Tag Archives: Crimea

Putin, Ukraine, and the Question of Realism

One year ago today, Russia annexed Crimea as part of what has become an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Writing in our spring issue, John Owen and William Inboden observe:

Although it has met with sanctions and other gestures of Western disapproval, Putin’s barely covert conquest (which the US government steadfastly refuses to call an invasion) plays well among his own people, and it will likely provide the Russian president with sufficient leverage to keep Ukraine from entering the EU or NATO. More ominously, it suggests how Putin may continue to behave in Russia’s near abroad, consolidating Moscow’s influence by creating further “frozen conflicts” in Russian ethnic enclaves such as those in Moldova and Georgia or by more brazenly undermining neighboring governments and seizing their territory.

For many in the West, the troubling events in Ukraine have raised the specter of a new cold war. A more apt and even more unsettling parallel comes from 1938. In that year, ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, stirred up by Nazi agitators, called for unification with Germany. With the acquiescence of Britain and France, Germany annexed the Sudetenland (having already absorbed Austria earlier in the year). The story ended, of course, as badly as any ever has: In March 1939, Adolf Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia, and in September invaded Poland. The move against Poland triggered the Second World War, the most destructive armed conflict in human history, a catastrophe far worse than the one Britain and France had sought to avert by appeasing Germany.

The similarities between 1938 and 2014 are not lost on Europeans today, particularly those in countries that once were part of the Soviet Union or were its satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. Reaction from Western Europe and North America was more cautious, but the alarm is unmistakable.

Owen and Inboden go on to explore the arguments of certain Western scholars who treat Putin’s aggressions as a reasonable and realistic exercise of national self-interest:

The point of comparing the academic realists of the 1930s with those of 2014 is, rather, to show that the thinking of both groups suffers from the same error: reducing international politics to nothing but a power struggle. Use of the term realism is significant here. For [Edward Hallett] Carr, realists are the ones who see things as they are; ideas about justice or welfare are really just contrivances of self-interest, signifying nothing. Utopians are those who mistakenly think that justice and welfare are more than words covering self-interest. Power is real, and all else is illusion.

Read the full article here.

John M. Owen IV is Ambassador Henry J. Taylor and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. William Inboden is Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Executive Director of the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas-Austin.

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The “end of history” thesis appears to have come to its final end in recent weeks. Certainly, the once-heralded spread of democracy and liberal values throughout the world is now looking far from inevitable.

Even before recent discouraging developments in—take your pick—Crimea (phony ballots and voter suppression before Anschluss), Turkey (farewell to Twitter, amid other suppressions of a free press), or Venezuela (jailed mayors and slain students), trend lines were not encouraging.  Freedom House, the reliable global monitor of such matters, reports 8 straight years of more declines in political liberties and civil rights worldwide than gains. Unfree and partly free countries now outnumber free ones 107 to 88. So much for Hegel (and Fukuyama), at least for the next half century or so.

What was so emphatically depressing about those Crimea ballots, shown above, (which allowed select voters the “choice” between joining Russia directly or joining it indirectly) was their dramatic illustration of another Freedom House finding: that “modern authoritarians” are suppressing all opposition even while maintaining the outward trappings of legality and democratic process (though quietly and insistently dismantling or dominating institutions that guarantee real pluralism, including legislatures, the judiciary, police and security forces, the media, civil society, and even the economy).

The Crimea nastiness focused the world’s attention on this new form of “managed democracy” because we saw it brazenly employed in a transnational land grab that violated most widely accepted principles of international law and national sovereignty. And if it could happen in Crimea (and tomorrow in other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine), why can’t our current crop of smooth autocrats use managed democracy to acquire whatever territories they set their eyes on. President Hamid Karzai, who harbors notions of bringing Pashtun regions of Pakistan into Afghanistan, has already endorsed Crimea’s annexation as the valid exercise of the principle of self-determination, and he’s not even thought to be an autocrat.

But if the world is turning into a bleak stage for the cynical manipulation and abuse of democratic principles for undemocratic, illiberal, or simply self-aggrandizing ends, then the United States cannot hold itself entirely blameless. We haven’t exactly been burnishing the image of democracy lately. Our recent governmental disfunctions, often driven by thoroughly unprincipled partisanship, have given people around the world good reason to think that democracy may not be a model system of reasonable, efficient, or even particularly virtuous governance. The rolling back of voter-rights protections in certain states and the imposition of new voting requirements in others raises questions about the depth of our commitment to core practices of democracy. And the growing power of money in politics has raised concerns about a drift toward patrimonial capitalism and even oligarchy.

All that said, reports of the death of American democracy are greatly exaggerated. Our system has come through other depressions, gilded ages, and even, as in the years preceding the Civil War, crippling bouts of political gridlock. What makes our current shortcomings so problematic and worrisome is that they now come under the intense scrutiny of friends and foes around the world, the former counting on us to serve as a model, the latter hoping we fail.

Even worse, we appear to be doing our very best to convince the world through our own cultural exports that our foes’ fondest wishes are coming true.  Speaking at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture a few weeks ago, Martha Bayles, author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, (a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review), made a sobering point about the huge popularity of the Netflix series House of Cards in China. A dark drama about corruption, intrigue, and murder in the highest corridors of power in Washington, the show particularly appeals to elite Chinese viewers who seem to take comfort in the fact that political life in America appears to be at least as rotten as their own.

House of Cards may be an extreme case, but as Bayles shows in her timely book, the decline of America’s public diplomacy efforts and institutions—which once vigorously promoted our strongest civic and political ideals—means that popular culture exports are now the main shapers of our image abroad. And when not glorifying violence, crime, or casual sex, most of these exports depict a people largely cut off from sustaining ties with family or community, completely absorbed in preening narcissim and seflish consumerism. So this, both friends and foes must think, is what American democracy hath wrought! Needless to say, the picture inspires neither emulation nor respect.

No, we can’t blame the world’s growing democracy deficit on Hollywood and other engines of American popular culture production. After all, television and film depictions of contemporary American society are not entirely caricatures. But we must at least recognize how little we do to correct the distorted picture of what our nation holds most dear. And how doing so little costs us, and the world, so much.

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