It is difficult to read any standard news source in the U.S. or Britain these days and not be struck by the way in which the current war in Ukraine is portrayed as a war between the forces of light (Liberal Democracy) and the forces of darkness (Autocracy). Sometimes these moral issues appear trivialized, such as Johnathan Haidt and writers for The Financial Times agonizing over lunch whether or not the eggs of Sturgeon come from Russian waters. Yet while pundits like Johnathan Haidt reduce the problems of Liberal Democracy to people spending too much time on social media, the terms “Liberal Democracy” and “Autocracy” are increasingly used in a way that lacks analytical value: Liberal Democracy is associated with “the West”, and with “the West” alone. Autocracy is equivalent to Russia. Criticism of the this narrative is instantly dismissed as Russian disinformation. So too, terms such as propaganda and disinformation have themselves become terms of propaganda: Disinformation and propaganda is what their media do- our media reports the truth.
Yet the analysis proferred is at best shallow. For example, columnist Martin Sandbu embraces Francis Fukuyama’s End of History Thesis, or more accurately, Matthew Yglesias’ interpretation of it. In Sandbu’s bi-polar view of the world, we we may not necessarily be heading for a Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington, but we are nevertheless in a struggle between Russian autocracy and U.S.-European Liberal Democracy. Nor does it get any better when one goes straight to the source to hear from the chief theorist of the triumph of Liberal Democracy, Francis Fukuyama and his acolytes . Elsewhere, in a recent article in Social Europe (jointly published in International Politics and Society), Political Scientist, Sheri Berman accuses an amorphous “anti-war left”-who according to one source she favorably quotes, “don’t know f**k al” about Eastern Europe- of “campism” and “anti-imperialism of idiots”. Berman further accuses this amorphous anti-war left of continuing to engage in “blocked thinking” out of residual sympathy for a now non-existent Soviet Union. Among the other sins they are alleged to have committed, is the citing of Realist scholar, John Mearshimer. The “empirical record”, Berman intones, simply does not support the view that NATO expansion is a causative factor behind Russia’s response. Here again, Fukuyama’s thesis plays a central role in her analysis as well (see here and here ). Yet in actuality, it is people like Fukuyama, Sandbu and Sherman who engage in blocked thinking, and it is that same blocked thinking that has gotten us to this point and now threatens to lead us to even worse outcomes.
In addressing these issues, I will first address the issue of citing Mearshimer and then survey the “empirical record” with respect to NATO expansion and the state of Liberal Democracy.
Let us begin by noting that John Mearshimer is a well known and established scholar in the field of International Relations. As a scholar in International Relations, Mearshimer is a prominent representative of a strain of Realism that emphasizes the balance of power and spheres of influence of great powers. This strain of Realism is not without its critics, among whom I would count myself. Like other Realists of this stripe, Mearshimer is not anti-war. With respect to China, for example, Mearshimer is a hawk. Yet Mearshimer has argued for quite some time that the expansion of NATO would likely provoke a military response from Russia. Quite clearly he has been proven correct. Nevertheless, the implicit argument is that Liberals and Leftists who write on International Relations should not cite conservatives. This strikes me as a dubious premise.
Be that as it may, the argument against NATO expansion is not an inherently conservative argument. The late Stephen Cohen, whose left of center credentials were impeccable and clearly knew “F**k all” about Russia and Eastern Europe made similar points and effectively became persona non-grata to the pro-war Democrats at MSNBC. The argument that Ukraine and Georgia, or any other country have an inherent right to join any military block they choose, though plausible in the abstract is a red herring. Nation States are not isolated billiard balls randomly bouncing off each other and the International System though anarchic is not random either. The argument that sovereignty provides the right for any nation state to join any military alliance that will have it at any time, ignores the role of history, structure and power in International Relations. In this instance, it ignores the historical formation and purpose of NATO. It ignores the driving force of the US desire for hegemony behind NATO expansion. The argument is attractive on face value, but it is specious when examined further. The argument that NATO expansion, by militarizing Europe’s post Cold War Security Structure and pushing nuclear weapons ever closer to Russia’s borders was a provocation is not false simply because Russia has said it. Neither is it true because Russia said it. It is true because in the current world system in which we actually live, pushing military alliances up to a country’s borders is a provocation.
The second question is who exactly is the amorphous anti-war left that has provided justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Having myself been very active in the anti-war left when I was younger, I can attest that the left has quite unfortunately had apologists for Stalin and the Soviet Union in its ranks. I agree, that are a few individuals who have reflexively sought to justify Russia’s invasion and even some on the left who have been equivocal about the issue of Russia’s violation of the UN Charter. Yet I do not see the anti-war left as a whole of making this argument. I made my own position quite clear in my previous entry: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of the UN Charter and should be condemned as a war of aggression. In addition to being illegal, it was also strategically unwise: it has brought about the very state of affairs Russia wished to avoid. That Russia has committed additional war crimes is likely. Yet reports of and allegations of atrocities should not be taken automatically as true. Nor can we disregard reports of Ukrainian violations of the laws of war. In all cases both context and neutral investigation are needed. Moreover, the application of international law, to be effective, must be applied evenly in all cases, and a distinction made between civilian deaths which are an innate tragedy of war, and those civilian deaths, or other violations of the laws of war, which constitute war crimes. As is often the case, US allegations come with an air of unjustified sanctimony and a considerable level of hypocrisy. This does not necessarily mean that they are not true. Nor does it mean that Russian forces should not be held to account. Nor does it mean that every allegation is true.
As to the empirical record of NATO expansion and Liberal Democracy, a full discussion of this record would require a much lengthier analysis. The plans for NATO expansion began as early as 1993 and it was actively promoted by US President Bill Clinton in his first term, leading to the incorporation of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999. 1999 was also the year in which NATO bombed Serbia, in violation of Serbian sovereignty. Multiple other nations, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined in 2002. There may have never been a binding promise to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would never expand, and Boris Yeltsin initially acquiesced, only to later protest. But that does not alter the Russian perception that NATO and the US had engage in a bait and switch when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. Georgian desire for NATO membership certainly increased after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia but the plans were in place before that war (see here for the Russian perspective on that conflict). Discussions about Ukrainian membership date to 2002, though they became more intensive in 2008. In 2010 Ukrainian President Yanukovych, legitimately elected without dispute in this round, decided to pursue a policy of neutrality and was subsequently overthrown in 2014 (since I addressed that issue in my previous post, I will refer interested readers to that post).
It is empirically wrong to claim that Russia’s objections to NATO expansion are simply made up after the fact, or that the NATO expansion only began in response to Russian aggression. Some have claimed the Chechnyan conflicts of 1994 and 1998 (also referenced in my previous post) provide an impetus to NATO expansion. But while criticisms of Russia’s handling of these conflicts has legitimacy these were complex conflicts in which Russia had legitimate security interests. Later US actions in Iraq, which were justified by non-existent ties to Al Quaeda and later proven false claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, led to extensive destruction and loss of civilian life. Similarly, the US response to Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and elsewhere has also resulted in extensive destruction and civilian casualties. Neither US actions nor Russian actions provide justification for the conduct of either side. But one simply cannot claim as a matter of empirical record that Russian objections to NATO expansion are merely post hoc.
With respect to the empirical record of actual Democracy, the Fukuyama crowd is surprisingly selective. They were among the crowd of “Liberal Democrats” who cheered when President Boris Yeltsin bombed his own Parliament, leading at a minimum to several hundred deaths. Following this bombing, Yeltsin resorted to both a sudden shock election followed by a program of shock therapy (for an account of this from the perspective of a Russian dissident who risked much during the Soviet period, see Roy Medvedev’s excellent and detailed account of Post Soviet Russia). Such were the heady years when crash privatization created Oligarchs, a repeat of the conditions of the Great Depression and gangster capitalism as history was declared to be at an end. Let us now turn to Democracy in Ukraine. In 2004, the pro Russian, Oligarch backed candidate Victor Yanukovych was declared the winner of the elections. However, there were credible allegations of voter fraud, hence a second round was held which led to the victory of his opponent, Victor Yushenko. But this revolution, which triumphed at least in part due to the extensive and direct intervention into Ukrainian politics of the US and US backed NGOs, did not lead to a more democratic or less corrupt government. Yanukovych then won the 2010 election as fair and square as anyone wins an election in Ukraine. The 2014-15 Revolution, which overthrew Yanukovych, was accompanied by violence on all sides, including by Ukrainian Fascist Organizations. The relevant point is not that Yanukovych was committed to Democracy, but that the overthrow of a legitimately elected government by extra Parliamentary means, including overt fascist violence is not a case of the triumph of Liberal Democracy. Nor was it a triumph for sovereignty and self determination. In both cases, the Revolutions received extensive, overt propaganda and financial support from the US and EU governments and quasi governmental, pro Western NGOs. In the aftermath of the Revolution, and subsequently, there was extensive violence directed against ethnic Russians which certainly contributed to Civil War in the Donbas between armed pro Russian Ukrainians, backed by Russia and nationalist Ukrainians, backed by the Ukrainian government. This was the context in which Russia annexed Crimea with the apparent backing of the majority, ethnic Russian population of the region. Again, the point is not that the annexation of Crimea was justified. The point is that Democracy requires respect for electoral outcomes-not the overthrow of a government due to an unpopular policy by a mob backed by armed fascist militias.
Successive Ukrainian governments have since engaged in press censorship, extensive discrimination against ethnic Russians, and there have been credible reports of human rights violations on both sides of the line of control in the Donbas region. Ukraine has been noted as one of the most corrupt nations in Europe. Arguably, Ukraine’s Democracy was less imperfect than Russia’s similarly stage managed Democracy, but this is not quite the making of the narrative of a good nascent Liberal Democracy facing down the evil, authoritarian fascist regime. Nor did the similar events in the 2004 Revolution in Georgia lead to a better path, when the stage managed, Georgian Oligarch dominated Democracy of Eduard Shevardnadze was overthrown and similarly replaced by a new stage, managed, oligarch based Democracy. The result again was discontent amongst ethnic Russians and demands on the part of the regions of South Ossetia and in Georgia to secede.
Yet the understanding of the champions of Liberal Democracy about what Liberal Democracy really requires has been at best facile. While Liberal Democracy of sorts has triumphed in the former East Germany by virtue of its incorporation into a reunified democracy, in the Czech Republic and for a while appeared to be on track in Poland and Hungary, there has clearly been significant backsliding in Poland and Hungary towards illiberal Democracy. While Berman and others are of course critical of this backsliding, their thesis ignores the fact that Poland has probably been Ukraine’s strongest advocate. It ignores the lack of effective Democracy and respect for ethnic rights in NATO member Turkey or Turkey’s own expansionist and at times pro-Islamicist program. Of course, outside of NATO we should take note of the complete lack of Liberal Democracy in Saudi Arabia and its extensive war in Yemen. We can take note of the lack of human rights for Palestinians by selectively Liberal Democratic Israel or continued military rule in Egypt. My list is illustrative-not exhaustive.
It is the Fukuyama crowd, the Neo-Cons, and people like Biden, Clinton and even Obama who have engaged in reflexive blocked thinking in pursuing Cold War strategies, after the end of the Cold War. The old “blocked thinking” of the American right and militarists never ended. In spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsequent transformation, the US chose to pursue a militarized, cold war strategy of the continuation of containment, aimed directly at Russia. It is exactly this kind of militarism, which precludes any possibility of the pursuit of social democratic policies that has at a minimum contributed to the current predicament. And it is this same kind of blind support for US militarism which now threatens to lead us to a dangerous escalation of the current conflict.