Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ideological Irresponsibility Across the Atlantic

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor



George Kennan, the U.S. diplomat and historian who popularized the Western strategy of containment, is broadly considered the ideological father of the Cold War. This is despite the fact that he later lamented the manner in which his ideas were ultimately realized.

Pentagon and U.S. State Department officials were not particularly interested in Kennan's analysis of the political psychology of the Kremlin. In what has come to be known as "the long telegram," sent by Kennan while he was working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1946, they found not so much an explanation of the motives behind Soviet behavior as an ideological basis for the conflict for which many were looking. Nobody bothered to examine the details. Conflict was a condition more easily understood and, in many ways, more expedient than a difficult search for a balance of interests and areas of agreement.

Today, we can see the same mechanisms at work in the genesis of a Cold War with our own eyes. The absurdity of the situation is that there is no clash of ideologies, no arms race, and not even irresolvable geopolitical conflicts between Russia and the United States. There are the mutual jabs and little barbs that unwind into a spiral of irritation, but the real problem is an inability or lack of interest when it comes to making a sober assessment of the state of affairs.

Instead of trying to understand new problems, politicians are constantly looking for ways to revisit old ones.

There is a discourse emerging from Western publications on the development of a new ideological conflict between democratic societies and authoritarian countries, with Russia and China provided as the prime examples from the authoritarian camp. This discourse calls on democratic countries to unite, not to be afraid that nondemocratic countries might also unite in response, and to stop placing their hopes on global organizations like the United Nations, based on the idea that their actions are just being blocked by authoritarian states anyway.

There are many examples of arguments of this type, one of the most shining of which was published a week ago in Britain's Sunday Times by one of the chief ideologists of U.S. neoconservatism, Robert Kagan. The essence of the piece is easy enough to grasp from the shoot-from-the-hip nature of the sub-headline: "Forget the Islamic threat, the coming battle will be between autocratic nations like Russia and China and the rest."

Kagan writes that "the world has become normal again," in the sense that we are returning to a divergence of ideas and ideologies. He calls for the abandonment of the idea of "international community," claiming that "the term suggests agreement on international norms of behavior, an international morality, even an international conscience."

The refusal on the part of Russia and China to move toward "Western liberalism," in his argument, has lain to rest hopes that the world was becoming "a global commonality of thinking about human affairs."

Whenever discussions turn to formulations like "international conscience," it is hard to resist the inclination to flinch a bit. The politics of the 20th century should have trained us to understand that the more grandiloquent the rhetoric, the more unsightly the goals it is being used to achieve are. In the rapid developments of today's world, it is difficult to identify the true ideological opposition. This, of course, doesn't rule out the existence of serious conflicts, given conditions of competition and differences in ideas as to how problems should be solved.

Five years ago, Kagan attracted attention with an article in which he argued that the West can be divided along ideological lines into two camps: the old and the new world. The old world, Europe, has sunk deep into the sweet dream of the "end of history." Conversely, the new world, the United States, has not only maintained, but also continued to build on its ability to solve global problems.

The piece was written at a time when the neoconservative establishment was at the height of its euphoria, and it seemed that declaring war on terrorism demonstrated that the United States was the sole international actor able to turn the planet around.

But conceptions change, and the results of U.S. policy have meant that Washington is again looking for allies. Trying to mobilize them with a call to battle against a degraded Islamic threat is unlikely to pan out, so they are focusing on something more promising -- a tangible and traditional enemy.

George Kennan was a strident anti-communist, but his analysis was built on a deep and thorough knowledge of Russian history and culture, as well as of the realities of life in the Soviet Union. The ideologues of this "new conflict" display a much more shallow understanding. They are not interested in nuances like the fact that it is difficult to find, on closer inspection, much that Russia and China have in common. Instead, they offer simplistic formulations and jingoistic dogma. Can oversimplification to the point of caricature really form the basis on which decisions for action are made?

The quality of political analysis by Kagan and those who share his ideas is one result of the difficulties in Iraq. The current message means, for example, the following: "We were mistaken in our assessment in the 1990s, we overshot on the Middle East, but now we know who our real opponent is and what to do about it."

Of course, the neoconservative position could simply be disregarded, especially since it seems that neoconservatives' days in the White House are numbered. But the problem runs deeper. Their attempts to construct a nonexistent ideological confrontation simply demonstrate their confusion in the face of current events and changes.

The current reality can't be folded into a simple system of "democratic and undemocratic" because this is not where the lines of demarcation lie. The claims and speculations of this democratic rhetoric end up discrediting the very ideas of democracy, which really are very important in maintaining some kind of point of reference in a chaotic world.

The United Nations is, indeed, an ineffective organization. But we have seen the results of opting to work around it. The search for ways to solve the long list of global problems associated with this approach is difficult and nasty, making it simpler just to build new propagandistic bastions. This helps cultivate a general level of irresponsibility and, in the end, is evidence of intellectual bankruptcy.

Russian policy can be criticized for many things, but it has managed so far to avoid the inclination toward ideology. True, there have been some signs that something different is beginning to emerge from Russia's pragmatism. Moral overtones have slipped into more recent utterances, and something more messianic could always develop from the simple idea of multipolarity, with claims to be the defender of diversity in values. But this is the last thing Russia needs. There is no point in trying to compete with the missionaries on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fyodor Lukyanov is the editor of Russia in Global Affairs.