AMERICAN ELITES AND RUSSIAN POLICY: A COMMENT
“Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.”
American Vice-President, Joseph Biden, 24 July 2009, in www.wsj.com
“The question is, who is shaping the US foreign policy, the president or the respectable members of his team? If some members of Obama’s team and government do not like this atmosphere, why don’t they say so? If they disagree with the course of their president, we just need to know this.”
Sergei Prikhodko ['Kremlin chief foreign policy adviser'], 27 July 2009 in www.ft.com
Notwithstanding the American Secretary of State's subsequent endeavor to smooth over Mr. Biden's comments (see: "Clinton moves to calm Russian spat," 27 July 2009, www.ft.com) , one should not be unduly complacent or naive about what the remarks in question truly mean. Au fond, the American Vice-President, a long-standing member of the foreign policy elite, is for the most part representative of many in his comments about Moskva. As readers of this journal may recall, I have heard in camera, as it were, such 'great and good' eminences as current special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, express much the same opinion and point of view as Mr. Biden. Indeed, as a commentator in the Wall Street Journal noted a few days later:
"For example, why lock in lower numbers of U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles such as bombers and missiles in a new arms deal if Russia can’t afford to maintain its stockpile of either? Why indulge Russia’s illusions about its “privileged interest” in Eastern Europe, by signalling a desire to abandon missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, when as the Vice President notes Moscow’s current regime lives “in the past” and dreams of reclaiming the Imperium? And what, precisely, does the U.S. expect to get in return for these concessions to a “withering” partner? Mr. Biden may not like the comparison. But in his willingness to speak the truth about Russia, Mr. Biden reminds us of Dick Cheney".
"Biden's Good Gaffe: Joe Biden sounds like Cheney on Russia," 27 July 2009, in www.wsj.com
Indeed, why should the Americans (or the Europeans for that matter) 'indulge Russia's illusions' about its Great Power position and its 'imperium' in its Near Abroad, and, elsewhere? Well there are many reasons, but, I will confine myself to two: a) notwithstanding its weaknesses, Russia is still a grossmacht in say Central Asia and in Kavkas, in a way that say neither the Americans nor the Europeans are; neither of the latter two parties have either the will or the means of projecting large number of troops and materials to either location, and, Matushka Russia does. Pur et simple; b) precisely because to some extent, what Mr. Biden said was true. Meaning that by virtue of Russia's current and (perhaps) long-term weaknesses, the dangers of indulging its illusions or whims, while perhaps annoying and irritating (and I will agree that in many ways, Grazhdanin Putin can be a very very irritating and obtuse man), are strategically speaking a lesser, rather than a greater evil. It is always easier to offer up concessions to a weaker party, because in the long-run, such concessions will mean very little due to said weaker party's endemic poorer position. Hence, Furst Bismarck's 'indulgence', of say Vienna in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Or Britain's indulgence of say France apres 1904. What is not easier to do, and, indeed, positively dangerous to endeavor to attempt is to indulge a rising or a greater power than oneself. By virtue of the fact that in the latter case, anything given up, will very very rarely ever be retrieved. Indeed, once such patterns are set, it is inevitable that the weaker party, or the 'declining' party, will ever be able to recoup its earlier position. Anglo-American relations from say 1895 to 1956 readily come to mind as one example. Another one perhaps is Sino-American relations in the last few years, as well as perhaps many more to come?
The upshot of the above, is that Mr. Biden's comments are widely shared by his fellows in the American foreign policy elite. And, that it will be difficult to prevent such views from poisoning Russo-American relations going forward. 'Re-set button' or no. Which is to my mind at any rate, a great pity, since such views are as I have demonstrated, wrong and shall have the end-result of weakening, rather than strengthening American and indeed Western power and influence in the future. For make no mistake about it: it is the PRC, the 'yellow peril' if you will, which represents (if anyone can be said to represent these days), the 'rising sun', the 'New Rome'. Moskva, whatever its many faults diplomatically speaking, in terms of being high-handed and at times lacking in proper diplomatic table manners, is not a rising power, and, thus to indulge or indeed to 'appease' it, is something which can be readily done, without any long-term damage to American or Western interests. Unfortunately, the current American regime, like its predecessors, appears to be following the opposite logic. As an Evelyn Waugh character says in his great war roman, 'The End of the Battle': "it is a mad world my masters".