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There is No War for History, Because History Does not Have an Immanent Telos

I hadn't planned on devoting any further attention to the Russia-Georgia fiasco. I'm weary of the entire affair - weary of the histrionic Georgians waylaying my wife at church to tell her that they just knew that the Russians planned to massacre all of the inhabitants of Tbilisi, and other such silliness; weary of the jingoistic bloviations of the talk-radio comedians a coworker insists upon listening to, every day; weary, in reality, of the entirely pointless geopolitical game that everyone insists upon playing; weary of wealthy blowhards in restaurants baying for the blood of people - Russians - about whom he knows nothing, all in relation to a little war which stands in no objective relation to his life, or his country - about which, more anon. Then, unfortunately for my health, I happened to read this editorial, penned by Senators Lieberman and Graham, concerning the challenge of Russian aggression to, essentially, the new, post-national European world, though they do not employ that terminology. Andrew Sullivan and Matt Yglesias seemed to have somewhat sensible takes on the Lieberman-Graham piece; but then I read Reihan Salam, who responded to Sullivan and Yglesias by arguing that the Lieberman-Graham strategy of confrontation will render war less likely in the future, and was compelled by the wrongness of this conclusion to re-read the original editorial. The measured, diplomatic tone of the editorial obviously presupposes as the object of foreign-policy the sort of post-national or transnational order in which America remains, anomalously, primus inter pares, with its utopian talk of a world oasis of peace and prosperity, open borders, and the impossibility of war, but it also contains the following interesting passage, the implications of which my wife - who hails from Sevastopol - and her family grasped the moment the war started:

There is disturbing evidence Russia is already laying the groundwork to apply the same arguments used to justify its intervention in Georgia to other parts of its near abroad -- most ominously in Crimea. This strategically important peninsula is part of Ukraine, but with a large ethnic Russian population and the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

The evidence of this is unspecified, and it is disreputable to appeal to something you decline to disclose, hinting at some profound depth that may or may not exist in order to support all-too tangible policy options, but I don't wish to dwell on that for the nonce. Rather, this is, alas, yet another instance of that lamentable American unwillingness to even attempt to understand American foreign policy as its opponents or rivals may understand it; there is, by contrast, simply an assertion of utter, irrefragable rectitude, the implication being that we want to have a civil partnership with the Russians, but will dictate the terms. Why would the Russians be desirous of a partnership with America, if America is bent upon incorporating a deeply-divided Ukraine into NATO, converting the Black Sea into a NATO lake, expelling the Russian fleet from its only significant deep and warm-water port, and acquiring strategic leverage directly beneath the most restive and vulnerable regions of Russian territory? For what purpose - what purpose related to the defense of an objective American interest? The principle that a profoundly divided country, half Ukrainian and half Russian by cultural orientation, in which a Ukrainian government is attempting to create a mythological self-conception in which the latter half does not figure, and which could very well break under the strain of a coerced choice, must turn westward? The principle, that is, that the Russian parts should be ruled by the Ukrainian parts, just because - that Ukraine, a vast, Slavic Belgium, should choose, first, a bogus nationalism, and second, a post-national future beyond the nationalist moment? That's it?

I'm not going to belabour the point, but having traveled in the Ukraine, I can assure my readers that the Russians within and without the Ukraine will have no tolerance for American geostrategy if its consequences make them more vulnerable as Russians in the Ukraine, domestically, and within Russia itself - as they perceive the matter - internationally. And the Russian government wouldn't surrender the port, either, for obvious reasons, which means that, if the West is intent upon pressing the issue, war is a live possibility, and Salam is dead wrong.

How much blood, potentially, is a pro-Western kleptocrat in the Ukrainian presidential mansion worth? How much blood the "principle" that, having won the Cold War, we have the right to dictate terms, which are, at best, profoundly confused transnationalist, EU-style ones that ought to scandalize conservatives - who, after all, are supposed to appreciate proliferating variety and tradition, and not economistic homogenization? The American interest in both the process and the particulars here is hardly manifest.

Why, briefly, would the Russian government be interested in the fate of Russians living abroad? I realize that it is tempting to regard this as yet more evidence of eternal Russian perfidy - and there is always some of that, as there is always some of this sort of thing in all foreign policy - but the reality is more fundamental: it is a question of legitimacy. When the Soviet Union collapsed,. millions of Russians suddenly found themselves living in newly-foreign countries, in some of which they were considered second-class citizens. And, often enough, there were historical reasons for the antipathy, though it is worth noting that abuses perpetrated by a defunct government cannot justify maltreatment of the individuals standing before one. However, a Russian state that evinced no concern for Russians living abroad - "Russian" being as much a cultural concept as an ethnic marker - would communicate to Russians in Russia that it had no concern for Russians qua Russians, in much the same way that a Mexican state that did not lobby on behalf of its nationals living in the US would delegitimate itself in the eyes of Mexicans. From the American perspective, that is an argument for immigration control; applied to Russians living in places where there have been Russians for centuries, but now, owing to the shifting of boundaries and and the waxing and waning of empires, are foreign countries, the lesson collapses of its own incogency. Or have we forgotten the injustices involved in the creation of national identities from a welter of localisms, here writ large in the postmodern age?

I reiterate, for those who will insist upon projecting upon my words meanings absent from them: American strategists may intend (what they perceive as) good, but their motivations are mixed, and they have forgotten the law of unintended consequences, avowing that their intentions are pure, even as their very policies call forth precisely the reactions they claimed to oppose, and others besides. Still less do they interrogate their own assumptions, in an effort to achieve some measure of self-understanding. Perhaps we intend good, but is it licit in the first instance for us to pursue these goods in this manner? And so forth.

We possess an un-self-critical foreign policy establishment in large part because the assumptions of that establishment reflect facets of the American experience; and as the American identity becomes ever more abstracted - attenuated - it assumes deformed and stunted forms that would shock and appall those Americans who were present at the creation, such as the deranged discourse my wife and I overheard just last evening, according to which Russians were barbarian apes and monkeys bent on slaughter, who needed to be put in their place by American military power - discourse which, if applied to Jews or African-Americans, would have been instantly recognizable for what it was. Americans must become more self-reflective as a people, particularly in their conduct of international affairs, lest they become such scoundrels, who say, implicitly, "My country, right or wrong, but I don't even care whether it might be wrong, as long as we win." Contrary to one of Salam's sources, there is no war for history, as though history were an immanent totality the meaning of which we can discern and direct, and we simply must cease the pretense that it is such an entity or process - or, at a minimum, the policies that can only be explicated by reference to such myths.

Comments (10)

The principle, that is, that the Russian parts should be ruled by the Ukrainian parts, just because

Okay, I'm not going to let this be a long thread as far as my involvement is concerned, because, frankly, I don't think it should be. But that quotation above, right there, makes it evident where we're going here: Right now, it's supposed (according to you, Jeff) to be phobic and hawkish for American pundits to make the prediction quoted in the main post--taht Russia plans to use the same excuses used in Georgia to justify "intervention" in the Ukraine and elsewhere. However, if Russia does this, well, you won't be complaining very loudly, because what right have we to say that the Russian parts should be "ruled" by the Ukrainian parts? etc. In other words, we're crazy to predict that Russia would do such a thing in its vicinity, but if Russia did, hey, it makes sense, and it's our fault somehow, and anyway, it's the right of the Russians in those regions to be ruled by Russia, so it isn't really such a bad thing, and so on, and so forth. I say this here only because the bias is so obvious, the trend so self-evident, and the ultimate trajectory so inevitable. Russia can get very aggressive, can justify much of what those nasty neo-con pundits are predicting, but somehow, you will never be wrong, Russia will never be _very_ wrong, the predictors will still be Russophobic, and anything that might be bad in any situation involving Russian aggression will still be America's fault. And America had better not even think of responding. And it's our business to criticize only our own country anyway. We know how this all goes, now. So why bother talking about it? The Martin script is already written.

On NPR last week, Jack Matlock, Reagan's former Ambassador to Russia said Reagan would never have embarked on a campaign of encirclement and would have instead, made Russia a partner in the missile defense umbrella.

Dimitri Simes, a Nixon hand, said the biggest problem is that Russia thinks in traditional "balance of power" terms. He seemed reticent to say how we view the world. I wonder why, but he also suggested a troubling choice between fighting terrorism in the Middle East, or for the self-determination of Ukraine might be coming.

A few questions:

1. Did American attempts to expand what was formed as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance to Russia's borders precede so-called Russian meddling?

2. Should Ukraine be admitted to NATO, despite the destabilizing effects this will have, and despite its undesirability to half of its own population? By what right or logic does the United States maneuver to exclude Russia from its own historical backyard, and from regions demographically dominated by its own people?

3. Have any neoconservative policies with regard to Russia been unjustified, or is it, in fact, wholly justified for neoconservative foreign policy to aim, as it does with respect to America itself, for Russia to be constrained and stripped of its historical identity?

4. Should America be willing to risk war in the Ukraine over a matter so unrelated to American national security as whether a pro-Western or pro-Russian kleptocrat rules in Kiev, and whether there are Russian ships - as there have been since the Crimea was regained from the Muslims - in Sevastopol?

5. Are American policymakers obliged to contemplate the interests and perceptions, and the historical origins thereof, of other peoples in the formulation and implementation of policy, or are the entitled to choose sides, bereft of understanding, and issue diktats?

6. Is the apportionment of 'responsibility' for international crises a binary affair?

A presupposition of most of the criticisms that have been articulated of my commentary on Russian matters is that Russia is in the wrong, and that, in consequence, America simply must do something. The former has never been demonstrated, other than in obvious cases such as idiotic and bellicose rhetoric regarding the nuclear targeting of Poland - primarily because the American role in creating 'conditions of opportunity' has never been acknowledged, but instead, American/NATO expansion has been presupposed as a logical, natural, and wholly justified endeavour - let alone the latter, inasmuch as the relevance of, for example, Kiev to Americans, as distinguished from American foreign policy elites, has never been demonstrated. But I'll be damned if I'm going to lie back and endure the harangue, to the effect that I've already written some script, or, as the manifest implication has it, that I'm somehow denying the legitimate interests of my own country, particularly when the entirely unnecessary and gratuitous expansion of NATO and NATO alliances is precisely what is exacerbating tensions in the Black Sea region, placing members of my family at increased risk for reasons standing in no objective relation to any American interest. Once more: it matters so much that Ukraine cease to be the borderland between West and East that it has been since the conclusion of the Cold War, that the Russophone population of the Ukraine be governed by powers they cannot accept as legitimate, instead of muddling through as they have for two decades, so much, in fact, that these objectives are worth radically decreasing regional stability, and so much that the tragic complicity of American foreign policy in the exacerbation of regional tensions be denied - why, exactly? So that we can follow a puerile narrative of uncomplicated, unmingled good and evil, and pretend that we're crusading for international righteousness, instead of dealing crudely with geopolitical realities Americans themselves have never endured?

It too often appears as though the desire of my critics is to exculpate American policymakers, who have manifestly mishandled the relationship with Russia, and have pursued policies guaranteed to summon forth everything they claim to find undesirable in Russian policy - though, intriguingly, this matters not a whit to American policymakers, who will pursue precisely the same policies without respect to actual Russian policy. NATO alliances and assurances should be extended to the Ukraine, and Russia should be denied influence, not even sovereignty, in areas that are historically Russian, even at peril of war - why, exactly? So that Americans can indulge a desire for self-congratulation and moral superiority? So that conservatives can indulge in Cold War nostalgia, thereby concealing from themselves the reality of support for the very post-nationalist global order they claim to oppose? Bear-baiting is, for American conservatives, the sugar coating that enables them to swallow a militarized and transnationalist foreign policy inimical to fundamental conservative commitments, inclusive of domestic republicanism; it is the anesthetic for the sting of betrayal.

Reagan was infinitely shrewder, and yes, more just in his dealings with the Soviets than the neoconservatives and internationalists have been in their dealings with Russia. The approach of the latter has been to validate every dark suspicion of the Russians and then to blame the Russians for not accepting, absent evidence, the purity of American intentions. Finally, their approach is to curse the Russians for their temerity in responding to American gratuities, such as the utterly pointless expansion of NATO, the attempts to transform basing allowances in Central Asia, offered by Putin to facilitate the Afghan campaign, into permanent, anti-Russian military alliances, and so forth.

Jeff, my purpose as your critic is to point out the obvious: Your self-parodying paleocon determination to blame America for anything bad that Russia does (we always "called it forth"), and your intransigent Russophilia, which, this post makes evident, will remain unshaken *even if Russia annexes a chunk of the Ukraine*. It's ludicrous.

And now, I'm done pointing out the obvious and will leave the thread to its own devices. But if Russia does annex a chunk of the Ukraine and you do come out saying the same old stuff I predicted, I'll have the rather sad satisfaction of being able to say that I predicted it. Induction works. Sometimes, unfortunately.

Self-parody. That's rich, coming from someone who cannot admit that American foreign policy has increased the probability of the very things American strategists claim to oppose. Also rich, coming from someone who refuses to reckon with the actual nature and trajectory of American foreign policy; accusations of "Russophilia" are perfectly analogous to the easy recourse made to attributions of "Zionism" in certain paleocon circles, cheap ad hominems intended to absolve the speaker of any responsibility to examine the substance of foreign policy. Serving as handmaiden to this refusal of argumentation is a bizarre sort of foreign-policy nominalism, eg., Russian annexation of Eastern Ukraine, or the Crimea, would be wrong, wrong, wrong, but it is strictly verboten to examine the relationship of this action with any other actions taken in the region, especially actions taken by American strategists, and it is a veritable act of blasphemy to imply that American foreign policy has been in any way mistaken, naive, confused, wrong, or counterproductive. I also note that accusations of "Russophilia" are a cute diversion, a way of insinuating that the faults lie in the critics of American foreign policy, and of evading examination of the questions of whether, for example, a republican society such as ours is supposed to be can sustain these imperial commitments without altering its substance, and whether, by refusing to countenance any examination of American foreign policy in Eastern Europe, conservative anti-paleos (on this question, at least) are not abetting the very things they claim to despise about the European Union & etc. The answers, of course, are negative, and positive, respectively.

We are right back where Sage and Dmitri Simes place us: in a world order in which other nations practice great-power politics, as they always have done, and the United States practices something else, which something else intermittently entails that other nations are not entitled to the perquisites the US asserts for itself. It is deeply incoherent, perilous, and unexamined. The Cold War is over. Unipolarity is over. Welcome back to history.

Guys, one thing we should all be able to agree on: Russia and the US represent existential threats to one another. That is always and everywhere a very difficult thing for any country to accept. Whatever the right or wrong of a given situation may be, there must never be direct violent confrontation between the two countries. If it does happen, there will be few people left to care about who was right and who was wrong.

"On NPR last week, Jack Matlock, Reagan's former Ambassador to Russia said Reagan would never have embarked on a campaign of encirclement and would have instead, made Russia a partner in the missile defense umbrella."

That's interesting. People differ when they evaluate Reagan, but everyone must admit that under Reagan and Gorbachev we exited the Cold War alive - most of us. That was an inspiring and somewhat surprising accomplishment.

Russian annexation of Eastern Ukraine, or the Crimea, would be wrong, wrong, wrong...

So...would it be wrong or not?

It would be wrong, but not necessarily wrong in a way that would legitimate NATO expansion, or American intervention, or any such thing. Many things in the world are wrong, much more so than annexation of the Crimea ever could be, and yet that wrongness doesn't, of itself, generate the imperative to Do Something. What we're dealing with in situation like this is the utter incoherence of vast numbers of national borders in this world, and the simultaneous prudential necessity - not a necessity equal in importance to natural law, or absolute morality, or any such thing - of preserving them, so as to foreclose upon a sanguinary readjustment. And in this case, the thing to do, on both sides, is precisely nothing: the Ukraine keeps its ambiguous status between East and West, with no one pushing it either way. Westerners have to accept the reality, which is that American foreign policy is complicit in what has happened in Russia since the end of the disastrous Yeltsin administration, as it has adopted the unipolar posture, and expanded its postmodern imperial commitments, in precisely the manner that anyone knowledgeable about Russia could have predicted would reignite Russian nationalism. Kosovo really was the tipping point, although there occurred several minor tipping points between the initial intervention and the declaration of independence, inasmuch as the initial Western intervention clued the Russians in to the fact that America did not want a partnership with Russia so much as to reduce it to just another postmodernist European fantasy-land. And so, there was Putin.

Again, there are plenty of distinctions to be drawn, discriminations to be introduced, but what I sense in my critics is a refusal of the ambiguities and difficulties that cannot be removed from history: Kosovo doesn't have to be independent, but can just muddle through as long as possible as an autonomous district of Serbia; South Ossetia and Abkhazia don't have to be forcibly reincorporated into Georgia, since those peoples and the Georgians do nothing but kill one another and burn each other's property when made to coexist in the same state, but can muddle through with Russian peacekeepers and the status of autonomous districts of Georgia. And so forth. It is is this terrible, simplifying desire to have it out, to imagine that problems can be solved, and to imagine that the apportionment of guilt is transparently easy, that wreaks so much harm. We could sit down with ethno-political maps and spend an afternoon redrawing boundaries, so as to make them rational - and were we to do so, quite a few countries would lose territory, and quite a few would gain it, and one that would lose would be the Ukraine - but that is an unreal, fantasmatic world, one in which we cannot live, and so we must muddle through and attempt to avoid conflict. And that requires change on the part of Americans, and not only Russians. To deny the former is to fetishize things that are not absolute, such as the Soviet borders of the Ukraine, or a NATO alliance past its sell-by date, current American international self-conceptions, & etc. Because these things - the orientation of the Ukraine, for example - are not transcendently important, the thing to do is to muddle through, because that is the nature of historical experience.

Why is it necessary to assume that we 'paleos,' since we're not Russophobes, automatically must therefore be Russophiles? This is akin to the idea that since we're not uncritical supporters of Zionism, we're therefore anti-Semitic. As Maximos states above, the distinctions being drawn here seem overly simplistic.

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