Each week, WW writer John Minervini brings you the latest in book reviews, author Q&A's and Portland literary gossip. Click here to join the Tome Raider mailing list.
Six-word summary: Super powers belong in comic books
America is a country in need of civic role models. In their place, we have a pantheon of war criminals (Henry Kissinger), charlatans (Alan Greenspan) and bottom feeders (Karl Rove), whom we regularly trot out as pundits in ostensibly nonpartisan media.
In the face of such parasites, it's tempting to lionize someone like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. After all, she's a grandmotherly former statesperson; she's a Democrat; and she speaks eloquently of American ideals: democracy, liberty, diplomacy, equality under the law. Nevertheless, one can't take her foreign policy recommendations on blind faith.
Albright, who visited Portland on Thursday
, is the author of a new book, Memo to the President (Harper Perennial, 313 pages, $14.95)
, in which she offers an elegant primer on the office of the executive, followed by a comprehensive exploration of American foreign policy, beginning with the EU and advancing, theater-by-theater, to the Middle East and Al Qaeda. Her prescriptions are surprisingly specific. In North Korea, the author asserts, the US should continue to agitate for improved human rights while nonetheless negotiating to reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation. In Europe, our diplomats should warmly endorse Germany's candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN security council, thereby regaining an important ally and an intermediary between the US and Russia. As far as possible, we should ignore Venezuelan funny man Hugo Chavez, who thrives on our denunciations.
As a skilled writer and diplomat, Albright succeeds in making each of her policy positions seem—more than just self-evident—totally obvious. But it's worth digging deeper. So this week, Tome Raider decided to spot-check Albright's Russia policy. To that end, WW
contacted Vadim Nikitin
, a political journalist and an authority on post-Communist Russian political theory.
Russia scholar Vadim Nikitin. Photo courtesy of the Harvard University Department of Slavic Studies.
Nikitin is editor of the Russia Blog for the Foreign Policy Association, a New York-based international relations think tank. A recent graduate of Harvard College, where he studied the influence of the surrealist author Daniil Kharms on US democracy promotion efforts in the former USSR, Nikitin has written for the Moscow Times
, Harvard Political Review
and the New York Moon
. He currently lives in Washington, DC, where he works as a news media researcher at the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Tome Raider caught up with Nikitin via phone to discuss superpowers, Sarah Palin and dirty words like “democracy.”
Tome Raider: So what did you think of Madeleine Albright's primer on Russia policy?
Vadim Nikitin: Great analysis, shame about the scary prescriptions.
Do you think the notion of a “superpower” is outdated?
‘Superpower' is a political zombie like NATO, missile defence shields and East-West suspicions, oozing the pus of irrelevance yet stubbornly refusing to die. Albright criticizes Russia for acting like a 19th-century power, but continues to cling to this decidedly 20th century creation. It's time for some pluralism in international relations. The US must remember that it is not a European, but an American power.
According to Albright, “The idea that we could, with sufficient help and hugs,” turn Russia into an oversize but otherwise typical European country has never been realistic.” I'd like to focus in on that word, never. Perhaps that's an unrealistic goal today, but was there a historical window—say, after the collapse of the Soviet Union—when Russia might have made a smooth transition to Western democracy?
That image of Albright trying to hug Russia into submission brings to mind an old sexist joke about the real origins of the Kosovo War that I read in The Exile
So Madeline Albright walks into a glum meeting of male NATO foreign ministers, and tries to cheer things up: "So, gentlemen, shall we make love or war?," she asks, twirling her platinum tresses. The foreign ministers look at her for a few seconds, then unanimously exclaim: "War!"
But seriously, it is extremely disingenuous for her to claim that it has never been realistic, because remaking Russia in the US/West's own image was the animating policy of the Clinton administration that she served.
Albright once said that “Iraq is going to turn out to be the greatest disaster in American foreign policy—worse than Vietnam." Well, according to the brilliant Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, “the crusade for the Russia we want” was the “worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam”. The savage economic shock therapy, extraction of humiliating foreign policy concessions such as the eastward expansion of NATO, and many other things that Albright mentions in her new book were in fact her own legacy from the Clinton White House. The trail of devastation helped to turn Russia away from the West that it had so idolized at the heady start of the 1990s.
The only hugs Russia got in the 1990s amounted to a rigged 1996 presidential election, the decimation of public services, unravelling of the healthcare system and toleration of the ‘sale of the century' (as Christia Freedland described the US inspired criminal privatization program, which Harvard professor Marshall Goldman dubbed ‘piratization').
You mention "after the collapse of the SU," but in fact, the crucial democratic moment came before the collapse. Gorbachev's policy of openness and freedom, appearing in the context of a still existing state socialist economy, gave rise to scores of exciting social, political and philosophical ideas. For a brief and romantic time from 1987 to 1990, there was a chance that the USSR might replace its staid corporatism with a completely new vision of democracy that could seek to avoid the flaws and pitfalls of the US model. A more egalitarian, inclusive vision of democracy than that which exists in the West. Instead, America and its allies unfortunately helped to impose a very constraining and imperfect political and economic vision in the form of Boris Yeltsin. It is no coincidence that the rise of Yeltsin spelled the end of these exciting ideas. At a time when Europe and the US are experiencing unprecedented crises in their democracies, why should Russia have been coerced into reliving all the problems of the West? It was very sad; a missed opportunity for the whole world.
Peter the Great changed the watchword of Russia from “Guard well the treasure of yesterday” to “Fear not change; strive that tomorrow be better than today.” If there were a new watchword under Putin, what would it be?
Keep a close eye on Sarah Palin's house. We can see it from our country.
Why do you think the US, with its checkered record of foreign intervention, was so interested in butting heads with Russia over Chechnya and Yugoslavia?
Well actually, it was initially not interested in confronting Russia over Chechnya at all. It's now all but forgotten that this terrible war was started as long ago as 1994, by Boris Yeltsin. Because Yeltsin was such a strong US ally, Clinton tolerated his abuses in Chechnya. Then Putin restarted the war as prime minister in 1999 and continued it as president. As Putin began to distance himself from America, the US began to criticize more vocally the war in Chechnya. Until, that is, 9-11 came and former Chechen freedom fighters began to be seen as Islamic terrorists. Ironically enough, the main US supporters of the Chechen resistance have been the sometimes virulently anti-Muslim neo-conservatives such as Richard Perle and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Do you think the US has any strategic interests in promoting democracy in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan?
[Laughs] What, you mean apart from all the oil?
The role of energy in US democracy promotion is openly admitted even on Fox News, as I note in this article
about the US media response to the Georgia conflict.
What about promoting democracy within Russia itself? Do Russians even want democracy?
Yes. Russians both want democracy, and consider their country to be firmly part of "the West. But democracy is a process, not an outcome. For example, Putin's nationalization of the oil and gas industries was widely seen as anti-democratic in the West. However, authoritative polls show that as many as 85% of Russians supported those measures. So, something that is considered anti-democratic in the West can actually be an expression of Russian popular will, and therefore democratic. Many have looked at the high ratings that the authoritarian Putin always gets as evidence of a Russian rejection of democracy. Yet Putin's popularity has much more to do with bread and butter issues and well liked policies such as the nationalizations, not his crackdown on freedoms. For now, the Russian conception of democracy is more material than philosophical; freedom of movement, freedom from hunger, freedom to land a decent job; once people have satisfied these basic needs, they will expand their concept of democracy to include deeper political and intellectual freedoms. This is already starting to happen
among wealthier young people in the big cities.
Albright asserts that most Russians have “little understanding of what a democracy actually entails,” and that this proved to be a central obstacle to democracy in the 1990's. To what extent do you think these statements are accurate?
Russians have little understanding of democracy because
of the way it was imposed on them in the 1990s. It was Yeltsin who, with American help, made democracy a dirty word in Russia. Russians were constantly told by the US and its allies that the government they had in the 90s was democratic, and so they naturally came to associate democracy with asset stripping, massive corruption, state breakdown, mafia wars, election rigging, civil war (Chechnya) hunger, massive pauperisation, inequality, international humiliation.
Russia experienced a peace-time holocaust comparative to a nuclear strike. During the ‘democratic' period since the collapse of the USSR, mortality among Russian men has risen by 60 percent since 1991 and is now four to five times higher than in Europe.
As for freedom of speech, for every Anna Politkovskaya during the Putin regime, scores of journalists perished for their reporting in the ‘liberal' 1990s. In fact, according to an analysis by the British weekly New Statesman
, 27 journalists were killed under Yeltsin to 16 under Putin.
So I'd have to agree with Albright. Russians do have little understanding of what democracy actually entails.
Albright lists global security—i.e. nuclear nonproliferation, the fight against terrorism—as practically the only common interest shared by the US and Russia. Can you name any others?
Global warming, economics, energy trade, science and technology, culture…the list is expansive. Remember that despite all the bluster, the US is soon due to outsource all its space flights to Russia until the new generation shuttle is completed. Russian and American economies are firmly intertwined. Last year there was an amazing joint-sponsored exhibition of Russian art in New York. Both countries have too much to lose to archaic ideological disputes.
Comment on the following statement by George Kennan—cited by Madeleine Albright—regarding democracy promotion in Russia:
“Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and inlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.”
Terrifying. Albright does a great job of cloaking one of the most menacing artifacts of the 20th century – Kennan's Long Telegram
– the very document that launched the cold war, in the cuddliest of tones. Here's a part of the same text that Albright didn't have room to quote:
“Impervious to logic of reason, [Russia] is highly sensitive to logic of force”.
And here's another nugget:
The US “must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and, weakening of all rival influence and rival power”.
Rejecting another Cold War while approvingly quoting its architect is hardly the best path to pragmatic engagement with Russia.
The new US president should give Kennan the boot once and for all and treat Russia like a normal partner, not some existential threat.
Madeleine Albright will speak about her new book,
Memo to the President at 7 pm today (Oct. 23) at the Bagdad Theater (3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234).