The Elusive Principle of the Thing

Crimea is gone, or Crimea has come home. It all depends on your point of view. Crimea has been part of the Ukraine since 1954, when as a “symbolic gesture” – marking the three hundredth anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian Empire – the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Soviet Union at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian native, gave them Crimea as an anniversary gift. So let’s see – Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire for over three hundred years, and now that the Russian Empire is long gone, and the Soviet Union long gone too, Ukraine wants to be on its own, and to align itself with Europe. They were given Crimea, in 1954, pretty much on a whim, and they want the Western nations to help them keep it, even if the folks in Crimea wish it were 1953 and not 1954 all over again. And we’re in this fight because… Don’t ask. It’s complicated. But there’s some principle involved, somehow.

One of those principles has to do with nationhood. Putin can’t just barge in and break up an official nation, recognized by all, no matter how it was formed, or no matter how recently. These things just aren’t done. There is international law, after all. Everyone knows this, but everyone may be behind the times. Robert Reich, for one, sees the whole concept of “nations” spinning out of control:

Before the rise of the nation-state, between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the world was mostly tribal. Tribes were united by language, religion, blood, and belief. They feared other tribes and often warred against them. Kings and emperors imposed temporary truces, at most.

But in the past three hundred years the idea of nationhood took root in most of the world. Members of tribes started to become citizens, viewing themselves as a single people with patriotic sentiments and duties toward their homeland. Although nationalism never fully supplanted tribalism in some former colonial territories, the transition from tribe to nation was mostly completed by the mid twentieth century.

Over the last several decades, though, technology has whittled away the underpinnings of the nation state. National economies have become so intertwined that economic security depends less on national armies than on financial transactions around the world. Global corporations play nations off against each other to get the best deals on taxes and regulations.

News and images move so easily across borders that attitudes and aspirations are no longer especially national.

Nations, then, may be a fiction now:

A single Europe – which seemed within reach a few years ago – is now succumbing to the centrifugal forces of its different languages and cultures. The Soviet Union is gone, replaced by nations split along tribal lines. Vladimir Putin can’t easily annex the whole of Ukraine, only the Russian-speaking part. The Balkans have been Balkanized.

Indeed they have, and, as Elizabeth Kulze reports, they’re not the only place:

Now that Putin has successfully annexed Crimea, another group of disgruntled Russian descendants is hoping to return to the Kremlin’s dominion. As of Monday morning, a petition entitled “Alaska Back to Russia” has garnered more than 17,000 signatures since it launched Friday.

An unnamed Anchorage resident created the appeal, citing the state’s historic and ancestral ties to the world’s largest country. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine exactly how many of the signatures are authentic – as opposed to being Putin-employed bots or a ploy to exile Sarah Palin – but the surrounding chatter on Twitter confirms that at least some Russian-Americans are dead serious about secession.

Of course they’re serious. Alaska sort of had always been part of Russia – but in 1867, Czar Alexander II was strapped for cash, so we agreed to take it off his hands, for a little over seven million dollars. Secretary of State William Seward agreed to pay that amount – it seemed like a reasonable price at the time, and the Czar was in no position to haggle with us. We had him by the short hairs. Even so, everyone called this Seward’s Folly. We bought what? Why? Or maybe it was a bargain. Who knows? Great scenery and lots of oil, but horrific oil spills and Sarah Palin – it may have been a wash. But if these folks get their way, do we get our money back? Do we get a refund?

Kulze notes that it doesn’t matter:

The petition has more than 82,000 signatures to go before it is eligible for an official review and response from the White House. If it comes to that, government officials will probably offer the same sappy words they said the last time some states (Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida) tried to secede. “As much as we value a healthy debate,” wrote Jon Carson, the White House director of the office of public engagement, “we don’t let that debate tear us apart.”

It’s that Abraham Lincoln thing about preserving the union, even if half the country doesn’t want to be in the union, thinking that the original nation, a fine idea in 1776, had outlived its usefulness. Lincoln might invoke our first national motto, E pluribus unum – “Out of Many, One” – adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. Everyone in the South, however, was eventually shouting Freedom! They were shouting about states’ rights of course, but that was just another way of shouting “Our Tribe, Not Yours!”

They disagreed on principle. Nationhood was irrelevant, at least the now larger and far too inclusive nationhood that had developed was irrelevant, and we had a nasty civil war to settle the issue – and the issue never was really settled. They’re still shouting down there, even more loudly, simply because they lost that argument about “one nation, indivisible” so long ago. The resentment will never end. It’s a tribal thing. The petition in Alaska then, even if it turns out to be an elaborate joke, isn’t particularly surprising. The idea of any one fixed and permanent nation is, always, just an idea, and ideas are challenged all the time.

Forging “one” out of many seems to be a tricky business, and it gets even trickier one level higher, when you try to do that with alliances of nations, no matter how noble, and useful, the idea initially seems. In 1949 it was NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That was supposed to be a system of collective defense – member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party, but no one was all that serious about that. It was a political statement, a bit of belligerent posturing to keep the Soviet Union worried, although NATO did send some forces to Korea in the fifties, even if that wasn’t Europe at all.

The Soviets countered with the Warsaw Pact in 1955 – the same sort of symbolic thing. France knew both alliances were a charade and dropped out of NATO in 1966 as they now had their own independent nuclear deterrent – but they came back in thirty years later, for no particular reason. There were now twenty-eight member states, so maybe they felt lonely. Even former Warsaw Pact nations had joined up – Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, along with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Ukraine and Georgia were also told that they could eventually become members, but Putin had had enough of this nonsense. His invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his recent grab of Crimea from Ukraine put an end to that particular extension of NATO, and it sent a message. This “one” that had grown so large and inclusive now surrounded Russia, opposed to its ways and seemingly inching its way toward Moscow itself. The Russian Empire had been lost. The Soviet Union had been lost. Soon there would be nothing left for the Russian people. They will soon be stripped of their pride and surrounded by Starbucks and smugness.

Something had to be done. NATO was supposed to be a military alliance for mutual defense, but had never really done much of anything militarily. NATO always let the United States drop the bombs and send in the troops, so let’s see if NATO will do anything when Russia grabs this and that. Putin was calling NATO on its bullshit, as a way to expose the whole thing as a joke – because this time, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States wasn’t in any mood for more war. It was time to make NATO look like a bad idea from long ago, irrelevant and powerless now, if it had ever really mattered in the first place.

This put President Obama in a tight spot, having to go to Brussels and tell NATO they’d better get their act together:

President Obama attempted Wednesday to rouse Europe to confront Russia’s military seizure of Crimea, framing the West’s dispute with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a clash of ideologies lingering from the Cold War.

In an evening speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Obama made a broad case for U.S. and European unity, for sanctions against Russia that could damage still-fragile European economies and for help leveraging American power that he made clear in this case does not include military force.

Using the museum as a cultural counterpoint to Russia’s display of force against Ukraine in recent weeks, Obama stressed that Moscow’s moves endanger not only that country but the international system that Europe and the United States have built over the years, a system that has been vital to the progress of democracy and international law worldwide.

It was an Abraham Lincoln appeal, that “we” are one, indivisible:

Echoing themes from a similar speech against complacency that he delivered last year in Berlin, Obama warned the European public, which he conceded might view Ukraine as a distant problem, that “we cannot count on others to rise to meet those tests.”

“The policies of your government – the principles of your European Union – will make a difference in whether or not the international order that so many generations before you have strived for continues to move forward, or whether it retreats,” he said.

He has been even more specific earlier in the day:

Speaking at a news conference after meeting with European Union leaders, Obama noted that he has been concerned about declining defense budgets among some NATO members, a complaint he has allowed other administration officials to make in the past.

His words were a pointed reminder that despite U.S. involvement in seeking to prevent Putin from advancing farther beyond Russia’s borders, European leaders must be ready to pay more for their defense.

“If we have collective defense, it means everyone’s got to chip in,” Obama said, appearing after meeting with Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. He spoke a day after he called Russia a “regional power” that, after having annexed Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region, is threatening its neighbors in a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Obama cited declining “trend lines” in defense spending among some NATO members, cutbacks he called expected given the financial straits that many European nations have faced over the past five years.

But he said NATO members must recommit to defense spending, especially as the United States enters the final months of its wars that began after Sept. 11, 2001.

Come on, guys – chip in – and then he “pledged to help increase ground, air and naval forces as part of NATO operations, particularly in Eastern Europe” – because he knows they won’t really chip in. Forging a “one” is hard enough. Maintaining it is a real bitch. Ask Lincoln about that.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Sara Miller Llana explores the problem:

On one side are those who argue that the alliance should return to its founding mission, encapsulated in the treaty’s Article 5, which states that an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all. On the other are those who want their national defense systems and the alliance to focus on adapting to the new nature of security threats, namely global terrorism.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea following the fall of a pro-Russian leadership in Kiev has given more credence to those who want it to return to its roots. Newer EU members from the east have long feared Russia’s intentions across their borders. Last week visiting US Vice President Joe Biden reassured Poland and the Baltic nations that as NATO members, they will be fully protected by the US in the case of Russian aggression.

More broadly, budget cuts in defense in both the US and Europe, and shifting American attention to terrorism and, more recently, to China’s military buildup, have called into question the global relevance of NATO…

This particular “one” is divided, and we know it:

When he retired in 2011, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates rebuked Europe for not fulfilling its commitments to security. Indeed, the vast majority of NATO members do not meet the organization’s goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

“If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” Mr. Gates said.

That has occurred to other nations:

A separate debate concerns the status of non-NATO European allies like Finland or Sweden that do not enjoy the protections under Article 5. The crisis “will give arguments to people who are in favor of NATO membership,” says Lena Jonson, head of the Russia Program at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. But she predicts that the conflict, in its current form, won’t change these countries’ positions.

Finland and Sweden probably won’t join NATO, even now. What’s the point? What do you folks do anyway, hold meetings, and send a few secondary troops to support the United States here are there, sometimes, in support of their foreign policy? No thanks.

Of course, there was an expert on this sort of thing:

George Frost Kennan (February 16, 1904 – March 17, 2005) was an American adviser, diplomat, political scientist, and historian, best known as “the father of containment” and as a key figure in the emergence of the Cold War. He later wrote standard histories of the relations between Soviet Union and the Western powers. He was also a core member of the group of foreign policy elders known as “The Wise Men”.

In the late 1940s, his writings inspired the Truman Doctrine and the U.S. foreign policy of “containing” the Soviet Union, thrusting him into a lifelong role as a leading authority on the Cold War. His “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 and the subsequent 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” argued that the Soviet regime was inherently expansionist and that its influence had to be “contained” in areas of vital strategic importance to the United States. These texts quickly emerged as foundation texts of the Cold War…

That man knew a thing or two, which is why on the day Obama was in Brussels talking about one NATO, indivisible, an old Thomas Friedman column was being cited, one from way back on May 2, 1998:

His voice is a bit frail now, but the mind, even at age 94, is as sharp as ever. So when I reached George Kennan by phone to get his reaction to the Senate’s ratification of NATO expansion it was no surprise to find that the man who was the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century was ready with an answer.

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. NATO expansion was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”

The Russians will gradually react quite adversely? Ya think? It seems they did, even if Kennan wasn’t around to see it. He just knows a stupid idea when he sees one:

“What bothers me is how superficial and ill-informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed “X” defined America’s cold-war containment policy for 40 years. “I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.”

“And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,” said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. “It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then the NATO expanders will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong.”

Friedman then riffs on that theme:

One only wonders what future historians will say. If we are lucky they will say that NATO expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic simply didn’t matter, because the vacuum it was supposed to fill had already been filled – only the Clinton team couldn’t see it. They will say that the forces of globalization integrating Europe, coupled with the new arms control agreements, proved to be so powerful that Russia, despite NATO expansion, moved ahead with democratization and Westernization, and was gradually drawn into a loosely unified Europe. If we are unlucky they will say, as Mr. Kennan predicts, that NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia’s border, triggering a new cold war, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe.

But there is one thing future historians will surely remark upon, and that is the utter poverty of imagination that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the late 1990s. They will note that one of the seminal events of this century took place between 1989 and 1992 – the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which had the capability, imperial intentions and ideology to truly threaten the entire free world. Thanks to Western resolve and the courage of Russian democrats, that Soviet Empire collapsed without a shot, spawning a democratic Russia, setting free the former Soviet republics and leading to unprecedented arms control agreements with the U.S.

And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO cold-war alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders.

Friedman, who loved the Iraq War, because we had to show someone over there a thing or two and Iraq was as good a place to do that as any other, was actually prescient for a change, or rang up someone who was:

Yes, tell your children, and your children’s children, that you lived in the age of Bill Clinton and William Cohen, the age of Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the age of Trent Lott and Joe Lieberman, and you too were present at the creation of the post-cold-war order, when these foreign policy Titans put their heads together and produced… a mouse.

We are in the age of midgets. The only good news is that we got here in one piece because there was another age – one of great statesmen who had both imagination and courage.

As he said goodbye to me on the phone, Mr. Kennan added just one more thing: “This has been my life, and it pains me to see it so screwed up in the end.”

That’s sad, but every president, since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and then the Soviet Union simply disappeared, has been trapped in this attempt for forge a new “one” – an expanded NATO that includes every single nation on Russia’s doorstep, if possible – every single one that was once almost part of them – to rub their humiliating loss in their face. The only other historical precedent in the Treaty of Versailles – really sticking it to Germany to make sure there’d be no second world war, and we all know how that went. The odd thing here is that NATO is rather useless, and everyone, not only Putin, knows it. Obama went to Brussels to hold NATO together and rally them into actually meaningful collective action. Other presidents have done the same. No one knows why. People are tribal.

And when Obama gets back to the White House, some aide will ask him what he wants to do about the Alaska petition, to join Russia. But that’s easy. Send them the E Pluribus Unum form letter. That’s always the answer, on general principle.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Elusive Principle of the Thing

  1. Rick says:

    A few somewhat unconnected comments, first on the question of what a “nation” even means — in this case, our own:

    “…thinking that the original nation, a fine idea in 1776, had outlived its usefulness.”

    Not a huge point, but I’ve always held that our “original” nation was actually dreamed up in 1787, not 1776, since that confederacy thing wasn’t really a nation, just a collection of thirteen sovereign nations that all lost their nationhood the moment the Constitution made the United States a nation in 1789. But yeah, most people see it your way, so never mind, it’s not that important.

    “Lincoln might invoke our first national motto, E pluribus unum – ‘Out of Many, One’ – adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782.”

    That is a slight stretch, since technically E pluribus unum was adopted by Congress in 1782, not as our “official” motto, but only as a “phrase” to put on our national seal. Our official motto, “In God We Trust”, became law in 1956. Still, you’re right; E pluribus unum was considered by many, for most of our history — back even before we were an actual nation — our UNofficial motto. So whatever. (I actually prefer it to the one we have.)

    But I see that Tom Friedman, back in 1999, proved me absolutely wrong when I said, the other day, that I thought George Kennan would see what Russia was doing today as just a continuation of what the Soviets were doing back in the Cold War. He apparently thought that, by expanding NATO in the 90s, we were pushing Russia back into the Cold War.

    But in spite of Kennan’s anticipating my response — “Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then the NATO expanders will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are – but this is just wrong” — I’m not sure he was right about that. It’s just possible that Putin’s response to the collapse of the Soviet system — that of wanting to restore Russia to its former greatness — was the inevitable response of any Russian leader after the humiliation of its fall, no matter what sort of NATO expansion took place in the late 1990s.

    And I myself am not so sure NATO was such a silly idea in the first place — I think it may well have helped contain the Soviets back then — and while I wasn’t for its expansion in the 1990s (“After all,” I felt at the time, “hasn’t the reason for NATO gone away, now that the Russians have all become a bunch of democratic and peace-loving good guys?”), now I’m not so sure. Yes, I will bow to Kennan’s knowledge of both the Soviets and the Russians, but there’s one big fact that gives me pause, and that is that so many of those former Soviet client states seem now to be quivering in fear of Russian ambitions, and it seems that it’s they who are pushing for NATO membership, not so much us pushing NATO status on them.

    Could it be that those countries know something that we don’t?


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