31 March 2014

Why oppose Russia?

Russophobia still rages in the U.S. as diplomats try to stabilize the situation in Ukraine. Anyone who questions America's obligation to resist Russia's annexation of the Crimea or stand up to President Putin is dismissed as an apologist or appeaser. Do it online, at least on a news site comment thread, and you're likely to be accused of being a paid troll for Russia. Despite polls indicating a larger American disinterest in Ukraine, the opinion cloud is heavy with hatred for Putin in particular if not Russia in general. What, exactly, are they afraid of? What makes Russia a malevolent force in the world, at least in the minds of Americans and people in western Europe? The reason Russophobia seems so prevalent now is that people across the political spectrum have reasons, reasonable or not, to hate if not to fear Russia. Neocons like Charles Krauthammer despise the idea of spheres of influence, rejecting the idea that big countries inevitably will have influence over their neighbors as well as a voice in their relations with more distant countries. For Krauthammer, the U.S. has had a special mission since the end of World War II to be an "offshore balancer protecting smaller allies from potential regional hegemons." If this itself is hegemony, then it's hegemony for a good cause, be it the freedom of the small country from its big neighbor or the freedom of the multinational businessman to do business everywhere without the local big country dictating terms. Krauthammer scoffs at Obama's attempted dismissal of Russia as a "regional power" because "regional powers" started World War II. He sees regional conflicts as more likely in the absence of a single global (and presumably disinterested) hegemon. Should the U.S. under Obama continue to shirk what Krauthammer considers its obligations, smaller countries will face two choices: "bend the knee or arm to the teeth." Should an American ask why they shouldn't have to arm to the teeth if they want to be safe from the local bully -- or the distant one, for that matter -- Krauthammer's answer is that American abdication from hegemony would only make regional nuclear wars more likely, with bad consequences for everyone. It remains unclear, however, how anything short of a nuclear threat could make Russia retreat from the Crimea, and Russia's nuclear deterrent makes such a threat unlikely. Krauthammer sneers at the new sanctions against Russia as feeble gestures, but what more can be done to punish Russia, presuming they deserve punishment, short of the sort of military buildup that Russians take for granted anyway in their paranoid imagination? Neocons need to get it through their heads that no American is or should be willing to die for Ukraine, no matter what treaty obligations appear to exist -- and that Russian power simply isn't an existential threat to the U.S., no matter how much they long for one.

Neocons aren't the only Russophobes, of course. During the buildup for this year's Winter Olympics, before the Ukraine crisis broke out, Russophobia was becoming the new hobby of at least a section of America's cultural left. Putin's Russia is seen as a leader in the global axis of homophobia, while Putin biographer Masha Gessen argues that Putin is no mere nationalist but an ideological enemy of the west.  Gessen sees Putin as an exponent of a sort of traditionalist cultural nationalism that naturally finds expression in homophobia but is also more expansively opposed to the supreme western ideal of tolerance. Gessen quotes a December speech in which Putin comes across like a strident American right-winger:

Today many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning....We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values. [Russia’s role is to] prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

To some ears that sounds less communist than fascist. Putin seems to subordinate individual liberty not to humanity as a whole or even to a global proletariat but to "ethnic traditions."  In an extreme reading Putin exalts the nation rather than the state, though many will see this as a distinction without a difference. You see that Russian chauvinism online sometimes when a Putin supporter claims superiority for the land of Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, etc., over 21st century U.S. pop culture, though that's arguably an apples-and-oranges comparison like comparing Hemingway and Faulkner to whatever's on Russian cable TV this week. In any event, Putin's policy sounds like it'd suck for progressive-minded Russians, as Pussy Riot will readily attest, but such a policy is self-consciously defensive. You can't infer from that excerpt any intent to convert outsiders to Russian ethnic traditions; Putin actually affirms cultural difference and claims to defend it against the "chaotic darkness" of western influence. Gessen claims that Putin aspires to lead a global crusade against western decadence, which presumably would make him the enemy of western liberals. That would be so only if Putin sought to suppress liberalism in the United States, though it may seem so as long as American liberals feel themselves entitled to advocate for their kindred spirits all over the world. While neocons claim to champion the small countries who would otherwise be thralls to the local hegemon, liberals champion the sovereign individual whose rights should be the same everywhere on earth, not subject to local cultural traditions. That leaves the world divided between individualists and nationalists, with no one really advocating for humanity as the Communists claimed to. The Obama administration has criticized Russia for "19th century thinking" during the crisis, but the end of the Cold War seems in some ways to have knocked the whole world back in time, to no one's benefit.

No comments: