Published 29-05-2013, 15:15
Research Fellow of The American University in Moscow
It is a tall order to explain in a single article why and how the Neoconservative movement has captured the high ground in the American foreign policy establishment so that its anti-Kremlin and, more broadly, anti-Russian propaganda is repeated daily by the mass media with barely a peep of protest in the land. A book is the more appropriate medium for the purpose. Accordingly what I propose to do here is to present some key talking points which distil arguments I have made in more complete and substantiated form elsewhere.¹
While the Neoconservative label is today most commonly associated in the public mind with Republicans and with an aggressive, militarized pursuit of American foreign policy objectives across the globe, Russia was a key factor shaping the Neoconservative movement from the very beginning. The movement was born in the late 1970s, early 1980s among alienated former Leftists who were disillusioned with Soviet Communism and ardently criticized the Realpolitik policy of détente with the USSR begun by President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and continued under Gerald Ford. They rejected merely managing relations with the Communist homeland and called instead for action to overturn Communism and bring freedom to the ‘captive nations’ of Eastern Europe.
The essence of their thinking was idealist and values- as opposed to interests-based. Thus, they were able to connect with traditional currents of American foreign policy thinking going back to the Founding Fathers. The movement found supporters among mainstream Democrats and Republicans who considered Realpolitik to be un-American and were skeptical about the practical benefits of détente.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 touched off a triumphalist mood in America at large, where the negotiated understandings between Reagan and Gorbachev and the Kremlin’s freely chosen decision to part with empire were barely understood in the public, while the political class scrambled to claim the honors of ‘victory.’ The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was conflated with the liberation of Eastern Europe and was viewed as further vindication of the Reagan policy of aggressive democracy promotion.
The first major work of political science to explain what was happening in historical-philosophical terms and to set out roadmaps for the future of a post-Cold War world began as a tentative essay (1989) brought to print by the Neoconservative publisher Irving Kristol. Francis Fukuyama then expanded his thesis into the brilliant book The End of History (1992), which harnessed the new triumphalism to Neoconservative principles with their Positivist certitude about mankind’s eventual destiny. In this form, the body of thinking breached the American political divide and became common property. In a world where, it was now asserted, only democratically governed nations can live in peace, America’s security is equated with the removal of all vestiges of autocracy and authoritarianism around the globe.
With Europe in safe hands at the end of the 1990s, the Neocons turned their attention to the Middle East, and calls went out to resume unfinished business of regime change in Iraq, which, it was said, would bring human progress and freedoms to the hapless region.
Meanwhile, the latent Russophobe prejudices of the Neoconservatives and their fellow-thinkers lay dormant. To be sure, U.S. foreign policy objectives diverged from those of the Russian Federation already as early as 1994, when Washington quietly overlooked Russia’s expectation of an invitation to join NATO and chose instead to extend the Alliance to the former subject member states of the Warsaw Pact without its founder and leading spirit. Russia was in economic disarray and politically feeble under Boris Yeltsin, so that its interests and demands barely figured in American consciousness. Indeed following the Russian default of 1998, the American establishment assumed its erstwhile foe was finished as a geopolitical force and took interest in Russia only insofar as its possible disintegration would pose security issues across Eurasia arising from its nuclear arsenal.
The economic turnaround which began soon after the election of President Vladimir Putin and the step-by-step consolidation of the Kremlin’s position as the dominant political force in the country was as unwelcome in the United States as it was unanticipated. Nonetheless, in the period immediately following 9/11, there was a tangible warming of state-to-state relations due to the spontaneous and substantial assistance which Russia provided by opening its backyard, Central Asia, to American bases in support of the planned U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan to overturn the Taliban.
To be sure, the seeming rapport of the two presidents did not last long. George Bush failed to reciprocate in kind and quashed the Russians’ hopes for a new security arrangement in Europe bringing them in from the cold. Instead the United States proceeded unilaterally to scrap the ABM Treaty while NATO expansion proceeded apace, moving into the Baltics, i.e. into former Soviet space, violating yet again commitments made to Gorbachev not to take advantage of the Russian withdrawal and compromise its security.
Against this background as a spurned suitor, it is not surprising that Russia joined the NATO troika of Belgium, France and Germany in vociferously objecting to the coming US invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Their position on the UN Security Council denied the US the cover of operating under international law which it sought for its planned invasion in pursuit of regime change, necessitating resort to a less than convincing ‘coalition of the willing.’ The unbridled unilateralism which had taken hold of US foreign policy set the stage for the country’s shame and loss of credibility globally when its invasion was followed by a scandal-beleaguered and largely unsuccessful occupation of Iraq.
American fury at perceived French perfidy from before the launch of the attack on Saddam Hussein, the boycott of French cheeses and wines, the renaming of French fries, was intense but quickly dissipated when Jacques Chirac backtracked and made his peace with Washington. In the case of Russia, however, the perceived insubordination to the world’s pecking order, the moral posturing before a global audience of a revisionist power, incited a long-lasting and deep current of resentment in the American foreign policy establishment. Neocons, who had been the cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s Iraqi invasion in the first place, now took the lead in seeking retaliation. Russia would be cast as a recidivist tyrannical state, with which democracies could not find, by definition, find common action.
A key document in the emerging propaganda war was the publication in September 2004 of an Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union and NATO authored by Robert Kagan and William Kristol and appearing on the letterhead of the Project for the New American Century, the main vehicle of Neocon thinking dating from the late 1990s. Nominally occasioned by the Beslan tragedy and the Kremlin’s own war on terrorism at home, the thrust of the Open Letter was an indictment of the Putin regime, which was castigated for backsliding from the mythical democratic achievements of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and for an imperial revival in Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors. Among the signatories from the Republican Right, besides the letter’s authors, Kagan and Kristol, we find here the intellectual fathers of the Iraqi campaign Randy Scheunemann and Francis Fukuyama, as well as front-running politician and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain. And there is an equally important contingent of Democratic politicians, diplomats and thinkers who held high office in the Clinton administration and/or have since then been prominent in the administration of Barack Obama: Joe Biden, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Richard Morningstar, Ronald Asmus, Ivo Daalder, Stephen Sestanovich and Michael McFaul. In addition, for a letter which was intended to highlight the international dimension of the condemnation of Russia, we find here such prominent and respected freedom fighters as Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic; Vytautas Landsbergis of Lithuania; Lech Walesa, Bronislaw Geremek and Radek Sikorski of Poland. And there are the leading Western European politicians Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg of Germany; Bernard Kouchner of France; and Carl Bildt of Sweden.
Over the course of the nine years since then, this formula of bipartisan United States participation, big name East European freedom fighters, and heavy weight West Europeans has been used with great success by the Neoconservative intellectual leadership to organize highly mediatized anti-Kremlin events straight up to the present day. Indeed, over time, many of the same names figure in their public petitions or meetings. The most recent iteration was the gathering in Washington on 4 March 2013, the anniversary of Russia’s last presidential elections, to promote the notion of ‘no business as usual’ with a RF Government whose election they publicly discredit. The venue, a Senate office building, and the main hosts, the US-Government funded ‘NGO’ Freedom House, were well calculated to provide a bipartisan halo over the event, while the co-sponsors, the Foreign Policy Initiative, is a successor organization to the PNAC, with the same founders, Kagan and Kristol. In this case, the role of senior West European statesman was played by Guy Verhofstadt, chairman of the ALDE (neo)-Liberal bloc in the European Parliament and a strong ally of the Magnitsky Bill authors and supporters who otherwise were participants. The role of Eastern freedom fighters was assumed by a delegation from Moscow including Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian premier and leader in the PARNAS opposition group that is one of ALDE’s local partners in Russia.
In between 2004 and 2013, there have been a series of public relations blows directed against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Government that have regularly punctuated the decade, keeping the issues fresh in the eyes of media and the general public in the United States. These moments may be associated with notable Russian acts of insubordination to American global hegemony. The Neocon toolkit is various, including release to the media of fraudulent documents purporting to show the support of respected foreign politicians for what is denigration of the Kremlin.
One such case is worthy of note because it was carried in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, America’s most prestigious and widely read journal in the field. The nominal author of the article ‘Containing Russia’ is the leader of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, though textual analysis makes plain what the magazine’s editors surely knew at the time: that it was ghostwritten by persons with a turn of mind that is inconceivable in someone of Tymoshenko’s education and life experience. The piece threw every accusation about Russian villainy, corruption and degradation from the Neocon handbook at Mr. Putin’s Kremlin. And the article just happened to appear several months after Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary speech at the Munich Security Conference of February 2007, in which he delivered his discursive and extemporaneous critique of America’s policies towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, an address that left its American attendees, including Senator John McCain, dumbfounded by its frankness and severity.
A new major anti-Kremlin offensive came in the wake of the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008, during which American-Russian relations hit a low point not seen since the worst days of the Cold War. Here, Democrats and Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder in their condemnation, with Russian military action denounced first as wanton aggression and then, as the facts of the casus belli became better known in the media, for excessive use of force against a puny foe. American media were closed to counter arguments in defense of the Russian side, apart from the perplexed coverage of their favorite Met conductor Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky in a concert held in Southern Ossetia shortly after its liberation by Russian forces. Among the loudest denouncers of Russia was one of the cohort of West European sympathizers of the Neocons whom I cited in 2004, Carl Bildt. The Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a memorable sound bite for the press, comparing the Russian entry into Georgian territory with Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland.
Still another wave of Neocon inspired and/or led anti-Russian propaganda followed President Obama’s launch of the ‘re-set’ policy and his constructive summit with President Dmitry Medvedev in London in April 2009. An extraordinary item from this campaign was the Open Letter to President Obama first published in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 16 July 2009 but soon picked up and carried by American newspapers of record. The letter was signed by Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and the others from among well-known thinkers and former statesmen who were behind the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination in the late 1980s.
This appeal to the American President to ensure greater U.S. attention to the security of their region had a number of explicitly Russophobe points, including insistence that Russia’s policy towards their countries is revisionist and threatening. Russia was said to be using overt and covert economic warfare in pursuit of its aims. American political support was requested to further measures to diversify European energy supplies away from Russia. The additional strengthening of NATO through the prepositioning of forces and materiel in the East European region was called for, as well as the implementation of the long planned anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The text of the Open Letter, like the previously cited 2007 article by Tymoshenko, reveals a perspective coming from outside the region. Indeed, as was revealed by the journal The National Interest (The Nixon Center), the document had been written by Western, presumably American ghostwriters commissioned for this purpose by the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, which was at the time headed by Robert Kagan’s comrade-in-arms Ron Asmus. This genesis was intentionally concealed at the time of the document’s release to journalists so that mainstream media carried it bona fide and the American public received it as a cri de coeur of freedom fighters.
I mention these dirty tricks to highlight the skills and the determination of the intellectual leaders of the Neoconservative movement to achieve and perpetuate their hold on the American psyche for the purpose of de-legitimizing and countering the only major world power publicly at odds with America’s global leadership. Their overriding operating principle is familiar- ‘the end justifies the means’ - handed down from the Cold War epoch. The use of double standards against Russia which underlies the basic concept of the Magnitsky Act as well as of most criticism of Kremlin policies advanced in the media is among the more innocent tools in their inventory. Moreover, these defenders of the Neoconservative high ground brandish their academic credentials as doctors of political science and humanities to enhance their authority, luring their would be debating partners into what is a hopeless poker match with card cheats.
The individual Neocon thinkers whom I have cited above are merely the most visible and egregious offenders against truth. Despite fine words about independence of spirit, America’s universities and the intellectual agora were swept up by Neoconservative principles and triumphalism from the 1990s along with the general public. In America’s temples of learning, a politically engaged professorate, the legacy of the 1960s revolution in American higher education, turned area studies away from fact-based knowledge of the world and its past and present into something more relevant: lending a hand to teleological processes guiding the world to its post-history destiny. Scholars in the field have recently complained about this trend in Latin American Studies, which is turning out aspiring diplomats, journalists, and bankers who possess poor skills for their future trade but a lot of commitment to pro-democracy movements. It is equally true for the training of an entire generation of specialists on Eastern Europe and Russia which took over the leading U.S. diplomatic posts, think tanks and university professorships in the first decade of the new millennium. Even cursory perusal of the public lectures and conferences on present-day Russia featured at major American universities reveals them to be active platforms for Russia’s opposition, including most recently the so-called ‘non-systemic opposition’ with its borderline sedition and sympathy for a violent overthrow of the Putin government.
During the 2012 American presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney made what was widely lampooned as a serious gaffe when he remarked that Russia is America's number one geopolitical opponent, or, as the press rushed to clarify in plain English, number one enemy. In fact his apt observation erred only in failing to pay obeisance to political correctness. There can be no denying that ever since it registered its strong opposition to American plans to invade Iraq in 2003, Russia has fairly regularly been putting a spanner in the works, obstructing U.S.-led initiatives to remake the world in its image. The very latest case has been over the conflict in Syria, which is quickly becoming the Spanish Civil War of our day.
Need it be this way? Of course not!
However, for a more constructive management of world affairs to arrive, for the related transaction costs to be lowered to tolerable levels and for the risk of accidental war between the world powers to be finally eliminated, the United States will have to take the first steps in reassessing and recalibrating its approach to Russia. This is so because Russia’s behavior has been and remains largely reactive, responding to America’s stubborn refusal to takes its legitimate security concerns into account and to forge a new security structure in Europe and the world which includes Russia as a genuine partner in building consensus.
But for all of this to happen, a first and essential step is for men of good will in the United States to face up to the grip which the Neoconservative thinking has had on the country’s foreign policy establishment these past 20 years, and reopen to full-blooded public debate the question of what Russia today is all about and how to deal productively with the country.
¹See Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12