I was on TVO’s ‘flagship current affairs program’ The Agenda last night, talking about NATO, Russia, defence spending and the like. You can watch it here.
I was on TVO’s ‘flagship current affairs program’ The Agenda last night, talking about NATO, Russia, defence spending and the like. You can watch it here.
Given the hysterical level of Russophobic rhetoric in Washington at present, it is rare for anybody to raise their heads up above the parapet and say that better relations between America and Russia might be a good thing. The prevailing belief is that the worse relations are the better: Russia is an aggressive and dictatorial nation with which it is impossible to reason; attempts at dialogue or to forge compromise will merely be interpreted as weakness and encourage further aggression; the only viable policy is to show strength at every opportunity.
It’s good, therefore, to see the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank which has historically had close ties to the American government and is generally considered representative of the American establishment, publishing a report entitled Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO. The report, written by Kimberly Marten of Barnard College, makes a number of quite sensible suggestions and demonstrates that traditional Realists haven’t entirely abandoned the foreign policy community.
As might be expected, Marten talks of Russian ‘aggression’ and raises the spectre that ‘Russia may seek to break the NATO alliance or even expand at NATO’s expense – to reconquer lost Soviet territory, to attain regional hegemony in Eurasia, or allow Putin to go down in history as the man who re-established Russia’s great power status’. She lays out scenarios which may lead to a military clash between Russia and NATO, including a Russian attack on the Baltic states. And she says that ‘many analysts consider Putin’s crackdowns on Russian media and civil society and his recentralization of state control over the Russian economy as the start of a re-Sovietization of Russian life.’
Marten isn’t, therefore, any type of Putinversteher. That would doubtless be too much to expect, and would in any case just cast her as ‘not serious’ in the policy community. But, in line with other Realists such as John Mearsheimer, she doesn’t think that current US-Russian tensions are entirely the Russians’ fault. She accepts that American policies, including NATO expansion, have generated real fears among Russian officials, and that Russian acts are as much a reaction to those fears as a product of aggressive, imperial ambitions. NATO’s decision to counter with military means what it sees as the Russian threat runs the risk of escalating tensions still further, reinforcing the Russian leadership’s sense of paranoia, and even producing a war between Russia and the West if there were to be something like a repeat of the occasion when Turkey shot down a Russian airplane.
This danger makes Professor Marten believe that improving relations with Russia is very much in America’s interests, and she adds that there are positive steps which the USA can take to reassure Russia that America doesn’t threaten it.
To this end, Marten proposes a two-pronged strategy; deterrence and reassurance. ‘First’, she says, ‘the Trump administration should continue to work with its NATO allies to deter Russia from threatening or undermining any NATO member.’ She comments that ‘To condemn NATO allies to face a potential new Russian threat on their own would irreparably harm the United States’ reputation for reliability and integrity, permanently damaging its ability to exert influence abroad.’
This is fairly typical stuff, and reflects the unhealthy obsession American elites have with their ‘reputation’. Precisely why Russia needs deterring isn’t fully explained beyond a reference to uncertainty. It just seems to be taken for granted that Russia is potential aggressive. This segment of the report, therefore, isn’t particularly novel or interesting, except for one section where Marten talks about ‘deterrence by denial’. In this segment, she writes:
President Trump and the State Department should use formal and informal discussions to encourage Estonia and Latvia to better integrate their Russian populations. Both countries have made real progress in this respect over the past decades, partly in response to international pressure. But more could be done, both by offering unconditional citizenship to a greater share of stateless residents born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and by expanding employment opportunities and empathetic community policing efforts.
This is an entirely sensible suggestion. It is often said that Russia might exploit discontent among Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia to cause trouble there and even justify an invasion. Rather than sending troops to the Baltic States, it would make more sense simply to remove the cause of discontent. Given that NATO members have committed to defending Estonia and Latvia, the rights of the Russian speaking populations of those countries have become their security concern, and they should do more to ensure that those rights are granted.
After having dealt with deterrence, Marten moves on to the theme of reassurance. ‘The Trump administration’, she says, ‘should take reasonable actions alongside its NATO allies to reassure Russian political and military officials and the Russian public that the United States and NATO have defensive intentions and do not threaten Russian territory.’ To this end, Marten makes a number of specific recommendations, including that the Unites States should:
Marten also comments that, ‘policy decisions should be based on consistent, transparent, rule-based criteria wherever possible. Law-abiding behavior will deflect Russian accusations of hypocrisy.’
The proposal about BMD is quite interesting. Russians, as far as I can tell, simply don’t believe that the BMD system is designed against Iran, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile nor is there any indication that there is every likely to be. Because of this (in my view entirely accurate assessment of the Iranian threat), it would be much better simply to scrap the European missile defence system. But given how much money and how many careers have been invested in it, one must recognize that the Americans are not going to admit that they were wrong and get rid of the whole thing. Marten’s proposal would at least allow them to keep investing in the program without annoying the Russians.
Overall, I would say that Marten’s recommendations suffer from a couple of weaknesses. First, they probably don’t go far enough to provide genuine reassurance – e.g. saying that Ukraine is far from reaching NATO standards isn’t at all the same as saying that Ukraine will never join NATO. Second, saying that US policy should abide by international law ‘wherever possible’ gives an awful lot of wriggle room and isn’t a very firm commitment. The problem isn’t ‘Russian accusations of hypocrisy’; it’s actual hypocrisy. The reputation on which Marten places so much important has been hugely damaged by America’s repeated breaches of international law. What is needed is a wholesale change in attitude, including a full-scale repudiation of ‘regime change’, ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the like. And third, it may all be too late. The Russians have by now lost so much trust in the USA that a few gestures of reassurance may no longer be enough to repair relations, and if coupled with a simultaneous policy of ‘deterrence’, these gestures may well be dismissed as entirely meaningless.
In short, Marten’s proposals are possibly too little too late. Still, they represent a significant step forward compared with most of the suggestions nowadays coming out of Washington, and among them are some specific proposals which are definitely worth pursuing. It is probable that Marten’s recommendations represent more or the less the outer limit of what is presently acceptable, and for that reason her report is definitely welcome. Having said all that, in the current climate the chances of anybody in power actually paying any attention are probably fairly small.
Diplomat Magazine, which is produced here in Ottawa, has just published its latest edition, which includes several articles on the subject of Russia. One of these, on ‘Repairing Canada-Russia Relations’, is written by me. You can read it here. In addition, there are articles by the Royal Military College’s Pierre Jolicoeur and Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman. It’s the last of these, entitled ‘Trump and Putin: a troubling high stakes relationship’ which I want to talk about here.
Saideman’s article is in many respects a fairly typical piece of Russia scaremongering, although it seems a little out of date already following Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria, the regular denunciations of Russia by the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and the apparent lack of achievements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Writing before any of that happened, Saideman claims that:
Trump’s admiration of Putin … is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO. … Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.
‘The future of NATO is at stake’, Saideman continues, ‘the alliance truly is in danger.’ The Baltic States don’t know if NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia, and ‘If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.’ One might wonder why Russia would suddenly attack Latvia, but Saideman warns that that is exactly the sort of thing that aggressive states do when they spot weakness: ‘One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances.’ With Putin currently carrying out ‘an assault on the European Union’, the situation is rife with danger. Unless we stand firm, Saideman implies, NATO, the EU, and the entire international system will come crashing down.
Such doom-laden predictions are pretty common nowadays. But they are not very accurate. They assume that the Western world is some paper tiger, held together by only the tiniest thread, and that it requires only the slightest push from a weak outside power for it to disintegrate entirely. This is a rather bizarre description of the strongest and wealthiest countries in the world, which have maintained the same collective institutions for many decades in the face of threats far greater than modern Russia.
To give just a brief view of the relative power of NATO and Russia, here is a chart showing their comparative defence spending as a share of the global total:
As you can see, NATO has nothing to fear from Russia militarily. It also has nothing to fear economically. The wealth of the United States and Western Europe is far greater than that of Russia. Compared to the West, Russia is a minnow.
The question I want to ask, then, is why the Saidemans of the world are so scared of it.
The answer, I think, lies in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Two psychological processes are at play. The first relates to matters of honour; the second to issues of psychological reassurance.
As far as the first is concerned, in his 2011 book Why Nations Fight, Richard Ned Lebow examined the causes of all the wars fought in the modern era and determined that the most common reason for war was what he termed ‘standing’ – in other words, wars were not primarily about material resources, territory, security, or so on, but rather about relative status. This certainly fits with my own findings, as laid out in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War. To a quite surprising extent, international relations is about questions of honour. What spurs politicians into action is concerns about status, prestige, credibility, and the various virtues on which they think that their honour depends – strength, resolve and the like.
This is especially true of powerful states and alliances. In the eyes of the doom-mongers, NATO has no will. It is morally weak. As such it risks losing status and credibility, and once it loses those, it will surely collapse.
A key to understanding this dynamic can be found in Desmond Morris’s 1969 classic The Human Zoo. In chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘Status and Super Status’, Morris describes how alpha baboons have to behave if they want to maintain their dominant status. The problem these baboons face is that their number one position is always under threat. Their position is inherently unstable, and they can only go down. As a result, they have to be hypervigilant. Any threat must be stamped on with utmost violence to deter others. But not only actual threats – even the mere threat of a threat, the slightest hint of imagined rebellion, must be met with an aggressive reaction.
Paradoxically, therefore, the stronger one is, the more afraid one is too. The dominant baboon believes that his position rests upon his prestige and his credibility and so is perpetually on guard to threats to his honour. He cannot rest. He must always be afraid. And so he inevitably exaggerates the threats around him. The United States, and its NATO allies, may be compared with Morris’s dominant baboons. Their very dominance makes them paranoid. This is why Saideman and co. are so scared.
Studies of the psychology of risk point to a second factor. According to such studies, humans evolved to be afraid of the dangers which lurked in their natural habitat. They expect danger, and so when they can’t identify it, they get very twitchy. Their instincts tell them that there must a danger there somewhere, and the fact that they can’t spot it is a matter of deep concern. They don’t know what to do. Finding a threat is thus reassuring. For once the threat has been found, they can work out a plan for dealing with it. They have target for their action.
Again, therefore, we confront a paradox. Being strong makes one safe. But safety makes one paranoid. By contrast, having an enemy actually makes one feel better. And this is the West’s current problem. By historical standards, it is remarkably safe. It hasn’t fought any major internal wars for 70 years. Terrorism in the West is near an all-time low. NATO enjoys military and economic dominance. And yet, many can’t help feeling that it’s all about to come crashing down. And because they feel that way, they feel also a need to identify the threat which will cause the collapse, so that they can come up with a plan to do something about it.
And that, in brief, is why Russophobia is enjoying such a comeback. It gives the West an enemy. And by giving it an enemy, it also, strangely enough, gives it a sense of reassurance, allowing it to flex its muscles and so feel that its status is safe, at least for now.
As Monty Python pointed out, jokes can be the deadliest weapon of war. In the current atmosphere of Russophic hysteria, therefore, we should not be surprised that NATO this week has accused the Kremlin of weaponizing comedy. At first, given the topic, I thought that this must a Pythonesque spoof, but it appears that the accusation is deadly serious.
As NATO wraps up its summit meeting in Warsaw, it will no doubt be patting itself on the back for displaying ‘unity’ and ‘resolve’ in the face of ‘Russian aggression’, in particular by agreeing to station a semi-permanent garrison of four battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. If we are to believe NATO’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Sir Richard Shirreff, such displays of strength are exactly what are needed to ‘deter’ Russia and prevent war. That is the message of a novel he has just published, entitled 2017. War with Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command.
CBC International has published an interview with me about Canada’s decision to deploy troops to Latvia. You can read it here:
This is the second of two articles by CBC on the subject, entitled ‘Canada’s Baltic Conundrum’. The first article is available here:
During my interview, I was asked if there was anything that people were missing. Thinking about it afterwards, I felt that my answer wasn’t the best I could have given. What I would have liked to have added was that Russia’s decisions to annex/re-unite with Crimea and to provide support to the rebels in Donbass didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, they came after months of violence in Kiev, the unconstitutional overthrow of Ukraine’s president, and then several more months of intense combat between the Ukrainian army and Donbass rebels, which resulted in significant civilian casualties. You shouldn’t imagine, therefore, that Russia is just going to invade Latvia out of nowhere. Something very drastic would have to happen beforehand, and it is very hard to see how the conditions of Ukraine would be repeated in the Baltics. Context is all important, and it is all too often missing in discussions of Russian behaviour.
Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it seems certain that the Canadian government has decided to send a battlegroup to Latvia as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. According to the CBC, ‘The deployment would be a “core” contribution, meaning that Canadians would fill the slot permanently until NATO dissolves that force … It would require the army to rotate one of its infantry battalions and a headquarters — perhaps as many as 500 troops — into the position once every six months.’
The idea of ‘Russian aggression’ is by now a given fact in security circles, and it is quite possible that the Canadian establishment really does believe that Russia poses a mortal threat to Canada’s security, and that defending Latvia is a vital national interest. But NATO’s European members have about two million people in their armed forces, plus thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and so on. 500 Canadian troops aren’t going to make a tangible difference to Latvia’s security. Canada’s leaders must be aware of this. So why are they sending troops there?
The answer lies in the peculiar notion the Canadian military industrial academic complex has that participating in such missions gives Canada ‘influence’ over its NATO allies, and in particular over the Americans. We are not actually going to Latvia because our presence will make any difference to Latvia, but because we think that being there will ingratiate us with the United States and so allow us to win some concessions from our friends on other issues which matter to us. Thus, Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman wrote in The Globe and Mail:
Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. … Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. … Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.
So, let us test this theory that participating in NATO missions gives Canada tangible and worthwhile influence over its allies.
Influence consists of getting others to do things they would otherwise not have done. So, which of their policies have our friends changed in a manner favourable to Canada as a result of its other recent military actions? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Professor Saideman is correct and Canada has had ‘more heft in NATO discussions’, resulting in minor changes in this or that paragraph of some NATO document, but not in any noticeable way which has obviously affected the lives of the average Bob or Jo in Saskatoon. The good professor expresses the hope that Canada might benefit in trade negotiations, but there is no evidence of such linkage having worked in the past. Canada’s prominent role in the war in Afghanistan didn’t help it in any way convince the Americans to make concessions on matters such as soft wood lumber and the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps somebody out there can provide a concrete example of how participation in NATO missions has helped Canada change other countries’ minds in a way which has brought significant advantage, but unless they do, one has to conclude that ‘influence’ is a largely a myth.
Canada ‘punched above its weight’ in Afghanistan, but after it announced that its troops would leave that country we told that we had to participate in the war against Libya because otherwise we would have no ‘influence’ within the NATO alliance. In other words, any gratitude earned in Afghanistan had already been forgotten. Canada then played an important role in deposing Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi; a Canadian general even led NATO’s operation. But whatever ‘influence’ that gained us apparently soon evaporated too, because very soon we were being berated for not spending enough on defence and we now have to rush into Latvia in order to restore our seemingly battered reputation as a good ally. So even if it is true that to some small extent Canada does gain influence over its allies by joining NATO missions, this influence is extraordinarily short-lived.
In any case, to need to influence somebody you have to want something different from them. If you agree with what they are doing, and don’t want to change it, influence is meaningless. And here we reach a fundamental problem with the influence theory. Most of the time, Canada doesn’t actually have a different vision of the world from that of the United States or its other NATO allies. Imagine, for instance, that we thought that NATO’s posture vis-à-vis Russia was incorrect. Perhaps, sending troops to Latvia might make our allies listen more to us when we insisted that the posture must change. But we don’t think that the posture is incorrect. We don’t want to change it. In such circumstances, ‘influence’ is useless. If anybody imagines that by sending troops to Latvia, Canada will substantially change our allies’ policies on this or any other matter of significance, they are surely deluding themselves.