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Are Russia And The West Polar Opposites Or Two Sides Of The Same Coin

"The prospects for democracy emerging, let alone flourishing, are not great where the real structures that people relate to are the family, clan and tribe, and then the much broader overarching idea of Islam as a unifying religion and Arabic as a unifying language. There is, it seems, no intermediate entity to command loyalty, a fact which stands in marked contrast to the nation state in the Western European model. The implications here are twofold. Putin's argument that democracy cannot be simply transplanted may look self-serving, but it has much history behind it. The West should recognize this and not expect Russia to become a constitutional state- at least not yet. It remains to be seen whether Russia will follow the usual pattern, whereby increasing personal income will lead to demands for political expression and democracy - assuming there is no major collapse in energy prices." Photo courtesy AFP.
by Ian Pryde, for RIA Novosti
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Mar 07, 2007
After returning to Frankfurt after my first extended stay in Moscow in 1988, my German Russian teacher agreed with my observation that the reality in the Soviet Union bore little relation to the impressions we gained from Western academic work and, especially, the Western media. Little has changed.

A few years ago, an American Sovietologist and former aide in the Reagan White House said to me that "as soon as most Westerners arrive in Russia, the blinders come on and they suspend their critical faculties."

International reactions to President Putin's speech in Munich proved the point once again. Rich, advanced and democratic, the West sees itself as superior in all respects to poor, backward and authoritarian Russia.

So his assertion that U.S. foreign policy had increased global instability and his question, "Against whom is NATO's eastward expansion directed?" were met with the usual cliches about "the Russian bear growling" and the ad hominem argument that having suppressed the media, Putin was anti-democratic and hypocritical.

Martin Wolf, writing on February 21 in the Financial Times, claimed Putin had taken Russia "back to the future" by his assault on dissident oligarchs, his reassertion of state control in the economy and the reallocation of rents to the secret police. East European countries, Wolf said, want to join NATO because Russia had brought oppression and mass murder to its neighbors, as it was now doing in Chechnya.

Quoting with approval a paper co-written by Douglass North, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, he goes on to argue that Russia is an example of a "limited access order," in which an elite uses the political system to create rents and then uses the rents to stabilize the political system.

This, of course, stands in marked contrast to Western societies, which have "open access orders," allowing competition in the economy and politics.

There is much truth in Wolf's claims, but there are also two big problems: there are egregious sins of omission, and there are no policy recommendations on how to get from a "limited access order" to an "open access order." In other words, how do non-Western states become Western-style liberal democracies? Can they, indeed, make this change?

Wolf's claims reflect widespread Western beliefs about Russia's security, history, politics and future development, but a closer look reveals that these assumptions are not quite accurate.

Russia - a conciliatory power with legitimate security interests

One imperative behind Russia's imperial expansion in all directions has been its own security in the featureless vastness of Eurasia, where few natural barriers stand in the way of invaders. Russia was under the Mongol yoke for 300 years, and Napoleon and Hitler's armies drove deep into the country.

As Norman Davies pointed out in God's Playground, his magisterial history of Poland, the Anglo-Saxons have the luxury of living on their own islands and continents and therefore usually fail to understand the security concerns of Europeans.

America has two countries on its two land borders. Russia has to contend with thirteen - fourteen counting Japan, fifteen counting the United States, and seventeen counting Iran and Turkmenistan across the Caspian Sea.

Writing in the early 1990s, Seyom Brown was one of the few American scholars bold enough to go beyond the American and Western triumphalism that claimed "we won the Cold War."

Brown pointed to the large number of unilateral concessions the Soviet Union made under Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, including acceptance of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, peaceful and rapid withdrawal of Soviet troops from the German Democratic Republic and Eastern Europe, Gorbachev's encouragement of political self-determination for Poland and the other countries of Eastern Europe (a.k.a. the Sinatra Doctrine - do it their way), allowing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and releasing East Germany, withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending subsidies to Cuba and reducing support to Nicaragua's Sandinistas.

As Brown says, "the end of the Cold War saved both sides a disastrous misallocation of resources. Rather than being forced to eat humble pie by its former adversary, the Gorbachev regime deserved substantial credit - not just in rhetoric, but in material resources - for its courage in unilaterally taking the steps required to bring to an end the mutually draining and planet-threatening superpower rivalry."

Brown's views are echoed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, both of whom have gone on record as saying the end of the Cold War was down to the Soviet side - although Hurd remains puzzled by how the Soviet Union could throw away its prize of Eastern Europe, the jewel in the crown.

Moreover, the Soviet Union's "withdrawal from Empire" was astonishingly peaceful and was achieved with few shots fired. Compare this with the violence that broke out in the Indian subcontinent in the late 1940s and French North Africa.

But as secretary of state from 1997, Madeleine Albright continued the "eat humble pie" line with her mantra that "Moscow does not have a veto over NATO expansion."

This may be perfectly true, but such attitudes are hardly conducive to dialogue and confidence building.

Many in the West may have forgotten the concessions the Soviet Union made, but the Russians - including President Putin - certainly have not.

It should surprise no one that after awaking from its hibernation in the 1990s, "the bear" is refusing to roll over on its stomach and accept the stationing of anti-ballistic-missile defenses in Eastern Europe.

Russia and Chechnya - and Stalin

Chechnya is of course the black spot on Russia's recent record. But it also shows the immense difficulty of defeating insurgencies - a problem that the British also found in Northern Ireland and Aden, the French in North Africa, and the Americans in Vietnam, to give just a few examples. And now, of course, the Americans and British in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wolf is right to say that the Baltic republics and East European countries are wary of Russia because of history, but there is a vast difference between Russian imperial history and the murderous regime and mass killings of the Stalin period. This might seem like splitting hairs to some, but it is nevertheless a crucial distinction.

Russia's problem is that in addition to its history, it has yet to learn the value of using soft power to its west - which is interesting considering it is more popular in Central Asia, where Imperial Russia's brutal suppression of the 1916 uprising in the region and Stalin's murders are less deeply ingrained in the collective historical memory.

American Empire in Denial vs. Russia Imperialism

Putin's comments could have become the starting point for a more serious debate about global security. In recent years, many commentators have noted that America is the only remaining superpower, some even claiming it is a hyper-power whose dominance over other countries is far greater than that of any other state in history, surpassing even that of the (much longer-lived) Roman Empire.

With America's military budget larger than those of the next 10 countries combined and military bases in over 100 countries, this might seem true at first glance.

But America's decision to expand its military budget yet further after 9/11 is fundamentally flawed. High-tech armed forces manned by soldiers whose lives cannot be risked in the fickle court of public opinion represent a waste of valuable resources because they are ineffective against counter-insurgencies and the kind of threats now posed by non-state actors.

Nor can a military function effectively when the political strategy is so flawed and neo-conservative wishful thinking replaces real expertise and analysis.

Moreover, America's increase in spending in its probably futile attempt to achieve 100% invulnerability is deeply worrying other countries, not just Russia, which fear they could become a target.

There is a risk here that mutual fears could become self-fulfilling and that an arms race could develop.

In his well-known "Melian Dialogue," Thucydides poses the question of whether weak Melos should submit to the stronger Athens. America cannot play the role of Athens, whereby the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must - the stakes nowadays are far too high.

As the world's predominant power, America must attempt to regain its credibility and move beyond an ideological foreign policy to provide leadership. Greater pragmatism, excellent diplomacy over the long haul and new approaches are required to manage new challenges as the world moves ever deeper into uncharted territory.

Western Liberal Democracy - forged in the crucible of war

It is ironic how many liberals and free marketers are blissfully ignorant of the role of war in the emergence of Western liberal democracy. It is a staple of first-year undergraduate history courses that the military revolution caused by advancing technology and changing strategy in medieval and early modern Western Europe necessitated ever larger (standing) armies, which in turn led to increasing centralization and greater tax-raising powers by the state as kings gradually won out over feudal barons.

More recently, few of the rich liberal democracies (and this includes Japan) have reached their present Nirvana without bloody civil wars, fascism or considerable social violence. The main exceptions are the smaller nations of Scandinavia and Switzerland.

Western Exceptionalism makes its democracy difficult to export

At the same time, the West has seen a level of political and economic thinking and contrarian ideas which seem oddly lacking in the intellectual history of Asia and the Arab world.

Political scientists, economists and the Western development community strongly believe in the role of institutions. Get these right, so the argument runs, and everything will be fine. So institutions can be easily transplanted anywhere.

But read the historians bold enough to move outside their narrow academic specializations and write about "the West," and it turns out that most emphasize its uniqueness, both during the classical Greek and Roman periods, and again during the Middle Ages. And this uniqueness is born of a unique combination of geography, environment, history, culture and so on.

The Roman law of continental Europe, for instance, developed organically over centuries, if not millennia, and probably derived its rationality from Greek philosophy in classical Athens. And it was classical Athens that developed a bourgeois democracy - a unique phenomenon apparently without parallel in any non-Western culture.

So while many political scientists and economists have argued that the secret of Western success lies in the Middle Ages or later, there are strong reasons for believing it goes right back to antiquity.

But if this view is correct, it makes it extremely difficult to transfer democracy and the free market outside the West. And indeed, Japan is the only large country outside the West which has managed the jump into the "premier division" in the last 100 years or so.

It is at this level that America and the United Kingdom made a huge mistake in Iraq and with the wider project of "Democracy on the March" in the Middle East. Arab society has been tribal since pre-Islamic times, and tribes are hardly conducive to democracy. As some Arab writers and scholars have observed, all Arab countries are collections of tribes masquerading under national flags.

The prospects for democracy emerging, let alone flourishing, are not great where the real structures that people relate to are the family, clan and tribe, and then the much broader overarching idea of Islam as a unifying religion and Arabic as a unifying language. There is, it seems, no intermediate entity to command loyalty, a fact which stands in marked contrast to the nation state in the Western European model.

The implications here are twofold.

Putin's argument that democracy cannot be simply transplanted may look self-serving, but it has much history behind it.

The West should recognize this and not expect Russia to become a constitutional state- at least not yet. It remains to be seen whether Russia will follow the usual pattern, whereby increasing personal income will lead to demands for political expression and democracy - assuming there is no major collapse in energy prices.

Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy and Communications, Moscow.

earlier related report
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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