Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)

Fateful Steps That Led to the Crisis in Ukraine (Part One)
Thomas Riggins

The crisis that struck Ukraine last year-- the overthrow of the elected president, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in the Russian speaking eastern provinces— was the result of problems that had been festering, not only in Ukraine but all along the former frontiers of the USSR since the end of the cold war and the collapse of eastern European socialism over twenty some years previously. 

There were many pressure points and areas of potential conflict along this defunct border. Over the years they became more and more exacerbated mainly as a result of the triumphalist attitude of the US and its allies over the end of the Cold War which they considered as a "victory" of their side over the Russians and their allies.

Meanwhile the Russians and their remaining close allies had considered the end of the Cold War as a cooperative undertaking in which, with western help, the leadership of the USSR would dismantle the Warsaw Pact and replace state socialism with a European style market economy thus eliminating the threat of nuclear war and allowing for the eventual flourishing of a united European civilization stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The "we won, you lost" attitude assumed by the US (and its NATO puppet) along with the EU has led to economic and political actions the Russians and their allies believe threaten their interests and rights. This is the theses of professor Richard Sakwa of Kent University (UK) in his new book Frontline Ukraine. This article will attempt to highlight the fateful steps that have led to the current crisis as professor Sakwa annunciated them (any misinterpretations or errors are mine).

One of the major steps was the growth of NATO right up to borders of Russia after the Russians had been given assurances by the US that that would not happen. The US now argues that the growth of  NATO  was necessary due to the 
security problems along its borders. This overlooks the fact that it is the new borders that are the location of these problems. As Sakwa puts it, “NATO’s existence became justified by the needs to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.” This kind of mendacious logic is typical of the US ’s (and to a lesser extent the EU’s) dealings with Russia. Echoed by the corporate media in the US, it is one of the main reasons the American people are ignorant of the true causes of the Ukraine crisis and for their antipathy toward Russia.

The reason there are so many problems between the US (and its satellites) and Russia is because there are many systemic contradictions between them left over from the end of the Cold War and there has been little, if any, attempt by the West to  seriously try to resolve them by good faith negotiations. When a problem boils over, as in the Ukraine (and earlier in Georgia), all the blame is put on Russia and the solution is framed as the need for the US and the West to make the Russians back down. This, Sakwa points out, only makes the contradictions between the interests of the Russians and the US side worse. 

A major consideration with regard to the West’s relations with Russia is that after the collapse of the USSR Russia was economically in turmoil and politically weak. The West could pretty much do as it wanted as Russia, as well as Ukraine, were dominated by corruption, oligarchs calling the shots, and the need to concentrate on internal problems not foreign affairs.

Russia  was able to economically benefit during the early years of the 2000s, due to high profits of oil, and Putin was able, despite democratic short comings, to curtail the power of the oligarchs, reassert state ownership in many strategic areas of the economy, and reinvigorate the Russian economy and state. This allowed the Russians to reengage in foreign affairs and begin to reassert their perceived interests vis a vis those of the West once they realized it was not part of the West’s intentions to work in partnership with them to peacefully resolve contradictions to the mutual benefit of all concerned. If not a cold war the US was starting a “Cool War.” In contrast Ukraine remained mired in corruption and the control of oligarchs
despite a democratic facade.

Another important point made by Sakwa concerns the makeup of the Ukrainian nation. There are two contradictory views which he calls the monistic and pluralistic views. In short, the monistic view, held by the Ukrainian government and the ultra nationalist faction which dominates western Ukraine is that the country is a unique cultural whole bound together by its national language which has its own historical destiny to fulfill as part of the European continuum and is thus more closely bound to the EU than to Russia which is seen as an alien foreign influence.

The pluralistic view, which dominates in the eastern Russian speaking Ukraine, maintains that the peoples of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are related by a common cultural ancestry born of their participation in a common early state and religion (orthodox Christianity since 988 AD). The common state (Kievian Rus) was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in 1240, nevertheless the common cultural unity persists and the three peoples are more closely bound to one another than to the EU and its people. This is admittedly simplified and Sakwa will expand upon it later.

Surveys and polls show that as late as 2005 around 67% of eastern Russian speaking Ukrainians identified with Ukraine as their country and there was no great feeling to join with Russia or become independent. There were major problems, however, which included worries and complaints about the status and use of Russian, negative attitudes towards NATO and no desire to identify with Europe and the West at the expense of Russia. 

All of these issues could have been dealt with democratically within Ukraine by means of parliamentary processes and constitutional guarantees. What has led to the present crisis in Ukraine was the perception by the Russian speaking east that the undemocratic overthrow of the elected government in February 2014 brought to power ultra-nationalist forces that were seeking to force their views on the east and that eastern concerns, beliefs, and rights were being ignored and even abrogated.

This eastern crisis is a separate issue from the Crimea. The Russians in the Crimea were never happy about being separated from Russia due to the fact that in 1954 the USSR transferred the area to Ukrainian administration for purposes of cost efficiency. No one then even dreamed of the possibility that the Crimea would be cut off from Russia in an independent Ukraine. Sakwa points out that the Crimea, after all, "is the heartland of Russian nationhood." 


The annexation of the peninsula  by Russia was welcomed by the majority of people living there and while its return to its motherland set off the storm that has now descended upon US and European relations with Russia (totally provoked by the West and its backing of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Ukraine) it is unlikely to be reversed. The issues in the eastern provinces of Ukraine have to be settled independently of those of the Crimea which is now a part of Russia and likely to remain so. (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Prolegomena to Any Future Understanding of the Crisis in Ukraine

Thomas Riggins

The political and military maneuvers now going on in the Ukraine have the potential of escalating out of control. If we don't understand the actual reality that has brought about this crisis there is no hope of being able to prevent this escalation. In order to understand this reality we must refrain from simple minded finger pointing at one side or the other and assigning complete responsibility for the crisis to one of the parties in the dispute, although one side may be disproportionately responsible.

The establishment media in the West (reflecting the position of the US and the EU) seems to have arrived at a consensus that the crisis is the result of a revanchist foreign policy initiative of the Russian Federation and its president Vladimir Putin on the one hand and the aspirations of the Kiev government to build a democratic Ukraine based on the western European model and free of undue Russian influence and domination on the other.

This has been simplified by many to a proxy war between a dictatorial undemocratic Russia out to eventually recreate the defunct USSR's boundaries and the Western democracies led by the US once again called upon to defend the Free World. The phrase "a new cold war" encapsulates this position.

That this is a warped view of the Ukrainian crisis is suggested by a reading of a new book, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (Tauris, 2014) by Richard Sakwa, an expert at the University of Kent in the UK. The "Preface" to this book presents the following historical background to the current crisis which goes back many decades to a time before there was any Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation or independent Ukraine.

When the cold war ended with collapse of the Soviet Union and east European "socialism"  there was a possibility of establishing a pan-European order that would have provided for peace and security for all European countries. However, the EU and NATO made no provision for the inclusion of Russia in a common European "defense" alliance. This resulted, according to Sakwa, in numerous "stress points" along the borders of the EU and the former USSR.

One major stress point was the fact that NATO, a military anti-Soviet (anti-Russian) alliance which had faced off against the Warsaw Pact during the cold war, now had lost its raison d'être and with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact should have also come to end. The US however decided not only to keep NATO in existence but to enlarge it-- clearly an aggressive and hostile act no matter how it is presented.

As a result two different visions of Europe's future developed, Sakwa says. The two are that of a "Wider Europe" and a "Greater Europe." The former represents the EU with France and Germany (basically Germany) at the core and its extension eastward incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries and parts of the old USSR. [A 21st century version of Drang nach Osten.]

The latter represents a vision of "one Europe" but is inclusive of all parts of Europe and not dominated by "Brussels, Washington or Moscow." It would be "multi-polar and pluralistic.'' Both Russia and the Ukraine (both pluralistic) would be part of it. This is the vision favored by the Russians. Sakwa says these visions are not necessarily stark alternatives: with good will some kind of synthesis could be reached.

The US and EU have decided against "Greater Europe" and seek to construct the vision of "Wider Europe" leaving the Russians as odd man out. This decision [based on the interests of US and Western capital] and being implemented by stoking old historical grudges going back to the first world war and even earlier, is the background to the current crisis.

The different factions in the Ukraine are  (unscientifically) being associated with colors-- primarily orange, blue, and gold. The Kiev government, backed by the EU and US, is the "orange" faction. Its basic desire is to form an Ukrainian national Slavic government with one official language (Ukrainian), culturally homogeneous and identified as far as possible with the EU and NATO. 

There are millions of Russian speaking Slavs within the boundaries of Ukraine that do not share this orange outlook. They make up the "blue" faction which points out that different regions of the country have different linguistic, cultural and historical experiences and if the Ukraine  is to work these realities have to be taken into consideration and respected. As it stands, the orange and blue factions don't seem suited for co-existence in the same political framework. To make things more complicated both factions are being supported and aided by outside players.

One last major faction is the "gold" faction. This is the faction representing the new billionaires (the oligarchs) that arose out of the collapse of the USSR and through corruption and undemocratic machinations have attained unprecedented political power in the country and can manipulate the Ukrainian "political class." 

Sakwa says the country has produced "no visionary leader" who  has been able to command the loyalty of all these factions  and unite them around a project of successful nation building.

These are, more or less, the major ideas in the preface to Sakwa's book. It will impossible to understand the crisis going in the Ukraine without keeping them in mind. For those who think the crisis is the result of the big bad Putin and Russian "aggression" there is no hope at all of their understanding anything that is going on in Ukraine.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?

Is Russia a Kleptocracy?
Thomas Riggins

A kleptocracy is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed." Many anti-Russian commentators today have no problem with classifying Vladamir Putin's government as kleptocratic but Richard Sakwa, a Russian expert at the University of Kent, is not one of them. He gives his reasons in "Grey - area Gold," an analysis of Putin's Keleptocracy: Who Owns Russia a book by Karen Dawisha, published in the TLS of February 6, 2015. What follows are some comments and observations on Sakwa's article. I have italicized my own views to avoid confusion.

Dawisha obviously thinks Russia is a kleptocracy. She paints a picture of rampant corruption and abuse of power by those involved in the overthrow of soviet power and the transfer of the collective wealth and property of the soviet people into the hands of private individuals. The security forces of the soviet state played a major role in this betrayal. Sakwa says her arguments are so "incendiary" that Cambridge University Press backed off from publishing the book and it cannot be bought in the UK. It is available in the US from Simon and Schuster.

"The fundamental picture that emerges," Sakwa writes, "is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process." In Marxist terms this would have been a counter-revolution led by elements of the leadership in collusion with the state security apparatus. However, it does not account for the acquiescence of the Red Army nor the passivity of the soviet people.

Dawisha's picture shows that Putin and his circle have certainly taken advantage of the end of soviet power and have enriched themselves at the expense of the general population (''behaviour typical of nouveaux riches throughout the ages") and have supported acts of corruption but her analysis also results "in obscuring complexity and counter trends."

That is to say, Sakwa contends, there is more to Putin's Russia than just the kleptocractic features Dawisha highlights. When then bigger picture is taken into consideration Russia turns out to be, while having some of the kleptocratic features found in many other countries [including the United States ] "not a kleptocracy tout court."

This is because the Putin government plays a much bigger role than just the enrichment of its elite supporters. It maintains social peace at home and is active on the world stage supporting Russian interests and "meets the basic needs of the Russian people" by furthering a "dirigiste" model of capitalism. Instead of hiding its revenues overseas the Russian government invests its tax money and oil revenues in public works projects and investments "for a rainy day."

That day is here, Sakwa says. Since Russia is being run in the interests of the Russians rather than the Germans or Americans this has caused the "west" to over react and initiate policies against Russia with which the Russians cannot possibly  comply. One of these is the "sanctions" regime imposed on "Putin's cronies" (and now the threat of directinvolvement in the Ukrainian civil war by arming the Kiev regime). These will have no effect on the Putin leadership but are now "affecting the whole population in a form of collective punishment". As could have been expected (If Obama and the American leadership knew anything about the real history and sentiments of the Russians) these ham fisted reactions have only increased Putin's popularity at home and "the people have rallied around the flag." The US is on a collision course of its own choosing with Russia.

Sakwa lists four reasons why Dawsha’s book as well as the so-called liberal domestic opposition to Putin (and the Western supporters of anti-Putinism allied with them) should not be taken at face value. They are:

1.) The portrait of Putin presented “is often circumstantial, conjectural,
      and partial.” Do we really want to base our foreign policy on this
      kind of evidence?
2.) There is evidence of a “deep state” at work in Russia [we have one 
     too] made up of sections of the military and security operatives (the          
     “siloviki or (‘force-men’)” and “former Party resources” but the 
     evidence given does not prove that it functions simply as a force 
     for “kleptocracy.” It has been used against the Russian “mafia” and
     for the creation of state owned enterprises which “struggle to 
     achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance.” 
     Western sanctions actually thwart the forces that are trying to
     integrate Russia into the international system.
3.) Unlike what is to be expected from kleptomaniacs, the Putin 
     government has “delivered significant public goods” and supported
     “neoclassical liberal nostrums.” Russia followed policies that allowed
      it to get through the  2008-09 world economic downturn and has 
      since begun “to invest in some major infrastructural projects". All
      in all we see “a developmental dynamic” which “does not look like 
      the policies of a kleptocracy” but, Sakwa says, the country might 
      have been in even better shape without the elite skimming off  
      social wealth for itself (this includes Putin) and “the misguided 
      dirigisme.” [Since the alternative to “dirigisme” is unregulated
      privatization I can’t agree with this last suggestion.]
4.) Russian foreign policy is not conducted on the basis of what is good 
      for kleptocrats but rather on the vision that Russia is a “great  
      “power and should be “an equal partner of the West.” Needless to   
       say “the West” [ i.e., basically the  US ] doesn’t want to accord  to
       Russia “equality.” [Russia is treated as a second rate power that
       must comply with US dictates. The Ukraine is a test case and the
       Russians must be seen to give in to American demands. This 
       fully accords with the dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry  which has   
       come to the fore since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has 
       been so well described by Lenin in his work on “Imperialism the
       Highest Stage of Capitalism.” American “over-reach” here could 
       result in Obama’s policies leading to an unprecedented flare up of
       violence and destruction on a continental scale, or worse.]

In concluding his review, Sakwa says Dawisha’s book “is one of many books that contribute to a misleading paradigm of how Russia actually works.” The reality is more complex. Dawisha’s book will give you a good insight into the elite and how their wealth was acquired but there is much more going on in Putin’s Russia than you will find in this book, so “when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.” Well, it seems this is not the book to read if you really want the dope on what’s going on in Russia. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Piketty for Progressives (Part Six and Last)

Piketty for Progressives (Part Six  suite et fin)
Thomas Riggins

14. The Theoretical and Conceptual Framework of Piketty’s Book

In this next to last section of his Introduction Piketty presents some autobiographical information that he thinks will be helpful in seeing how his views developed. This information is about his subjective emotional experiences  and not at all on scientifically based views nevertheless,  the information is interesting and helps to explain many of his attitudes. It is a section more about what he calls his “intellectual itinerary” than about theory, as we shall see.

He tells us he turned 18 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and was part of that generation who listened to the news of the fall of the Communist dictatorships and who had no affection or nostalgia for any of them including the Soviet Union.
An older generation who remembered it was the Communists who ran the underground against the Nazi occupation of his country and the Soviet Union which basically single handedly defeated Hitler’s Germany and liberated most of Europe from Nazi control might have had a different reaction. But it is a characteristic of callow youth to have no historical memory. He was, at 18, he says, “vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism….” The disease infecting young minds in Paris at the time, however, was anticommunism not anticapitalism and it appears the young Piketty got the wrong inoculation.

Piketty is a firm believer in bourgeois democracy and supports a social order based on democratic debate which will provide equal justice to all under the rule of law. He appears innocent of the struggle based on class conflict aimed at ending the exploitation of working people resulting from the expropriation of their surplus labor power by a class of social parasites which has control over the means of production and distribution. This accounts for the popularity of his book.

At the age of 22 he had a decisive experience. Having just been awarded his PhD he got a job at MIT and, as he puts it ,“I experienced the American dream.” This was extremely fortunate for him because as an economist he must be aware  that the majority of Americans never get to experience the ‘’American dream’’ (except as a dream).

The dream, however, wore off and by age 25 he knew he wanted to go back to France. One of the reasons he left was he was not convinced by the work of US economists and he realized, despite his early successes that he “knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems.” Economists didn’t seem to have much interest in history and turned out theories without realizing what facts had to be explained. 

Piketty thought that the field was still addicted to a childish fascination with mathematical models which created the illusion of science without its substance due to the lack of proper historical research and contextualization of factual material. Piketty decided he wanted to do research and discover the data that was necessary in order to do mature scientific work in economics.

It seems that American economists and French economists share a tendency to think they are being scientists while in fact “they know almost nothing about anything.” This doesn’t seem to bother American economists but it does the French and as a result they have made great efforts to communicate  and collaborate with other disciplines— sociology, anthropology, history, political science, perhaps even (shudder) philosophy.

The fact is that Piketty thinks economics “should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them.” His book is an attempt to advance this cause and he considers it just as much a history book as one on economics. He tells us that anyone, with a little effort, will be able to understand his book (there is minimal jargon) and come away with a clear understanding of the historical developments that form the background to his theories on the growth of income and inequality in the modern world.

The last section of the Introduction deals with the 

Outline of the Book

Piketty’s book is organized as follows:

Introduction [covered by this series of articles]

Part One— two chapters  to go over basic ideas to be used later in the book.

Part Two— four  chapters  on the future of the capital/income ratio and the division between nations of the future income between labor and capital.

Part Three— six chapters on the structures of inequality both within and between nations and the future possibilities of wealth distribution internationally over the next few decades.

Part Four— four chapters on conclusions and policy suggestions on how to handle the problems of income inequality.

Piketty admits, and shows, that all the subjects that he is writing about are basically  "deeply unpredictable.”  Not a good inducement to spend a lot of time going over these four parts. He also tells us that “ history always invents its own pathways” and that the “usefulness” of the lessons he has drawn from his research  “remains to be seen.”

Finally there is a conclusion in which Piketty sums up his position, decides that Marxism is old hat, and advocates for a more robust democracy  “if we are ever to regain control over capitalism.”   

There is no doubt that inequality and exploitation is increasing. There is an historically, I believe, tried and true explanation of these phenomena and a solution to the the human misery they cause. It is be found in the works of Karl Marx and his followers who have studied the capitalism of the past and present and have demonstrated that the system cannot reform itself sufficiently to ward off existential disaster and must be replaced by a socialist order. 

Piketty, as well as other establishment economists who think capitalism can solve its own problems within the system, will continue to put forth alternative explanations opposed to those of the Marxist economists. Whether these alternatives are mere fads of the moment or useful counter-theories, indeed, remains to be seen.

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" (Part Five and Last)


Niall Ferguson on Kissinger’s World Order (Part Five)
Thomas Riggins

We conclude with Ferguson’s opinions considering Kissinger’s views on what the real lessons are concerning world order that we have learned from the practice of American foreign policy since 1945. Basically we learn that American idealism + traditional balance of power = world order (as far as possible). Kissinger writes:

“Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement into a test of strength; ambition will know no resting place; countries will be propelled into unsustainable tours de force of elusive calculations regarding the shifting configuration of power. Moral proscriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend towards either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering the coherence of the international order itself.”

This is a rather garbled mess and it is difficult to understand what Kissinger is trying to say.  Ferguson , explicating Kissinger, comments that America’s “bloodiest failures” [bloodiest for the victims not for us by the way] resulted from the US putting moral considerations “above the balance of power.”  The defeats he refers to are those of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Can this be what Kissinger or Ferguson really believe?  If so they do not even have the simplest idea of what morality is. What was "moral" about dropping Napalm, Agent Orange and other chemicals on Vietnamese children?

I can believe that Kissinger is totally amoral and I hope Ferguson has a shred or two of the moral sense here and there.The mass slaughter of the civilian population in both Korea and Vietnam carried out by the US in truly Hitlerian proportions, the war of choice waged by Bush in Iraq and the current droning of women and children in the fields, at wedding parties and funeral processions, the obscene ratio of “collateral damage’’—i.e., murder of innocent civilians, perpetrated by the US in Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen where children were deliberately targeted) is the morality of the SS and the Wehrmacht of WW II— it is not an example of “American idealism.”  

I can’t think of any instance in which, since 1945 (or even before)  the US has put moral considerations above realpolitik considerations concerning the “balance of power.” It’s not  just the US. I can’t think of any nation, with the exception of Cuba since 1959, that has done so.

To protect US interests Kissinger proposes a secret treaty with China and uses nineteenth century models (the Treaty of 1839 on the neutrality of Belgium) to put forth deals with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep it it from being controlled by “jihadists.”

For someone influenced by Kant’s Perpetual Peace Kissinger seems to forget that Kant rejected secret treaties as a violation of the rights of the citizens of a state to have sufficient knowledge of their constitution to be able act as free citizens and participate in the social life of their country rather than be used as means instead of as ends by their rulers. No treaty that needs secrecy to succeed is moral for Kant.

Anyway, Ferguson points out these suggestions would only be workable in a broader context both realistic (a workable balance of power) and idealistic. The ideal of preventing a third world war may be more important than avoiding climate change, we are told. There are two things wrong with this. First, even contemplating the need to prevent a third world war is to reveal a subtext that sees China, and perhaps Russia as well, as existential threats to US interests and that the balance of power the US aims at will be weighted in its favor. This is the same old imperialist junk Kissinger has always pushed. Second, climate change poses an existential threat to the whole planet which is just as threatening as a third world war, maybe more so as climate change is happening now and a third world war is a future speculation based on viewing the world through nineteenth and twentieth century lenses by which we can only see the world as dark and blurred.

Kissinger advocates, as he says, “a modernization of the Westphalian system informed by contemporary reality.” But the contemporary reality is an über-powerful US which basically does what it wants and only gives lip service to the idea of a World Order in which it is not the dominant and all determining power. No “Westphalian” system can be so based. World Order is only possible by a strengthened United Nations in which the US is willing to share power with the rest of the world  and submit itself to universal rules to which all are subject. What could induce the US to do this— to actually put moral considerations on the same level as brute power considerations? 

Kissinger says the next president must answer this basic question; “What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance?”  But this is a question for the American people to answer. Right now they are so divided and kept ignorant of the realty of the world they live in (state secrets, rotten education, semi-literacy, news networks that only spew forth propaganda, crazy religious illusions, you name it) they are incapable of arriving at a consensus. In reality the 1% will continue to answer the question with a president that represents their interests primarily.

But this is the fundamental question. Until the American people unite around their interests, the interests of the 99% (metaphorically speaking) and arrive at a consensus about the sort of country and world they want to live in— one that fosters the well being of all working and laboring peoples and not just the tiny group at the top of society, until then the US will have a foreign policy geared towards war and domination as it has at least since 1945, and the Kissingers of the future  will ensure that there will be no chances of a world order based on human dignity and peace.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's "World Order" Part Four

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's World Order  [Part Four]
Thomas Riggins

Ferguson now criticizes the ideas expressed by Obama in his New Yorker interview. Obama said a “new equilibrium” could be reached if Iran would be more cooperative so it could work with the Sunni Gulf States [what about Saudi Arabia and the US being more cooperative vis a vis Iran as well] and if the Palestinian  “issue” could be “unwound’’ [all the US has to do to do this is put some real pressure on Israel to follow international norms and obey UN resolutions]. Then Israel could work towards alliances or normal relations with the Sunni states [why not with the Shia as well; all Israel’s problems stem from its oppression of the Palestinians].

Ferguson rejects Obama’s ideas because, he asks, why would the states in the region cooperate to produce equilibrium when any of them might attain “hegemony” over the others. This is a really lame objection to Obama’s ideas— it stems from the knee jerk reaction that anything Obama does or says must be criticized. There is no evidence that any of the states in the region is striving to attain “hegemony” — they are all trying to defend themselves and their internal status quo but their own internal policies generate opposition which they all try to lay on their neighbor’s doorstep. The only country trying to exert hegemony in the region is the US as the following quote from Kissinger reveals (which Ferguson thinks is directed at Obama): 

“Even were such a constellation [equilibrium] to come to pass, it could only be sustained by an active American foreign policy. For the balance of power is never static; its components are in constant flux. The United States would be needed as a balancer for the foreseeable future. The role of balancer is best carried out if America is closer to each of the contending forces than they are to each other …. America can fulfill that role only on the basis of involvement, not of withdrawal”

This is just a modernized version of the old British policy of divide and rule which was used to pacify India and other colonial regions. It is ridiculous because the US is one of the contending parties itself and it can’t be a balancer because all its policies are imbalanced in favor of Israel and its own imperial economic interests in the region. There will never be peace in the region as long as the US is actively involved. 

Why anyone takes Kissinger seriously is a mystery. Of those he has influenced it can truly be said: “Devastation and destruction are in their highways. They do not know the way of peace, And there is no justice in their tracks; They have made their paths crooked, Whoever treads on them does not know peace.’’

At this point Ferguson moves from considering Kissinger’s views on the Middle East to his views on developments in Asia. Here again Kissinger (and Ferguson) demonstrate their (and presumedly the foreign policy establishment’s) complete
lack of understanding of what is happening in the world and why.

Kissinger sees two balances of power forming in Asia; one in the south the other in the east. Here is his quote: “Under contemporary conditions essentially two balances of power are emerging: one in South Asia, the other in East Asia. Neither possesses the characteristic integral to the European balance of power: a balancer, a country capable of establishing an equilibrium by shifting its weight to the weaker side.”

It is the rising power of China in East Asia that is problematic. Kissinger attempts to understand balance of power possibilities in this region by harking back  to nineteenth century European balance of power deals. He writes, “the United States is an ally of Japan and a proclaimed partner of China [they are actually rivals] — a situation comparable to Bismarck’s  when he made an alliance with Austria balanced by a treaty with Russia.” 

This was a complex secret treaty arrangement whereby Russia and Germany would remain neutral if one of them went to war with a third party— unless France was attacked by the Germans or Austria-Hungary by the Russians. This treaty was signed in 1887 and Kissinger says its later abandonment led to World War I. The question is, can such a secret treaty (that will protect Japan) be made with China? [That is all we need, a secret treaty between the US and China of which the American people will be ignorant!— and Wiki Leaks is the enemy?]. 

The only thing that would prevent this secret deal, at least on the US side is, Kissinger says, according to Ferguson, the “pernicious legacy of Woodrow Wilson.” This legacy, Kissinger writes is “an elevated foreign policy doctrine unmoored from a sense of history or geopolitics.”  Wilson gave Americans a false sense of security in the belief that they could avoid foreign entanglements due to his views on collective security. 

The only thing “pernicious” here was the US’s failure to join the League of Nations and make it robust enough to have prevented Italian and German aggression, not Wilson’s ideas. Here is a quote from Kissinger illustrating his critique of Wilson (the ellipses are due to Ferguson):

“Collective security … is a legal construct addressed to no specific contingency. It defines no particular obligations except joint action of some kind when the rules of peaceful international order are violated. In practice, action must be negotiated from case to case …. The idea that in such situations countries will identify violations of peace identically and be prepared to act in common against them is belied by the experience of history …. An alliance [by contrast ] comes about as an agreement on specific facts or expectations. It creates a formal obligation to act in a precise way in defined contingencies. It brings about a strategic obligation fufillable in an agreed manner. It arises out of a consciousness of shared interests, and  the more parallel those interest are, the more cohesive the alliance will be.” 

This quote shows why we need a supra-national organization to enforce world order, an ideal that Bertrand Russell advocated for many years. One of the reasons world order collapsed the way it did in the wake of World War I may have been the weakness of the League of Nations not the concept of collective security. 

There are design flaws in the UN which prevent it from being an effective supra-national origination that could maintain world order. These have to do with the Security Council with its veto wielding five permanent members who think of the UN as an organization to further their particular national (i,e, class) interests. The US, especially, as the number one rogue nation, ignores the UN and world opinion in general whenever it decides its own interests trump what the majority, even when the overwhelming majority of humanity, thinks it is violating what is right and decent (its treatment of Cuba [recently modified for the better], its oppression of the Palestinians, its unilateral interventions in other countries, its support of fascist regimes repressing their own people, its use of the veto to defy world opinion, are only the most prominent examples that come to mind.) This behavior is due to the use of alliances and treaties so beloved of Kissinger rather than honestly working within the UN framework as it was envisioned to maintain a peaceful world order through collective security. [The larger explanation for US behavior is to be found in Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, but that is a different review all together.]

Ferguson says that in all of Kissinger’s works there is a recognition that realpolitik doesn’t always work and that successful foreign policy can’t be based solely on pragmatism. Kissinger says that we must make “conjectures” when we engage in making foreign policy we “need to gear actions to an assessment that cannot be proved when it is made.” In other words Kissinger advocates a foreign policy based on pragmatism plus folly. It was surely folly to assess that the Vietnamese would welcome the US and reject Ho Chi Minh, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that we could transplant “democracy” to the Middle East and to Afghanistan, that Fidel would be overthrown by his own people if we invaded at the bay of Pigs, that Allende was a soviet style communist— the list goes on.

Ferguson thinks Kissinger is a mixture of idealist and realist, and more similar to the idealism expressed in Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace than the realism of Machiavelli. I don’t think anyone reading Kant would conclude that Kissinger was anything other than the thug and goon type of statesman Kant was horrified by and who was portrayed so accurately by Christopher Hitchens in The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

In our next, and last, installment we will look at Kissinger’s views on American “idealism” as expressed more in his actions than his words.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Niall Ferguson on Kisssinger's "World Order" [Part Three]

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger's World Order  [Part Three]
Thomas Riggins

Ferguson points out a basic question that Kissinger asks regarding our ability to understand international order. “Is there a single concept and mechanism logically uniting all things, in a way that can be discovered and explicated … or is the world too complicated and humanity too diverse to approach these questions through logic alone, requiring a kind of intuition and an almost esoteric element of statecraft?”  

This is a meaningless jumble of words. Logic is a method for determining the validity and soundness of arguments not a method for discovering how the world works. Discovery is basically an empirical affair of data collection from which generalizations can be made based on the coherence and correspondence of the data to our experience and understanding of its significance.

Kissinger does not think that "logic" can do the trick of understanding the world order but his alternative is not likely to do the trick either. Ferguson says Kissinger opts for “intuition” (the Muslims are yearning for us to intervene in their part of the world—oops wrong intuition) and the almost “esoteric” or the secret mysterious  ways of seeking out the truth. If we follow these ideas, I don’t think we will be seeing an improvement in US foreign policy any time soon.

Ferguson gives an example of Kissinger’s intuition— it can’t be demonstrated, but here it is. The “players” in “the great game of foreign policy” make their moves based on their understanding of history made by a “deep study of the past.” Since the US has made so many foreign policy mistakes it must be due to a “shallow” study or no study of the past. But wait— it doesn’t seem to be the history of the world or other countries that is the issue, but rather “self-understanding “ of your own history.

The US only needs to know its own deep history not, for example, the history of the Middle East to play the game there. Kissinger says, “For nations, history plays the role that character confers on human beings.” So don’t trust those Germans, Adolf, you know who, is still there lurking about in their esoteric intuitional subconscious. This is bad intuition. We get nowhere with the equation Tsar = Stalin = Putin or Russian Empire = Soviet Union = Russian Federation. 

Nations are not people anymore than corporations are and the human character cannot be applied to them. It is not an esoteric element we need to master but concrete social forces that can be studied in a scientific way. Looking at class struggles and economic interests and who wants to exploit whom will better explain how the “great game” is played. 

At this point there follows a long section about earlier works by Kissinger and more indulgent fawning over his ideas. To show what a great thinker Kissinger is I will resume this review with Ferguson's discussion of his views on Islam. 

From it's very beginnings Islam was, Kissinger says, "a religion, a multiethnic superstate, and a new world order."  In dealing with the Islamic Middle East today Ferguson says he has never seen Kissinger so critical of Bush and Obama as well as of Saudi Arabia. Here is his critique of the Saudis. The Saudi's have a very reactionary fundamentalist form of Islam as their state creed (Kissenger calls it "austere") and they have been supporting jihadists and fundamentalists around the world (some of whom are enemies of the US).

Kissinger says they have been making a great "error" in thinking they could support reactionary Islamist groups abroad and not have these groups also turn against them. The US, by the way, had this experience: it supported the most horrible Islamist terrorist groups you could imagine against the Soviets in Afghanistan only to have them turn against it after the Soviets were gone. 9/11 was an act of the US's Frankenstein's monster. The Saudi's can expect the same.

What isn't mentioned in this review is that Saudi Arabia is a medieval despotism that denies even basic democratic rights to its citizens. But the US is an ally of the Saudi state and thus itself a big supporter, de facto, of medieval despotism. Kissinger's criticism of the Saudis applies as well as to his and his successors attitudes toward that barbaric kingdom. It is love of oil, however, that is the true religion motivating US policy not engaging with  Islam.

Ferguson says Kissinger thinks the greatest problem for world order today is the sinking of the Middle East into sectarian strife. He doesn't mention that US policy is one of the major causes and supports of this strife which it promotes to justify its continued political (and military) interference. War and war profiteering is big business domestically. 

Instead, Ferguson says, regarding Kissinger's views,  "Even as the Sunni monarchies struggle to defend themselves against a rapidly metastasizing jihadist 'cancer'  that is in a large measure their own creation, Shia Iran edges steadily closer to being a nuclear-armed power."  What does one have to do with the other?

The main struggle of the Sunni monarchies is, however, against their own people who want democratic rights--- a struggle the US does not support as the case of Bahrain shows. The  "jihadi" threat is a cover for the repression of democracy. All talk about Iran's drive for nuclear weapons is meaningless blather as long as Israel is allowed to have nuclear weapons with no protest from the West.  


We will continue this review in part four.