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Can Russia and America Both Be Great Again?

Monday, August 1, 2016

In his observations of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville was prescient in a way few writers have been throughout history.  Of Russia and America, back in 1835, he said this:
There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing...  The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
A new effort is needed to review and reconsider old observations.  The political season in which we find ourselves, with Donald Trump's vow to "Make America Great Again," is paired with what appears to be a geopolitical strategy to 'weaponize' refugees fleeing Syria's civil war so as to fragment the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and then re-establish the Soviet 'sphere of influence'.  There is a sense in which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be working towards his own version of Trump's goals: to "Make Russia Great Again."

It seems this has us hurtling toward war. This need not be.  But to avoid this we must ask ourselves what a world looks like when both Russia and America are great again.

To Comprehend the Incomprehensible

Americans must understand what they cannot possibly comprehend.  As strange as that might sound, we ought to be grateful that we do not have memories of losing 25 million fellow Americans to war.  This memory, more than anything, animates the Russian world view which sees NATO expansion along the Russian border as an existential threat.  We have to realize that the Russians learned a seminal lesson - the hard way: You do not defend your people and your way of life with pieces of paper.  The international order we take for granted is the byproduct of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended decades of religious conflict and created the modern 'nation-state'.  Treaties serve us well as a form of contract: they encode our intentions toward, and obligations to, each other and provide a framework for resolving disputes peacefully.  But what they do not do is defend our way of life.  That is done by soldiers with weapons, and leaders who are willing to call upon them.

This seems to bother those on our 'Left'.  President Obama, particularly, seems more put off by seeing his vision of the 21st century literally reduced to rubble across the Middle East and the Ukraine than by the loss of lives left in its wake.  Russia's memories simply do not permit them this self-centered luxury of making decisions based on a fantasy about what the world should be like.  The world has not been very kind to them; not in the 18th century, not in the 19th, and certainly not in the 20th.  They have no reason to believe the 21st century will be any different.

And so the Russians will never again seek to secure their nation with a piece of paper like their non-aggression pact with Hitler's Germany.  For this reason the elimination of nuclear weapons is a fantasy - a figment of self-absorbed imaginations willfully ignorant of the lessons of history.  Even if a treaty were to be signed committing to the elimination of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and Russia, it is almost certain neither party would honor it.  This would not be because either side is evil.  It is because Russia's searing memories simply forbid them from relying on such an arrangement.  And there are enough of us here in the U.S. who know this well, and who would insist that we maintain our deterrent.

None of this means we should abandon our American principles.  But it does mean that our strategic objectives should begin with understanding the inner logic behind the beliefs and behaviors of the Russian people and their government.  Because we cannot possibly share - and thankfully so - the kind of memories shared among the Russians, there will always be more about this inner logic that we do not understand than there is that we do. A strategic humility in this respect is essential.

The False Choice of Vassals or Enemies

It has been observed that this inner logic compels Russia to believe it must be surrounded by vassal states.  American diplomat George Kennan is believed to have said that Russia can only have vassals or enemies at her borders.  Russians must understand that forcing this choice is a choice for war.  For exactly the same reason we struggle to understand them, we should hope their memories would compel them to recognize this.  Russians seem driven by an ethnic and linguistic solidarity.  As de Tocqueville noted, their national identity is one forged by conflict with others.  Russia must realize that our 'national conflict' was initially religious.  We spring from a stream of the Reformation which taught that one did not become a Christian by being born and baptized into the church of the community, but by hearing, understanding, and responding to the Gospel as an individual.

These Swiss Reformers came to be known as the 'Anabaptists' - those who were 'baptized again'.  And if one became a Christian by choosing Christianity for themselves, it followed by necessity that one could not be forced to become a Christian - or to follow any religion at all.  These 'Anabaptists' were persecuted bitterly for their beliefs - by Protestants, Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox alike.  The only place where they found freedom to live according to their conscience was in the New World.

And in that New World they fought with the wilderness, not with other peoples settling age-old ethnic scores.  And so we Americans have a wholly different set of national memories and are bound by an identity of ideas rather than of ethnicity, language, or religion.  It seems the most significant unit of society for Russians is the Russian State, as protector of a people whose identity is bound up to their ethnicity, language, and religion.  Yet for us as Americans, the most significant unit of society is the individual.  Rather than the individual existing for the State, the State exists for the individual - to secure his or her right to speak whichever language they choose, practice whichever religion they choose (or none at all), and otherwise be left alone to freely associate with others for whatever lawful purpose gives meaning to their lives.  Thus it is when we see others who wish the same freedom that we find ourselves in solidarity with them - with any people who seek to forge a national identity of ideas rather than of ethnicity, language, or religion.

A Way Forward: A Swiss Neutral Alliance

In the framework of international law as it stands today, Switzerland is the oldest country to be formally recognized as a 'neutral' state.  Seeing as it is situated between France and Germany and the Franco/Germanic ethnic and religious rivalries have been the source of past wars, their geographic situation has lent itself naturally to this role.  The states which lend themselves to a similar status are, from north to south, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.  Georgia and Azerbaijan border Russia north of Iran and east of Turkey.

Rather than pursuing a return to Cold War 'spheres of influence', Russia and the United States should make a joint request to the Swiss to initiate a formal treaty alliance of neutrality to which each of these states would be invited to belong.  Of greatest importance to this evolution of the international order would be an explicit guarantee of the right to intervene militarily in defense of this neutrality without having to gain prior approval from the United Nations Security Council.  This would allow Russia to expressly guarantee its security through its military capabilities.  Their searing memories require them to agree to nothing less.  This would also allow NATO to guarantee the neutrality of those Baltic states already in NATO, as well as the Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Such an arrangement would suffice to answer the American commitment to solidarity with those who simply want to be free to speak as they wish in the language they wish, to practice the religion of their choosing or none at all, and to otherwise be left alone.  This arrangement would also allow Russia to honor the memories of those they lost in war by securing their borders against a repeat of memories none of us (perhaps except the Polish) can fully understand.  Lastly, this arrangement would free the people of Europe, the neutral states, and of Russia to invest their energies into the creation of new wealth by charting out innovative and prosperous paths into the 21st century.

We Will Some Day Be Remembered in Photos

Russian president Putin recently memorialized those lost in World War II together with ordinary Russians, holding a picture of his father.  In a world where America and Russia are great again, the time will come when our children and grandchildren will treasure pictures of us after we are long gone.  In a world where America and Russia are great again, they will be smiling and laughing, not grieving over memories of the ravages of war.

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