In (Vox) Trump and Putin meet next week. Guess which one has an agenda?, writer quotes a senior member of George Bush’s cabinet:
A senior member of George W. Bush’s Cabinet once told me a revealing story about Vladimir Putin. Each meeting, the official said, began the same way: Putin would reach into his suit jacket pocket, remove notecards listing perceived American sins against Russia, and read them one by one. Only then would the substantive discussions begin.
If you have a warped sense of humor, this is really funny. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, activities which in the West enjoy some delegated authority, such as those of high level diplomats, were rigidly scripted. Since Vladimir Putin is not so constrained , the notecards are just an affectation. In the Paris peace negotiations, a similar litany of condemnation was Lê Đức Thọ’s opener for the North Vietnamese delegation at every meeting.
We might think that the purpose of this canned spiel is to wear us down. Did Lê Đức Thọ and does Putin understand it is pure irritation? It could actually be for the benefit of Putin or the North Vietnamese. By acting out the litany in speech, it reinforces the belief of the actor.
The Vox article continues with
Put a different way, an experienced and ruthless Russian leader is coming to a pivotal meeting with a clear plan and a clear agenda. An inexperienced and autocrat-loving American president isn’t planning to bring one of his own. That’s a recipe for serious trouble.
In other words, we are afraid that our president may not have understood the lesson of the Yalta Conference, in which an ailing F.D.R. thought he could make Uncle Joe his friend. Vladimir Putin is in no way comparable to Uncle Joe. But Putin has expressed a desire for a new Yalta, which in the West is synonymous with “duped” and “giveaway”. Trump campaigned for better relations with Russia with a seeming lack of awareness of a deeply adversarial relationship. All this drives our fears, even though Trump now seems more willing to respect the cornerstones of U.S. policy. To his credit, he has risked confrontation with Russia to discourage CW use in Syria.
I don’t think that Trump’s lack of preparedness is a risk factor. It inhibits a premature jump to specifics. Contrasting with generalities. specifics relate strongly to trust, cheating, and the spirit of the thing. But are we blameless? The Russians blame us for cheating on the promise not to expand NATO eastward. The LA TImes tells the story.
Brookings Institute contradicts this in Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge?:
Gorbachev replied: “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. … Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement was made in that context… Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”
Let’s continue with the assumption that the transcript of of James Baker’s Moscow meeting referred to in the LA Times article, in which he proposed that NATO should /would not expand eastward was not identically reflected in the treaty commitments of German reunification, where it is replaced by a no-new-military-facilities clause. This would give some rational, though not factual, basis to Putin’s assertion that we cheated.
We give ourselves a pass by virtue of moral superiority. The countries behind the Iron Curtain suffered during the Cold War. The incorporation of these former vassal states into NATO began in 1997. Quoting (Wikipedia) George F. Kennan et al.,
At that time the decision was criticized in the US by many military, political and academic leaders as a “a policy error of historic proportions.” According to George F. Kennan, an American diplomat and an advocate of the containment policy, this decision “may be expected to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Kennan correctly predicted the effect. Why did we cheat? The reasoning may have been unconsciously rooted in the heritage of the French Revolution. Part of classic liberal democracy is the idea that the government interferes minimally with the rights of the citizen. In the recent past, this has been challenged by other ideas, such as community welfare, or that the citizen is in some spiritual sense subsumed by the interests of the state. Fascism, during the 30’s exemplifies the idea of subsuming the individual to the “national will.”
All of these sentiments are present in modern societies. But the proportions vary. In theory, a U.S. election is a legally sanctioned and sanctified revolution, signifying the right of the body politic to change their government.
By implication, illiberalism is the opposite. Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who many regard as a proto-fascist, has put into words what Vladimir Putin has not bothered to do. Some excerpts of his July 26, 2014 speech (full text at The Budapest Beacon):
...What all this exactly means, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, is that we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world. ...When it comes to a relationship between two human beings, the fundamental view of the liberal way of organizing a society holds that we are free to do anything that does not violate another person’s freedom. ... Consequently, what is happening today in Hungary can be interpreted as an attempt of the respective political leadership to harmonize relationship between the interests and achievement of individuals – that needs to be acknowledged – with interests and achievements of the community, and the nation. Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.
The above approximates very well the unstated, or nonexistent ideology of Putin’s party, United Russia. Critics of both Putin and Orban are usually distracted by allegations or facts of what we in the West define as corruption. But if there is to be any possibility of engagement, the precedence of concerns must be reversed. Regardless of the personal behavior of the person on the other side, he is committed to ideas, ideas clearly opposite our own.
We can recognize, in Orban’s elevation of the state, the germ of Russian fear of “color revolutions.” The individual, who is the subject of the state, must not overthrow the state, which has the same philosophical inviolability as monarchs once enjoyed. To overthrow would sacrifice what is to us a highly mystical idea of community, for example, the diaspora of Hungary or Russia. Ethnocentric nationalism sanctifies the state at the expense of the individual.
So what does this have to do with foreign policy? While Putin’s primary objects of concern are Russia and cultural Russians, ours are people in general. We identified with the formerly oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe, and their fears. They tugged at our human hearts, so we threw them a rope and pulled them in (to NATO.)
So Putin thinks that we cheated Russia, if not literally, then in spirit.
But how do we talk with a Vladimir Putin who thinks we swindled Russia?
To be continued shortly.