international affairs, politics

The Dangers of Naïve Diplomacy

Published on April 17th, 2014 by The American Conservative

When Russian soldiers descended into the Ukrainian province of Crimea last month, many observers rightly rebuked the move as a precursor to eventual annexation. They condemned the deployment as illegal, dangerous, and capable of sparking a much larger conflict. Still, some of these spectators took things a step further and saw an opportunity to condemn what they observed as an intrinsic duplicity to the global peace movement.

The loudest participants argue that the antiwar left shows its hypocrisy by not getting on the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s aggression. They ask: if hundreds of thousands of people showed up on the streets of Western cities to protest the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, then why can’t Ukrainians get the same show of international support?

Take Nick Cohen, writing for the conservative British magazine The Spectator, who says that Ukrainians “should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left” because of its “pliable” politics. Or take The National Post’s Andrew Coyne, who goes on to condemn the apparently spineless left for being “pacifists” who have become the “PR reps” of tyrants.

There’s no doubt that Russia’s actions amount to an illegal encroachment on Ukraine’s sovereignty. Historian Timothy Snyder explains that Putin’s broader strategic objective is to have Ukraine join something called the “Eurasian Union,” which is essentially a group of authoritarians and dictators banding together to preserve their regional hegemony.

That sounds very unappetizing, but unlike what Cohen and Coyne seem to suggest, just because millions of leftists aren’t filling the streets doesn’t then mean they all endorse Russian expansionism. In fact, there has been quite enough knee-jerk moralism and grand, sweeping rhetoric already escalating Ukraine’s crisis. The peace movement’s resources are limited, and it’s simply not possible to have colossal protests whenever a conflict arises. Not to mention that it’s probably not in Ukraine’s interests to amplify anti-Russia messaging right now. It’s also hard to imagine any commentator, Cohen and Coyne included, showing the same level of outrage if the left failed to protest for, say, the island nation of Palau, if any of its larger neighbors decided to invade it. This kind of selectivity says much more about the ideological framework through which commentators like Cohen look at the world than it does about the left.

Ukraine, of course, is not Palau. The aggressor here is Russia, a chief geopolitical actor in the world whose global agenda doesn’t always align with that of the U.S. and its closer allies. Palau and its neighbors are not symbols of a larger global rivalry in the way that Ukraine and Russia are. Russia still symbolizes opposition to the “Western world” for many in the American political establishment who prefer to remain stubbornly connected to the outdated narratives of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union was perceived to impede the progress of liberal capitalism and democracy throughout the world, Putin’s Russia now disrupts the “unipolar moment,” when the U.S. should be free to project its overwhelming power for global goodness. Or so the (neoconservative) story goes.

In truth, Ukraine is caught between this broader, global rivalry. The admirable impulse of its people to attain a more just country is dwarfed by the ideological myopia of both Russia and the U.S. In the melodramatic narratives that have come to dominate the way the mainstream discusses this crisis, Ukraine’s democratic will should be backed by the ultimate purveyor of freedom in the world, the United States. With its help, plucky little Ukraine will escape Putin’s clutches and go on to enjoy the perks of the European Union, and maybe even NATO.

But reality is different. In the real world, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine has long been a strategic partner of Russia. It was a country still within Putin’s limited sphere of regional influence. If it goes, then Russia loses. Russian interests are at stake, and so it must act to protect them. This, above all, remains the primary impediment to Ukraine’s democratic goals. Did the U.S. State Department not recognize it? If it did, then why did it not apply a reality-based diplomacy that reminded the Euromaidan movement to avoid making Russia feel like a loser in all this?

As John Mearsheimer notes in his New York Times op-ed, Russia “drew a line in the sand” when NATO announced in 2008 that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. The Russians already watched Poland and the Baltic states accede. Ukraine was simply a step too far. Putin, as it turns out, would rather not tolerate NATO expansion right up to his doorstep. An excuse to act was all he needed. Euromaidan’s success in throwing out Yanukovych provided that excuse.

Now, Ukraine’s sovereignty remains violated. Instead of advising caution, the U.S. took a more activist approach, symbolized by Victoria Nuland’s handing out of cookies to protestors in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the Euromaidan movement. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Nuland decided not to warn the protestors that they may be making a strategic error by forcing Yanukovych out instead of voting him out. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, also failed to take a more strategic approach, instead calling the ouster of Yanukovych “a day for the history books.” The failure to see the Russia’s reaction to all this as incredibly relevant to Ukraine’s chances of maintaining a sovereign, democratic state has a lot to do with where the crisis is today.

An establishment still nostalgic for the thinking and rhetoric of the Cold War may present Ukraine’s well-being as the West’s primary concern. But the inability to see all this from Russia’s perspective has ruined Ukraine’s chances for a smooth transition out of Russia’s immediate sphere of influence. This is the same kind of naïve and sentimental idealism that characterizes many of America’s ill-conceived forays into the world, including those in the Middle East. It is of course directly related to the neoconservative view of global influence: project American power, whatever it takes. Vladimir Putin is playing the same game, responding in kind to the aggressive expansionism of Russia’s rivals.

The truth, of course, is that plenty of people have expressed distaste for all aggressive interventions, be it by Russia or the United States, or anyone else for that matter. In addition to a Crimea firmly in Putin’s clutches, the Ukrainian interim government and major political parties (who will contend in a general election next month) are chock-full of candidates with their own records of corruption. The far-right Svoboda party now has five ministerial posts in this interim regime, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the neo-nazi Right Sector party, Dmytro Yarosh, is now Ukraine’s deputy national security chief.

Now hawkish Cold Warriors within the United States are calling for NATO forces to be deployed into Western Ukraine, or at least on it’s border with Poland. U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, has been given a mandate to draw up plans to counter Russia’s move and “reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.” Breedlove says that he wouldn’t “write off the involvement of any nation, to include the United States.”

If that happens, Russia will almost certainly declare and execute an official invasion into eastern Ukraine. What follows such a disaster is anyone’s guess.



The “Clash of Civilizations”

The so called ‘clash of civilizations’ paradigm coined by Princeton’s Bernard Lewis and expanded by Samuel Huntingdon of Harvard is a myth on all the grounds it claims to occupy. The roots of this family of rationally bizarre and sadly anachronistic ideologies begin quite understandably with a division of the world into Cold War-like ‘clashes’. These clashes are in turn caused by the inherent differences of homogenous and monolithic cultures, which apparently have next to nothing in common, and always stand at odds (in complete separation) over each other.

The old fairy-tale division rings physical detection at the age of 6 for perhaps an ‘average’ human being: the romanticism of east versus west, stemming from (quite obviously) underlying seeds of jingoistic traits. Expansion of such a romanticism and manicuring of its overly forested landscapes of emptiness leads to something that can be perhaps reduced into a sexy intellectual tribalism. The ideologies can all be reduced to a specific set of supposedly smart, pragmatic and hard-hitting policies that must be used for self-preservation. Identifying the enemy as “them” in turn strengthens the identity of “us”, making life much easier and foreign policy more straightforward.

Thus, in his description of how cultures work, Huntingdon desperately and in a fetishistic way clings on to a dual assumption regarding Us and Them. Us, the bearer of values worthy of preservation, and Them, those who seek to corrode such values and implement their own, which really aren’t values—in Our eyes anyway.

It is useful to explore the romanticism of such a profound clash.

It is physically impossible: the citizens of each cultural entity must all harbour hatred for difference, and in their monolithic suppourt allows their governments to unleash their armies and fight until the end of days. There is no room for dissent, no room for protest, and in fact, erases the will of the masses. History shows us that wars are started by powerful policy makers that pursue its prestige, stability, survival, and domination. What lies suppressed and repressed under its propaganda, namely the masses, remain always (in whatever proportions) in ideological difference of these policies. This makes any claim at civilizational war pure bullshit and the wet dream of residual Hitlerian ideologies. Its survival in the public domain as an ideological option is sustained only as stated: an ideology—one with no factual basis. Its existence is created by those in power that see its usage as a necessary mental prescription for its citizens in order to carry out its expansionist policies.

But here lies a devious trap: the propagation and the belief in a clash of civilizations by a certain citizenry (and the media) does not in any way provide suppourt for its factual basis, nor its attempt to exist as a feasible, realistic ideology. The public spreading of the imagery (mainly due to the media, or corporations that work closely with those in power) of the Other, is done subsequently through fear-mongering. This fear is never rational, and always fails to convince the majority of the electorate. And yet, many a time, it has garnered enough suppourters to back the beliefs necessary for policies of power-pursuit and economic expansion. The majority remains mainly asleep, a very useful thing for the powerful since there is less dissent.

The existing resistance (that never fails to exist in every single chapter of history) is mainly based on common sense, augmented by the day to day interactions, and understandings between cultures that share much of the same history. It is quite undeniable now that the world is inhabited by a human race that throughout history has shared the stories of discovery, tragedy and success. Such consistent efforts (conscious or not) of overlap can be seen on levels of intellectual activity, and the most basic of cultural exchanges. Huntingdon conveniently ignores this. Instead, Huntington prescribes international protectionism in the form of geopolitical chess games: play off the Muslim and Confucian (far east cultures) and protect ‘western’ values by allying with the countries that espouse them outside of the United States. The cultures themselves are never the authourities to which Huntington refers to.

Then there is the belief that those in power do in all honesty pursue policies that convey hate for another civilization. If this turns out to be the truth, and hatred is the pursuit of one’s government, then it has solidified the outcome of its efforts as yielding precisely zero pragmatic gain. If a government travels on pure hatred without underlying economic goals, and place the gaining of resources as a bonus, then why bother spending billions on oil pipelines, interim governments and military bases?

It is more and more incredible how even those with the highest of academic positions continuously and seriously speak on behalf of large, abstract entities such as “the West”, or “Muslim culture”. These entities are then used as game pieces in an arena of self-preservation and power. It is as if the entire ‘West’ behaves as one individual, and all one billion or so Muslims is bent on doing two or three things and nothing else.

The clash of civilizations is nothing more than another theory for the justification of international plunder. It is the remnant of the bastardized notions of social Darwinism, the extensions of what Count Gobineau and Renan did to justify their racial theories one hundred and fifty years ago.

Let us ask the following questions*:

  1. How does understanding the world as an arena of clashes lessen conflict?
  2. Doesn’t this paradigm enhance and instigate more national murderousness and pride?
  3. Is it correct and wise to create a simplified map of the world and prescribe it to generals and lawmakers to act on the world?
  4. Does this not prolong and deepen conflict?
  5. Do we want a “clash of civilizations”?

* questions taken from earlier Edward Said lecture