What is it about American foreign policy that constantly gets the U.S.
military involved in another country or region and then winds up with
our troops bogged down in a dimly understood local conflict? Are our
strategists and international experts missing something?
When other countries stir up trouble in Latin America or the Caribbean,
the U.S. regards this as a violation of its hegemony (the Monroe
Doctrine) in its home "sphere of influence." But we seem unable to
comprehend that other major countries have their own "spheres of
influence" in their regions -- Russia in Eastern Europe, Iran in the
Persian Gulf area, China in Asia, for example -- which they feel very
strongly about and are willing to defend by force of arms, if necessary.
Such U.S. ignorance (which derives from a belief that America as the
world's self-designated Good Guy and lone superpower can do whatever it
wants) inevitably leads to big trouble. For instance, even with the U.S.
spread thin and quagmired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the CheneyBush regime
seems anxious to provoke a major quarrel with a resurgent Russia in a
relatively minor regional dispute in the Caucasus.
In the midst of the juicy theatre of presidential campaigns, it might be
wise for all of us to step back and attend to that foreign-policy
reality and to consider the grim implications of a renewed Cold War
between the U.S. and Russia.
THE LARGER PICTURE
I'm not just referring to the contretemps over what's happening in the
Caucasus right now, especially with regard to Georgia. No, we're talking
about major realignments of political, economic and military forces
that, if not handled correctly, could put Russia and the U.S. into a
potential active conflict.
It's clear that John McCain and his neo-conservative backers would look
forward to such a confrontation; they thrive on crisis; it's where they
come alive and can roll out their black/white simplicities and threats
to use force, utilize an "enemy" as their way to increase their domestic
power, cranking-up the old military-industrial complex. And, at least
for the purposes of the election campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden
have joined in, using Russia as a bete noir and are warning
Russia to back off and back down and back away.
Part of the problem is that Superpower America continues to see the
world almost exclusively through U.S. eyes and thus is not taking into
account how the world appears to Russia and others. Thus, diplomacy is
ignored and the Cold War, and potential hot wars, draw closer. And, of
course, all this is taking place between two fading empires, as new
major powers emerge in Asia/South Asia (China, India). Russia and the
U.S., in effect, are battling for regional dominance before the new
movers and shakers are fully up to speed.
"SCARE HELL OUT OF AMERICAN PEOPLE"
To better understand the current Russia/U.S. clash in the Caucasus, and
why Russia is moving so aggressively in its perceived "sphere of
influence," we need a bit of historical context.
My area of concentration in graduate school was the origin of the Cold
War, and my dissertation was on the "Truman Doctrine," the governmental
policy that declared for the first time that the U.S. would launch a
global struggle against what was seen as a monolithic Soviet Empire bent
on worldwide communist domination.
Actually, President Truman in 1947 was mainly interested in a much
smaller issue -- sending financial and military aid to Greece and
Turkey, to keep them safely within the Western fold -- but was informed
by Senate Republican leaders that the only way he'd get a large-scale
aid-appropriation through Congress was to "scare hell out of the
American people." So Truman refashioned his message by talking about a
Soviet Union moving toward "worldwide domination" through the use of
force, a red menace that had to be stopped in its tracks before it
conquered the globe.
Thus the Truman Doctrine was born, Greece and Turkey got their money,
and the U.S. from that time forward was locked-into battling "world
communism" wherever it seemed to be raising its head. The result was
that the U.S. sent massive cash infusions to dictators all over the
globe who claimed they were "fighting communism." (Similar today to any
tinpot dictator who claims to be "fighting terrorism.") In reality, much
of that anti-communist U.S. money went into Swiss bank accounts or was
used to crush reform movements in those countries, the effect of which
was to push reformers toward revolutionary options. The debacle in
Vietnam can be traced back to the ramifications of that earlier Truman
Please don't misunderstand me. Stalinist communism (like fundamentalist
Islam today) was a despicably brutal, totalitarian system. And Stalin
was a monstrous authoritarian leader, who did entertain
theoretical/ideological dreams of communist uprisings abroad. But,
though he was a certifiable paranoid, Stalin was not a madman in how he
related to the outside world. Despite the conventional myth, he had no
desire or ability (don't forget that 20 million Soviet citizens lost
their lives in World War II) to take over the world by force
SOVIETS' NEED FOR A BUFFER
My research confirmed that Stalin was an old-style national leader who
wanted, at all costs, to protect the homeland and home base of
communism, which is why he was so desirous of controlling the Eastern
Europe countries and Baltic states as part of the Soviet empire. They
would serve as a protective buffer between the Soviet Union and Western
Europe, from whence three European leaders' armies invaded Mother
Russia: Napoleon, then Kaiser Wilhelm, and then Hitler.
Whenever confronted elsewhere, Stalin tended to back away, abandoning
local Communist Parties to the tender mercies of their enemies, the
example of the Greek Communist Party being a case in point. (My Master's
thesis, by the way, was on the Greek Civil War of that period.)
There was so much misunderstanding, misreading, among the Allies that
led to so much Cold War misery when WWII was over. And we're repeating
the pattern today. Just one contextual episode, which I've
Stalin couldn't understand why Truman and other Western leaders were
screaming so loudly about his harsh treatment of the Eastern Europeans
absorbed into his satellite-states buffer zone after the end of the war.
After all, he reasoned, the Americans and British had recognized his
right to control those states in the so-called "percentages agreement"
or "spheres of influence" agreement worked out in a secret Moscow
meeting in October 1944.
THE "PERCENTAGES AGREEMENT"
Short history: At that meeting, Churchill gave Stalin a piece of paper
on which he had written percentages of which allies in the post-war
period would control which countries in their "sphere of influence."
Since the Red Army was (or soon would be) effectively in control of most
of Eastern Europe, and neither the Americans nor Brits had the
wherewithal (or desire) to fight another massive war right after
defeating the Germans, they recognized the reality of Soviet boots on
the ground and gave Stalin 90% control of Rumania and so on, while the
Brits got 90% control in Greece, Yugoslavia was 50-50, etc. Stalin began
acting under this agreement during the final year of the war, and the
Americans and Brits likewise honored the percentages pact, seemingly
unconcerned about the brutal way Stalin was absorbing Eastern Europe
into the Soviet empire.
Upon the death of FDR, President Truman took over. After war ended and
with anti-communism affecting domestic politics, Truman began objecting
to the Soviet Union's harsh behavior in Eastern Europe. Stalin
interpreted the strong Western reaction to his unbridled use of power in
that "sphere-of-influence" region as reneging on a solemn agreement; his
paranoia convinced him that the West was out to try to overthrow him, so
he conceded that the "percentages agreement" was no longer in place and
began making life more difficult for America elsewhere in the world.
So there was that gross misunderstanding from the Soviet side. What
about the U.S.? Americans, including most government officials, had just
fought a war against one set of totalitarians and now were confronted
with another, in the form of Stalin's Soviet Union. They tended to see
this movement as monolithic and as aimed at world domination, so
anything the Soviets did was interpreted in that light.
The Soviets talked such a good game about "international communism,"
centrally directed from Moscow, that the Americans had no inkling that
something called "nationalist communism" existed, or even could exist.
If they had, they might have altered their foreign policy accordingly,
recognizing that Tito's communism in Yugoslavia was distinctly different
from Stalin's in Russia, from Mao's in China or from Ho Chi Minh's in
Vietnam. Antagonisms among and between Communist regimes abounded, and
nationalism almost always was stronger than a monolithic ideology. (An
analagous distortion today would be America viewing radical Islam
through the lens of a monolithic Al-Qaida, supposedly pulling all the
militant and terrorist strings around the world. If it ever was, it's
not that way now.)
After communism imploded in the Soviet Union and its satellite states in
the late-1980s, Russia went into a decade-long psychological and
economic tailspin. But Russia has climbed back, economically and
militarily stronger and determined to re-assert what it considers its
rightful superpower status in its "sphere of influence" and in the
world. And, once again, it sees its major threats coming from the West,
engineered mainly by the United States.
RUSSIA NERVOUS ABOUT MISSILES, NATO
The U.S., for example, is luring former Soviet-satellite countries
(Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, etc.) toward the European
Union and, especially frightening to Russia, into NATO, the military
pact originally set up to stop the Soviet Union from even thinking about
moving westwards. Putin, like Stalin, sees his country's "sphere of
influence" being violated, with Russia being ringed by potentially
hostile enemies, effectively controlled by the U.S. and other Western
This growing split between Russia and the U.S. has been
building since the early 1990s. with Putin, for example, warning the
U.S. not to position its missile-defense system in the former Warsaw
Pact states in Eastern Europe. But just the other day, Poland signed an
agreement to do just that (as did the Czechs earlier) and the Russians
are furious. The U.S. claims that the system is aimed at stopping
incoming missiles from rogue states like Iran, but few believe that
unlikely rationale. The Russians, not unrealistically, are convinced
that the missile-defense system is aimed at them, and is provocative in
the extreme, placed as it is right next to its borders. (Look how
freaked out the U.S. got in the early-1960s -- ready to go to war --
when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off
the American coast.)
When President Saakashvili ordered Georgian troops into South Ossetia
and Abkhazia, two ethnic-Russian regions inside Georgia that wished to
break away and be annexed by their Russian neighbor, Putin and Russian
president Medvedev ordered their "peacekeeping" troops (there under a
U.N. resolution) to resist and sent tanks and troops across the Georgian
border to occupy large parts of Georgia. Putin said he's convinced that
the Americans approved of their ally Saakashvili's invasion since the
U.S. has been building up Georgia for years with military weapons and
HIT THE BEAR ON THE NOSE
But whether the U.S. openly urged Saakashvili to invade, acquiesed to
it, or was somewhat surprised by it, the point is that the proxy
confrontation between Russia and the U.S. was on, and the two sides
began their move toward a dangerous renewal of the Cold War. Without
even acknowledging Georgia's brutal invasion of Ossieta and Abkhazia,
American leaders -- out of knee-jerk anti-Russianism -- started bashing
the Russian bear for its harsh occupation in Georgia, including
CheneyBush, John McCain, and Barack Obama/Joe Biden.
We'll probably never know for sure who "started" this current phase of
the long-simmering conflict between Georgia and Russia. This situation
there, and in the Caucasus in general, is infinitely complex, steeped in
nationalistic, tribal and ideological rivalries that are barely
understandable, and dangerous for Americans to get sucked into. But that
didn't stop McCain, a neo-con warmonger of the first order, from
immediately making ill-advised, threatening anti-Russia comments. (Not
incidentally, McCain's foreign-policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, up
until a few months ago was a lobbyist for the Georgian government and
his firm continues in that role.) Even the initially-cautious CheneyBush
Administration jumped into the name-calling and threatening, joined in a
bit later, with only slightly more sense of nuance, by the Democratic
nominee Obama. (Biden, in his acceptance speech, was even more outspoken
in his angry denunciation of Russia.)
Dick Cheney is
being dispatched to Georgia as a hard-line message to Putin
that the U.S. is not backing off its support of Georgia's anti-Russian
stance. The U.S. is moving toward isolating Russia, starting by kicking
it out of the G-8, blocking its ascension to the WTO, cutting back on
investments, etc. Even the conservative British journal The Economist
believes there are dangers in these kinds of moves that need to be
measured against possible consequences:
"Suspending business as usual should not be
pushed to the point that drives Russia into the sort of sulk that
will make its behaviour worse. Finding the line between disapproval,
pressure and continued engagement will be hard. ... But there is
vital work to be done -- on nuclear proliferation and arms
reduction, for example -- in which
the need for cooperation with Russia simply outweighs the need to
That intelligent prescription requires highly nuanced
diplomatic smarts -- and some understanding of Russia's perception of
its "sphere of influence" -- neither of which is much in evidence in the
nation's capital these days.
Because of the high stakes involved, our working alliance with Russia is
crucially important. We don't need to approve of their leadership, their
ambitions in their region, or how democracy is being compromised inside
Russia. But the U.S. does need their help in negotiations with Iran, for
example. Additionally, given the fact that the Russians still possess
thousands of nuclear missiles, one would have hoped for cooler U.S.
heads to prevail, that at least a move toward high-level diplomacy would
have been made before the harsh threats were issued.
But, no. It's an election season. The big verbal guns were hastily moved
into place and firing began, with Medvedev responding by recognizing the
"independence" of the two breakaway regions in Georgia and telling the
Americans they're not
afraid of a new Cold War. Russia says it will be deploying its
missiles at a wide variety of locations, and aiming them at Western
European capitals. The other day, it
test-fired a new ICBM designed to defeat an anti-missile system, as
a metaphorical warning shot across the bow of American policy.
In short, the two countries are not playing patty-cake here. The
evolving relationship with Russia is loaded with potentially explosive
dangers, and great care needs to be exercised to keep that relationship
on an even keel for the good of both countries, for Europe, and for
stability in the world. So far, good sense seems in short supply and
thus the two fading empires slide closer to confrontation and potential
Are you reading much about this in your local newspaper? Hear any
serious discussions about this on national TV? I thought not. The
politicians and mass-media are focusing on who's wearing a flag-pin,
Paris Hilton and what candidate is ahead by two points in the daily
poll. And thus we drift toward disaster.
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner