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David P. Goldman

David P. Goldman is the columnist “Spengler” for Asia Times Online; his latest book is How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too).

A Pax Sinica in the Middle East? Some Conjectures

 

One doesn’t hear Chinese leaders talk of “an end to evil,” as Richard Perle and David Frum entitled their neo-con manifesto of ten years ago; China’s atittude to the world beyond its borders is governed by self-interest, which mainly means arrangements conducive to the flow of trade. By “borders,” to be sure, the Chinese mean their historic territory, including Tibet and Taiwan. Outside of that, the Chinese have no wish to become imperial masters. They do not particularly like other cultures and other peoples, believing their own to be the best and most virtuous, and do not wish upon themselves the trouble of ruling them. China’s economy, though, has a limitless appetite for raw materials and a burgeoning need for higher-value-added exports. In private conversation, Chinese officials insist that they are content to follow the American lead in such matters as Iran’s nuclear program. They do not envy America its position of world policeman.

American fecklessness, though, might conceivably push China to take a more active role. That will not be a simple decision for China to make, if ever it does, but it is not out of the question. That is why Isreali President Shimon Peres’ April 9 comment in Beijing about China’s prospective role in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is so striking:

(JNS.org) During his state visit to China, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that China is a key to preventing a nuclear Iran. “China has a central role in the efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Iran is the center of terror in the world. Iran funds terrorism and exports it across the entire Middle East and beyond,” said Peres, whose trip was the first to China by an Israeli president in 10 years.

One can only speculate, as I did in the Oct. 28, 2013 Asia Times essay reprinted below. The facts on the ground, though, are suggestive. China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest rading partner and will depend on Saudi oil indefinitely. It buys hydrocarbons from Iran, but far less. It is by far the most important investor in Pakistan, and is likely to become a major presence in the economic and military life of Turkey, as it builds high-speed rail across Asia to Istanbul, and possibly provides Turkey with an air defense system. Faced with an assertive Russia on the Black Sea and in Syria, where Turkey is deeply committed to the opposite side, Turkey could use a friend to the east. Its gigantic foreign indebtedness, moreover, begs the question of where it will find adequate foreign investment. China has more to lose from regional instability than any other country, given its energy dependency, and its influence in the region is growing. If it wished to put pressure on Iran, it surely could, by a number of means.

Perhaps President Peres knows something that the rest of us do not; perhaps he merely gave voice to wishful thinking. But it is a reasonable supposition that the vacuum left by the implosion of American influence in the region may be filled much faster than we might have expected.

 

A Pax Sinica in the Middle East?
By Spengler

English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel’s German-language website October 12, a call for China to “take on responsibility as a world power” in the Middle East. Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization’s Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region’s security. “America’s interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day” as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:

China’s interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.

China’s situation, Zand continues, is rather like Germany’s after reunification: a state whose economic power is growing will eventually be asked what it puts on the table politically. He concludes:

The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing’s supply lines soon will come to an end – America’s budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.

I have no idea how China envisions its future role in the Middle East. Americans will learn the intentions of the powers who gradually fill the vacuum left by Washington’s withdrawal from the world “well after the fact, if ever”, as I wrote on September 16 (See US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess, Asia Times Online). That is why I have retired from foreign policy analysis. It is helpful, though, to take note of what the rest of the world is saying, particularly when not a single English-language source made reference to it. Der Spiegel’s public call for China to assume a leading geopolitical role in the Middle East, though, did not appear out of context.

American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China’s interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses the greatest risk to the region, and China has been viewed as uncooperative in the extreme by Western diplomats trying to tighten the economic screws on Tehran. Chinese companies, moreover, have helped Iran bypass trade sanctions, but at great cost, and with a complex result. The New York Times on September 30 profiled the problems of Iran’s economy under the sanctions, and took note of the country’s dependence on China:

One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions – particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had.

“China has monopolized our trade – we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import,” he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, “They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them.” [1]

China’s capacity to exert pressure on the Iranian regime is considerable. Apart from its interest in avoiding nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, China has a number of points of conflict with Iran, well summarized in an October 17 survey by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat. [2] The one that should keep Tehran on its toes is the Islamic Republic’s border with Pakistan. Iran announced October 26 that it had hanged 16 alleged Sunni rebels in Baluchistan province on the Pakistani border, the latest in a long series of violent incidents.

“With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many,” I observed in 2009 (see Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran, Asia Times Online, June 16, 2009). It also has nuclear weapons.

Iran sits between two Sunni powers -Turkey and Pakistan – that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey’s still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the “New Silk Road” of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.

China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel’s military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale. As Singapore-based political scientist Michael Raska reports, China’s military modernization envisions the spread of dual-use technologies to private industry.

Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability. What China might choose to do, Washington will learn after the fact, if ever. If China wished to influence Iran, for example, it has considerable means to do so, and a great deal else besides.

Notes:
1. Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy, New York Times, September 30, 2013.
2. China and Iran: Destined to Clash?, The Diplomat, October 17, 2013.

Posted at 11:45 am on April 10th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

The Phantom Menace in the Middle East: A Review of Caroline Glick’s The Israeli Solution

glick_israeli_solution_cover_4-2-14-1

By any standard, the Palestinian problem involves the strangest criteria in modern history.

To begin with, refugees are defined as individuals who have been forced to leave their land of origin. A new definition of refugee status, though, was invented exclusively for Palestinian Arabs, who count as refugees their descendants to the nth generation.

All the world’s refugees are the responsibility of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, except for the Palestinians, who have their own refugee agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine. Among all the population exchanges of the 20th century — Greeks for Turks after World War I, Hindus for Moslems after the separation of India and Pakistan after World War II, Serbs for Croats after the breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1980s — the Palestinians alone remain frozen in time, a living fossil of long-decided conflicts.

Some 700,000 Jews were expelled from Muslim countries where they had lived in many cases more than a thousand years before the advent of Islam, and most of them were absorbed into the new State of Israel with a territory the size of New Jersey; 700,000 or so Arabs left Israel’s Jewish sector during the 1948 War of Independence, most at the behest of their leaders, but few were absorbed by the vast Muslim lands surrounding Israel.

Instead, the so-called refugees were gathered in camps (now for the most part towns with a living standard much higher than that of the adjacent Arab countries thanks to foreign aid) and kept as a human battering ram against Israel, whose existence the Muslim countries cannot easily accept.

Some 10 million Germans who had lived for generations in what is now Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic were driven out at the end of World War II (more than half a million died in the great displacement).

Imagine that Germany had kept these 10 million people in camps for 70 years and that their descendants now numbered 40 million — and that Germany demanded on pain of war restitution of everything from the Sudetenland to Kaliningrad (the former Konigsberg). That is a fair analogy to the Palestinian position.

It is a scam, a hoax, a put-on, a Grand Guignol theatrical with 5 million extras. Because polite opinion bows to the sensibilities of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, it is treated in all seriousness.

As a matter of full disclosure, I want to put my personal view on record: The mainstream view amounts to a repulsive and depraved exercise in hypocrisy that merits the harshest punishment that a just God might devise.

Posted at 4:16 pm on April 1st, 2014 by David P. Goldman

Are there “moderate Muslims”? How about moderate Jews and Christians?

As my friend Daniel Pipes wrote some days ago at National Review, the Middle East Forum is debating whether one can speak meaningfully of “moderate Muslims,” with Dr. Pipes defending the affirmative and Raymond Ibrahim the negative thesis. I respect both Pipes and Ibrahim, but I am not satisfied with the content of the debate. The first issue to be settled is what moderation might mean in the case of adherence to a religion, which is after all not a list of positions but an existential stance towards life. One can speak of a moderate Communist (e.g. Gorbachev) or moderate conservatives, but not quite as simply about moderate faith. Below is an essay I published on the subject in Asia Times in 2006 that attempts to set a theological context for the question.

The West in an Afghan mirror
By Spengler

Death everywhere and always is the penalty for apostasy, in Islam and every other faith. It cannot be otherwise, for faith is life and its abandonment is death. Americans should remove the beam from their own eye as they contemplate the gallows in the eye of the Muslims. Philistine hypocrisy pervades Western denunciations of the Afghan courts, which were threatening to hang Christian convert Abdul Rahman until the case was dropped on Monday.

Afghanistan, to be sure, is a tribal society whose encounter with the modern world inevitably will be a train wreck. The trouble is

that the West has apostatized, and is killing itself. There turned out to be hope for Rahman, but there is none for Latvia or Ukraine, and little enough for Germany or Spain. That said, I wish to make clear that I found the persecution of Rahman deplorable.

The practice of killing heretics has nothing to do with what differentiates Islam from Christianity or Judaism. St Thomas Aquinas defended not just the execution of individual heretics but also the mass extermination of heretical populations in the 12th-century Albigensian Crusades. For this he was defended by the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, author of learned books about the faith of the United States of America’s founding fathers (seeMuslim anguish and Western hypocrisy,  November 23, 2004).

Western religions today inflict symbolic rather than physical death. One’s local priest does not like to preach such things from his post-modern pulpit, but the Catholic Church prescribes eternal hellfire for those who come into communion with Christ and then reject him. Observant Jews hold a funeral for an apostate child who is spiritually dead to them (retroactive abortions not being permitted).

The last heretic hanged by the Catholic Church was a Spanish schoolteacher accused of Deist (shall we call that “moderate Christian”?) views in Valencia as recently as 1826. Without Napoleon Bonaparte and the humiliation of the Church by the German and Italian nationalist movements, who knows when the killing of heretics would have stopped?

“Where are the moderate Muslims?” sigh the self-appointed Sybils of the Western media. Faith is life. What does it mean to be moderately alive? Find the “moderate Christians” and the “moderate Jews”, and you will have the answer. “Moderate Christians” such as Episcopalian priests or Anglican vicars are becoming redundant as their congregations migrate to red-blooded evangelical denominations or give up religion altogether. “Moderate Jews” are mainly secular and tend to intermarry. There really is no such thing as a “moderate” Christian; there simply are Christians, and soon-to-be-ex-Christians. The secular establishment has awoken with sheer panic to this fact at last. In response we have such diatribes such as Kevin Phillips’ new book American Theocracy, an amalgam of misunderstandings, myths and calumnies about the so-called religious right. [1]

The tragedy of Abdul Rahman also is the tragedy of Western religion. Islam differs radically from Christianity, in that the Christian god is a lover who demands love in return, whereas the Muslim god is a sovereign who demands the fulfillment of duty. Christian prayer is communion, an act of love incomprehensible to Muslims; Muslim worship is an act of submission, the repetition of a few lines of text to accompany physical expression of self-subjugation to the sovereign. The People of Christ are pilgrims en route to the next world; the People of Allah are soldiers in this one. Contrary to all the ink spilled and trees murdered to produce the tomes of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, Christianity and Islam call forth different peoples to serve different gods for different reasons.

But the fact that Christianity and Islam educe different peoples for different gods should not obscure that one cannot be either Christian or Muslim without belonging to a People of God in flesh as well as spirit. Christianity demands that the gentile, whose very origin is redolent of death, and whose heathen nature is sinful, undergo a new birth to join God’s people. Whether this second birth occurs at the baptismal font for a Catholic infant or at the river for an evangelical adult is another matter. The Christian’s rebirth is also a vicarious death – the death of the Christian’s heathen nature – through Christ’s sacrifice. No vicarious sacrifice occurs in Islam; the Muslim, on the contrary, sacrifices himself (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 5, 2005).

Where is the moderation? The Christian either joins the People of God in its pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven, or he does not; the Muslim either is a soldier of the ummah, or he is nothing. Religious conversion is not mere adaptation to another tradition. It is a change of people. If God is “able of these stones to raise children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9), Christians are the Gentiles made into sons of Abraham by miracle. In Islamic society, the convert to Christianity instantly becomes an alien and an enemy.

God may be able to raise sons of Abraham from stones; that is not necessarily within the power of earthly churches. European Christianity, as I have argued often in the past, made a devil’s bargain with the heathen invaders whom it made into Christians in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the conversion of the Balts. It permitted them to keep one foot in their national past and another in the Catholic Church, under the umbrella of universal empire. The peoples revolted against church and empire and reverted to their pagan roots, and then fought one another to a bloody standoff in the two great wars of the 20th century.

In parallel to Christianity, but in a different way, Islam made its own compromise with the nations it absorbed. It would defend the pure traditional society of tribal life against the encroachment of the empires that encircled them: first the Byzantines and Persians, then Christian Europe, and now America. Traditional life inevitably must break down in the face of globalization of trade and information, and the ummah closes ranks to delay the time when the descendants of today’s Muslims will look with pity upon ancestral photographs, as they turn momentarily from their video game.

Europe’s Christians could not summon up the “moderation” necessary to tolerate their Jewish neighbors until after 1945, when Europe was conquered and rebuilt by the Americans. Once the ambitions of Europe’s peoples were crushed in the world wars, European Christianity became “moderate” indeed, so moderate that Europeans no longer bother about it. They also do not bother to reproduce, so that the formerly Christian populations of Europe will disappear, starting with the captive nations of the former Soviet Union.

No Christian People of God emerged from Europe. In a century or two, few European peoples will exist in recognizable form. Americans, by contrast, arrived in the New World with the object – at least in the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – of becoming a new People of God in a new Promised Land.

In a December essay in First Things titled Our American Babylon, Father Richard John Neuhaus argues that the United States itself is not the Promised Land or the Kingdom of God; it is still another place of exile. In Christian theological terms that is quite true. But the stubborn fact remains that if the English Separatists who founded Massachusetts had not deviated from Christian theology, and set out to become a new chosen people in a new Promised Land, we would not be talking about the United States of America to begin with. Christianity drew the notion of a People of God from the Jews, upon whose trunk it proposes to graft the reborn Gentiles. But the graft did not take except where radical Protestants emulated the Jews, and set out to make a new people in a new land.

Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy, warns that America’s religious right is “abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state”, giving the Republican Party “a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews”. On the face of it, this is a nonsensical statement, for how can a coalition of Baptists, Mormons, Catholics and Jews oppose separation of church and state, a doctrine promulgated by dissenting Protestants to protect their own religious practice against the persecution of an established church?

The fact that the US boasts roughly 200 major Christian denominations, none of which can aspire to a plurality of members, ensures that no possible theocracy ever could emerge. When Phillips uses the word “theocracy”, he simply means the emergence of a religious vote on such issues beloved of the secular left as homosexual marriage, abortion, or censorship of pornography. But there is nothing theocratic in people of faith forming occasional coalitions to impose what the law calls community standards.

American Christians are migrating en masse to denominations that preach Christ crucified and the saving power of his blood, eschewing the blancmange Christianity of the old mainline sects (‘It’s the culture, stupid’, November 5, 2004). But the United States is unique among the nations, an assembly of individuals called out from among the nations, where Christian identity is compatible with a secular definition of peoplehood. Even in the US Christians find that one cannot be half-pregnant: either one is saved, or one is not.

Islam does not know moderation or extremism: it only knows success or failure. Unlike Christianity, which prevailed only through the improbable project of abandoning its old center to create a new land altogether, Islam cannot exist outside of traditional society, which by definition knows no doubt. Nowhere else but in the United States has personal conscience rather than religious establishment succeeded as the guiding principle of Christianity. “Moderate Islam” is an empty construct; the Islam of the Afghan courts is the religion with which the West must contend.

Note
1. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips. Viking, US$26.95, 462 pages.

Posted at 9:14 am on April 1st, 2014 by David P. Goldman

Not Even Wrong About Russia

Wolfgang Pauli once said of a young physicist’s work, “It is not even wrong.” The put-down applies to Republican thinking about Russia: my conservative colleagues don’t even know what the ruckus is about. The Germans know, and that’s why Chancellor Angela Merkel today opposed sanctions against Russia except in the case of further aggression. Her position was echoed by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

Sanctions would throw B’rer Putin into the Briar, er, Bamboo Patch.

A specter is haunting Europe, and that is the specter of a Russian-Chinese alliance at the expense of Europe. China is dynamic, and its dynamism is transforming the “Silk Road” countries that lie across Russia’s southern border. China is building high-speed rail and high-speed internet south to Rangoon and eastward to Istanbul, intent on transforming its neighbors into an export market for high-value-added manufacturing and high-tech products. It’s one of the most remarkable ventures in world economic history, and the most underreported story of the year. My conservative friends have been predicting China’s economic demise every year for the past dozen, and have been wrong each time. They notice the elephant dung, but ignore the elephant.

China’s appetite for Siberian resources, including hydrocarbons and perhaps including water, is limitless. The Russians and Chinese have every reason to suspect each other. But if they put their differences aside, the economic synergies would be extensive. What should worry the West is the prospective synergies in military technology as well. Russia is rolling out the S500 air defense system. We shuddered at the prospect that Russia might provide its 20-year-old S300 system to Damascus or Tehran; we really don’t know how much better the new iteration is, but it might be a great deal better. Chinese rocketry already is good enough to sink any American ship within several hundred miles of its coastline. We really don’t want them to get together.

That’s precisely what may happen if the West succeeds in “isolating” Russia, as Germany’s leading news organization Der Spiegel has been warning. Of course, all this is on the German language site, beamed to the homefolks; the Germans don’t bother trying to explain things to the Anglos any more. Use Google translate if you want to read it.

Posted at 4:05 pm on March 26th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

The West’s Ukrainian Folly: Wisdom from an Old Cold Warrior

Back when Reagan ran things, we didn’t blather about sanctions against Russia. We used clandestine methods to sabotage its natural gas exports and other key functions. The largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history, the 1982 Russian natural gas pipeline disaster, was one of the results. A mastermind of this well-documented operation (and some other yet-to-be-documented operations) was the director of planning at the National Security Council under Richard Allen and William Clark, Dr. Norman A. Bailey, who held the title of special assistant to the president. Bailey employed a small team of contractors to obtain intelligence on areas of interest, and I worked for him between 1981 and 1983 on a number of projects, in particular monitoring German politicians and their backers at a time when Europe was inclined to cut a deal with the Soviets rather than take on the evil empire.

Dr. Bailey was my mentor in geopolitics. He told me in late 1981 that the Reagan administration would bring down Communism by 1987 through a massive military buildup and economic competition. I thought he was crazy, so I signed on immediately. Now semi-retired in Israel in a hilltop villa overlooking the Mediterranean, he was the consummate Cold Warrior. After leaving government he formed a consultancy with former CIA Director William Colby and advised multinational corporations.

I received an email from him today on the Western response to the situation in Ukraine and obtained his permission to post it. Dr. Bailey writes:

Granted that hypocrisy is the mother’s milk of both domestic and international politics, but the outcry from Europe and the United States over the Russian seizure of Crimea really is beyond the pale.
The current provisional Ukrainian government is the product of a coup d’état.
Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1953 by Khruschchev (who was born in Ukraine) without asking anyone in the Crimea whether they wanted to be transferred or not.  Even former Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev stated, “…Crimea was merged with Ukraine…without asking the people and now the people are correcting that mistake.  This should be welcomed rather than declaring sanction.”
Russia will have no more access to the Mediterranean from Crimea now than it already had under its long-term lease on the naval base in Sevastopol.
As to forceful detachment of territory from a sovereign state, Kosovo was separated from Serbia through the U.S. and European bombing of Serbia until the Serbs agreed.
Finally, despite fierce rhetorical condemnation of the Russian takeover, the sanctions applied with much fanfare are so weak as to be ludicrous and are taken as such by the Russian government.  Russia has much more leverage over Europe than Europe has over Russia.  If Russia were to place an embargo on oil and particularly gas exports to Europe, the Europeans would run out of reserves in two months and then the European economy would shut down.  Russia, in contrast, would merely lose $7.5 billion of revenues.  U.S.-Russian trade is tiny so that trade sanctions by the U.S. would be meaningless.
 As to possible financial sanctions, Russian officials are prohibited from having assets abroad in any case, so that the “freezing” of their assets in the U.S. amounts to nothing at all, despite the monumentally exaggerated declaration of a  “state of emergency” and incredibly weak sanctions taken as a result of a threat to the “national security”.  In response, Russia is reported to have withdrawn $100bn in U.D. treasury bonds.  As to the Europeans, their assets in Russia are three times Russian assets in Europe.
In other words, all the trade and financial leverage is on the side of Russia, not the West.
But most significantly, and a perfect illustration of what may result when the various effects of policies adopted and measures taken are not properly calculated, the reaction of Europe and the U.S. to the Russian takeover of Crimea ensures no Russian cooperation on any meaningful agreement with Iran concerning their plans to achieve the means to produce nuclear weapons.  Indeed, Russia has just agreed to provide Iran with another nuclear power plant.
It can thus be confidently foreseen that sooner or later, and probably sooner, Iran will achieve nuclear weapon capacity.  What should Israel do?  It realistically has two options–attack Iran’s nuclear facilities militarily, which Defense Minister Ya’alon now says he is reconsidering, or take the defensive measures necessary to make sure that Israel is prepared if and when Iran succeeds in miniaturizing its nuclear weapons.

The real Cold Warriors understood that crushing the Evil Empire of Communism required us to take into account the interests of Russia as a nation. The elder statesmen who won the Cold War, including Henry Kissinger (whose opening to China flanked the Soviet Union), are trying in vain to inject a note of sanity into the clown show that passes for American foreign policy on both sides of the aisle. The Republican mainstream mistook Tahrir Square for Lexington Common, and then mistook Maidan for Tahrir Square. If only we were rougher and tougher, it is claimed, Crimea would be free today. That is just plain stupid; there is no possible state of the world in which Crimea would not be Russian. We had some ability to influence the terms under which it would be Russian, and we chose the worst possible course of action, namely open hostility combined with impotent posturing.

Posted at 2:50 pm on March 20th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess

The essay below appeared six years ago in Asia Times Online.

During 1992-1993, I advised the Russian Finance Ministry on currency stabilization and sovereign debt issuance–a fruitless exercise, given that the Yeltsin government presided over a general free-for-all. At the time I was chief economist at Jude Wanniski’s firm Polyconomics. Our most prominent client was private equity investor Theodore Forstmann, a friend of America’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, Robert Strauss. Ambassador Strauss secured my appointment as an external advisor to Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar, including one with then Bear Stearns chief economist Larry Kudlow. Our efforts came to nought, to be sure, but I got something of an education.

 

Americans play Monopoly, Russians chess
By Spengler

August 19, 2008

On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president – now premier – Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West.

American hardliners are the first to say that they feel stupid next to Putin. Victor Davis Hanson wrote on August 12 [1] of Moscow’s “sheer diabolic brilliance” in Georgia, while Colonel Ralph Peters, a columnist and television commentator, marveled on August 14 [2], “The Russians are alcohol-sodden barbarians, but now and then they vomit up a genius … the empire of the czars hasn’t produced such a frightening genius since [Joseph] Stalin.” The superlatives recall an old observation about why the plots of American comic books need clever super-villains and stupid super-heroes to even the playing field. Evidently the same thing applies to superpowers.

The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to destroy them. That is what the informed Russian public believes, judging from last week’s postings on web forums, including this writer’s own.

These perceptions are dangerous because they do not stem from propaganda, but from a difference in existential vantage point. Russia is fighting for its survival, against a catastrophic decline in population and the likelihood of a Muslim majority by mid-century. The Russian Federation’s scarcest resource is people. It cannot ignore the 22 million Russians stranded outside its borders after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, nor, for that matter, small but loyal ethnicities such as the Ossetians. Strategic encirclement, in Russian eyes, prefigures the ethnic disintegration of Russia, which was a political and cultural entity, not an ethnic state, from its first origins.

The Russians know (as every newspaper reader does) that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is not a model democrat, but a nasty piece of work who deployed riot police against protesters and shut down opposition media when it suited him – in short, a politician in Putin’s mold. America’s interest in Georgia, the Russians believe, has nothing more to do with promoting democracy than its support for the gangsters to whom it handed the Serbian province of Kosovo in February.

Again, the Russians misjudge American stupidity. Former president Ronald Reagan used to say that if there was a pile of manure, it must mean there was a pony around somewhere. His epigones have trouble distinguishing the pony from the manure pile. The ideological reflex for promoting democracy dominates the George W Bush administration to the point that some of its senior people hold their noses and pretend that Kosovo, Ukraine and Georgia are the genuine article.

Think of it this way: Russia is playing chess, while the Americans are playing Monopoly. What Americans understand by “war games” is exactly what occurs on the board of the Parker Brothers’ pastime. The board game Monopoly is won by placing as many hotels as possible on squares of the playing board. Substitute military bases, and you have the sum of American strategic thinking.

America’s idea of winning a strategic game is to accumulate the most chips on the board: bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a pipeline in Georgia, a “moderate Muslim” government with a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kosovo, missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and so forth. But this is not a strategy; it is only a game score.

Chess players think in terms of interaction of pieces: everything on the periphery combines to control the center of the board and prepare an eventual attack against the opponent’s king. The Russians simply cannot absorb the fact that America has no strategic intentions: it simply adds up the value of the individual pieces on the board. It is as stupid as that. But there is another difference: the Americans are playing chess for career and perceived advantage. Russia is playing for its life, like Ingmar Bergman’s crusader in The Seventh Seal.

Dull people know that clever people are cleverer than they are, but they do not know why. The nekulturny Colonel Ralph Peters, a former US military intelligence analyst, is impressed by the tactical success of Russian arms in Georgia, but cannot fathom the end-game to which these tactics contribute. He writes, “The new reality is that a nuclear, cash-rich and energy-blessed Russia doesn’t really worry too much whether its long-term future is bleak, given problems with Muslim minorities, poor life-expectancy rates, and a declining population. Instead, in the here and now, it has a window of opportunity to reclaim prestige and weaken its adversaries.”

Precisely the opposite is true: like a good chess player, Putin has the end-game in mind as he fights for control of the board in the early stages of the game. Demographics stand at the center of Putin’s calculation, and Russians are the principal interest that the Russian Federation has in its so-called near abroad. The desire of a few hundred thousand Abkhazians and South Ossetians to remain in the Russian Federation rather than Georgia may seem trivial, but Moscow is setting a precedent that will apply to tens of millions of prospective citizens of the Federation – most controversially in Ukraine.

Before turning to the demographics of the near abroad, a few observations about Russia’s demographic predicament are pertinent. The United Nations publishes population projections for Russia up to 2050, and I have extended these to 2100. If the UN demographers are correct, Russia’s adult population will fall from about 90 million today to only 20 million by the end of the century.Russia is the only country where abortions are more numerous than live births, a devastating gauge of national despair.

Under Putin, the Russian government introduced an ambitious natalist program to encourage Russian women to have children. As he warned in his 2006 state of the union address, “You know that our country’s population is declining by an average of almost 700,000 people a year. We have raised this issue on many occasions but have for the most part done very little to address it … First, we need to lower the death rate. Second, we need an effective migration policy. And third, we need to increase the birth rate.”

Russia’s birth rate has risen slightly during the past several years, perhaps in response to Putin’s natalism, but demographers observe that the number of Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number ofRussians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.

Russia, in other words, has passed the point of no return in terms of fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.

Part of Russia’s response is to encourage migration of Russians left outside the borders of the federation after the collapse of communism in 1991. An estimated 6.5 million Russians from the former Soviet Union now work in Russia as undocumented aliens, and a new law will regularize their status. Only 20,000 Russian “compatriots” living abroad, however, have applied for immigration to the federation under a new law designed to draw Russians back.

That leaves the 9.5 million citizens of Belarus, a relic of the Soviet era that persists in a semi-formal union with the Russian Federation, as well as the Russians of the Eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More than 15 million ethnic Russians reside in those three countries, and they represent a critical strategic resource. Paul Goble in his Window on Eurasia website reported on August 16:

Moscow retreated after encountering fierce opposition from other countries, but semi-legal practices of obtaining Russian citizenship that began in former Soviet republics in the early 1990s continue unabated. There is plenty of evidence that there are one to two million people living in the territory of the former Soviet Union who have de facto dual citizenship and are reluctant to report it to the authorities. Russia did little to stop the process. Moreover, starting in 1997, it encouraged de facto dual citizenship.

Russia has an existential interest in absorbing Belarus and the Eastern Ukraine. No one cares about Byelorus. It has never had an independent national existence or a national culture; the first grammar in the Belorussian language was not printed until 1918, and little over a third of the population of Belarus speaks the language at home. Never has a territory with 10 million people had a sillier case for independence. Given that summary, it seems natural to ask why anyone should care about Ukraine. That question is controversial; for the moment, I will offer the assertion that partition is the destiny of Ukraine.

Even with migration and annexation of former Russian territory that was lost in the fracture of the USSR, however, Russia will not win its end-game against demographic decline and the relative growth of Muslim populations. The key to Russian survival is Russification, that is, the imposition of Russian culture and Russian law on ethnicities at the periphery of the federation. That might sound harsh, but that has been Russian nature from its origins.

Russia is not an ethnicity but an empire, the outcome of hundreds of years of Russification. That Russification has been brutal is an understatement, but it is what created Russia out of the ethnic morass around the Volga river basin. One of the best accounts of Russia’s character comes from Eugene Rosenstock-Huessey (Franz Rosenzweig’s cousin and sometime collaborator) in his 1938 bookOut of Revolution. Russia’s territory tripled between the 16th and 18th centuries, he observes, and the agency of its expansion was a unique Russian type. The Russian peasant, Rosenstock-Huessey observed, “was no stable freeholder of the Western type but much more a nomad, a pedlar, a craftsman and a soldier. His capacity for expansion was tremendous.”

In 1581 Asiatic Russia was opened. Russian expansion, extending even in the eighteenth century as far as the Russian River in Northern California, was by no means Czaristic only. The “Moujik”, the Russian peasant, because he is not a “Bauer” or a “farmer”, or a “laborer”, but a “Moujik”, wanders and stays, ready to migrate again eventually year after year.

Russia was never a multi-ethnic state, but rather what I call a supra-ethnic state, that is, a state whose national principle transcends ethnicity. A reader has called my attention to an account of the most Russian of all writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, of his own Russo-Lithuanian-Ukrainian background:

I suppose that one of my Lithuanian ancestors, having emigrated to the Ukraine, changed his religion in order to marry an Orthodox Ukrainian, and became a priest. When his wife died he probably entered a monastery, and later, rose to be an archbishop. This would explain how the Archbishop Stepan may have founded our Orthodox family, in spite of his being a monk. It is somewhat surprising to see the Dostoyevsky, who had been warriors in Lithuania, become priests in Ukraine. But this is quite in accordance with Lithuanian custom. I may quote the learned Lithuanian W St Vidunas in this connection: “Formerly many well-to-do Lithuanians had but one desire: to see one or more of their sons enter upon an ecclesiastical career.”

Dostoyevsky’s mixed background was typically Russian, as was the Georgian origin of Joseph Stalin.

Russia intervened in Georgia to uphold the principle that anyone who holds a Russian passport – Ossetian, Akhbaz, Belorussian or Ukrainian – is a Russian. Russia’s survival depends not so much on its birth rate, nor on immigration, nor even on prospective annexation, but on the survival of the principle by which Russia was built in the first place. That is why Putin could not abandon the pockets of Russian passport holders in the Caucusus. That Russia history has been tragic, and its nation-building principle brutal and sometimes inhuman, is a different matter. Russia is sufficiently important that its tragedy will be our tragedy, unless averted.

The place to avert tragedy is in Ukraine. Russia will not permit Ukraine to drift to the West. Whether a country that never had an independent national existence prior to the collapse of communism should become the poster-child for national self-determination is a different question. The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important.

My proposal is simple: Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.

Russia has more to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran than the United States, for an aggressive Muslim state on its borders could ruin its attempt to Russify Central Asia. Russia’s strategic interests do not conflict with those of the United States, China or India in this matter. There is a certain degree of rivalry over energy resources, but commercial rivalry does not have to turn into strategic enmity.

If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail. That is a serious risk indeed, for nuclear proliferation is the one means by which outlaw regimes can pose a serious threat to great powers. Russia confronts questions not of expediency, but of existence, and it will do whatever it can to gain maneuvering room should the West seek to “punish” it for its actions in Georgia.

One irony of the present crisis is that Washington’s neo-conservatives, by demanding a tough stance against Russia, may have harmed Israel’s security interests more profoundly than any of Israel’s detractors in American politics. The neo-conservatives are not as a rule Jewish, but many of them are Jews who have a deep concern for Israel’s security – as does this writer. If America turns Russia into a strategic adversary, the probability of Israel’s survival will drop by a big notch.

Notes
1. See National Review OnlineMoscow’s Sinister Brilliance.
2. See New York Post, A czar is born: Bad Vlad wins war, dupes West & proves he’s genius

Posted at 10:22 pm on March 19th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

Joseph Bottum’s Must-Read “An Anxious Age”

My review of Jody Bottum’s important new book (An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Image Books, 2014) appeared today in The American Interest. An extract:

Joseph Bottum…examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

 

Posted at 8:11 pm on March 18th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

The Cold Ashes of Republican Foreign Policy

Let me state this as simply as I can: Russia has had Crimea since 1783, and there is now and never has been a scenario under which Russia would not keep Crimea. Crimea wants to be Russian and the Russians want to keep Crimea. The task of American diplomacy was to make Putin pay–in advance–for something he was going to get anyway. Instead we acted as if Crimea was going to belong to the West, and Putin got mad and grabbed it. Now our diplomats look like idiots. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.

 

Let’s face it: We Republican hawks have done an utterly execrable job of identifying and promoting vital American interests overseas. Our own base has turned on us and embraced Rand Paul’s isolationism. Barack Obama has done everything but hand blueprints for nuclear weapons to Iran, and the voters won’t listen to us. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, a couple of them might go off in American cities. And if Iran gets them, so will Saudi Arabia, Turkey and everyone else in the region. As Henry Kissinger points out, we came terrifying close to a nuclear exchange when the U.S. and the Soviets were the only prospective combatants, and both sides had good command and control and an interest in avoiding conflict. Create a multi-player game in the Middle East with poor command and control, Kissinger argues, and nuclear war is nearly certain.

Why can’t we persuade Americans that Obama is putting America in danger? Because they can’t hear the signal for the noise.

We keep digging ourselves in deeper. Now Sen. John McCain wants American military aid for Ukraine. This is silly: the Ukrainian military couldn’t fight Russia with a century of American reinforcement, and every officer of the rank of colonel and above previously served in the Red Army. More than half of Americans oppose even economic aid to Ukraine while three-quarters oppose military aid–and they’re right. We’re all bluster and no bucks: try to come up with an aid package that will keep Ukraine upright given the mood of the American public. (If you think the voters have contempt for the foreign policy establishment, you should hear what our friends in Asia are saying about us.)

Russia has acted brutally and violated the norms of international conduct in the Crimea, and there isn’t anything we can do about it–any more than we could do anything about South Ossetia. Russian media is reporting a nearly 98% majority for Crimean union with Russia, which means either that the vote was invented or that the Crimean Ukrainians and Tatars were too scared to turn up at the polls. The West had the chance to sponsor a constitutional referendum that would have given the peoples of the Ukraine a fair chance to decide whether they wished to become a Ukrainian people, or separate peaceably. Now we have a Russian fait accompli.

We know what comes next; we saw it in Egypt. The U.S. Congress and European parliaments will hand the matter of bailing out Ukraine to the IMF, the IMF will propose austerity measures that the hodgepodge Maidan government can’t sell, the Russians will raise gas price and collect back debts, and Ukraine will stay in chaos. Maybe Putin will pick up other pieces; maybe he won’t. Sadly, it will depend on his whim.

Putin is riding a wave of popular support at home, which also should be no surprise. Remember that Putin threw his Serb allies under the bus during the wag-the-dog war of 1998 when NATO backed the secession of Kosovo. We lied about Serbian genocide then, just as Putin is lying about fascist threats to Russian nationals today. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations, but I don’t expect the truth from Moscow–I do expect it from Washington. Putin stood back on Kosovo precisely in order to let NATO set a precedent for the secession of provinces with large ethnic minorities. It doesn’t matter what we think. From the Russian way of looking at things, the takeover of Crimea was justified.

Posted at 6:12 pm on March 16th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

More sitcom than CENTCOM

More sitcom than CENTCOM
Cross-posted from Asia Times Online

American foreign policy is more sitcom than CENTCOM. That in a way is the good news. Our failures are comic while those of other nations are tragic. Americans do not understand the tragic impulses of other peoples because they are exceptional. The Europeans failed as nationalists, and are failing as post-nationalists.

Because Americans are not an ethnicity but a union of immigrants committed to a concept, our nationalism discloses a universal impulse. We blunder when we forget how exceptional we are, and ignore the tragic impulses that impinge on other peoples.

Only once in the past century have we read the world aright. We got it wrong when Woodrow Wilson proposed a utopian postwar vision in 1919, when the isolationists tried to stay out of the European conflict in the late 1930s, when Roosevelt and Truman let Stalin absorb Eastern Europe, when we overextended and then turned tail in Vietnam, and when we undertook to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into Western-style democracies. Ronald Reagan got it right when he decided that it was time to roll back communism – but he also understood that we would have to live with Russia as a nation.
We have stumbled into the world’s troubles like incongruous clowns in a tragedy: we observe the anguished faces of the other characters and conclude that everyone else on stage is insane. That is how Americans view Russian President Vladimir Putin. AsTime magazine reported last week:

An Obama administration official leaked to the New York Times on Sunday the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Obama she wasn’t sure if Putin was in touch with reality. “In another world,” Merkel reportedly said, according to the leak. Then in a conference call with reporters later in the day, three administration officials took turns firing rhetorical shots: “[B]eing inside Putin’s head is not someplace anyone wants to be.”

I doubt that Merkel ever said it, but that’s a different question. Russia, as Colonel Ralph Peters (retired) told Sean Hannity last week, “believes in Russia”; to the Obamoids, belief in one’s country is prima facie evidence of mental defect. Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain and Senator Marco Rubio meanwhile compare Putin to Hitler, an example of what the late Leo Strauss derided as “reduction ad Hitlerium”.

Contrast that to President Obama’s characterization of Iran in his interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

[If] you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.

That’s been the longstanding view of this administration.

Just how does one define rationality in global politics? Here is a question that helps: What is the rational self-interest of a nation that will cease to exist within the horizon of present-day expectations? We look uncomprehendingly on the petty wars of perished peoples and marvel at the sheer vanity of their forgotten battles. How do we know that someone in the future won’t look back at us the same way? There have been Great Extinctions of the Peoples before in world history, but never with the breadth and speed of the demographic declines in our own era. That should give us something of an objective gauge with which to judge the rationality of actors.

Iran’s unprecedented fertility decline has accelerated – from about 7 children per female in 1979 to only 1.6 last year, according to a UN estimate. Russia, meanwhile, is struggling to emerge from what seemed like a demographic death-sentence only a few years ago. Ukraine is Europe’s poster-boy for demographic death.

Iran is dying a slow and dreadful death: by mid-century more than a third of its people will be over 60, and by the end of the century, half its people will be over 60, imposing an impossible burden on a poor country. Its rulers are taking urgent steps to reverse the fertility decline, opening clinics to treat infertility, which reportedly affects one-fifth of all Iranian couples, against a world average of around 8%. Why infertility is so widespread in Iran is unclear; it might be due to the fact that the reported incidence of chlamydia, a bacterial STD that causes infertility, is several times higher in Iran than in Western countries. Former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad began campaigning for earlier marriage and bigger families in 2009, but fertility has continued to fall.

I argued nearly a decade ago (see Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, Asia Times Online, September 13, 2005) that Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons is an entirely rational response to its demographic decline: “Iran’s motives for acquiring nuclear power are not only economic but strategic. Like Hitler and Stalin, Ahmadinejad looks to imperial expansion as a solution for economic crisis at home. … This may appear to be a desperate gamble, but conditions call for desperate gambles. Ahmadinejad is not a throwback, as I wrote with a dismissiveness that seems painful in hindsight. He has taken the measure of his country’s crisis, and determined to meet it head-on. Washington, from what I can tell, has no idea what sort of opponent it confronts.”

Iran is rational, but not in the way Obama seems to believe. If you need $100,000 for an operation that will save your life and have only $10,000, it is rational to bet the whole stake at 10:1 odds. Iran must break out or break down. That is why it will gamble on nuclear weapons acquisition.

Total fertility rate for Russia, Ukraine, and Iran 

Source: UN and CIA

Apart from some fine work by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, though, the glaring facts of Iran’s demographic predicament have escaped notice by America’s policymakers. Not so the demographics of Russia: the prevailing view among Western analysts (and especially hawkish ones) holds that Russia is a doomed nation. In December 2011, Professor Eberstadt published an essay entitled “The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster” in Foreign Affairs. Last year I reviewed on this site Ilan Berman’s book Implosion, which stated this widely held view as follows:

Russia is dying. Russia is undergoing a catastrophic post-Soviet societal decline due to abysmal health standards, runaway drug addiction, and an AIDS crisis that officials have termed an “epidemic.” The population of the Russian Federation is declining by close to half a million souls every year due to death and emigration. At this rate, the once-mighty Russian state could lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century. And according to some projections, if Russia’s demographic trajectory does not change, its population could plummet to as little as fifty-two million people by 2080. It’s a phenomenon demographers have described as “the emptying of Russia” – a wholesale implosion of Russia’s human capital and a collapse of its prospects as a viable modern state. (See see Reports of Russia?s death are exaggerated , Asia Times Online, October 15, 2013)

A specter is haunting Russia: the specter of depopulation. The cohort of Russian women of child-bearing age is so depleted that even a recovery of Russia’s birth rate will not forestall severe problems. Nonetheless I thought Berman’s thesis one-sided and overstated. Russia’s total fertility rate has recovered from around 1.2 a decade ago to 1.7 last year, and Russia’s population increased slightly in 2013 for the first time in almost two decades.

We do not know quite why this has occurred, but it seems that Putin’s aggressive efforts to promote fertility have had some effect – unlike in Iran. Like Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh, the threat of extinction may have motivated Russia to change course. And like Jonah, our modern prophets rankle at the prospect that the ban of doom may have been lifted.

I suspect that Russia’s revived nationalism has a great deal to do with rising fertility. That includes the revival of the Orthodox Church, which is consubstantial with the Russian state. Countries that lose their faith and their identity also lose their motivation to bring new generations into the world; that is how civilizations die, the title of my 2011 book on demographics and geopolitics. Putin’s nationalism is also a rational response to an existential threat. The Germans might go gentle into that good night, but Russia will fight for its identity and its future existence.

Russian nationalism – historically an imperial more than a national identity – always was a brutal business, and especially nasty towards national minorities, as my ancestors from the Pale of Jewish Settlement on the Western order of the Russian Empire knew all too well.

A core goal of Putin’s national revivalism is the reintegration of Russians left stranded in the “near abroad” by the collapse of the Soviet Union: Russia’s imperial policy of salting its border states with Russian settlers backfired when the evil Soviet empire collapsed. From the Russian vantage point this is not a matter of scoring points but an existential issue, a sine qua non of what it means to be Russian, and exemplary of the motivation for Russians to want their culture to continue.

Western pundits ridicule Putin’s claim that Russia is a bulwark against Western decadence. From a Western standpoint, Putin’s methods are repugnant. But they are the only methods Russia has ever known. The problem is that Western Europe is decadent. Most European countries are headed for demographic extinction. Russia, which seemed passed the point of no return, is struggling to retrace its steps.


Total fertility rate for Russia and selected European countries
Source: UN and CIA

That leaves the West with a conundrum concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea and possibly elsewhere in Russian-majority areas in Ukraine. Russia does not want to be like other European countries. Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic States have the lowest fertility rates of any nations in the West, ranging from just 0.82 children per female for ethnic Magyars in Hungary (excluding the Roma) to about 1.2 for Poland. That is where Russia was in 2000. Russia prefers the fecund past to the bleak future of the Europeans. That is why the nations of Europe fought the First World War 100 years ago: to avoid becoming what they are today. They fought to sustain belief in their destiny as nations. As Col. Peters said in the cited interview, “Putin believes in Russia’s destiny.”

The re-assertion of Russian identity, meanwhile, is as brutal a business as Russian self-assertion has been since the time of Peter the Great. Putin’s patriotism is not my patriotism. I don’t particularly like what Putin did in Crimea, but it was delusional to expect any other course of action. Russia is short of Russians, and it cannot ignore the 22 million Russians left stranded in newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union.

The Obama administration is staffed by the sort of utopian liberal internationalists who attended conflict-resolution seminars at Ivy League colleges. Putin seems a throwback, and that is just what he is: he is trying to revert to Russian identity prior to the 1917 October Revolution, not without some success. To compare him to Hitler is Billingsgate. The hawks seem upset that Russia has not chosen to accept its decline with Stoic resignation. It is easier to condemn Russian brutality than to suggest an alternative path by which Russia would remain viable a century from now.

It was inevitable that Russia would intervene if Ukraine became unstable. It is tragic in the full sense of the world, namely an outcome to which the participants are driven by circumstances they cannot control. Russia’s interest in Ukraine, particularly in the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, is existential not opportunistic.

As in Georgia, there was nothing the United States (let alone the Europeans) could have done to hinder it, and nothing they can do to reverse it. The tragedy will play itself out, and at the end of it – the very end – there will be no Ukraine, because there will be no Ukrainians.

Whether Russia survives into the next century is an open question upon which the crude conclusions of hawkish foreign policy analysts shed no light. I do not know the answer, but I am sure that America will have to deal with Russia as a strategic power for the indefinite future – a power of second rank, perhaps, but not one to be trifled with in its back yard.

I am an American and a hawk who wants America to be the world’s dominant superpower. Whatever our errors, we are the only nation in the world capable of altruism. We hawks had a mandate after September 11, 2011, such as no-one had in America since Pearl Harbor, and we misplayed hand after hand until our chips are nearly gone. If we fail to understand the underlying trends that drive events and the motivations of the main actors, we will be out of the game entirely.

What should we have done in Ukraine? As I wrote on February 20, the West had the opportunity to promote a constitutional referendum including the option of partition. If Russian speakers in Crimea or the Donbas region preferred affiliation with Russia, so be it. Ukraine’s constitution was in ruins before the Russians moved in. The odious Viktor Yanukovich beat the “Gas Princess” Yulia Timoshenko in a reasonably fair election in 2010, and proceeded to abuse his presidential powers. When the Maidan Square demonstrators chased him out, Ukraine’s parliament voted unanimously to dismiss him. The absence of a single “nay” recalls Soviet-era majorities.

The West could have been midwife to a new national consensus – either a single Ukraine reaffirmed by popular mandate, or a decent divorce on the Czech-Slovak model, or perhaps a federal solution somewhere in between. Instead, we encouraged a constitutional crisis in Ukraine. Now we are stuck with the dubious Ms Timoshenko, one of the wealthiest oligarchs to emerge from Ukraine’s post-independence theft of national assets, and an intransigent Russia in possession of Crimea.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. He is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You, also appeared that fall, from Van Praag Press.

Posted at 3:53 am on March 10th, 2014 by David P. Goldman

What Happened in Ukraine?

European media are reporting the leak of a taped phone call between the Estonian Foreign Minister and European Community foreign policy chief Lady Catherine Ashton alleging that the same snipers killed demonstrators as well as security forces during the Maidan Square uprising. The Estonians are no friends of Putin–quite the contrary. Russia and Estonia have been bitterly at odds for years. Russian stated media posted the call on YouTube. Presumably they got the tape from the Russian spy agencies.

Writes the London Guardian:

A leaked phone call between the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet has revealed that the two discussed a conspiracy theory that blamed the killing of civilian protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on the opposition rather than the ousted government.

The 11-minute conversation was posted on YouTube – it is the second time in a month that telephone calls between western diplomats discussing Ukraine have been bugged.

In the call, Paet said he had been told snipers responsible for killing police and civilians in Kiev last month were protest movement provocateurs rather than supporters of then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Ashton responds: “I didn’t know … Gosh.”

It’s a lead story on Der Spiegel’s main German language news page and extensively covered elsewhere. It raises the question: to what extent was Maidan Square the triumph of Western-looking lovers of democracy (surely true to some extent) and to what extent was it an intra-oligarchical mob war (surely true to some extent)?

Not a word in the US media yet, judging from a Google News search.

Posted at 4:45 pm on March 5th, 2014 by David P. Goldman