The political science community in the United States has divided opinions on Iran, divided opinions on China, but is lined up like so many ducks in a row in its (mis)understanding of Russia. In what follows, a contrarian speaks out against the latest wrong-minded take on Putin’s political agenda in Foreign Affairs magazine…..
Rebuttal: “The End of the ‘Reset’. Why Putin’s Re-Election Means Turbulence Ahead” by Andrew C. Kuchins, Foreign Affairs, March 1, 2012
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
In earlier essays posted on this portal nearly a year ago, I tentatively congratulated Gideon Rose, the new Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, America’s most widely read and influential journal in the field, for making a break with the ancien régime of his predecessor, James F. Hogue, Jr., who during his 18 year tenure never moved an inch from the views showcased in the journal during the height of the Cold War, notwithstanding the collapse of Communism in 1992, the year he took over. Here was a case where a thousand flowers could have bloomed and never did.
Sharp tongued academics used to say of Foreign Affairs magazine that it covered the waterfront of American thinking on international relations from A to B. Under Rose’s stewardship, I can state confidently that the views expressed there run at least into M, maybe to P, meaning that a very large swathe of responsible opinion, for and against official Washington policy, gets aired there. The latest March-April 2012 print issue may be held up as an exemplar of thought-provoking essays in which the advocates of opposing positions are equally weighted qualitatively, something which was rarely the case under Hogue, when positions at variance with Washington orthodoxy were very often set out either weakly or by spokesmen who themselves were ‘damaged goods.’
Moreover, Gideon Rose has used the technical (and political) opportunities presented by a weekly on-line edition (‘This Week in Foreign Affairs’) to offer readers something resembling round tables. And the weekly format allows FA to be much more nimble in bringing to its readership important insights into fast breaking world developments, far better than the bimonthly print edition. It enjoys ‘political’ advantages, because it is by nature ephemeral and a less prestigious platform than the print magazine, so it can afford to air heterodox views and do no harm to the editors’ privileged links to the powers that be in Washington, the lifeblood connection to its worldwide audience.
This noteworthy development of exploiting online possibilities has applied to such topical and important issues as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the feasibility, even the wisdom of a military strike by Israel, by the United States, by the two in tandem. It has also applied to the People’s Republic of China, with featured quasi-debates over the prospects for internationalizing the yuan, over the timetable for China’s bypassing the United States in economic and political power, over managing the changing pecking order in international affairs coming out of Rising Asia.
At the same time, in Foreign Affairs under the new management of Gideon Rose, the antipathy to Russia of his predecessor has not been modified in any significant way. On March 1st, in the online edition, we got yet another demonstration of how Russia is a case where there is only one line of interpretation possible, the most unsympathetic and scare-mongering.
The FA article by Andrew Kuchins which I shall rebut in what follows deals with a policy paper entitled “Russia in a Changing World” published in the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti on February 27th by candidate for the Russian presidency Vladimir Putin. It was the last in a series of 7 such papers which Putin devoted to the major threats and opportunities which an incoming Russian presidential administration will have to face in the coming 6 years and beyond.
Previous articles dealt with the economy, social welfare, relations between state and society, and the like. In each, the author presented his list of challenges and then his specific policies to deal with them, often in great detail. The total effort came to something like 150 pages. Of this, the article devoted to foreign policy accounts for around 10%.
It is good that Foreign Affairs decided to brief its readers on the foreign policy paper from Putin in a timely way, because the paper is important: this was the most authoritative, most thoughtful and comprehensive statement of Russian foreign policy thinking in several years and it has been published over the name of the man who will have primary responsibility for implementing it in the years to come. And yet it is shameful that the Editor deemed it acceptable to present only one view of Putin’s policy statement, a very smug view that is contra from the word ‘go.’
Thesis and Rebuttal
Kuchin’s ‘analysis’ of the Putin foreign policy paper is big on emotion and small on cool analysis. It could easily have been written without ever opening the paper. Indeed, in his 3 pages of text Kuchins never engages the Russian leader intellectually, never responds directly to his reasoning. Kuchin believes he says it all when he castigates Putin for a ‘brash posture toward Washington,’ as if being dismissive were enough to close the issue of dealing with the pest in the Kremlin.
Kuchin’s assertion that there is no strategy to Putin’s policy paper, only a rehash of anti-American grievances is patently wrong. As one should expect to see in any paper dealing with international relations, Putin works at three levels. One is the overarching philosophical concept for conducting foreign relations: in his case it is the realist school, identifying and serving Russia’s national interests in a methodical way, with heavy reliance on the major instances of international order and coordination, in particular, working through the UN Security Council, the G8, the G20, the BRIC template of negotiations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is ensuring that the principles of nuclear deterrence which brought the world more than 50 years of peace among the major powers, namely the offsetting of strategic offensive and defensive weapons systems, is sustained - hence the Russian opposition to the American missile defense program as currently being implemented. And, it is defending the Westphalian principles of state sovereignty and noninterference in the domestic affairs of nation states, weighing in against the myriad humanitarian interventions that have been launched under American initiative and often ended badly, as in the most recent case of Libya.
The second level entails prioritizing the world’s regions for the operation of Russian diplomacy. This Putin clearly does by addressing the challenges of working with the Asia Pacific region, China in particular; with America; and with Europe, in that order. Putin sets out the pending issues relative to each area in a matter-of-fact manner, highlighting achievements but not overlooking problem areas and acknowledging interests at variance.
And the third level in Putin’s formulation of his foreign policy is dealing with contingencies. Here we find the world’s hot spots, the very concrete issues in great contention today, including Iran and its nuclear program, Afghanistan, and Syria. Strategy necessarily cedes place to tactics at this level.
Kuchins deals with none of this. Instead he treats us to his own offhand remarks on what he sees as the domestic political situation in Russia during the presidential race that gave rise to a Putin-led anti-American campaign of which the policy paper of February 27th is, in his view, part and parcel. And so we get a few lines from him on the anti-Putin street demonstrations, the exchange of pleasantries with Hillary Clinton in early December over her allegation that the Duma elections were ‘flawed,’ the frosty reception given the incoming American Ambassador Michael McFaul. These are tied together with one out of the many different strands in Putin’s policy paper, his criticism of American meddling in Russian domestic affairs, of its intended ‘political engineering,’ as Putin put it. Kuchins’ point is that the Kremlin is set on exploiting anti-Americanism at a time when it is being challenged domestically.
Kuchins acts as if he were preaching to the choir, as if the validity of the aforementioned recitals was self-evident. I beg to differ.
With respect to American intervention in the Russian political process, the record is plain for all to see. It is no secret anymore that the NGO watchdog Golos which opened the denunciations of the December Duma elections was US-financed, that the candidates from the so-called Liberals, including Boris Nemtsov of PARNAS and Gregory Yavlinsky of Yabloko long received both moral and financial encouragement from the United States. The Carnegie Center Moscow, where Kuchins served as Director for several years, has been a hearth of opposition flirting with sedition, and the anti-Putin article by one of its senior officers, Lilia Shevtsova, which Foreign Affairs published last autumn possibly crossed the red line when the author gave us her apocalyptic fears (hopes?) over the coming revolution.
Kuchins berates the Kremlin for its hostile welcome to the incoming US Ambassador McFaul, saying it was an affront to President Obama, for whom McFaul was a close adviser before his diplomatic posting. But as viewed from the Kremlin, McFaul’s appointment was in effect an affront to them, given his past involvement in Russian partisan politics as a paid consultant to President Yeltsin, given his never broken ties to some rather aggressive Russian opposition figures straight through his tenure in Washington, given his Neoconservative credentials and visceral dislike of Russia evidenced in his writings even to the period just ahead of his invitation into the White House (see http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2011/07/15/can-a-u-s-ambassador-to-russia-be-expelled-the-pending-case.html).
The single instance where Kuchins shows that he is capable of textual exegesis is his remark that the word ‘reset’ was not used by Putin in his foreign policy paper, which is true. However, the leap from this observation to the conclusion that Putin acts ‘as if it never happened’ is a willful distortion. Putin not only speaks favorably of New START, as Kuchins admits, but he also talks at some length about the WTO accession, which was the other achievement of reset from the Russian perspective. And, naturally, he talks as well about the still unfulfilled higher Russian objective for reset, some accommodation over the missile defense system, beginning with written as opposed to merely oral assurances that it is not directed against Russian second strike capability, thereby undoing the safeguards of MAD.
Clearly Kuchins has pulled the raisins from the cake. He has taken those very few lines from Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy article which serve his purpose of denigrating the paper and its author in the eyes of American readers, whose interest begins and ends with themselves. Just as he ignores all the pages dealing with the rest of the world in which America has no part, so he ignores other strands in the paper which contradict directly the notion of an anti-American, anti-reset interpretation.
In this connection, Kuchins omits mention of a following tantalizing passage which follows directly a bouquet which Putin tosses to that ‘high professional’ Henry Kissinger whom he says he meets with regularly:
“Generally in relations with the USA, we would be ready to go really far, to make a qualitative breakthrough, however on condition that the Americans were truly guided by the principles of evenhanded and mutually respectful partnership.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the allusion is to NATO membership for Russia, which has been an ambition of Russian diplomacy going back to the early 1990s and which Putin hoped George W. Bush would revisit after the invaluable assistance Russia rendered to the United States following 9/11. Though Russia has long denied any such interest, an article entitled ‘5 Reasons Why Russia Could Join NATO’ by Alexander Kramarenko, director of the policy planning in the Russian Foreign Ministry, published in The Moscow Times on December 9, 2010 says it all. I argued at the time that given the context of this publication at the very moment when U.S. diplomacy was on the ropes following the worst of the Wikileaks releases, it showed all the signs of the master touch of the Prime Minister and was fully in line with what I have heard from back channels.
To his credit, Kuchins does not call Putin’s February 27th paper a ‘diatribe,’ as did the editor-in-chief of Le Monde Sylvie Kauffmann. Nor did he call it a ‘tirade,’ like the Financial Times. But in avoiding this kind of hyperbole, he still has not recognized the obvious: that Putin’s policy paper fits into the context of an electoral campaign by being precisely presidential in tone, meaning calm and reflective.
As I mentioned at the outset, the foreign policy paper was one of 7 parts to an electoral ‘manifesto’ which Putin used firstly to answer directly the urban protesters of December 2011 by demonstrating that he was a candidate with a clear, well thought out program to take the country forward in all dimensions, including, by the way, revitalized self-government. Secondly, it was his substitute for television debates, which he rightly believed would not give him the opportunity to get across the substance separating him from his lightweight challengers and their populist slogans.
Those other 6 papers, which I have to assume Kuchins did not deign to read because they were not labeled ‘foreign affairs,’ show a Putin who is very well disposed to looking for models to reforms every sphere of Russian life from among best practices in the Soviet and Russian past, from Germany and Europe, and, yes, from the United States of America. There is absolutely nothing xenophobic or anti-American to be found in those other papers. In any case, what Putin is opposing is not America, but the concept of America as the world’s policeman that has been and remains the mainstream position of our foreign policy community even as public opinion polls in the United States have for decades shown that the American public itself is opposed to such a role.
Kuchins places Putin’s foreign policy paper in an historical context which is highly tendentious not only with respect to the contemporaneous political developments, the street demonstrations and so forth, but also to the more distant past. He sees a direct line between this paper and the Ur-dokument to which he (correctly) links it: Vladimir Putin’s address to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, when the then President set out in great detail before an audience of more than 300 of the world’s leading personalities in defense and foreign policy how and why Russia disagreed with the American unilateral and monopolar agenda for world governance, how and why Russia was aggrieved by its treatment at American hands ever since the end of the Cold War.
I hasten to state that Putin’s 2007 speech was never a polished document which he read off. He was thinking on his feet, working only from notes. That is clear to anyone with some knowledge of the Russian language who takes the time to view the video available online or to read the transcript attentively and note the grammatical mistakes, the halting delivery and the higher level of emotion than you find, for example in this 2012 policy paper. It was a cri de coeur such as is very rarely, indeed almost never delivered by leading statesmen in an open forum. And it was never a ‘diatribe’ as Kuchins labels it in his FA essay. Such adjectives are intended to predispose the reader against looking into the very serious, very deliberate argumentation of one’s debating opponent. Rather it was a ‘coming out’ in public with positions that had been long kept behind closed doors in the Kremlin. And it was a public airing of a split with America that predated Putin’s accession to power by nearly 5 years as I will now explain.
It is easy to forget today that in the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a lot of uncertainty in the incoming administration of Bill Clinton over how to deal with Russia. Foreign policy was not a particular interest of the President and the drift over whether to bring Russia directly into the club, into NATO, went on for several years in the State Department of Warren Christopher.
For his part, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had every hope of building on the special relationship which his erstwhile opponent Gorbachev had with the Americans and to take it to a new level of closeness, with NATO accession. In this spirit, during a 1993 visit to Warsaw, Yeltsin made the very important decision to acquiesce in Poland’s joining the Alliance. His expectation was that Russia would follow soon thereafter on the list of candidate states. It was a shared assumption in Washington and Moscow that deferring the question would make it insoluble, as each additional member from among the Warsaw Pact countries would be another voice against Russia’s joining.
It was precisely at this time that America’s leading foreign policy experts helped to paint us into the corner where we now find ourselves with respect to US-Russian relations. In testimony on Capitol Hill by Henry Kissinger and behind the scenes influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski Congress and the administration were told that Russian accession was a contradiction in terms that would gut NATO of its raison d’être. Russia would be kept on the straight and narrow path of abjuring its imperial past and learning democratic habits by sticks alone, since there were no carrots in the larder. Meanwhile the President’s domestic political advisers insisted that the allegiance of Polish, Hungarian and Czech Americans was of paramount concern for the 1994 midterm elections and the notion of Russia in NATO was quietly buried.
The perceived deception and bitter disappointment in Moscow when its exclusion became clear led, in January 1996, to dramatic policy changes. The pro-Western Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev was sacked. His replacement, orientalist scholar and long time statesman in a number of functions including intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov, propelled the search for a new foreign policy orientation working against American interests. In this way, the man whom America today salutes as the great democrat and father of Russian liberties which Vladimir Putin has allegedly clawed back, Boris Yeltsin, was in fact the one who oversaw a turn against the United States with respect to policy on Yugoslavia and much else.
The Russian financial crisis, default in 1998, growing domestic chaos and a military reduced to shambles at the time of his accession to power meant that in his first term in the presidency Vladimir Putin was in no position to naysay the United States in international relations. The turning point came only in 2007, when a newly self-confident Russia could take the stage.
In choosing to take the ideas for Putin’s February 27th policy paper back to 2007 without explanation of how and why the 2007 speech itself came about, Kuchins is doing his readers a great disservice.
In the marketplace for ideas, just as in the marketplace for company shares, when everyone is shouting ‘Buy!,’ it is well and truly the time to sell.
Regrettably this obvious principle is regularly ignored in the field of Russian studies. Whereas the political science community in the United States has divided opinions on Iran, divided opinions on China, it is lined up like so many ducks in a row in its (mis)understanding of Russia.
It is here that I see the mitigating factor in the publishing decision of Foreign Affairs: the view to which it has given voice for the essay on Putin’s foreign policy paper represents the overwhelming consensus of its readership, the American foreign policy community in and out of government.
Sad to say, but one would be hard pressed to name any recognized U.S. experts in the field who have a good word to say about Russia, least of all on behalf of its future President and his thinking. One rare exception is the veteran historian Stephen F. Cohen, who actually went so far as to participate in a pro-Putin electoral film entitled ‘Cold Policy’ which aired on prime Russian television time.
In his 1985 book entitled “Rethinking the Soviet Experience,” Cohen listed among the key reasons for the demise of Soviet studies (seven years before the demise of the Soviet Union itself) - the dislike students in the field had for the subject of their labors. The field was truly driven by the notion “Know Your Enemy,” which is the title historian of Soviet studies David Engerman aptly gave to his definitive monograph published in 2009.
I think it would be fair to say that the rebirth of this discipline as Russian or Eurasian studies has not progressed very far in respect to the motivation of those entering. In any case, the much smaller population passing through American higher education with this particular area studies degree has been skewed in a way which does not lend itself to broad understanding or to sympathy for the subject matter.
During the 2010-2011 academic year, I had a chance to experience this phenomenon first hand when I spent some time as a Visiting Scholar at one of America’s main centers of Russian studies, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Looking over the schedule of Russian-related events on campus, one might be forgiven for concluding that, apart from a nod to Slavic linguistics and literature, the overriding interest of professoriate and students is human rights and pro-democracy movements in Russia and the CIS. The parade of Russian ‘dissidents’ passing through revealed a strong partisan commitment of the hosts rather than anything resembling scholarly detachment.
The same might easily be said of other major centers of Russian studies such as Stanford, Georgetown and Harvard.
The ground-breaking March-April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs carries an essay by Christopher Sabatini entitled “Rethinking Latin America” in which the author complains that blinkered American diplomacy in his region comes from the blinkered academic community which trains our State Department professionals and heads them off in pursuit of ‘comparative politics’, meaning comparative democratic politics, rather than the art of managing international relations. In a word, ideology is trumping national interests in Latin American studies and in U.S. diplomacy. So the problem is not isolated to Russia, though there it is more egregious, there it is fed by all the particularistic anti-Russian overlays from Americans of Baltic, Ukrainian, East European origin who flock to the field. This ad hominem dimension of the problems of Russia in the American foreign policy community may not be politically correct to mention, but that makes it no less true.
If Foreign Affairs magazine is going to fulfill its mission of inviting intelligent debate, exposing stale complacencies to public ventilation, and so to improving the policy making of Washington, it had better review its editorial policy on Russia and try harder to match competing views.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.