op-ed writer Ross Douthat, entitled ‘The Strange Death of Liberal Russophobia’, a by-line echoing the title of George Dangerfield’s famous 1935 book The Strange Death of Liberal England. Douthat notes that between 2016 and 2020, when Donald Trump was president of the USA, among American liberals,

[Russian president Vladimir] Putin was a figure of extraordinary menace whose tentacles extended everywhere, from Brexit to the NRA. He had hacked American democracy, placed a Manchurian candidate in the White House, sowed the internet with misinformation, placed bounties on our soldiers in Afghanistan, extended Russian power across the Middle East and threatened Eastern Europe with invasion or subversion. In this atmosphere ever rumor about Russian perfidy was pre-emptively believed, and the defense of liberal democracy required recognizing that we had been thrust into Cold War 2.0.

Douthat isn’t wrong about that. For a period of four years, Putin derangement syndrome, allied to an overarching Russophobia, became a centrepiece of the Democratic party’s identity. It was to be expected that once Joe Biden became president, US policy towards Russia would become even more hardline. But, Douthat notes, the opposite has happened:

Now comes Biden, making moves in Russia policy that are essentially conciliatory – freezing a military aid package to Ukraine, ending US sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany to Russia, a return of ambassadors – and setting a summit that can reasonably be regarded as a modest propaganda coup for Putin.

And yet, all this – which if Trump had done it, would have led to screams of betrayal and have been seen as proof that Trump was working on behalf of the Kremlin – has passed by with nary of a squeak of protest from the same American liberals who just a short while ago were portraying Moscow as the source of all evil.

What gives?

Douthat argues that it’s a sign of ‘the wisdom of the Biden administration in recognizing that certain Trump-era hysterias within its party can be safely put to sleep.’ According to Douthat, the Russophobic lunacy was the purview of one particular part of the Democratic party – what George Packer calls ‘Smart America’ (‘which is basically meritocratic elites’). This group ‘wanted to blame all its own failures on Russian disinformation’, but it isn’t Biden’s core constituency. He therefore feels free to ignore it and to pursue an essentially Realist policy towards the Russian Federation.

There maybe something to this theory. But I suggest another – the ‘strange’ death of liberal Russophobia isn’t so ‘strange’ at all. Its rise and fall indicates that it was always a tactic more than anything else. Russia-bashing was a method chosen by elements in the Democratic party as a means of undermining Trump and so winning back power. It wasn’t in my view a very good method, and I don’t think that Biden’s victory owed much if anything to it, but it was always a method not an end in itself. That doesn’t mean that ‘Smart America’ didn’t come to believe its own Russophobic propaganda – I get a strong sense that its members repeated its claims so often that in due course they became true believers. But from Biden’s point of view, once Trump was gone, the method had served its purpose. There is no longer any reason to make a central point of Democratic rhetoric.

And so, having outlived its usefulness, it has been discarded. Or at least, one hopes it has. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly suffered a ‘death’, as Douthat put it. It’s still there, with a strong hold on parts of the liberal establishment in the USA. But it seems that at least for now, Biden is prepared to largely ignore it. In that sense, when Douthat speaks of the ‘wisdom of the Biden administration’, one has to agree.

Summit Yawn

I feel that I should write something about the outcome of the much-awaited Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, but to be frank it’s a bit of a yawn. As was to be expected, nothing much was decided, though they at least avoided a major bust-up (it would have been more newsworthy if they hadn’t). The Russian news agency TASS asked me for a comment, and I replied as follows:

Expectations were low regarding this summit and it’s fair to say that those expectations were met. Nobody foresaw a major breakthrough on any issues, and there weren’t any. At most, they agreed to keep talking, especially on nuclear arms control. That said, the two sides took a very, very modest step towards better relations, as seen by the announcement that the respective ambassadors will be returning to their posts. Overall, I would assess as it as a very moderately positive outcome, but the gap between the two sides remains extremely wide.

In essence, there’s not a whole lot to say about the summit. The real issue is how both sides go on from here. There are serious impediments to any forward movement. It’s not just that the USA and Russia have incompatible views of their own national interests. It’s also that there appears to be an almost complete lack of mutual trust. Consequently, I tend to the view that what matters is not reaching agreement on any substantial matters but preventing the hotheads on either side from dragging US-Russia relations even further into the depths. In other words, it’s not about repairing relations, it’s about preventing them from collapsing entirely.

On the Russian side, the big danger, to my mind, is that some idiot in the security and intelligence services will take it into his brain to do something crazy, like the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, or even worse. Sadly, one can’t rule it out. Beyond that, outside of the talking heads on Russian TV shows, I don’t see any appetite for conflict in Russia. I see of lot of resignation that it’s unavoidable, but no desire to make things worse.

I’m less confident in that regard when it comes to the Americans. Biden himself seems fairly level-headed, but as I pointed out in a recent post about Ambassador Kurt Volker and his phrase “success is confrontation,” there is an element in the US foreign policy establishment that seems to be gunning for a fight. On the American side, the challenge will be to see these people off.

I suspect that Biden will be able to quieten the extremists on his side a little bit by pointing to the fact that he used the summit to raise issues with which Putin might feel uncomfortable, such as human rights. No doubt Biden’s supporters will use this as evidence that he is suitably “tough.” In reality, though, this is so much window dressing. One can’t imagine that it will change Russian behaviour in any way. More important is what Biden didn’t do, which is that he didn’t go out of his way to annoy Putin. Nor did he put any obvious spokes in the way of future negotiations. In fact, the summit ended with agreement to keep talking on some key matters. That’s not exactly progress, but it’s not the confrontation that Volker and his ilk were looking for.

In that sense, I see the summit as a bit of a defeat for the hardliners in Washington. Not a huge one, to be sure, but still a setback for them. Given that we couldn’t realistically have expected anything more, I think that on the whole we can consider the meeting a job well done.

Success Is Confrontation

Yes, you read the title correctly, “Success is confrontation.” So says one-time US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker in an article for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), one of the more reliably Russophobic think tanks in Washington. “Success is confrontation.” Think about the implications for a while.

The subject of Mr Volker’s article is the forthcoming meeting between America’s president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Volker wants you to know how should measure the meeting’s “success”. The basic answer is that the meeting will be a success from the American point of view if it fails utterly, miserably, and totally. The worse the outcome, the better it will be.

Now, with relations between two heavily armed nuclear powers about as bad as anyone can remember, one might imagine that success would be if the leaders of the two powers found some way of patching up their difficulties, or at least reaching agreement on some minor matters of mutual interest while leaving major differences between them unresolved. But Mr Volker views things rather differently.

For you see, if the meeting between Biden and Putin ends without a major bust-up, or worse produces some minor agreements that overall contribute to “predictability and stability”, that will be a victory for Putin. And what is good for Putin must by necessity be bad for America. As Volker puts it,

It is surely not in the interests of the US, the EU, NATO, and other allies to see a summit in which Putin leaves convinced that he has blunted the United States and faces no consequences for his behavior. It would send a signal that authoritarians can get away with aggressive acts at home and abroad, and that the US and the West will not take any meaningful action to stop them. … any outcome that seems reassuring and benign on the surface actually works in Putin’s faor.

Consequently, Volker concludes that:

For the US, therefore, the best possible outcome is not one of modest agreements and a commitment to “predictability,” but one of a lack of agreement altogether. Success is confrontation.

Volker points out that Biden and Putin might discuss issues such as climate change, Iran, and Afghanistan. Is it really better that they fail to reach agreement on those issues? Whose interests would that actually serve? I damned if I have an answer. And Volker doesn’t provide one either. His view seems to be that the world can go to hell in a handcart as far as he’s concerned, if the alternative is failure to confront the evil dictator Putin. Frankly, it’s nuts.

In fact, it’s obvious that Volker doesn’t want the meeting to go ahead at all. He writes that, “an ideal scenario would have the US Administration announce tough, new sanctions against Russia and its enablers in Western Europe in advance of the Geneva summit.” Of course, were that to happen, Putin would cancel the meeting there and then. But I guess that’s the point. Volker thinks it’s wrong not only to come to agreement with the Russians but even to talk to them. To reverse-quote Churchill: In the eyes of Volker, “War, war is always better than jaw jaw.”

One can argue that one should prepare for the possibility of conflict. But the idea that one should actively prefer it to agreement on the international stage, especially when dealing with the largest country in the world, a nation endowed with some 1,500 nuclear warheads, is, in my opinion, quite staggeringly irresponsible.

Now, you might say that this is just one guy’s opinion. We can ignore it. It doesn’t mean anything. But Volker isn’t just some guy. From 2017 to 2019, he was the US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations – so in effect America’s point guy for its relationship with Ukraine and for negotiations concerning a peace settlement for that country’s civil war. On the basis of this article, one shudders to think what advice he was giving the Ukrainian government. Certainly not advice conducive to peace, I imagine. It’s more than a little scary.

So, this is more than just one man. This article is a window into the way that an influential part of the American foreign policy establishment thinks. It rejects negotiation. It regards compromise as dangerous. It openly prefers conflict. “Success is confrontation” – the worse the better. Wow!


In my latest article for RT, I discuss Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s sense of betrayal at the US decision to waive sanctions on the North Stream II pipeline. Is it the American equivalent of the ‘Putinsliv’ (Putin’s betrayal) – i.e. the Bidensliv? Read here and find out.