Tag Archives: foreign policy

What we need to do post-Afghanistan, but won’t

In my last post, I mentioned the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Nobody who’s been reading his reports for the past dozen or so years could ever have had any doubt about the folly of American policy in Afghanistan. But one can give the Americans credit for something: their political system not only allows, but actually employs someone who has the specific mandate to spend his time revealing all his employer’s follies.

This doesn’t mean that anybody will be held account for their mistakes , but at least the American system provides for a certain degree of transparency, without which learning lessons from past errors is impossible. Unfortunately, we’re not nearly as transparent here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be. Overall, all the countries involved in the Afghan fiasco need to engage in some serious reflection, which in turn requires a fair degree of openness and a willingness to listen to unpleasant truths.

So, let’s think about what now needs to be done but, of course, almost certainly won’t be.

The first thing that is needed is that serious reflection I mentioned. A failure on the magnitude of the American/NATO mission in Afghanistan requires a major effort to discover what went wrong and learn appropriate lessons. This might seem to be blindingly obvious, but it needs reiterating. For too often, in the face of disaster, the response of our leaders takes the form of what one might call “let’s move on-ism.” As Tony Blair said after the Iraq war had gone horribly wrong: “I know a large part of the public want to move on. … I share that view.” Rather than reflect on the past and draw appropriate lessons, the tendency is to pretend that it was all a bad dream and that nothing happened. It’s not surprising that we keep repeating the same mistakes.

Reflection alone, however, is not enough. One has to reflect on the right things. The danger is that people will insist on learning not just the wrong lessons but the wrong type of lessons – in other words, they will seek tactical and operational lessons, but strategic ones; they’ll try to learn how to do things better, not consider whether they ought to be doing them at all.

This is a particular issue for military people, as they are by nature ‘how’ people not ‘why’ people. Give them a problem and their natural reaction is to ask ‘how do I do this?’ not ‘why am I doing this?’ or even ‘Should I be doing this in the first place?’ But it’s not just a military problem. In his book The Origins of the Third World War, American sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed a finger of blame at what he called “crackpot realism.” This, he said, was the prevailing mode of thinking of the “power elite”, who are in essence technocratic incrementalists. That’s to say that they are very good at fiddling with existing systems in an effort to improve them; but they never stop to consider the system as a whole.

As I think I’ve said before, crackpot realism is like the inverse of a Monet painting: that’s to say that whereas a Monet painting makes no sense close up but perfect sense from a distance, crackpot realism is utterly logical close up, but crazy when viewed from afar. It’s like Mutual Assured Destruction – theories of strategic nuclear war were perfectly logical, with each step following logically from the last; but when you stood back and looked at it as a whole, it was, quite literally, MAD.

So, we need to avoid crackpot realism, that is to say avoid thinking about fiddling with the system rather than tackling the system itself. When considering “lessons learned” from Afghanistan, we shouldn’t therefore be thinking in terms of how one should conduct such interventions better. We should be considering the fundamental assumptions that lie behind such interventions. Do we have the power to change the world in accordance with our desires? Does intervention makes things better or worse? Should we base our foreign policy on ideology, human rights and all the rest of it? In short, should be we even be doing this stuff? And beyond that, we need to ask questions such as whether a “liberal” international order is an objective that we should be pursuing.

Such questioning will inevitably meet fierce resistance. To face it, we need accountability, which in turn, as I said above, requires openness. Every country involved in the Afghan debacle should do a thorough investigation with the aim of answering key questions. These include: Why did the government get involved? Who gave ministers what advice? Who, in other words, suggested to them that this could work? Who were the journalists, think tankers, and pundits who backed the war in the pages of the press and on TV? Were ministers, generals, political advisors, aid workers, journalists, and others honest with the public? Or did they cover up the true situation in order to win public support for the mission?

In an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen, defence correspondent David Pugliese notes that the Canadian government was repeatedly warned, from an early date, that the mission in Afghanistan was likely to end in disaster. But our political and military leaders chose to ignore the warnings. Pugliese reports how when Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said that, “We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending,” then Brigadier General (later Chief of the Defence Staff) Jonathan Vance rebuked him for his “uninformed” opinion. Senior officials and generals lined up to say that the Taliban “were on the verge of defeat”. Pugliese notes:

“Over the course of the war, the Canadian public, as well as citizens of other countries, were subjected to one of the most intense government propaganda campaigns since the Second World War. The message pushed the claim that Afghanistan was a success story. … Embedded journalists produced thousands of positive articles. Editorials supported the war effort. A few … raised questions about the mission. They were called traitors.”

Pugliese points our attention to an important fact. A fiasco like Afghanistan doesn’t just happen. It’s made possible by a host of facilitators who fashion public support for it. And that brings us to the final thing we need to do: question how this is possible. How is it that in supposedly democratic societies, with a “free press”, governments can manipulate the media in such a fashion?

These questions force us to consider the makeup of the media, its independence, and its diversity. And here we need to face a harsh reality. In the current climate of fear generated by talk of “disinformation,” “fake news,” and foreign “influence operations,” we are being led to believe that more must be done to clamp down on independent voices. But the problem we face is not that there are too many people out there challenging the “truth” but rather that there are far too few. Critics often scoff at RT’s motto “Question More”, seeing it as encouraging cranks to muddy the waters and create a “post-truth” world. But, we do need to “question more”, and to do it we need more diversity in our media, not less.

To summarize, the Afghan debacle requires us:

  • To reflect.
  • To reflect about strategy not tactics, about fundamentals not superficialities.
  • To expose the truth
  • To hold those responsible to account; and finally:
  • To reform our media landscape.

What’s the chance that we’ll do any of that?

What’s the chance that I’ll win the lottery?

I think you know the answers.

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!

The civilizational turn that wasn’t

I like to debunk. In my last big post I tackled the Brexit plot that wasn’t. Today, I debunk the ‘civilizational turn’ that wasn’t.

‘What’s this civilizational turn?’, you ask. It’s the idea that since 2012, the Russian state and its leaders have increasingly turned towards a civilizational discourse in their foreign policy rhetoric, describing Russia as a distinct civilization, separate from the West, with its own unique values and institutions.

This form of rhetoric is often seen as originating in the work of late nineteenth century philosophers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev, who generated the thesis that the world does not consist of different nations all converging towards some common future, but rather of separate civilizations all progressing along entirely distinct paths. It is no coincidence that in the past few years Danilevsky and Leontyev are among the most cited authors in the works of Russian international relations scholars. The language of civilizations is now pretty much mainstream in the Russian foreign policy community.

 In the twentieth century, civilizational theory became strongly associated with Eurasianism, which maintains that the lands of the former Russian Empire and Soviet Union constitute a distinct civilization, bound together by a common history, culture, and so on. The civilizational/Eurasianist discourse favours the idea that Russia/Eurasia is separate from the West, and that the most natural form of world order is polycultural and multipolar in nature. In the eyes of many critics, it is associated with a preference for a new international order, and thus with an aggressive, revisionist, foreign policy agenda.

In the past, I have cast some serious doubt on the thesis that Russian leaders, and especially President Vladimir Putin, view the world in these terms. For instance, in an academic article about Putin’s speeches, my co-author and I noted that while Putin occasionally made use of the word ‘civilization’, he has also consistently referred to Russia as culturally European. And although Putin sometimes makes reference to Eurasia, these references have not increased over time.

As for Putin’s views of the international order, we said, they have been equally ‘consistent over time’, are quite conservative in nature, and place a lot of emphasis on the United Nations as the central body in the international system. And while it is true that the idea of Russia’s distinct values often appears, so to do references to universal values. In short, the civilizational turn isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Having said all this stuff, it’s nice to find some support from another source. This comes in a brand new article in the academic journal Europe-Asia Studies by Matthew Frear and Honorata Mazepus of Leiden University.

Entitled ‘Security, Civilisation and Modernisation: Continuity and Change in the Russian Foreign Policy Discourse’, the article looks at the official Foreign Policy Concepts produced by the Russian government from 2008 to 2018, and also at President Putin’s speeches to the Federal Assembly. The authors cluster the words used in these documents and speeches into groups: those relating to the world order, including concepts such as security, power, and sovereignty; those relating to identity issues and civilizations; and finally those relating to economics. They then assess how much attention each cluster received, and how that changed over time.

What they find is interesting, though in my mind not surprising: there has been no civilizational turn in Russian rhetoric since 2012. World order issues dominate Russian discourse, compromising around 50% of the content of the Foreign Policy Concepts in 2008, 2013, and 2016. Civilizational issues comprised only 6-7% in all three documents, and issues of identity included references both to distinct Russian values and to universal standards. There is no specific mention of Russia having a Eurasian identity.

Issues of world order, sovereignty, and security similarly dominate Putin’s speeches. Civilizational/identity issues got a big mention in his 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly but since then have pretty much disappeared. Eurasianism as such is never mentioned. Putin does make much greater reference than do the Foreign Policy Concepts to ‘spiritual issues and moral standards’. But Frear and Mazepus conclude that ‘This suggests that the so-called “conservative turn” in the Russian official discourse is aimed more at the domestic than the international audience.’

Overall, the authors conclude that their analysis shows ‘a great deal of continuity in the amount of space dedicated to the discourses under investigation’. Issues of sovereignty and security dominate, and despite a brief blip in Putin’s 2012 speech, identity and civilizational matters remain secondary and have not increased in prominence.

In my recent article in Russia in Global Affairs, I noted that in Russia ‘civilizational discourse has now become mainstream’, but at the same time I cautioned that, ‘the connection between conservative ideology and state practice is weaker than is often assumed’. I concluded:

As with the statements on ‘traditional values’ one should be careful about reading too much into official references to civilizations. Civilizational discourse provides a means of justifying Russian state leaders’ preference for a multipolar order founded on the principle of state sovereignty. But that preference existed well before the civilizational discourse became common. … Although much has changed since 2001, the preference for a stable, multipolar international order, founded on the UN Charter and the principle of state sovereignty, has not. In broad terms, over the past twenty years Russian foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent. This suggests that the driving force of Russian actions on the international scene remains a pragmatic understanding of Russian interests rather than any passing ideological considerations.

I think that this latest research backs me up.

Book review: Putin’s world

There are books which remain in my memory because they’re good. There are others which I remember because they’re awful. And then there are those I soon forget about, because they’re just kind of middling – solid, but uninspiring. Angela Stent’s new book, Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the Rest, is one of the latter. Stent is an old ‘Russia hand’, having flitted in and out of government and academia in the United States for many years, including a stint as National Intelligence Officer for Russia. In Putin’s World, she examines Russian foreign policy and seeks to explain ‘how Putin’s Russia has managed to return as a global player and what that new role means.’ She generally does a competent job, starting with some historical context, and then going through Russia’s relations with various countries, such as Germany, Ukraine, China, and Japan, before coming on to US-Russia relations. Those who don’t know much about Russian foreign policy could learn a lot from all this. But as someone who has already studied the subject, much of it was already rather familiar and I had to will myself onwards in order to finish it. If it had been truly terrible, with outrageous propositions such as in Luke Harding’s Collusion or Timothy Snyder’s Road to Unfreedom, it would actually have been rather more interesting. As it was, I found it respectably ok, but a little dull.


Continue reading Book review: Putin’s world

Give and take

Contrary to common belief, civil society is not necessarily synonymous with pro-Western, liberal-democratic values. Many civil society groups promote what might be considered ‘illiberal’, nationalist, or conservative views. This is very much the case in Russia. And this weekend the nationalist version of Russian civil society was out on the streets.

Its aim was to mobilize Russian public opinion against proposals that Russia cede some of the Kuril Islands to Japan. These islands were captured from the Japanese in 1945, but Japan and the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation) never signed a peace treaty. This has been a cause of considerable difficulties ever since. Aware of this, and wishing to improve and deepen Russian-Japanese relations, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have been conducting intensive negotiations in an effort to finally conclude a peace treaty between their two countries. This has led to speculation that Russia would agree to return two of the Kuril islands to Japan in return for assurances from Japan that it would not allow foreign (i.e. American) troops to be deployed there, along with other concessions.

However, the idea of handing over territory to a foreign power is anathema to Russian nationalists. And so it was that several hundred of them came out onto the streets of Moscow chanting ‘the Kurils are ours’ and carrying placards with slogans such as ‘We’ll hand over Putin rather than the Kurils.’ Similar demonstrations took place also in Khabarovsk and Sakhalin Island.

The demonstrators represented a small fringe of left- and right-wing groups, including the likes of former Donbass rebel leader Igor Strelkov. But polls suggest that their views on the Kuril issue are very much in line with Russian public opinion. According to surveys, about 70% of Russians oppose handing any of the Kurils back to Japan. There is a perception in the West that public opinion doesn’t matter in Russia, that Putin decides what he wants and Russian state media then manipulate the people into following him. But this is a highly simplistic model of Russian politics. There are only so many unpopular decisions Putin and his government can do without threatening their own authority. With their poll ratings already much lower than a year ago due to the decision to raise the pension age, they can’t afford to alienate the Russian people even further by making another deeply unpopular move. As Dmitri Trenin comments in an article in Vedomosti:

Politicians will make decisions and diplomats will seek to work out mutually acceptable solutions, but the key question will be public ratification of agreements, if and when these agreements are reached. The Kremlin needs to understand clearly that it is up against not just Japan but also the Russian public-and based on public opinion surveys, two-thirds of Russians do not want to hand over the islands. The Kremlin will not be able to coerce the people into accepting its point of view.

In short, when it comes to foreign policy, the Russian government’s ability to manoeuvre is limited. Policy making in Russia is a complex process, and public opinion is certainly not the only factor determining outcomes. But it does matter, and it is not fully in the control of the state. Moreover public opinion (and in its organized form, civil society) is not necessarily liberal, is generally very patriotic, and is certainly not inclined towards making unilateral concessions to foreign powers. Solutions much beloved of Western commentators, such as democracy promotion and the enhancement of civil society in Russia, won’t help in this regard. Given the public mood, a more democratic Russia wouldn’t be any more inclined to do our bidding than an autocratic one. None of this means, of course, that the Kremlin won’t make concessions to foreign powers, be it regarding the Kuril islands, Ukraine, or anything else. But they will have to be concessions that it can sell to its public. And that means that the concessions will have to matched with equally significant concessions to Russia from the other side. In short, those wanting to deal with Russia will have to give as well as take. It’s a point our politicians would do well to bear in mind.

Address by Minister Freeland

Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, gave a speech yesterday outlining her vision of Canada’s place in the world and the principles underlining her foreign policy. Below are some excerpts with my comments on them.

Mr Speaker, Here is a question: Is Canada an essential country, at this time in the life of our planet? Most of us here would agree that it is.

Hubris. What does it mean to be an ‘essential country’? Freeland doesn’t say, but I would guess that the idea is that the world cannot do without us. But why is Canada so special? Again Freeland doesn’t say, beyond listing a few examples of how Canadians have contributed to the world. It is arrogance for any people to believe that they are special, let alone ‘essential’, to imagine that others need them, and can’t get along without them. Foreign policy ought to include a sense of humility, a recognition of the limits of one’s own righteousness, and a recognition of the interests of others. That is the way to avoid conflict. Freeland gets off to a bad start.

She continues:

Why do we spend billions on defence, if we are not immediately threatened? For some countries – Israel, Latvia come to mind – the answer is self-evident. Countries that face a clear and immediate existential challenge know they need to spend on military and foreign policy. And they know why.

For a few lucky countries – like Canada and the United States – that feel protected by geography and are good neighbours, the answer is less obvious. Indeed, you could easily imagine a Canadian view that says, we are safe on our continent, and we have things to do at home, so let’s turn inward. Let’s say Canada first.

Here’s why that would be wrong.

First, though no foreign adversary is poised to invade us, we do face clear challenges. Climate change is by definition a shared menace, affecting every single person on this planet. Civil war, poverty, drought and natural disasters anywhere in the world threaten us as well – not least because these catastrophes spawn globally destabilizing mass migrations.

I find this passage rather bizarre, as military power doesn’t help in any way to deal with the threats that Freeland lists. How does spending more on the military contribute to combating climate change, poverty, drought, or natural disasters? It doesn’t. As for mass migrations, the use of Canadian military power has actually helped to make these worse. Canada played a prominent role in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi in Libya, an act which has contributed to the mass migration of people from North Africa into Europe.  Pointing to dangers isn’t a good argument for defence spending unless you can show that defence spending helps reduce these dangers. Freeland fails utterly to do so.

Next, she says:

To rely solely on the US security umbrella would make us a client state. And although we have an incredibly good relationship with our American friends and neighbours, such a dependence would not be in Canada’s interest.

That is why doing our fair share is clearly necessary. … It is by pulling our weight in this partnership … that we, in fact, have weight. … To put it plainly: Canadian diplomacy and development sometimes require the backing of hard power. Force is of course always a last resort. But the principled use of force … is part of our history and must be part of our future.

To have that capacity requires a substantial investment, which this government is committed to making. The Minister of Defence will elaborate fully on that tomorrow. I know he will make Canadians justly proud.

Hang on. Didn’t Freeland just say that Canada isn’t directly threatened? If so, then why do we have to rely on the ‘US security umbrella’? Could we not liberate ourselves from it and remain unthreatened? Why would that make us ‘dependent’? And how does subordinating ourselves, as a very minor military power, to US-dominated institutions save us from becoming a ‘client state’? Might it not in fact have the very opposite effect? Surely the way to avoid becoming a client is to pursue an independent policy and to assert one’s sovereignty.

As for the use of force, it cannot be a ‘last resort’ if it is ‘principled’. These are two different things. The statement that the use of force ‘must be part of our future’ is quite chilling. With this statement, Freeland has thrown the idea of the supreme value of peace firmly out of the window.

Finally, in this segment, I find it odd that Freeland thinks that by announcing increases in defence spending, the Canadian government will make Canadians ‘justly proud’. Spending more on weapons isn’t something to be ‘proud’ of. At best, it is a regrettable necessity, forced upon us by the fallen nature of man’s world, but it certainly isn’t a reason for pride. Liberal interventionism has now moved beyond the realm of supporting war in pursuit of humanitarian aims into the realm of militarism.

Freeland says also:

Canada has a huge interest in an international order based on rules. One in which might is not always right. One in which more powerful countries are constrained in their treatment of smaller ones by standards that are internationally respected, enforced and upheld.

The single most important pillar of this, which emerged following the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, is the sanctity of borders. And that principle, today, is under siege.

That is why the democratic world has united behind Ukraine. The illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory by Russia is the first time since the end of the Second World War that a European power has annexed by force the territory of another European country. This is not something we can accept or ignore.

I fully agree with the first part of this – Canada does have an interest in ‘an international order based on rules’. But if that is what we want, we should start by looking closer to home rather than criticizing far away countries we happen not to like. It is true that the annexation/reunification of Crimea is the first annexation of territory in Europe since WW2, but it certainly isn’t the first time that European borders have been changed by force. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and still occupies half of it. Turkey remains a member of NATO. Canada joined other countries in changing the borders of Serbia by bombing Serbia and then physically occupying Kosovo in 1999. Canada has also participated in the violation of borders in many other ways. I have already mentioned Libya. What is less well known is that some Canadian troops participated in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These were soldiers who were on exchange posts with the US Army, and whom the Canadian government did not recall. Canada is hardly without guilt when it comes to violating borders.

As for our allies, most notably the Americans and the British, they have probably done much more to undermine ‘an international order based on rules’ and the principle of ‘inviolability of borders’ than our supposed ‘enemies’ ever have. They continue to do so today in Syria.

If it is true that breeches of international order are ‘not something we can accept or ignore’, we ought to start by doing something about ourselves and our allies. Then perhaps we might have some moral standing.

Freeland is on sounder ground when she talks about economic issues:

Another key benefit for Canada from an international system based on rules, is of course free trade. … The second great challenge is an exhaustion in the West of the belief among working people, the middle class, that the globalized system can help them better their lives. … It’s true that the system is flawed. But international trade is the wrong target, Mr Speaker. The real culprit is domestic policy that fails to appreciate that continued growth, and political stability, depend on domestic measures that share the wealth.

I’m on Freeland’s side when it comes to the benefits of trade, though I think the talk of the declining fortunes of the middle class is unjustified. But our government needs to think through what is being said here. If we believe in free trade, and wish to support measures that ‘share the wealth’ not just domestically but also globally, we should be working on eliminating the continued barriers to trade which exist within our own country. Abolition of the system of ‘supply management’ which subsidizes our dairy industry would be a good place to start.

Next, Freeland comments:

Now, it is clearly not our role to impose our values around the world, Mr Speaker. No one appointed us the world’s policeman. But is our role to clearly stand for these rights both in Canada and abroad.

… It is our role to set a standard for how states should treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities, and Indigenous people.

In short, it is our role to impose our values around the world. What else is the ‘principled use of force’ about? And it would have been better, I think, to have left indigenous peoples out of this list. The Canadian record on this matter is not good. Again, perhaps we should look to rectifying problems at home before setting out to rectify the problems of the rest of the world.


I offer the example of my grandfather, John Wilbur Freeland. … My grandpa was the opposite of an Upper Canada elite. But in the darkest day of the Second World War, Wilbur enlisted to serve. Two of his brothers, Carleton and Warren, joined up too. Wilbur and Carleton came home. Warren did not. … They rose to their generation’s great challenge. And so can we.

At least Freeland did not mention grandfather no. 2. But, putting that to one side, the anecdote on which she chose to end her speech is revealing. The analogy she uses to describe the world is WW2. This a frame of good v. evil, one  in which failure to confront ‘evil’ wherever it appears, however far away, is seen as endangering Canada itself. But the world is not such a simple place. Canada and its NATO allies aren’t all ‘good’. Their geopolitical opponents, such as Russia’, aren’t all ‘bad’. Confrontation doesn’t help provide solutions, but often makes things worse. And failure to resist ‘aggression’ in places like Ukraine isn’t actually going to put the lives of Canadians at risk. We often can simply leave things as they are for others to sort out themselves. In fact, as often as not, they will probably sort them out much faster without us than with us.

Overall, this is not an encouraging speech. It lacks humility and self-reflection. In this respect, it is exactly what one would expect from a politician: self-reflection isn’t patriotic; it certainly isn’t a vote winner. But at least we can take consolation in the fact that nothing much is likely to come out of it. To a large degree, it’s  hot air. Canada isn’t going to suddenly become a military, political, or economic superpower. By international standards, Canada is a great place to live. There is an awful lot to be said in its favour. But, whatever Freeland says, we aren’t an ‘essential nation’ at all.

Discourse analysis

What people say does not necessarily indicate what they really think. Nor does it necessarily give a clue to their future actions. That said, if somebody says the same thing consistently over a long period of time, one has reasonable grounds for concluding that his or her statements reflect a genuine belief and that they reflect more than just immediate advantage. For this reason, there is value in analyzing politicians’ discourse. In different ways, a couple of recent pieces of Russia-related scholarship prove this point.

Last week, in my capacity as co-supervisor, I attended the successful defence of a doctoral thesis in Montreal. The student analyzed how leading members of Russian political parties represented in the State Duma had discussed Russian relations with Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2014. The findings were quite revealing. Consistently, Vladimir Putin and other leading Kremlin officials were much more moderate in their foreign policy discourse than the rest of Russia’s political elite. In an extreme case, back in 2001, when Putin elected to support George Bush in his Global War on Terror, even Yabloko denounced him for being too friendly to the Americans.

The dissertation laid out in great detail how members of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for its ‘soft’, ‘pro-Western’ foreign policy. Eventually, in the face of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin changed its line and adopted the opposition’s positions. While one cannot say for sure that opposition pressure, rather than external events, were responsible for the change in the Kremlin’s discourse, the findings seriously undermine the commonly-held view of Russian politics as lacking opposition and an independent public opinion. It also undermines the view that so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is all the fault of the ‘maudit Poutine’, as one might say in Montreal. In fact, Putin comes across as decidedly moderate on foreign policy issues, but subject to considerable pressure from a much more radical elite public opinion, to which he has had to respond. All this indicates at least some form of ‘democratic’ process.

The second work of discourse analysis was published this month by the academic journal Intelligence and National Security. Written by Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent, and entitled ‘The Operational Code Approach to Profiling Political Leaders: Understanding Vladimir Putin’, the article subjects Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign policy to a form of quantitative analysis to answer three questions:  a) is Putin a rogue leader? b) what motivates him? C) is he a strategist or an opportunist?

I will confess that I am not a huge fan of quantitative analyses of this sort, which I think are far more subjective than they like to pretend (both in how the data is coded and how it is interpreted), lending a gloss of scientific objectivity to what are actually subjective opinions. I also think that question a) above is indicative of an inherent bias (why not phrase it in terms such as ‘do Putin’s views on foreign policy fit or diverge from the mainstream among international politicians?’, or something similar, rather than put in loaded terms like ‘rogue’?). I am also not at all sure that the methodology used can really answer question c), which needs a more detailed qualitative approach. That said, the results are not entirely without value.

In answer to question a), Dyson and Parent conclude that ‘Putin … speaks more like a mainstream than a rogue leader when his comments on all foreign policy topics are aggregated.’ Dyson and Parent fail to define ‘mainstream leaders’, but I assume that they mean by this Western politicians. In other words, Putin isn’t very different from Western leaders in his view of the world .

As to question b) (what motivates Putin), the authors note a strong desire for control, driven by a dislike of disorder.  Dyson and Parent conclude, ‘Our profile … supports the interpretation that Putin’s military interventions in particular toward Chechnya, Ukraine, and Syria, are fundamentally about his perception that chaos and state weakness are existential threats’. This fits with my own analysis.

Finally, in answer to question c), the authors determine that Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist, based on changes in his attitude towards NATO/US pre- and post-Ukraine. I find this the weakest part of the analysis. The authors admit that ‘there is no direct measure of “strategist” vs. “opportunist” in the operational code construct’, so they are going beyond what their methodology really permits. Moreover, the change in Putin’s rhetoric towards NATO and the USA post-Maidan may not just be an opportunistic justification of his chosen policy but reflect genuine irritation with Western policy as well as other factors (such as those discussed in the doctoral dissertation above). That said, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Putin has been following an unchanging strategic plan from day 1 of his first presidency.

Dyson and Parent rather weaken their aricle, in my opinion, by bringing in some unnecessary discussion of Putin’s alleged ‘thuggishness’. Putin’s rhetoric about terrorism, they note, is extremely harsh, and he is willing to be quite violent in his response to the terrorist threat. This, they say, justifies the label of Putin as a ‘thug’. But Putin is hardly alone in his attitude to terrorism. Name me the Western president or prime minister who doesn’t condemn terrorism in harsh terms, Many of them are also quite willing to use violence. In fact, Western states have used force much more often than Russia over the past 15 years. So, why aren’t they ‘thuggish’? Bringing in value-laden words like this distorts what is meant to be a quantitative analysis and suggests a hidden bias. This has a strong effect on the policy suggestions at the end of the article, which lack validity as a result.

Having said all that, the two works described above do have something in common. Together, they paint a picture of the Russian president as holding views of the world and of foreign policy which are quite moderate and not very different from those of his Western counterparts. This is certainly not the Putin we normally see described in the press.

Don’t mention the war

Yesterday Vladimir Putin approved a new ‘Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation’. Documents like this are aspirational; they reflect what a government would like to do, not what it is able to do. They are also for public consumption; their purpose is to send certain signals to the policy community, both inside and outside of government. Nevertheless, they are up to a point a fair reflection of how the government views the world at the time of writing.

In my last post I spoke of the idea that Russia is at ‘war’ with the West. Certainly, some Russian nationalist politicians and intellectuals would agree with that idea (or at least consider that the West is waging war on Russia). They regard globalization as a tool of American hegemony, see ‘democracy promotion’ as an American tool to destabilize the world and prevent anybody from challenging US supremacy, talk in terms of ‘geopolitics’ and the ‘clash of civilizations’, and stress the need to fight back against ‘American aggression’, to isolate Russia from globalizing processes, and to create a genuine Eurasian Union as a counterbalance to US hegemony. If the Russian government truly is at ‘war’ with the West, these are the sort of ideas one would expect to find in the new Foreign Policy Concept.

The Concept contains nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it repeats again and again the desire for good relations with all of Russia’s ‘partners’, and the need to promote multilateral organizations and international trade. This does not mean that it doesn’t criticize the West at all. The document says that ‘the contemporary world is passing through a period of profound changes, the essence of which is the formation of a polycentric international system.’ The West’s efforts to prevent this are increasing instability in international relations, it asserts. To this it adds that Russia must ‘resist the attempts of individual states or groups of states to revise the generally recognized principles of international order’ by, for instance, using the excuse of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Despite such expressions of irritation with Western foreign policy, the Concept does not conclude that Russia must fight back against the United States and its allies, turn back the clock of globalization, and construct a new Eurasian civilization. Indeed, geopolitical and civilizational discourse are entirely absent from the document.

Instead, the Concept speaks of supporting ‘universal democratic values’. It promotes the idea of ‘regional integration based on the norms and rules of the World Trade Organization,’ and says that Russia ‘intends to actively support the formation of a just and democratic economic trading and financial system in the world … as the conditions of the contemporary world economic challenges demand a common approach … [and] international cooperation.’ This approach is hardly likely to provide much succor to Russian nationalists who want their country to turn its back on globalization.

The document calls for ‘genuine unification of the efforts of the international community.’ It speaks of the European Union (EU) as an ‘important trading and foreign policy partner’, and speaks of Russia’s interest in ‘a constructive, stable and predictable cooperation with the countries of the EU’, as well as of Russia’s wish ‘to create a common economic and humanitarian space from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean on the basis of the harmonization of the processes of European and Eurasian integration’.  It talks also of Russia’s desire for ‘an equal partnership’ with NATO and ‘mutually beneficial relations with the United States’ through ‘the development of dialogue with the USA’, which would lead to ‘constructive cooperation with the USA’.

This is very much the tone of the document as a whole. It says that Russia wants ‘economic partnership’ with ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, ‘partnership with India’, ‘strategic partnership’ with Vietnam, ‘mutual cooperation’ with  Australia and New Zealand, development of ‘bilateral relations’ with the states of the Near East and North Africa, ‘strengthened relations with the states of Latin America’, and so on and so forth. In short, Russia wants to be friends with everybody.

That is probably unrealistic, but it is interesting that the Russian Foreign Ministry has stated such an aspiration. Completely lacking in the new foreign policy concept is any sense that Russia has enemies, that it is under attack, that it has to take offensive action to defend itself, that it needs to batten down the hatches and prepare for assault, that it should take the lead of the forces of anti-globalization, or anything similar. The Concept repeatedly states that Russia’s relations with foreign countries must be based upon ‘mutual respect’ – an indication that it will not pursue better relations by abandoning its own interests – but this is certainly isn’t the product of a government which thinks it is at war.

Explaining Russian assertiveness

There is general agreement that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation has become much more assertive in the past decade. In the last few days, I have read several pieces which attempt to explain this.

First is a policy brief by Fredik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson for the European Council of Foreign Relations, entitled Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars. Wesslau and Wilson claim that ‘Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home’. Western sanctions and low oil prices have damaged the economic growth which was the prime source of Putin’s legitimacy. Consequently, ‘Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests.’ However, Russia doesn’t want this ‘adversarial relationship’ to get out of control, so it will opt for continuous ‘medium-level, low cost conflict’. Wesslau and Wilson say, ‘Medium-level threat makes people cling to Putin – hot war or actual disaster might provoke revolt.’

This is a popular thesis among Western critics of Russian foreign policy. However, Wesslau and Wilson merely assert it, while providing no evidence to support it. Furthermore, there is a serious contradiction in their logic. If an assertive foreign policy is a product of economic trouble, then Russia’s policy should have become less assertive in the period 2000-2008 when the Russian economy was doing very well. But the opposite was the case. Indeed, Wesslau and Wilson admit that ‘the Russian economy was booming in August 2008 when Russia fought a short war with Georgia’. This doesn’t fit their thesis at all. It is more likely that greater assertiveness is a product of greater power resulting from economic growth than it is a product of economic decline.

Second on my reading list was the March-April 2015 edition of the academic journal Problems of Post-Communism, which was devoted to the subject ‘Making Sense of Russian Foreign Policy.’ The four essays in the journal come to a very different conclusion from Wesslau and Wilson regarding the importance of domestic factors in Russian foreign policy. As guest editors Samuel Charap and Cory Welt note in their introduction, ‘the four articles lead to the conclusion that domestic factors do not have a decisive impact on Russian foreign policy. They are important on the margins … but none are the central driver of Russian foreign policy.’ Charap and Welt conclude that ‘Russia’s foreign policy is a product of the interaction of international, domestic, and individual factors.’

This is the approach taken also by Elias Götz in a recent article for another academic journal, International Policy Studies. Götz examines four explanations of Russia’s actions:

  1. Decision-maker explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of the particular characteristics of Vladimir Putin. Götz dismisses such explanations, saying that Putin’s policies are reflective of a ‘strong consensus’ in Russia, and it is most likely that if anybody else had been leading Russia for the past 16 years they ‘would have staked out a similar course.’ In many ways, writes Götz, ‘Putin’s approach to the post-Soviet space looks like a carbon copy’ of the policies followed under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
  2. Domestic political explanations: Russian assertiveness is designed to divert attention from domestic problems (as claimed by Wesslau and Wilson, for instance), or to suppress the growth of democracy in Russia’s near abroad lest it spread from there to Russia. Götz dismisses this explanation too, noting that Russia’s leadership is not under serious threat and so not in need of diversionary tactics. Also, Russia has shown itself quite willing to work with democratic neighbours as long as they are friendly to Russia – thus Russian-Georgian relations have improved in recent years even as Georgia has become more democratic under President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
  3. Ideational explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of national identity, nationalism, and the pursuit of national honour. The problem with these explanations, says Götz, is that they can’t explain why one narrative about national identity or honour has more influence on foreign policy than another.
  4. Geopolitical explanations: Russian assertiveness is a result of Russia’s increased power and of the growth of external threats, most notably NATO expansion. Götz admits that this provides a partial explanation of Russian behaviour, but it is not, he says, a complete one, as it cannot explain why Russia views some things as threats and not others, or why Russia has chosen to act differently in similar scenarios – e.g. annexing Crimea but not Donbass; or recognizing the independence of Abkhazia but not of Transnistria.

No single explanation is sufficient, Götz concludes. Instead, a way must be found of synthesizing them. This represents a much more sophisticated approach than that of Wesslau and Wilson. Geopolitical factors clearly matter, but political actors don’t interpret them in a neutral manner but through ideological lenses. Domestic politics also surely matter, at least to some extent: Russia’s leadership is constrained by a national consensus which often demands a more assertive policy, and it is influenced by domestic narratives which limit the options available to policy makers. Within those limits, the character of the leader then does play a role. Overall, I find Götz’s analysis the most convincing of the lot.

Philosophical hodge-podge

In the 1930s, the Young Russians movement of Alexander Kazem-Bek attempted to rally Russian emigres around the slogan ‘For Tsar and Soviets’. It didn’t catch on, but if Kazem-Bek were alive today, he would find his idea doing rather better. As a historian, one of the things I have found most striking about Russia in the past decade is the way that its people manage to mix together utterly contradictory symbols and beliefs, such as Tsar and Soviets. Extreme examples include a scandalous icon which briefly appeared in a St Petersburg church in 2008 and which depicted a meeting between Stalin and the blind holy woman Saint Matrona of Moscow in 1941, and another Stalin icon which was displayed in June 2015 at Prokhorovka, the site of the largest tank battle of World War II. Other less outrageous mixings of the Soviet and the Orthodox, or the Soviet and the Imperial, abound.

St Matrona and Stalin

A lot of Russians seem not to notice the obvious inherent contradictions in mixing these things together. Rather, they appear to synthesize them in a way which somehow makes sense to them. I found it interesting, therefore, to observe Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doing the same thing in an article he wrote last week for the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Continue reading Philosophical hodge-podge