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Russia and the odd national interest

July 28, 2011

There is something chimerical about finding a truly national interest. Obviously the external and internal conditions from which we derive it are constantly in flux. Of course, just because it may be a difficult ideal does not mean it is useless as a concept. That’s why I found a portion from this column particularly odd:

But this allegation, coming as it did from a U.S. ally, was immediately dismissed by those on the far right and far left in Washington (who oddly share a mutual affinity for Vladimir Putin’s thugocracy, or maybe just an affinity for the Obama administration’s great power politics which subordinates human rights and democracy to the national interest).

Now, the column in question is at the Weekly Standard, railing against Joshua Foust and Daniel Larison for pointing out the sensationalization of a bombing attack in the vicinity (it is unknown whether the attack was actually directed at the Embassy) by a Russian agent acting in an unknown capacity. I do not have a lot of value to add to that aspect of the story, but I do think it is a little strong to call Georgia an American ally, since we have no formal obligations to the defense of that country, nor theirs to ours.

All that said, what would be so “odd” about members of the “far left” and “far right” agreeing on an issue of “the national interest.” Well, that is why one might call it a national rather than a partisan or factional interest. Perhaps in this political climate it is not hard to tell why one might find elements from across the political spectrum agreeing on anything disturbing. At the point where the notion of pursuing the national interest becomes a criticism, we have a serious problem with the way our political class thinks about foreign policy.

Perhaps the national interest is bad because it pales in comparison to the “principles” of human rights and democracy. It is tautological to say that we support principles in principle, but in practice, we act differently. Such is the case with Georgia. Our security partnership with Georgia is many things, but it only protects Georgian human rights and democracy in the most abstract sense. After all, US support disproportionately benefits the government in power and has not tended to advance the cause of a healthy opposition or human rights within Georgia. Certainly US support for Georgia does not do much for what Abkhazians and South Ossetians believe are their human rights and democratic privileges. That is because US support for Georgia is as much about sovereignty and preventing the perpetually revanchist or expansionist Russian bear (which will supposedly shut out the lights on the age of democracy in its former imperial borderlands) as it is about democracy per se.

It takes only a quick glance at modern geopolitics to understand that these fears are ridiculous. Georgia is site of a clash more complicated than one of freedom versus despotism, and given the political, military, and economic strides of Eastern Europe , it is hard to believe that Russian revanchism is going to swallow those states anytime soon. If anything, the constant aggravation of Russia both distracts the United States and creates more problems for it elsewhere. Drawing Russian resources into confrontations in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus needlessly raises the risk of armed conflict, drives a wedge between America, Eastern Europe, and its Western European allies (that final set would prefer more stable relations with Moscow for economic purposes) and increases the likelihood of a Sino-Russian understanding to the exclusion of the US. In doing so, rather than advancing the broad principles of human rights and democracy in Eastern Europe, we actually empower specific political factions, often to the detriment of the majority’s genuine aspirations, who might prefer not to be locked in avoidable strife with Russia that leads to their diplomatic isolation from Moscow and its Western European trading partners.

Nor has the alternative to “great power politics” done much good for human rights and democracy in Russia. Although Vladimir Putin and the streamlined, hybrid state-cum-oligarchy he has produced is hardly a shining exemplar of freedom or good governance, it is not exactly clear why continuing to apply geopolitical pressure at its borders, as we did in the 1990s, is going to produce a more democratic state. Nor is the Kremlin the worst possible outcome in Russian politics. As Daniel McCarthy, Larison’s fellow writer at TAC, pointed out recently, there are worse creatures in the political bestiary than the Leviathan. By virtue of their chastened national ambitions and interest in maintaining a steady stream of energy revenues, Putin and his cohort are pragmatic, even if we find their objectives undemocratic. On the other hand, back in the good old glory days of Russian democracy, political leaders with views not to dissimilar from Anders Breivik were polling surprisingly well. Zhirinovsky’s so-called Liberal Democrats, along with the National Bolshevists, the brown-tinged Communists and other groups have at least as much principled anger at the regime as the democratic opposition, and perhaps more of an appeal, particularly in a situation where external pressure empowers the nationalist fringes. Of course, understanding how a confrontational foreign policy might make the cause of human rights, democracy, and the US national interest worse in Russia and post-Soviet space would require examining and recognizing the existence of a Russian national interest that the US is without liberty or ability to thwart completely – and we’re still at the stage here where understanding the primacy of the American national interest is used as a rhetorical barb.

Democracy and human rights are subordinate to a country’s geopolitical situation at the local scale just as they are to a country’s foreign policy interests and the global system at the scale of foreign policy. Advancing them requires understanding the mediating conditions. To advance democracy and human rights against a foreign state’s national interest is to give that state a national interest in stifling human rights and democracy. Which is why blithe statements such as this simply will not hack it as real geopolitical analysis:

The ‘reset’ was not supposed to be transactional; it was supposed to be a realignment of a policy to match what the Obama administration believed were “mutual interests” between the U.S. and Russia. But it turns out we don’t have mutual interests. Russia has an interest in a cold war between Iran and the West, leaving Russia as the sole supplier of gas to Europe. Russia has an interest in destabilizing Georgia and any other recalcitrant state on its periphery, with the aim of installing more malleable regimes throughout its near abroad. Russia has an interest in killing journalists who speak out against the government’s abuses, and in silencing those like Magnitsky who expose such abuses, or Khodorkovsky who funded the political opposition. The Obama administration may have an interest in looking the other way on all of this—even the bombing of a U.S. embassy—but they aren’t acting in the interests of the United States when they do so. It has been, as Ben Smith says, “a bad week for the reset.”

Actually, the US and Russia have a very large number of common interests, such as checking the rise and dominance of China in East and Central Asia, preventing the outbreak of an unnecessary war in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, fighting terrorist organizations, and reducing the strain of massive strategic nuclear arsenals through mutual arms reductions. These are in fact much higher priority items for the United States than “stabilizing,” which all too often means “enabling” anti-Russian nationalist regimes on the Russian periphery (few of which have very much strategic value to the United States except in rather indirect fashion), or, sad to say, human rights in Russia. However terrible its abuses, particularly against journalists (as for the opposition, they’re not all friendly oligarchs and liberal democrats – as I mentioned earlier, the “Eurasianist” elements of the opposition would give the folks at the Weekly Standard nightmares if they ever took power), there are many US national interests that are far more important. Ensuring that US troops in Afghanistan can receive supplies in the event that the logistical route which runs through Pakistan – whose security apparatus harbors plenty of American-killing, journalist-abusing terrorists itself – becomes disrupted is more important than helping Tblisi regain control of a strip of Black Sea coast that really would prefer not be under central government rule. New START, even if, like me, you do not believe the heady goal of “Global Zero” is feasible, is a higher priority goal for the US than the abuses of a Russian state we can do very little to effectively counteract. Preventing Moscow and Beijing from reaching a trans-Eurasian, anti-US agreement on foreign policy and security is vastly more important than Russia reasserting influence over former Russian territory which it has had to give up on controlling or reintegrating.

The mention of Russia’s role in perpetuating US-Iranian Cold War is particularly funny, since the Weekly Standard routinely hosts arguments in favor of perpetuating that Cold War through attempting to overthrow the Iranian regime, advocating military strikes on it, calling for sanctions on the Iranian government which makes European attempts to decrease their energy dependence on Russia extremely problematic, or calling for US support of an organization most Iranians view as a terrorist cult. Naturally, if the US is going to insist on having a Cold War with Iran, or a hot war, depending on whose cover story is gracing the Standard that week, then Russia is going to give mild support to the Iranians. Now, rather than throwing the rest of the reset in the trash because of a relatively minor aspect of Russian policy, one might decide the best way to mitigate the negative effects of the reset would be to seek some sort of accommodation with Iran, but let’s not let this wacky, amoral “national interest” concept get us too carried away.

It should not be necessary to say that the US might be confusing factional desires for its legitimate national interest, or Russia’s legitimate national interest for mere factional desires. To challenge Russia’s national interest for the sake of principles that should indeed be subordinate to the country’s national interest will merely harm our national interest and harden the target’s identification of their own with fighting those principles. While this may assuage the consciences of American commentators and provide succor to anti-Russian nationalists, it does not do much to advance the principles or practice of US foreign policy. You do not have to be a member of the far left or far right (and, like Joshua Foust, I would be so very appreciative to find out a member of which clique this post makes me) to recognize that, at a time when the US economy is under serious threat, our military forces are under extreme strain, our relationship with a vital partner in Afghanistan is deteriorating and China is rising, the US national interest might not permit the luxury of pursuing a definitive break with Russia. Certainly Russo-American relations are in better shape than roughly this time of the year in 2008, and I see no reason to think that cooling them would produce results any better for the US than those which that awful period yielded already.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2011 7:26 pm

    Agree with most of this but wonder whether a blog post by someone identified as the “deputy online editor” (or some such) of the Weekly Standard is worth such an extensive riposte. It’s the Weekly Standard — still edited, as far as I’m aware, by Bill Kristol. Where else would one be likely to find a line as ludicrous as the reference to the Obama admin’s “subordination of human rights and democracy to the national interest.” It’s actually rare to find this kind of rhetorical shooting-in-the-foot. Usually the writer would say that a proper conception of the national interest would give higher priority to democracy promotion etc, rather than explicitly opposing “the national interest” to one’s preferred policy line. That puts one in the position of treating “the national interest” as a ‘boo phrase’ rather than a ‘hooray phrase’ — and that is rarely done. Usually it’s ‘adopt my favored policies b/c they comport with the national interest properly understood’. That Daniel Halper, deputy online editor of the Weekly Standard, did not take this usual approach is either a sign of refreshing candor or — more likely — a sign of his being a little too rushed when he wrote the post in question.

  2. August 2, 2011 10:00 pm

    I agree about the strange, probably unintended candor of the comment. And yes, this was pretty excessive given the post, but given the large amount of Russia scaremongering that has gone on lately (which is a product, I suspect, of the need to attack a major administration policy change, along with the inflation of threats as part of justification for avoiding deep defense cuts), much of this had been germinating in my head for a while. That post just happened to provide the trigger, I suppose.

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