Will American exceptionalism and its Ukrainian failure engender the more classic European relationship with Russia? Can Europe move from a Batman comic-book to return to “Je t’aime — Moi non plus”: a genuine love-hate affair between Europe and Russia, with the US as a jealous voyeur?
THE PAST: REAGAN AND EMERGING BATMAN-POLITICS
A lot of European military and politicians are frowning at the recent warmongering by NATO general Breedlove and Secretary General Stoltenberg, whose words appear to convey a startling dissonance with the reality on the ground and a nostalgia for Cold War-type assessments.
NATO has not left it to words alone, however, and it baffles the imagination what rational reasons can justify the prancing of NATO troops at a mere 300 meters of the Estonian-Russian border, in the middle of a Russian speaking Estonian city. In the midst of the war-drums, there are voices going up for alternatives to NATO’s US neo-con-inspired anti-Russia stand.
We are used to the Cold War as a term that coincided with a weapons’ race (including the most worrisome nuclear deterrent) and a number of real or perceived proxy-wars in Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan and Central & Latin America. There was a real concrete wall between two worlds and two conflicting ideologies, a level of secrecy and institutional distrust that, to Westerners, found anchored images in the Kremlin walls and the May 1 Parade on Red Square. The rise of TV led to a Western culture that rewarded smiling and open-faced, transparent Western politicians, whereas the serious, nigh-on grumpy countenance of USSR leaders added to the level of unfamiliarity and distrust. Interaction between the two worlds was highly restricted, to the extent that anyone who was able to visit and sit down at a Russian family’s kitchen table would come away surprised at the generous humanity and genuine warmth of these reticent yet boisterous people. These intercultural experiences, reserved for the few who could afford the travel and speak the language, provided a dissonance with the existing Cold War rhetoric and undergirded European resistance to various new waves of armaments, in particular during the early Reagan years. There was a constant, intellectual and mostly academic minority, a part of Europe that resisted being led into a two-dimensional ideological world. This part of Europe welcomed and celebrated a new Kremlin leader who appeared to open the heavy curtain, with whom even the reviled right-wing Thatcher ‘could do business’, and whose smile was genuine, who could hold eye contact and could hence also please the cameras.
The point of all this is that Europe did not allow the US to fully define its relationship with the USSR in pure good and evil terms. American McCarthyism had pushed the US much further on the opposite axis from the USSR’s totalitarian communism, to the extent that socialism is a curse word in the US still today. Europe’s various countries had dissipated the threat of full-blown communism by repeated swings of socialist movements, and thereby found themselves in a position more open to discourse and home to a more continuous diplomatic interaction with their Soviet counterparts.
Reagan’s election campaign dismissed President Carter as weak in light of the USSR’s Afghanistan invasion and called the USSR the evil empire. Once elected, his insistence on putting nuclear ballistic Pershing-2 missiles on the European continent jeopardized the detente that European diplomats had worked hard to achieve, and sparked populous anti-nuclear demonstrations across Europe. Reagan was further taken by surprise by a human-like European Russian who delighted Europe and seemed to give even the Hollywood actor president a run for his PR money. For most of his presidency, Reagan was lagging a few steps behind Gorbachev, a position never more glaring than at his stunning refusal (due to his demented clinging to a Star Wars anti-nuclear shield dream) to agree to Gorbachev’s audacious proposal at the Reykyavik summit for complete nuclear disarmament. In spite of this, during Bush Sr’s presidency, the Berlin wall came down, Germany was reunited and Europe basked in the light of a new era. More than anything, this was seen as a joint accomplishment of East and West, crowned by a full-fledged, USSR-supported alliance against Sadam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion. In reality this era was initiated by Gorbachev, quickly embraced by Europe, with the American diplomatic corps, Pentagon, NSA and CIA standing by in bewilderment. Their perplexed state is comically enshrined by Bush Sr’s blurred vision of the future during his failed re-election campaign: “A thousand points of light”.
Fast forward to the Clinton years, when the Republican party turned inward and started the process of sainthood for Ronald Reagan. History was re-invented to re-cast the dissolution of the USSR as an American victory, and with the speed of a breeding rabbit and its seed belonging to both Democratic and Republican parties the new American world order ideology was hatched. Whereas the global unipower was somehow as yet disguised during the Clinton years and ideological rhetoric toned down or not yet invented, the structure for pushing the American form of democracy through funding civil society movements became entrenched as a pillar of USAID funding. By transferring development aid into US State Department control, the US dismissed all pretense of USAID as purely humanitarian, non-political outreach and geared up to fund color revolutions.
EU member states — in particular Germany — blundered in their hasty recognition of various states’ independence declarations at the dissolution of Yugoslavia, leading to a bloody impasse that handed a convenient raison d’etre to NATO. For the next number of years, until and mostly including the Bush Jr Iraq war fiasco, NATO and US were ensured of Europe’s allegiance to the newly forming American hegemony. The EU chose rapid enlargement over more cohesion, leading to copying joint foreign policy from Washington instead of forming its own. The US, by pushing EU enlargement, fanning insecurities and financing far-right parties inside the newly admitted EU states, ensured backing for its foreign policy on the east end of Europe (Poland & Baltics & others), while maintaining its loyal poodles on the west end (UK/Benelux), and soon derisively dubbing the pesky rest ‘the old Europe’. The resulting EU foreign policy stalemate gave the US the default position, and the EU was kept in line.
The Present: Ukraine: the apex of US-EU’s joint Russia foreign policy
Three things are striking when we look at the Ukraine-related events in 2014.
First, following Russia’s orchestrated but reactionary transition of Crimea to the Russian Federation, Western nations reacted aghast, denouncing this event as an annexation and an act of Russian aggression, a breach of the Budapest Treaty. There was political unity between Europe and US on this denunciation on all fronts. Russia’s valid argument to juxtapose the Kosovo precedent against the Budapest treaty and the UN right for self-determination was summarily dismissed. Yet the West’s disproportionate reaction to a bloodless, ‘silk’ Crimean transition revealed the face of its own thwarted ambition.
Second, Western media unified across three continents (with silent Asia as the noteworthy exception) and, in the process, chose to simplify and dumb down the issues into binary mode. Following a worrisome pattern of only the last 15 years, even previously somewhat respected news journals (note The Economist’s baffling self-debasement) featured the Russian leader as the new Hitler — something which had never been done with previous Soviet leaders but appeared to be a recent tactic practised with Sadam Hussein and Khadafi. These media willfully ignored in-depth analysis of the Kiev ministers, refused to question the hasty approval by Western governments of the overthrow of a democratically elected president, neglected to push for an independent investigation into the nature of the Maidan snipers or the subsequent May 2 organized massacre of pro-Russian protesters in Odessa, prematurely jumped to a conclusion over the MH17 crash and quietly acquiesced in the same MH17 investigation’s demise when the Kiev regime, one of the key suspects, was handed veto power over the investigation and its communication.
Third, all subsequent actions by any of the agents in the Ukraine conflict were defined solely, and without a critical look at all facts presented, within the same extremely simplified binary mode that classified the Kiev government as the good guys (Batman=US/EU and Robin=Ukraine), and the Kremlin with its demonized master as the evil empire (choose your favorite villain here).
NATO, Western government politicians and media followed a perfectly straight line blaming Russia, protecting the Kiev government and near-nullifying or ostracising dissent. The millions of people in the Donbass area were an ignored mass, supposedly mere pawns of the Kremlin’s territorial grab while the facts showed an exponential growth of dissent and resistance from April through December 2014 which mirrored increasing Kiev bombardments and continues to this day.
What is shocking about this self-imposed ideological straight-jacket? Four things: the extent of uniformity, the timeline of this phenomenon, its comic-book like content and its modus operandi.
Uniformity: few journalists or Russia/Slavic scholars can recall the kind of uniformity from Los Angeles to Warsaw (including Canberra and Ottawa who seem to want to make up for their peripheral importance by hyperbolic speeches) over and against the massive amount of sources and videotaped events. Uniformity was such that Russian arguments were not even being aired, let alone rebutted. The few academics that noted a voice of discord were actively shunned; no public debate was invited on the topic. So widespread and uniform was the condemnation that even in press circles (i.e. CBC in Canada) people that dared voice a different opinion were scoffed at — but never even engaged in argument. As a notable exception to the rule, a German foreign policy statement stood alone in that it showed a point-by-point rebuttal of the Russian position. Its main argument, denouncing Russia’s analysis of the Kosovo precedent, was unconvincing. Yet the German statement was the exception in that it showed respect to the Russian position. In general there appeared to be a tacit intercontinental agreement not to even engage the arguments. This level of self-censure is unprecedented in Western history crossing three continents, possibly with the exception of WWII. If one notes how belligerent NATO and US politicians were sounding with little or no press critique, WWIII really appears just around the corner. Such vehement public comments and unbridled demonization were scant even during the Cold War.
Timeline: reporting in this unisonic refrain lasted all of 11 months — through to the Merkel peace initiative — and only started to falter due to a rapidly growing German divergence of public opinion. The timeline in and of itself is not significant if the number of events that dot these 11 months are not taken into account. Apart from the big events that were mentioned above, Western media willfully ignored Kiev’s tactic of bombing residential areas by plane, by grossly inaccurate artillery fire, by ballistic missiles, cluster bombs and even phosphor bombs. There is no factual doubt at all that Kiev started to bomb indiscriminately for at least 2 months before a refurbished rebel force were able to adequately respond. How can a morally superior West which is out to further democracy defend such inhuman means to an end? How can the media choose to ignore these reports simply because they do not come from a .ua account? Aside from German public opinion, in some other European countries, by the end of 2014 some (as yet few) editorial boards were waking up to how social networks contain verifiable sources and went on to hire Russian-speaking support staff in that area, resulting in more weight given to alternate points of view. The first mild scorn appeared at Jen Psaki’s dodging, or at the 22nd reported invasion of the Russian army by Yatsenyuk. Hungary’s leading government party, Greece’s newly elected government and Germany’s businesses all were bringing their increasing voices to bear on the German government. German intelligence is heavily invested in analyzing Russian and Ukrainian social media reports, and it was likely the sober Colonel Cassad blog analysis of the Debaltsevo debacle that spurned Merkel into action.
Content: many of us who followed this conflict day to day were just wondering whether we are really so old that we are alone in noticing the crazy statements these Western statesmen were spouting. Most of us are only in our forties or fifties, yet we have to endure John Kerry — easily 15 years older — utter publicly embarrassing stupidities that would get him fired if he were working for a reputable multinational. Yatsenyuk spewing idiocy on the invasion of Germany and speaking of Eastern Ukrainians as subhumans; Timoshenko — the West’s supposed darling — talking about ‘nuking’ the same 7 million inhabitants of her own Ukraine; Breedlove and Poroshenko trying to outdo each other in the thousands of Russian soldiers they have counted on Ukrainian soil, US Senator Jim Inhofe advocating arms to Ukraine with 2008 picture proofs of a Russian invasion, US ambassador Taft tweeting to prove yet another Russian incursion with WW1 picture quality. This degrading level of discourse is not just a minor blip in professional competency; it really does make any of us with international exposure wonder whether we stumbled into a kindergarten.
Modus Operandi: The way in which this binary relationship model is being sold is new, but has been introduced to us before in both the marketing world and in US domestic politics. Beaujolais, Heineken and Fox News have shown that one can successfully sell a qualitatively inferior product while focusing on volume messaging, packaging and process instead of content. On a public level this war is an information war, where facts are superfluous. If anything, the Ukraine ministry of Truth (RIP George Orwell, there really is such a thing now) and its CIA leaders are aware that this war is fought in the social media, with volume, sound- and video-bites and memes — most definitely not with facts or truth. The US’s fact-anaemic Fox news has finally made its international debut as a fierce Pentagon weapon: Jen Psaki’s referral for journalists to check social media for evidence was not a blooper — it conveyed actual US State Department strategy. The US has ample non-grainy satellite video evidence of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and has been invited publicly by Russia to share this evidence. They choose not to and instead flood the cybergates with gibberish, lies, half-truths and doodles.
Facts are a nuisance when you write a comic book, especially when these facts are more complex, and nuance is anathema. You can only fit so many words into a text balloon — but facts are nevertheless starting to rear their heads. Germany’s political elite is shaking their head at Breedlove’s statements: “Is this guy for real?” When your ally is actively questioning your sanity — and the sober Germans should — the US’s comic-book proposal for its relationship with Russia is faltering. The German question is equal to a concerned colleague tapping the nerdy Batman-obsessed friend on the shoulder and saying: “But you know it’s not real, right?” In this sorry and scary case, however, the nerd holds the nukes and believes it’s ever so real.
The Future with Russia: Back to the Past
Faced with an American leviathan that has spun its own surreality around the globe, the other nations have to be careful not to be hit by either a willful or involuntary twirl of the unpredictable animal’s tail. The monster is too big to be put on a leash, will get terribly offended when ignored, yet EU nations should now realize that its claws are too sharp to allow tight hugs.
The USA has lost its ability to define international relations soberly and carefully, and is determined to bring their form of democracy to countries at a time of their choosing. Their past failures in most of the wars since WWII, and the most recent lessons of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, today Ukraine and tomorrow Iran are not making a dent in their delusion. War games in the Baltics and — by proxy — through the coup in Ukraine are tantamount to a droopy teenager smoking a joint in a hay barn. Germans and Russians have lost a lot of their own barns and know that a lot of it came from their own stupid mistakes. They look at the American teenager in their barn with incredulity, especially when he says: “It’s all right, it’s all under control.”
Somehow, the world is looking at President Obama and hoping that at least he is in control, he will reign in the crazies, yet Obama’s foreign policy pattern cannot be disassociated from Kerry’s recent bumbles or from the past twenty years: it is on a mere continuum since Reagan or even Eisenhower. The USA, by insisting on being the exceptionalist nation, the indispensable nation with 1000 military bases around the globe and the world’s only real superpower, is by its size, youthful overconfidence and ideology bound to define power relationships in binary terms and measure democratic change in years, not in decennia. To the American establishment in past and future, Batman is real.
The Chinese ambassador to Brussels admonished the US and EU to drop the ‘zero-sum-game’ with Russia. Similarly, some European military leaders point out the American inability to deal with a non-binary relationship and advocate reviving the Europe-Russia axis by fostering much more diplomatic interaction on a bilateral level. Europe’s past relationship with Russia (and here the reference is to the relationship prior to the 20th century) was one aptly described by the French wording: “Je ‘t aime, Moi non plus” (I love you — neither do I”). Even Facebook has a phrase for it: “It’s complicated”.
In a complicated relationship, giving respect and listening is key. Time is needed to study nuance, to personalize relationships, not skimp on history or dossier knowledge, not jump to conclusions but draw reality out of our binary fantasy I-pads. There is much to be said for the next Minsk peace conference to be held around a Belarusian kitchen table, with a hearty Ukrainian borsht for the late night hours. Painting each others’ leaders in caricatures should be a Saturday Night sideshow, not the daily newsreel.
If Europe can continue to take the lead in rediscovering an adult and respectful relationship with Russia, it will have the Americans as jealous voyeurs, muttering things like Victoria Nuland’s dismissive remark: “Merkel’s Moscow thing”. Yet it is exactly this bilateral and complicated “Moscow thing” that will allow further diffusion of the Ukrainian war, increase Ukrainians’ chances for a decent life, and allow the rest of Europe and Russia to sleep soundly again without worrying about a nerdy American teenager starting a nuclear barn fire.
Written by Jos Vanhee