Monday, 10 July 2017

Lilliputin and the Yahoo

The significance of Donald Trump's relationship with Russia has little to do with any covert deals or financial assistance, let alone connivance in the hacking of the Democrat National Convention. What matters is his public willingness to treat Vladimir Putin as an equal, whether from an egotistical belief in his own prowess as a "deal-maker" or simple naivety. The news that the pair discussed "forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe" could be taken as evidence of either. US liberals have promptly interpreted this as the Yahoo Trump being "played" by the more cunning and inscrutable Putin, while the Russian President has predictably gone all statesman-like and hailed a new era of cooperation. Much of the antipathy of the US national security apparatus towards Trump arises from a belief that he has made a strategic error in failing to publicly categorise Russia as a second-rank regional power with structural weaknesses that should limit its foreign policy ambition. The withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord might be foolish, but it speaks of a US that is still the global hegemon and prepared to defy international opinion. The indulgence of Russia's claim to a place at the top table undermines that.

Putin's signal achievement has been to re-establish a parity of esteem between Russia and the USA. This might be purely symbolic - Russia remains economically and (outside its nuclear arsenal) militarily weak - but it serves to legitimise the regime at home and compensate for a weak economy and social stagnation. It also enables a foreign policy that combines calculated snubs of the powerful with intimidation of the weak. There have been two key factors in this achievement. First, the US hesitancy over direct involvement in the Middle East under Obama created a small vacuum that Russia was only too happy to fill. Though Hillary Clinton was expected to take a more robust (i.e. aggressive) stance in Syria, the geopolitical imperative of the US pivot towards the Pacific was always going to allow Russia greater room for manoeuvre in its "near abroad", regardless of the occupant of the White House. The shady rise of Trump has provided the second factor, not so much in the possible collusion between his campaign and Russian state actors, which is likely to be trivial and squalid if it amounts to anything, but in the hyperventilation that the suspicion of influence has prompted among liberals and neoconservatives. In terms of perception, this has given the impression of Russia as a worthy adversary.

The USA and Russia have long been held up as each other's mirror image, and not just in the banal sense of being vast continental states with huge resources. Ideologically, there is a shared belief in exceptionalism springing from a messianic purpose - the shining city on the hill and the third Rome - which fuelled comparable notions of manifest destiny. The image of Russia as a suffering Christ was particularly potent, first as a bulwark of Orthodoxy against Islam and then as the victim of godless Bolshevism. Even those sympathetic to the idea that 1917 represented a leap forward have interpreted the historical role of Russia in similar language, echoing the sacrificial imagery in the rhetoric of the Great Patriotic War and the moral symbiosis implied by the Cold War. For example, Perry Anderson paraphrasing Eric Hobsbawm notes that "In the world at large, the October Revolution had twice saved capitalism from itself: by defeating Nazism on the battlefield, and by obliging Western societies to prophylactic reforms after the war. That check on its feral instincts is now, to everyone’s detriment, gone."

Territorial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, the abolition of serfdom and slavery, and even the nation-building role of transcontinental railways have all been held up as parallels, despite some very real differences (for example, slavery was a product of cash crops not subsistence, while Russia's expansion was a far longer and bloodier exercise than the conquest of the American West). In the 20th century, the head-to-head competition of capitalism and communism for global affection accentuated the comparison, but the impression of similarity was misleading. The USSR came close to defeat by Nazi Germany, a state whose dominance in Europe up to 1941 owed more to the weakness and neutrality of other powers than its own strength, while the USA barely stretched itself in defeating Japan, dismantling the British Empire and providing most of the muscle to beat Germany in Western Europe. At the point when the cost of the war in men and materiel looked like it might become problematic in domestic politics, with the invasion of the Japanese home islands, the USA promptly dropped the first atomic bomb. Game over.

Though there was much talk of an "overtaking" by the USSR in the 1960s, triggering the space race and a more aggressive stance in proxy conflicts, the reality was that the US economy was vastly more powerful and its military far better equipped and capable, despite screwups such as Vietnam. This became all too obvious once the Soviet Union was drawn into its own misjudged entanglement in Afghanistan. The dissolution of the USSR and the implosion of the Russian economy in the 1990s revealed the extent to which the contest had only ever been even in the symbolic but practically useless area of nuclear missiles (hence "Upper Volta with rockets"). Since then, Russia's objective has been to encourage a more diverse international order in which its own weaknesses would be less relevant, which rubs with the grain for many other powers too. The consensus view is that Russia and China want "a more pluralist international order, rather than a single dominant power system. They wish to see the institutions of international society, notably the UN, the WTO and international financial institutions, work autonomously and impartially. Russian politicians repeatedly talk of the need to establish a more multipolar system."

The Hamburg G20 meeting was a success for Russia as much because of America's isolation over the climate accord as for the "constructive" discussions between Putin and Trump. Encouraging the Chinese to pursue their own self-interest, rather than seeking to corral them, is part of Russia's strategy, hence the mutual caution over North Korea which, given the lack of any substantive US initiative, meant the G20 meeting produced nothing in the way of a response to Kim Jong-un's Independence Day gift. The Russian objective with regard to Europe is to semi-detach it from the US, hence the focus on undermining NATO rather than the EU. The aim is to convert 3 power blocs (NATO, Russia and China) into 4. While this will not achieve anywhere near parity - Russia will remain the weakest power by a Lilliputian order of magnitude in terms of GDP - it will narrow the gap. Russia's motivation is, as ever with the short guy in stack-heels, a demand for respect (it is worth noting that "respect" is also a guiding principle for Trump, albeit filtered through the sentimentality of a wannabe wiseguy, which perhaps explains his personal sympathy for Putin as much as any possible kompromat).

Historically, Russia has had little to fear from either the USA or China. American involvement in the allied intervention of 1918-19 and the Sino-Russian border spat of 1969 are trivial compared to the major invasions by European forces from Napoleon through the Crimean conflict to the two world wars. France stopped being a credible threat after 1815 and Britain after 1919, despite their development of nuclear arsenals following World War Two, while the division of Germany and the NATO/Warsaw Pact standoff guaranteed stability. The reunification of Germany was obviously a cause for concern, but there are few Russian strategists who fear a revival of German chauvinism because they correctly recognise the restraint that the EU represents. That said, they also recognise the value of weakening the EU, short of its dissolution, which explains why Putin's minions supported Marine Le Pen as well as Eastern European authoritarians but are more circumspect about supporting the AfD in Germany. In an ironic echo of traditional British diplomacy, Russia seeks a balance of power in Europe. Whether that will produce a reconciliation with France remains to be seen, though the egos of Macron and Putin suggest a stage-managed clinch in the manner of Napoleon and Alexander I at the Treaty of Tilsit shouldn't be ruled out.

Though Hamburg will be widely interpreted as further evidence of US decline, this is just the overwrought solipsism of a US media and foreign policy community that sees Donald Trump's ignorance as a global embarrassment, forgetting that America's track record has long been marked by stupidity and arrogance. Nixon may have gone to China, but he also illegally bombed Cambodia. Reagan may have met Gorbachev, but he also invaded Grenada. Though it has garnered less coverage, what stood out was the total marginalisation of the UK at the G20 meeting, and that surely wasn't just down to Theresa May's awkward personal style. This not only points to the relative diplomatic isolation that Britain will face post-Brexit but it also suggests that in a more multipolar international order a middle-ranking nation like the UK (number 5 by GDP) may find itself lower down the place settings than a nation like Russia (number 11 by GDP) that has better managed to "punch above its weight", a description that the British Foreign Office thought it had trademarked years ago.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment12 July 2017 at 09:17

    The Russophobia so beloved of liberals (see the banners on the anti Trump women’s march in the USA) and pro imperialist left leaves me rather cold. Actually I would point out that Russophobia at the macro level will lead to Russophobioa at the micro level, so for example kids in the playground will undoubtedly be affected by the Russophobia. The right on liberals are probably helping produce a generation of Russophobes. Nice work guys!

    The liberals usually bleat that Brexit will lead to increased hate crime while they create division and hostility with the potential to set the world on fire via some catastrophic war! I mean seriously when the USA industrial military complex runs out of bogeymen where will they strike next? Could it be us?

    The allegations against Russia seem to amount to little more than they provided me (us) with information I wouldn’t get from the mainstream media! So I think the liberals are arguing for a corporatist media akin to a fascistic state. But here I will says a big thanks to RT for providing me with the information, very useful guys.

    When we look at Putin himself and why he is so popular in Russia we have to be reminded of the Western puppet Yeltsin. The Chicago school lunacy that was unleashed on the people of Russia led to disease, high mortality rates across the board, staggering levels of substance abuse and destitution (let us just say it didn’t quite go the way the text books would have it). This is ignoring the legalised theft that created the oligarchy.

    Putin was the Third way in this mess, Putin, and believe me this is no coincidence, is everything Yeltsin wasn’t, sober, athletic and articulate.

    Once again the wicked witches of the West spew bile at an enemy without realising their own contemptible criminality.

    Those pro imperialist leftist who seem Russophobia as a sport should be reminded that Jeremy Corbyn was quite a prominent figure on RT today before he was elected and RT pushed his candidacy in the Labour leader battle (or in normal speak they gave me (us) information the mainstream media didn’t). Well done RT and well done Corbyn!

  2. I wonder what the Foreign office types think about the embarrassment of having Boris as chief clown, sorry, foreign sec? Brexit Britain is going to be even more insignificant as it has no real ability to exert military or economic influence. An ironic result from a vote driven by the successful appeal of the tabloids to the zenophobic old and uneducated young.