George Friedman’s December 2014 interview with the Kommersant newspaper in Moscow, republished in English on Russia-Insider and other alternative media, has attracted considerable attention among pundits. The founder and CEO of Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor, an information and analysis service, made a number of remarkable assertions on the origins of the present confrontation with Russia over Ukraine which the chatting classes simply could not ignore.
Among the gems, we find Friedman’s matter-of-fact statement that the United States was behind the coup d’etat of February 21, 2014 which overthrew the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich and brought to power the extreme nationalists and pro-Western forces of the Maidan. He tells us that in doing so the United States was merely looking after its national interests and serving its hundred-year-old policy of preventing any nation from becoming a hegemonic power on the European continent, which Russia was showing a potential and an intention to achieve.
The origin of U.S. misgivings over Russia, the determination that Russia had to be contained or disrupted or distracted by new security threats Friedman identifies with the Syrian conflict a couple of years ago, when Russia demonstrated it was capable of exerting significant influence and acting contrary to American plans in the Middle East, an area of strategic importance.
His reputation for heading a “Shadow CIA” (Barron’s description of Stratfor) made Friedman’s stress on Realpolitik drivers for U.S. foreign policy appear to be the voice of Washington, telling us the real story of what is going on.
In Friedman’s analysis, there is no personal dimension. Obama is bound hand and foot; he is doing what any American president would have to do in the face of rising Russia. There is no “Tsar Putin,” no “mafia state.” Instead Friedman says simply: “It's a matter of the fundamental divergence of the national interests of two great powers.”
Friedman’s statements are all the more intriguing to commentators on Russian-American relations, because they run roughly in parallel with the explanations of the conflict which that consummate practitioner of Realpolitik, Vladimir Putin, gave repeatedly in his major public appearances from October to December last year.
The problem with taking Friedman as the ultimate insider is that what he is saying runs smack into the conventional wisdom of the chief actors in Washington responsible for formulating and approving our foreign policy, as well as for explaining it to the nation: the President, the presidential administration, the Secretary of State and his assistants, the U.S. Senate. That wisdom states flatly that Realpolitik, balance of power thinking are shop-worn remnants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this view, we have moved on to values-based foreign policy, otherwise known as Idealism or Liberalism.
This dogma was so entrenched that when the Russians made their move in the spring of 2014 to change European borders ‘by force’ (if we believe the Washington narrative) and take back Crimea, it sparked a debate among the court philosophers of our foreign policy establishment. Was Realpolitik making a comeback and putting in question the End of History beliefs of the Neoconservatives, the key promoters of Idealism?
In his contribution to the debate set out by Foreign Affairsmagazine in its May-June issue - “The Return of Geopolitics” – Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry reminded us that the global architecture of financial, defense and other liberal institutions that the U.S. put in place at the start of the Cold War had continued to build out after the Cold War ended. They managed geopolitics as designed, maintained the American empire even if this was not understood by Francis Fukuyama’s followers, who saw a conflict-free future now that ideology-based conflicts had been resolved once and for all.
However, the September-October issue of FA carried an article by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer (“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault.”) in which Liberalism/Idealism is described as ideological blinkers of our political leadership that led us to misjudge the Russians on NATO and cross their red lines, leading to the present confrontation.
In the rebuttal to Mearsheimer in the November-December issue ofFA, Michael McFaul denounces Realpolitik generally, while Stephen Sestanovich claims that the US, like Russia, is not a pure play in its foreign policy, and that it follows national interest, meaning old-fashioned power politics, even if it talks a Liberal policy line.
What are we to make of this?
It raises the question of who really is in control of U.S. foreign policy. Is it the silent minority who believe in an interest-based policy, or is it the voluble majority who insist that democratic, free market values must drive policy, that peaceful relations are only possible between states that the U.S. qualifies as democratic and that other regimes must be overthrown.
And why does this matter? It is important because the Realist school, by its nature, looks for compromises in a context of ever changing alignments between states, whereas Idealism, with its emphasis on universal values, leaves no room for compromise and flux.
It would be very reassuring if the President, John Kerry, Samantha Power and Susan Rice spoke like George Friedman. However, they do not, and this is one of the reasons why serious observers of the present confrontation like Mikhail Gorbachev are expressing alarm over the possibility of the present Cold War moving into new directions, namely a hot war between the U.S. and Russia, with unforeseeable and possibly catastrophic consequences.
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide.
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