Tuesday, March 28, 2023

“How can we disabuse Russians of the notion that we want to break up their country?” 

by Ira Straus


That was what a US Government official asked me to address: How to convince Russians that it’s not true, when they say we’re out to break up Russia.

It’s the right question. An important one. And a hard one.

As long as Russians think that we’re trying to break up their country, they will view us as a mortal enemy. And large majorities say this is what they think we’re trying to do. It has consequences. It is used as a motive for the war in Ukraine.

How, then, can we convince them of the fact that this belief is mistaken? We have been failing in this, with severe consequences. We need to find ways to do better.

I will answer in two parts:

First, the setting. Distinguishing the real from the unreal in Russian perceptions. Regaining the capability, which we had during World War II, to recognize and correct the dangerously wrong things on our own side, without this detracting from fighting the evil on the other side. Resolving to deal with the problem.

Second, the steps – 7 in all – that we can take to fix the problem, as best it still can be fixed.


The setting: Real perceptions of an unreality

My interlocutor’s question was about a reality. Surveys show that Russians mostly believe that America is trying to destroy their country and break it up.

This Russian perception is not changed by the fact that Russian break-up has never been America’s actual policy; nor by the fact that the very idea is viewed as a horror by most Americans -- most American leaders, most government officials, and most of the general public. The idea is welcomed by very few Americans – far fewer than the numbers of people in Russia itself who want a break up.

Yet Russian believe they see a wish to break up their country in what we say and do. Their perceptions on this are important, even if wildly mistaken. It helps nothing to laugh them off as mere silliness. They have been a major factor in driving Russia to an anti-Western geopolitics, and to the present war.

A still more painful reality: Wildly off base though Russian perceptions are, they are not without plausible-seeming reasons. They do not seem off base to otherwise reasonable Russians. For us to figure out how to repair this situation, we have to figure out what we ourselves have been doing wrong to enable this impression to grow over the decades.

That is a difficult matter for us in America. It is hard to acknowledge things done wrong on our side, when we have good reasons to want to make clear that the other party is to blame. We feel a strong moral and practical concern to make that blame absolute, without any blemish on our side that might in any way be cited to place a qualification on it. Facing our own role in creating this belief feels antithetical to this, even if we all know, tautologically, that in the course of decades we have done far from everything right. In the present mood, many people will not even allow themselves to consider our flaws. Yet we have to.

Nevertheless, we did show we could do this same thing – fight an evil wholeheartedly, and face our own part in creating it -- in the past. We did it with Germany. Our elites not only acknowledged that we played a major role in driving Germany back to enmity after 1919; they figured out our mistakes in depth. We did this in the far worse conditions of the World War, when it felt absolutely necessary to blame everything on Germany. We did it without giving up any of our fighting fervor. It is the only reason why we did better after the second World War than after the first.

We must re-learn how to do it.

We have to not just face but embrace two truths: that Russia is dead wrong – wrong in its belief about our intention to break it up, deadly wrong in the policies it has built atop this belief -- and that we have done many things wrong that have helped bring Russians to these wrong beliefs. Only thus can we figure out, as we did for Germany, what to stop doing wrong, and what positively to do to fix the matter.

That’s hard enough. But we have to get past a second thought-obstructing reflex as well: our stereotypical refrains for silencing any thought or mention of our faults. “You’re saying we’re morally equivalent to Russia.” How often is that line heard! “You’re doing a moral equivalency.”

It’s an illogical refrain, to be sure. It is a matter in this case of there being “symbiotic” faults, not “symmetrical” faults or “equivalent” faults. It is typical for there to be symbiotic faults in a conflict – faults on both sides that feed on one another. Facing that fact has nothing to do with equating the faults. It simply has to do with understanding one of the dynamics at work.

There are always good practical reasons to be concerned about fixing the wrongs on one’s own side, even when fighting the wrongs on the other side. One cannot overcome the symbiosis if one fails this test. And it is always the reality that there are wrongs on both sides of any issue; the denial of this is not a matter of rejecting “moral equivalency”, but of rejecting self-awareness.

The wrongs today are very different on the two sides, yet actively symbiotic. They feed on each other. When we insist it would not be anti-Russian enough if we were to discuss and change what has been wrong on our part, we only make it harder to figure out how to stop Russia’s wrongs.

It should not be necessary to say this, but in the present climate, it has to be said that I have written more than my share of articles on how to defeat Russia in this war, and done so more “militantly” than most of the militant Russia-haters. I have said this where it matters to say it, which is not in the present article. My goal is to win, not to vent anger.

My aim in this article to show -- those of us who really want to win, and who really want to get a defeated Russia to be a friendlier Russia -- what we can do at this late date to overcome Russia’s deadly wrong beliefs. We can’t do that if we refuse to understand how the beliefs were formed, or blind ourselves to our own role.

It is a painful subject, to be sure. We are not completely innocent. There are several specific ways in which we have helped create this misperception. One could start with the publicly available information that some Americans – including some current lower-level government officials, government-funded broadcasters to Russia, politicians, mainstream media journalists, human rights activists and organizations, and above all, a couple very prominent ex-government figures -- have spoken and written favorably about Russian break-up. They are a small minority, but a very visible one for Russians.

Wrose, this minority has gotten very little push-back from the “normies”, the people in government and media who don’t want Russia to break up. The normies have mostly ignored them or brushed them off, thinking of them as a silly embarrassment on this subject. Meanwhile the breaker-upers have been happy to make a big splash.

The pro-break-up figures have done a lot to help Russian nationalists convince themselves that America is trying to break their country into separate pieces. How, my interlocutor was wondering, can we undo the harm?

It was the right question.


We’re late to address this question. It won’t be easy.

We have to recognize that harmful impressions aren’t easily dispelled. That’s true even when one makes a real effort and does it in good time; but we have neglected to do that. We’ve let the belief compound on itself for decades. It won’t be nearly easy for us to undo even part of the impression today as it would have been in the late Yeltsin and early Putin years. It will require a large, concerted, continuing effort. And even with a very large effort, far from all Russians will find it convincing at this late date.

How has the belief in our break-up intentions compounded on itself? It started out as a meme among extreme nationalists in 1991, who blamed us for the break-up of the USSR and said we were moving on to break up Russia next. It became semi-mainstreamed in 1999, when we bombed Serbia over Kosovo; Russians were out in the streets demonstrating in large numbers and saying we’d be bombing Moscow next over Chechnya. Since then, it has spread to the full mainstream, and become increasingly ingrained as a set assumption about what our objectives are.

We are lucky that, before the break-up of 1991, President Bush gave a speech in Kiev against “suicidal nationalism”. Were it not for that, far more Russians would have agreed with the ultra-nationalist fringe and believed from the start in 1991 that we were behind the break-up of the USSR.

But American supporters of the national-democratic movements in the republics of the USSR hated the Bush speech. They derided it as the “Chicken Kiev” speech.

No American president has done anything comparable since then. It was the last time that PR wisdom was shown on the subject. After that, we let the belief spread unhindered that we supported break-up. We simply issued occasional denials, in a pro forma manner. It didn’t occur to us that we needed to try to convince anyone.

We could have done better on many occasions, regarding both break-up risks inside Russia proper and post-1991 issues in the former Soviet space. We didn’t. The one time Bill Clinton tried to, when he called Russia an ally in fighting terrorism and spoke positively of its concern to hold its country together, he was attacked viciously for it by our media and our NGOs. That was in a sense his most important base attacking him, and his moral lodestar; he looked up to it. He was weak before it. He hastily backtracked. We reverted to letting the media and NGOs speak in our name without active contradiction. And they left a strong impression of wanting Russia to break up – most of them misrepresenting their own intentions in the process, but they knew no other language, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

While we ignored the matter, in Russian eyes it looked like the evidence kept getting piled up supporting their belief that we were trying to break them apart. It still does. Every time some Americans talk about Russia breaking up, it gets added to this pile of seeming evidence. Every time American democratizers and reformers give advice to Russians that sounds like urging it to weaken their central government, it strengthens the belief in our wish to divide them. Every time America acts against Russia geopolitically, it gets added in their minds as a further factor encircling Russia and bringing more pressure to bear on it and push it toward collapse.

A vicious circle is already at work in this last point: it assumes that we’re trying to break Russia up, and from this it follows that every strengthening of the West vis-à-vis Russia will get seen as an additional pressure to break it up; as will every statement by a politician or pundit about Russian being an enemy; as will every speech about democracy. And so the premise grows ever stronger in the Russian discussion of the matter. Russians try to figure it out why America is doing this – trying to break up their country – and of course come up with more reasons to add to the pile for explaining it. Their reasoning itself piles up, one argument upon the other, no matter the falsity of most of the underlying evidence and arguments. The original foundations for the belief are long since buried under this pile. The layers of belief are mutually confirmatory and mutually circular.

It will be very hard at this late date to unravel the vicious circles, excavate the original reasons for the belief, isolate them empirically from all the associated layers of belief, and dispel them. But we have to try.

Continued neglect of the matter only allows the problem to grow worse. The costs of our negligence are right in front of us: It is a large part of the reason, alongside other ones that I’ll have to get to also, why we are facing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, with all its terrible consequences.

While the official America has done nothing serious over all these years to dissuade the fear-belief of Russians that we’re promoting break-up, the pro-break-up actors and publicists in America have kept actively feeding that fear and belief. We should realize that Russians hear those in America who advocate its break-up. This break-up Russia people may be few in America, but they are highly visible to Russians; there was Brzezinski at their head, and there is still Goble.

Who is Paul Goble? He is probably invisible to Americans, but probably not so invisible to Russians. He was for a time a top official in RFE-RL and VOA, the government sponsored radios that Russians can see “intervening” in their internal affairs every day. He also worked as an analyst for the State Department and CIA, advising on nationalist groups in Russia and the Soviet Union, or as Russians would see it, on sowing nationalistic dissension there. He is a bright person who talks with charm and wit, not a dumb bureaucrat. The USG had the good sense finally to drop him, but he has done a lot of harm, and he keeps doing it. Highly though I regard his intelligence, he has a view on this matter that is harmful to the US. Worse, he has been known to speak in the name of the US and say, in an authoritative tone, that USG policy does aim at Russia breaking up, no matter that it’s untrue. It was a wise step to drop him. We should follow up further on that step and get a clear orientation in our international broadcasting against promoting break-up.

Russians hear these people more clearly than we do. The nationalistic Russians who worry about this made a big thing of it when Brzezinski advocated that Russia dissolve into three areas, loosely associated or confederated, but one coming under primarily Chinese leadership, one Middle Eastern, the third remaining European. Mainstream Russians heard about it too from the nationalists. They have to take it seriously. They don’t laugh it off and forget it the way we tend to. Year after year, the words of our extreme anti-Russians keep confirming, in the mind of many a reasonable Russian, that this piled-up mound of fear is justified: that we are in fact the mortal enemies they fear we are, enemies who wish to break their country into pieces.

This brings to the third prerequisite: the pain of effort. Fixing this will require moral and intellectual effort of us. It is a genuine pain: the pain of recognizing that, false though the Russian conclusion is, we have done a lot to foster that conclusion. Whether we have done it carelessly or recklessly, with total innocence or with some malice aforethought in some circles: still, we have done it. We are not guilty as charged by Russians. But we have enough fault that we are going to have to go through some very painful reexaminations if we are ever to overcome this incredibly dangerous habit of ours.


That’s the negative side – the difficult prerequisites to get ourselves in gear to try to fix this. Now on to the positive part of this: What to do about it?


What can we do about it? 7 steps



1. A presidential speech to deny the accusation?

Yes, but no. It will do some good if only if we get beyond the whole concept of “denying it”. Simple denials are virtually useless for overcoming the ingrained Russian fears and beliefs about this. We have to persuade, and face the fact that a single speech will have only a limited effect.

President Biden has already made a perfunctory dry statement denying that Russian break-up is America’s purpose. It was not even an attempt to overcome Russians’ fears and phobias about us, just an official denial. If anything, it served as confirmation to Russians that he is just pro forma denying the obvious.

Would a solid, thoughtful speech by Biden on this subject help? A speech given with some passion, as when he shows an ample capacity for when he is out campaigning? One that also puts aside the attitude of disparaging Russia that he has expressed so often in the last 15 years, and instead shows a sympathetic passion? One that is well prepared in its substance, with some intelligent framing behind it, and some convincing evidence and reasons? One made not in a spirit of dry denial, but of convincing people of something? And that ends with some ideas for moving forward; or for refocusing Russians on the real dangers instead of the imagined ones?

Probably this would indeed help some, if Mr. Biden could be persuaded to do it.

Even then, to be sure, it would be only a beginning. It cannot be just a one-off. We would have to follow up on it persistently.

We will have to make a major, concerted, continuous effort to demonstrate the truth of the matter convincingly. And we may have to be satisfied with only a limited effect: making a dent in the mistaken fear of our intentions, but never dispelling it the way we’d like.

What needs to be done, then, going beyond the presidential speech on the subject? Following are some further lines of effort.



2.  Get over our prejudices for small is beautiful, advising always more decentralization

Get over the habit of our almost always urging a more decentralist attitude on Russia, in its center-periphery issues. Stop treating more decentralization as always the best answer. Given more advice – publicly, not just quiet technocratic stuff -- on how Russia can hold together more effectively, strengthen its central government, and overcome the excesses of decentralization that it has often suffered since 1991.

Do studies on how small is also ugly, in Russia (and elsewhere) – how its more autonomous regions are also more authoritarian, and the same with its more distinctive titular national regions.

I should acknowledge that I make a few brief comparativist analyses myself in the 1990s, and they clearly reached this conclusion. The evidence strongly supported the conclusion in the 1990s; our problem is that the West never drew the logical conclusion, and instead the “noisy West” kept telling Russia that it must decentralize further. I wrote about it back then under a “small is ugly” heading. Western studies on the regions demonstrated this conclusion very nicely, even providing strong quantitative evidence of it. But the Western scholars and institutions who made these studies drew no such logical conclusions from them; instead, they just went on advocating more decentralization. Why? Because it was their longstanding ideological prejudice that this is always the solution. They had an absolute lack of a theoretical framework for drawing any other conclusion. They lacked the intellectual capacity to even perceive the meaning of the results of their own data. They lacked the framework and language for comprehending it as a meaningful result, and for drawing the logical conclusions from it. They still do lack this.

We will need to find and hire for this purpose scholars and bureaucrats who actually understand the centralizing point of Madison’s Federalist No. 10, on why bigger is better for getting a liberal and stable democracy; who understand Hamilton on why bigger is better; who understand why the Enlightenment as a whole rejected the idealization of small city-states in favor of countries as far extended as was practical for efficient government; who understands why Hamiltonian Federalism overcame the one doubt in Hobbes about how far a government could extend without losing efficacy; and who understands that modern technology extends that range still farther, much farther than in the classical world. This brings us to …


Getting over the small is beautiful presuppositions in our academia and media, too

We need to get over this presupposition for our own sake, not just for the sake of ceasing to stoke paranoia in Russia. We don’t need to deconstruct our own country either. The danger of this deconstruction, which seemed marginal for 150 years following the civil war, grew significant again in the Obama and Trump years.

Russia will have a lot more confidence in us as a sober stable guide, if we stop giving ideological leadership to those who call for deconstructing ourselves. Our institutions need to stop promoting the idea of “decolonization” here as well as in Russia.

It’s not just the government. It’s our media, academia, and others too.


It seems our entire intellectual leadership would benefit from some re-education in basic history. It needs to read Douglass Adair on why Hume and Madison understood that bigger is better for a liberal democracy; or read Garry Wills’ popularization of Adair, and of the centrality of the Scottish Enlightenment, with its relatively hopeful pro-human outlook, for the Founders’ thinking. This scholarship has long been accepted at the highest level as the true account of the thinking of the Founders, yet at the same time has always remained the view of a small elite. The main part of academia remains divided between the Beard-Jensen progressive school of attacking the Federalists for anti-democratic elitism and embracing the small is beautiful Antifederalists on populist or socialist grounds, and a defensive patriotic school that is also ideological and combines a Federalism for defense against foreign powers with a small is beautiful patriotism on classicist and laissez-faire grounds.

Our intellectual world needs to realize that the small is beautiful doctrine is not the American tradition; it is radically new a post-1960s orthodoxy, despite several generations having been brought up on it since then as what everyone can assume in our public discussions, to the point of never even knowing that it replaced the main American tradition. It needs to remember that “bigger is better” was the American tradition for almost the entirety of our 425 years, from the colonial foundings as extensions of the British Empire to an interregnum after 1776, and from the refounding in 1787 to the 1960s; and that it is still embedded in our successful societal practices and institutions. It needs to remember why practically all of the Enlightenment philosophers held the same view as Hume; why it was the romantic authoritarian nationalists of the 1800s who started the small is beautiful stuff, which the New Left picked up on more than a century later.


Getting back from this general to the case of Russia:

Our media need to help, and stop harming us by spreading the impression that we’re always against the Moscow center and always for weakening the unity of Russia. That means practically all our media – mainstream media, US and BBC and W Europe, not just RFE/RL and VOA.

As long as our media are not being helpful here, we need our government to state strongly and repeatedly that the media speak for themselves and for their own ideological preferences, not for the USG; and that, no matter what impressions Russians might get from public media comments, the USG favors Russia holding together, because this is important for the American interest and for the world as a whole. We should spell these interests out convincingly.

This will not be convincing, however, if we do not make sure that at least US international broadcasting gets on board on this – especially RFE-RL and VOA. Personnel may need some cleaning up. Without censoring their important criticisms of Russia on all other issues, we need to make sure that they cease having a significant part of their staff with an attitude of wanting Russia to break up. It was not enough to drop one very bright breaker-upper, Paul Goble, from these radios; others lower down had similar attitudes. These are tremendously good institutions that we should be urgently making more of at this time of war; but we need them to be making the right things for us, and in this matter of breaking up Russia, they have sometimes been doing us harm.

The human rights organizations are also problematic, unfortunately. The deference of the US media to them, and to other NGOs, is a source of anti-governmental bias. The NGO ecology has a heavily biased ideological orientation. An example: One of the leading human rights organizations argued in the 1990s, disgracefully, that it was not its job to condemn the kidnappings and massive human rights violations of the terrorist wing of the Chechen government then in power, because its only mission is to oppose violations by “the government”, meaning Moscow; somehow ignoring the rather obvious fact that the Chechen government was in fact a government at the time, accepted as such by Moscow but still having a terrorist wing. The meaning of the argument was clear: the human rights community viscerally decides what is the power that must be opposed, and directs its criticisms strategically against that power, thinking of it alone as ‘the’ government, and wants to ‘hold it accountable’. Even when it criticizes both sides, this can actually serve a strategic bias, as a way of creating a moral equivalency between a greater evil that it would rather downplay, and its own preferred enemy that it wants to focus its fire upon.

Has there been an element in this – as Russians often say, accusing us – of the West always thinking of Russia as “the bad guy” in any situation?  an element of “jumping to take the other side?” – say, the side of any Baltic state that, whenever Russia claims that state is violating the rights of ethnic Russians, says that this is a threat of Russian imperialism. Does it lead the West to speak with passion and threatening language against any possible such Russian attack, but neglecting to speak with any passion against the actual language and other abuses in the Baltic states, only quietly stating that of course that should be attended to? (hint: yes, it happened many times).  Is there likewise an element of jumping to take the side of any party inside Russia – say, a minority nationality - that claims to have its human rights violated by Russia, while ignoring quite obvious Russian claims against the chaos and sometimes vicious terrorism in that minority land? (hint: yes. I refer again to the response of the human rights organization as to why it didn’t say anything about the Chechen terrorist kidnappings of ethnic Russians – ‘because it is only “the government” whose violations we human rights organizations have a mission to be opposing’; never mind that it was a wing of the Chechen government that was conducted the terrorist kidnappings, so this was in fact a choice of which government to view as the evil enemy, and in fact it was always Moscow that they viewed that way).

This bias builds upon what had been a mostly sound bias and tradition of the human rights movement in earlier decades, starting with the West’s support for the Soviet dissidents in the 1960s: its accurate view of the Soviet Communist tyranny as the most dangerous and developed tyranny around (alongside other Communist tyrannies, to be sure), and to view their violations of human political rights as a priority, not ameliorated by the Soviets’ claims about being good on socio-economic rights. That was a theoretical advancement, over the days when progressives had given a moral equivalence between political rights, ones that long established in modern liberal democracies and are a foundation of stable regimes, and the social and economic rights that progressives were arguing for, putative rights that far from everyone agreed with and often arguably were not viable socially or economically. It was also a strategic choice: the Soviet regime was in fact the main threat to global freedom in the Cold War. Taking sides was in fact relevant to human rights. But it went beyond theory, and beyond a valid strategic practice defined by the context of Communism. It became a habit to view Moscow as the enemy. It felt safe to always put the main blame – the blame with bite and consequences, the operational blame – on Moscow. And it was also part of another ideological practice and prejudice: anti-imperialism. It is the same prejudice that leads human rights organizations to instinctively side with the movements for deconstruction of Western society, no less than their instinctive siding with opposition movements and nationalities against Moscow.

This penchant for ideological bias, and an often ill-chosen bias at that, detracts from the tremendously important work that human rights organizations do. They are not purely cynical by any means; but their bias is a serious flaw, and its global or political strategic orientation is often poorly aligned with the actual strategic interests of human rights. Russians have figured out the strategic purposiveness of our human rights organizations, and with their typical penchant for cynical exaggeration, have come to view it as their only purpose, discounting their legitimate efforts.

We need to figure it out too. We need our media to have greater integrity than our activist NGOs. We need our government to have greater integrity than either activist media or activist NGOs.

Congress needs to get better control of its Helsinki Commission and the latter’s staff. Hopefully most of Congress does not agree with its recent conference promoting Russian break-up. Probably most of Congress never noticed it, or just laughed it off as the kind of things those people do. But Russians surely do notice it, and don’t laugh it off.

Our academic outreach programs, IIS, Fulbright, WWC -- they need to stop funding Russians who support or encourage break-up of their country, and stop funding projects “studying” this scenario, with only the most thinly-disguised wish to realize it. (I should note that my examples of this are from at least 20 years ago. I can’t say with any certainty what the situation is today. But I have seen no reason to think the views or prejudices of our funding personnel have changed on this, so it is likely to be the same or worse today, when there is far more discussion of Russia breaking up.)

Start funding people who will study ways of strengthening central authority in an emerging democracy – thus counteracting the view that only dictatorship can hold Russia together. Stop feeding the Putin view that the West favors liberal democracy and ever more decentralization as the same thing, and worse, the view that these two things do inherently go together, in which case Putin would be right that only dictatorship can hold Russia together.

Emphasize and advertise where we’ve helped Russian central power, e.g. an old OECD recommendation on how the Russian state should increase its taxation capabilities and its unification of the Russian market.



3. Stop doing still further harm with our rhetoric.

Stop giving unnecessary “idealist” speeches that fan the fear in Russia that we’re trying to break their country into pieces. Stop it, no matter that these speeches play to the media and domestic politics in America. Russia is where the effect of these speeches really matters.

Pause on holding the “summit for democracy” events. These have been almost pointless on substance, lacking in serious practical ways for promoting democracy -- but big on publicity that looks like seeking regime change just about everywhere. It raises the hackles of our enemies, and alienates many of our friends, who are not themselves democracies but have been good friends, very important friends for us – yet are being painted by us into an enemy picture. It should be obvious that this has a lot to do with how we have been losing Saudi Arabia. Our language in our public discourse channels has been such as to prevent us from even noticing the harm we’re doing ourselves in this way.

Stop presenting the world in Manichaean terms, an era of a global struggle of “the democracies” against “the authoritarians” (in the dramatic picture that Mr. Biden painted). Make clear that our only enemies are the specific revisionist autocracies that themselves have defined us as the enemy, not even all autocracies, and certainly not “authoritarians”, a category that includes half the countries of the world. (Note: There has been some progress in this direction. Biden is more often saying “autocracies” as our enemies instead of “all authoritarians”; and in the Atlantic Council, “revisionist autocracies” is increasingly being used to give a more precise and delimited definition of our enemies, avoiding the Manichaean practice of painting everyone except the democracies as our enemies.)

Stop taunting our enemies with personal insults at their leaders. Behave professionally with the public mouth. Treat Putin like Xi, who is a far worse dictator but one that we have the common sense not to treat to the personal contempt that Biden has repeatedly expressed toward Putin. That contempt has been utterly unprofessional, contrary to all historical protocol not only of diplomacy but of proper head of state behavior. Nixon and Kissinger treated the Soviet dictator of the time with personal respect. So did Jimmy Carter; maybe he even (like Trump) gave dictators too much friendly talk – yet he did this for serious diplomatic reasons, even at the same time as he was greatly elevating human rights as an American foreign affairs priority.

Mr. Biden has talked instead like an irresponsible Senate speechmaker. From his “Putin is a killer” comment, delivered presumably to make George Stephanopoulos and his political base in the media happy, to his equally unnecessary statements that Putin has to go and how can such a person stay, coupled with absurd-sounding denials that this means he is pushing for regime change: this talk comes at a high price.

To how great an extent is this language the cause of the present war? It’s one of those things that cannot be measured, but it is clearly a very real part of the causation of the war. It is a terrible price to pay for the irresponsibility of a President with his mouth. It is unacceptable for a President to go on like this, making dangerous provocations, things that he would himself get dangerously provoked by if they were directed at him – even while regularly refusing at the same time to take necessary and legitimate steps for Ukraine’s defense, on the ground that Putin might choose to get provoked by them.

Stop making gratuitous, unnecessary personal provocations and threats, and do take necessary defense measures. Putin will respect that -- as he did during the Trump years, when America finally started arming Ukraine, after the Obama Administration had refused to do so on the argument that it might provoke Putin. The US-Russia relationship calmed down under Trump, after the feverish crisis level it had reached under Obama when the American rhetoric was somewhat heated – a level to which it has returned under Biden and worse, using the same foreign affairs team as Obama but with even more rhetoric.

Take more seriously our criticism of Putin that he cares only about himself not his country. Realize what it means: personal insults to him carry a price – a much higher price than practical actions to defend our national interests and restrict his country’s pretensions.

Stop justifying Putin’s escalations by saying “Putin has no off-ramp and will have to escalate”; say “Putin should take the many off-ramps he has always had, and withdraw and end the war.”

Stop trying to take away the off-ramps Putin does have, such as ending the war without personal repercussions. And stop meanwhile de facto planning on a much worse off ramp -- giving him Ukrainian territory. He understands the meaning of this; he “gets” it, through all the fog of our rhetoric about continuing ‘as long as it takes’. It leads him to figure, probably correctly, that he’ll win if he just continues the attrition and waits for when the Administration is ready to offer the off-ramp territories officially.

Stop treating the prosecution of Putin as something we want more than we want the return of all Ukrainian territories. We still discuss “compromise” on Ukrainian territory, and our government, along with those in France and Germany, seems angling in reality to eventually impose this on Ukraine; but we exclude all discussion of compromising on “justice” against Russian leaders, meaning personal vengeance against Putin, whom we have whipped ourselves up to hate far more than we hate Xi, or Kim -- or hated Stalin and Mao. For God’s sake -- I feel like crying out at this point -- don’t we have any ethics at all? Do we have no sense of proportion? And no sense of priorities? Do we care more about personal vengeance than about the survival and territorial integrity of Ukraine?

Instead of saying in effect, “we’ll hunt you down no matter what, even if you end the war and pull out completely, it’s a done thing, the god of the international rules-based legal order has spoken and your fate is sealed in heaven”, we should be saying, “here are our terms – the terms for granting you your equivalent of a Napoleonic exile, meaning full asylum abroad for you and your worst entourage, replete with immunity from global prosecution: we can do this, but only if you fully leave Ukraine, and if you transfer power to the moderates who have stayed within the regime, not to the extremists you have surrounded yourself with and who have egged you on to this disaster. We will help these moderates in their effort to stabilize Russia; we’ll totally disprove your slogan that Russia will cease to exist if you’re gone. It’s only if you refuse to go in a good way that you’ll take Russia down with you.”


4. “Get it” about our “pressure” on Russia

It sounds strange to us, when Russians say that America is constantly putting them under pressure, and moreover, that America is putting practically every country under pressure. And when Russians say this pressure from us is why they have to defend themselves against us in Ukraine.

We need to figure out what this is about, and “get it”.

It’s in fact mostly about our political pressure. It’s about how we pressure them with our democracy promotion rhetoric and policies, our regime change rhetoric, and how they feel this will destabilize their country, of whose fragilities they are well aware. And their expectation that destabilization can lead their country to its collapse and break-up.

It’s not about NATO’s military power supposedly attacking them, despite Putin’s obfuscations on this score. But it is indeed about how NATO, as a political-military power, adds to our political pressures on Russia. It is the thought that its expansion brings that pressure to the borders of Russia, and changes the correlation of forces against its domestic capacities for stabilization. Which brings it back to their fear about the ease of the destabilization of their country; and that we’re utterly careless of the stability and well-being of the countries we target as specially meriting our democratizing attentions.

It’s also not much about Russians fearing democracy in Ukraine as a threat to their own regime stability, a dogmatic claim often made by our own ideologists. It’s about their fearing what they take to be the anti-Russian geopolitical orientation of those whom the West will in its bias consider “the democrats” in Ukraine, making it something that adds to the pressure on their country. I should note that I’ve refuted this Russian argument many times, not in Western company that would like to hear this point, but for the benefit of Russians who didn’t want to hear it, explaining that we did not have nearly as much of that bias in defining who counts as a “democrat” as Russians assume. We pressured Tymoshenka to accept her loss to Yanukovych in a free election and to stop blocking his assumption of power. The good news is that this integrity on our part did have some impact on calming Russians down for a time. The bad news is that Russians soon reverted to accusatory type, and moreover, Yanukovych soon reverted to type also, justifying Tymoshenka’s earlier constitutional objections to his swearing in and bringing into doubt the virtue of our good deed for Russia’s side.


Return to a full-service program for development: modernization + stabilization + evolution + democratization, not just kamikaze democratization

Learn to promote democracy in a sober manner, without the Manichaean rhetoric. Re-integrate democratization theory with modernization theory and evolutionary sociology. Remember that we took up explicit democratization in the 1980s as a corrective to our previous generation of promoting ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ as a cure-all; only to fall into the trap of treating democratization itself as a cure-all after 1991, since it was more popular and cheaper than the earlier approaches, and besides, it seemed so spectacularly vindicated in 1991 that we forgot about its limitations.

Pay attention to the needs of target countries for stability and modernization. Don’t treat authoritarian modernizing allies, such as Saudi Arabia, as enemies; don’t turn them away from us (as this Administration did in its first year, damaging our national interest, and our long-term global democratic interest, in ways that it is now finding hard to repair); treat them as allies. Treat only enemies as enemies.

“Get it” about the limitations of Democratic Peace theory. Spreading democracy is not the consistent answer to the problem of peace, it is not the solution to all problems, it is not always safely done. When Michael Doyle and Bruce Russett developed the modern version of Democratic Peace theory, they were making a corrective, in an era where Realist theory predominated, to the Realist and neutralist argument that the issue of peace was completely independent of regimes and democracy had nothing special to do with peace. The corrective nature of their position held throughout the remainder of the Cold War; democracy-promotion was always restrained by Realist evaluation and debate; which is why it was done well in that perior. That restraint fell away when the Cold War ended on democratic terms. There was too total a sense of vindication for democracy-promotion. The limitations and sometimes misleading claims of Democratic Peace theory were forgotten, with damaging consequences. There is much to be on the theory side of correcting the doctrine, but this is not the place for that discussion; for the theoretical mistakes, I would refer the reader to my lengthy analysis of the matter:

Democratic Peace Theory and American Federalist ...


https://www.academia.edu › Democratic_Peace_Theor...

Democratic Peace and Federalist Peace Theories: Allies or enemies? By Ira Straus 


But this is the place to take note of the harmful consequences of those oversimplifications and exaggerations on democracy-promotion. We need to “get it” about how we have lost friends in the Mideast too with it, and damaged peace as well with it. Our democracy-promotion and regime-change ventures there have been a catastrophe. It was not just Iraq, where the chaos we brought in served as one of the early steps in leading Putin to view us as a dangerous enemy. It was also the Palestinian territories, where the U.S., in the name of promoting regional democracy after the toppling of Saddam and achieving a ‘democratic peace’ between the PA and Israel, promoted the elections that brought Hamas to power in Gaza and destroyed the one good opening for Arab-Israeli peace that has ever existed since 1948. In Egypt too, the U.S. tried to do the same at the time, and was temporarily deflected by Mubarak; but came back to this in 2011, this time supporting the uprisings and coups that toppled both Mubarak in Egypt and ben Ali in Tunisia. These were the two best – most benign, modernizing, pro-Western, pro-peace – secular Arab regimes in the region. We – our governments and our media – enthusiastically demonized them, convincing ourselves that it was OK to demonize these moderates because we and the revolution were creating something infinitely better, democracy.

There was a popular line at the time in 2011-12 about how Russia stood by its allies in the region while we abandoned ours. The reality was still worse than this: Russia stood beside our allies in the region, while we were enthusiastically stabbing them in the back. It is hard to see how Russians could have thought anything except that we were clinically insane with our enthusiasm for toppling friendly regimes in the name of democracy.

The result of our democracy-promotion in the Mideast was a severe setback to peace in the region, to Western positions of influence, to the prosperity and decency of the regimes in those countries -- and to democracy itself, which has much worse prospects in the Mideast today than before the revolutions of 2011. Egypt, a pivotal country, has fortunately returned to being a fairly stable friendly country, but under a much worse dictatorial regime than Mubarak’s. And it and Saudi Arabia no longer trust us the way they used to, thanks to our policies in 2011 and after. There is a direct line from our betrayals in 2011 to the diplomatic games they are playing with Russia, China, and even Iran at our expense today.

Then there was Syria. There we promoted the chaos of a long-lasting rebellion that we refused, on various pretexts, to help enough to win, enabling Russia to strengthen its position there and help the regime put it down with enormous bloodshed. It is an approach that we seem to be repeating in Ukraine, under the same foreign policy team as in 2011-14, using another set of arguments or pretexts for not wanting to win, but just string out the war. In Syria too, Russians see our approach as dangerously insane, destabilizing countries in the name of an illusory expectation of democracy, neglecting our own interests, and … for what?

Finally there was Libya, where we and our allies toppled Qaddafi, quite belatedly, but then skipped out as soon as he was killed, dishonoring the request of the globally recognized provisional government for us to stay and provide some stabilization and disarming of the Islamist militias. In this regard, the Libyan operation was conducted even more irresponsibly than the Iraq invasion, where we at least stayed to repair our worst mistakes.

Libya completed the alienation of Putin from the West. He would have been angry if we had stayed, to be sure; but would have respected us more. Instead, our behavior cemented him and many other Russians in the conviction that American-promoted democratizations were just reckless adventures in destabilizing countries, with no sense of responsibility for the consequences. Putin himself talked about the absolute lack of a sense of responsibility on our part, and the lack of any accountability for our actions. We deeply dislike the fact that he and others have drawn sharply anti-Western conclusions from this; it is all the more reason why we need to understand how our policies have helped them draw those conclusions, and how to cease fostering those conclusions.


5. Develop a new, sober democratizing cadre

Develop one in America -- and help Russian democrats develop one there too, if possible.

Evaluate all our democratization programs for which ones have done more harm than good, such as by destabilizing or alienating friends; and discontinue those ones until we figure out a sufficient way to correct them. More broadly: Until we figure out what we’ve done wrong and how to do it right, and radically revamp our democratizing program accordingly, we would do better to hit the pause button on much though far from all of our democracy promotion, particularly in the Mideast, but also in some respects in Russia itself.

We should use the pause to develop a cadre of American democracy-promoters who make a total distinction between democracy and radical decentralization. People who understand decentralization as a practical question in each case, often useful but very often harmful, not something to be promoted as the default assumption in every case. Make sure that this view prevails in NED (and IRI, NDI, ACILS, CIPE) – the pro-center view prevails of upholding a nationwide level playing field in the economy.  Stop deferring to small is beautiful Jeffersonians.

We need our media and our NGOS to figure this out too, not just NED.

Now that people have realized that Jeffersonian democracy went hand in hand with slavery and Indian clearance and dragging America down into civil war, maybe now is a time when we can find the way to start recruiting real Hamiltonians for our democracy-promotion.

Russia in turn also needs to develop a cadre of moderate democrats and Westernizers. They need to be more balanced than the 1980s and 90s reformers, who were so pro-Western, so dependent psychologically on the West, that they were too ready to assume that Russia is always the bad guy in any disagreement with the West, not willing enough to stand up against Westerners for legitimate Russian interests. They cannot carry their nation with them if they are always against their nation, even when their nation is right. Russians themselves have sometimes understood this. Today, when Russia is so much wrong, it is harder; but still, there is at least Navalny, who in the past understood the need to come across as a Russian patriot when that was still possible for a democrat. This has led many Western democratizers to denounce him as not a true democrat. That was dead wrong, deadly wrong; and was grist for the mill for Russian nationalists who say that America will accept as “democratic” only a Russian who is self-hating and harmful to Russia. (Ironically, developing a national democratic cadre, with a Russian patriotism as well as a Western modernizing orientation, was what the original Putin youth program claimed to be about. However, it was always mixed in with too high a level of resentment and counterrevolutionary paranoia, and it kept growing worse with time. Doing it right would have required doing it in tandem with the West; but on the level of the democratizers, such a cooperating West was nowhere to be found.

Russian democratizers need to understand the sound point of Chaadaev, the founder of the sober, liberal-Westernizing intellectual tradition in Russia: that Russia needs to adopt and assimilate the basics of Western modernization and liberty, the basics that enabled the West to develop and that it has itself learned to assimilate and tame, not focus on the latest fads and most extreme views that the West itself is still working its way through. (Nor, we need today to add, should Russia focus on counterrevolution against the West in the name of opposing the latest Western fads, as Russian reactionaries have always done, Putin finally falling into their mold.) If we had sober American democratizers, they could help Russia develop such a cadre, and in any case cease pushing Russian democrats in unsober directions.

Sober American democratizers, too, will need to understand Chaadaev’s point. And will need to understand how it applies even more to modernizers and democratizers in the non-Western bulk of the world, not just in Russia. An updated Chaadaev, getting past his own philosophical-religious eccentricities, might in fact be what we need to develop the theoretical foundations for a sober concept in the West of how to pursue democratization.



6. Face the grain of truth in the accusations – and still fight the enemy hard

Face the painful fact that, de facto, a lot of the Russian narrative of accusation is true, after a fashion – after translation from the accusatory case to the objective case: the analysis of the objective effects of Western influences, diverging from conscious intentions, and sometimes de facto pushing Russia toward break-up; and in this, following a pattern that conforms to semi-conscious sentiments or prejudices.

This is true both of our advice to Russia and of our geopolitical moves that affect Russia.

The West does distrust Russia. It does so with reason, but this does not ameliorate the consequences of it for Russia when we press our advice upon the country, or move our geopolitical alliance up toward it.


Our advice problems

When we give questionable advice that seems like it will weaken Russia, it is not unreasonable for Russians to assume that that is because, given the choice between a stronger Russia and a weaker one, we feel more comfortable with the weaker one. No matter how much we tell ourselves that there’s no malice in it, they assume some malice aforethought, even if only an subconscious aforethought.

The West does have a small is beautiful ideology since the 1960s, which can tend toward deconstructing countries. It’s not the ideology that America was itself built on centuries ago, in fact it’s the ideology that opposed the American Constitution, the one that the framers of the Constitution had to fight against and face down, but it’s what America tends to export nowadays as advice for other countries.

It does, when faced with a conflict between the Russian center and periphery, habitually sympathize with the periphery, because of this ideology and this distrust; plus because of the long-developed visceral habit, again an understandable habit from Cold War times but again having consequences, of viewing Moscow as the bad guy in just about every dispute and instinctively pinning the blame on it.

It does give bum advice on this basis. It gives the bum advice from all sources – not only sometimes in the form of government advice (where there is sometimes also good and genuinely supportive advice), but far more consistently from its media, its intellectuals, its lesser grandstanding politicians, its democracy promoters and advisers, its NGOs, and its human rights organizations -- and the habits of mind that they build in their often admiring and deferential human rights affiliates in Russia.

This advice does tend to favor ever greater weakening of the center and decentralization of power in Russia, as it had earlier done in the Soviet Union. This orientation does have no logical endpoint except break-up. It does in practice tend to foster a break-up in real time, not just at an infinitely distant endpoint.

It does this for the most part quite unintentionally. It even does it often under the rubric of thinking of itself as the true way to hold the country together – logically enough, given the small is beautiful assumptions. The point is that it does it, and it has objective consequences, not just subjective naivete of intentions.


Our geopolitics: NATO and Russia

Here we come to the NATO question: the expansion of NATO without finding a serious way to include Russia; and moving it up to Russia’s border, with the obvious effect, as a military alliance, of weakening Russia’s position both diplomatically and militarily.

A lot has been written about this, most of it saying there was nothing amiss in this and it’s all Russia’s fault for seeing anything wrong in it; the rest of it saying it was the cause of everything wrong. The former is, as one might expect, the narrative favored in the large circles that love NATO and Western power; the latter, in the large circles, Western as well as Russian, that hate NATO and Western power. Both are narratives so entrenched that will make it hard for supporters of NATO and the West to assimilate valid critical points about our policy; I suspect that, the moment they see any critical points about it, most of them will hear the entire anti-NATO narrative ringing in their heads and be unable to see what’s actually written. But I’ll try to formulate the issue anyway and hope that some readers will read it in terms of what I say, not in terms of what they’re used to seeing said.

The first and fundamental problem is that we ignored it almost completely when Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to get into NATO – so completely that most people in the West say they’re unaware of either one having tried. They seem to have heard only of Putin trying to get Russia into NATO. And Putin tried this much less than Yeltsin or even Gorbachev.

Why do we have such a skewed attention on this matter? Gorbachev and Yeltsin sought a way into NATO as friends. When we rejected and deflected their overtures, they did their best to minimize the negative consequences of this. Putin did the opposite; he talked about it with some bite, imposing some negative consequences upon our rejections of Russia, and putting a strong tone of anti-Western complaint into his pronouncements on the subject. We paid attention to that.

We ignored Russia when it was truly friendly, and when we might have helped consolidate it in its friendship. It does not speak well of our policy instincts. Do we really not want to have friends? People might reasonably conclude that we are more comfortable with having Russia as an enemy than as a friend, if we ignore it as a friend and pay attention to it only as an enemy.

James Baker later acknowledged, in the 2001-2 Washington Quarterly, that it was a mistake to have ignored Gorbachev’s overtures on joining NATO. Clinton and his people have never acknowledged their worse mistake in neglecting to find anything close to a serious way in for Russia under Yeltsin. Clinton and Strobe Talbot in fact wanted eventually to have Russia in NATO. But they tended to put it off until the end of history, when all other problems with Russia were resolved and Russia had somehow stabilized separately as a friendly liberal democracy, while NATO expanded everywhere else in the interim. They forgot that resolving the Russia-NATO question favorably, validating the new Russia in its intended new international strategic identity as a part of the West, was the most important single prerequisite for enabling Russia to stabilize as a friend and a liberal democracy. The American critics of NATO expansion have also generally ignored this mistake; they have shown no interest in the possibility of Russia joining NATO; it doesn’t fit in with their underlying anti-NATO stance, one that most of them held throughout the Cold War, not just afterwards. But this mistake, not the almost inevitable expansion per se, was the crux of the problem. The Yeltsin-Kozyrev government, on its first day as the true sovereign power of Russia, delivered to NATO a letter raising the question of Russia joining the alliance. NATO, instead of opening a diplomatic dialogue with Russia on the subject, gave no response. It was a humiliation that literally castrated the foreign policy of the Yeltsin-Kozyrev from the start. They were pummeled politically at home for trying to join a West that doesn’t want Russia anyway. Yeltsin survived, but Kozyrev was damaged goods ever thereafter, always needing Yeltsin’s protection, never recovering the authority he would have needed to integrate Russia with the West. Nearly every major figure in Yeltsin’s government spoke at one time of another in favor of joining NATO; the only one who never did was Primakov, and he was the one the West took seriously and negotiated with. And even Primakov’s own explanation for not applying to join NATO – which he gave when shooting down a suggestion from Alexei Arbatov on this -- was this sadly realistic one: that the West would merely use the application as a justification for expanding NATO to Russia’s neighbors, while finding various pretexts for never considering admission of Russia itself.

Given Russia’s exclusion from NATO, the expansion of NATO to Russia’s border inherently meant a consolidation in some degree against Russia. It also meant a strengthening of Western influence and capacity for bringing pressure on Russia. It helped nothing that we told ourselves that that pressure and influence was purely benign and good for Russia: that was convincing to ourselves, not to Russia. All real pressures have malign and benign sides. Not surprisingly, Russians began to see malign sides. And saw this increase in pressure-capability in the context of their perception of a Western penchant for undermining the authority of Russia’s central government and endlessly decentralizing their country – a penchant that was in part real, even though it did not have the hostile motivations Russians not unreasonably assumed it would have. Once the concern with the West promoting Russian break-up was there, it was bound to be exacerbated by the policy of expanding NATO without including Russia.

Similarly, given this context of excluding Russia from NATO in this era, the expansion of NATO throughout the rest of Eastern Europe inevitably came at the diplomatic expense of Russia. It eliminated such balance of influence as remained between Russia and the West in Eastern Europe. It eliminated Russia’s bargaining position on its continuing, and often legitimate, interests in that vast space. It also raised the question of Ukraine and Belarus and Georgia joining NATO, with the same effect on Russia’s interests in those countries as well.

We can tell ourselves these were all good things, from a Western democratizer’s perspective, because democracy is always good and stabilizing; but that is not persuasive to people outside of our box, and does not make them good from a Russian pragmatic perspective. We can pontificate on how a stable liberal democratic Russia would lose nothing from Western stabilization and consolidation on its borders; and we did tell us this, using tautological arguments based on the premises that stable liberal democracies absolutely never fight against each other, and that NATO expansion meant consolidation of the countries as stable liberal democracies. But these premises were false – not without some major grains of truth, but with enough grains of falsehood to render the tautology a false one. Significantly, Russian liberal democrats did not agree with this assessment of Russia’s putative liberal democratic interest. They were right. And they and we knew alike at the time that Russia was not a stable liberal democracy, rendering the whole tautology absurd. Worse, the prospect of its becoming such a democracy was made more distant by this very policy. We can tell ourselves that it was only Russia’s unjust imperialist interests and prospects that were undermined by this; but that was based on demonizing Russia’s many legitimate interests as “imperialist”. Russians saw it a disease in Western thinking: that it could define for Russia what Russia’s interests were, instruct Russians not to have any other interests, and thereby avoid any need to bargain with Russia about its real interests. In fact Russia’s interests in trade ties and in its family and ethnic ties with Russians on the other side of the newly sovereign borders were genuine and legitimate interests. These interests were ones that the West sometimes promised to protect instead of Russia protecting them; a posture that was in some respects wise on our part, but we inevitably did a less than perfect job of protecting them, and a very poor job of projecting, in our rhetoric on the subject, our seriousness about protecting them. Inevitably, because they were not our interests, the ones to which we were alert; and were not the interests of the new allies that we were bringing into our alliance tent, and whose voice we were hearing from the inside. As a result, our rhetoric in this sphere was almost entirely anti-Russian, frequently joining in the language of those who labeled any Russian concern over the subject was a pretext for imperialist invasion. This set up a rigid, two-camp, symbiotic adversarial polemic, one that inherently tended to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of its mantra that Russia’s concern for its co-ethnics could only be a military imperialist concern.

A different rhetorical stance on the issues of the ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, more forthcoming in expressing a sharing of Russians’ concerns, would have made a tremendous difference in Russia’s sentiment toward the West, even without any change in the West’s actual policies. It would have stopped Russians from sliding into the view of the West as having no regard for their legitimate interests.

We could have made the right difference. We made the wrong difference instead.

Similarly, a different stance, in policy and above all in our rhetoric and media, on upholding central authority and avoiding misplaced decentralization: it  would have made a huge difference in getting Russians to trust us more and not see us as angling at their break up. Instead we made the wrong difference.

A different posture on Russia joining NATO, opening a serious dialogue with Russia on how it could be done, and a serious dialogue within the West on how NATO could arrange itself to be able to handle Russia as a member, would have made an even greater difference. It would have made a fundamental difference. Instead, we made the wrong fundamental difference.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is widely accepted in Atlanticist circles as the representative of the Russian democratic opposition -- and is presently languishing in Putin’s jails -- has told the Atlantic milieu in recent years that getting Russia into NATO is essential the next time around. That we must not make the same mistake all over again. That we can’t afford it. That we must get this into our thinking and prepare for it. It’s crucial.

We are hearing but not heeding him. We are not preparing.

We listen to him with great respect, when he tells us what bad things are happening to democracy in Russia. But nothing registers, when he shows us the most important thing a prospective democratic Russia will need from the West and warns us that we need to prepare for it this time.

We need to listen. We need to pay heed and prepare.

The basics of preparing for this were laid out by James Baker in his aforementioned Washington Quarterly article, and earlier, around 1992, by David Abshire, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, in the same journal: First, resolve on the goal of including Russia as a matter of fundamental importance. Second, do the hard work of enabling NATO to stomach Russia; both psychologically, overcoming the cognitive dissonance about having the former enemy in NATO, and structurally, developing a solution to NATO’s concern that Russian membership would mean giving Russia a veto that could undermine NATO’s capacity to make decisions. The latter, they explained, entailed evolving procedures for making alliance decisions without vetoes, such as consensus minus one or two as had been used by NATO in the 1980s, or weighted supermajority voting as is used in the EU.

The preparation and self-strengthening didn’t occur. Instead, we simply feared any real prospect of Russia joining, given the de facto veto regime within NATO. We reverted to the cognitive dissonance about letting in the enemy -- and soon got Russia back as an enemy.

Today, we have again the motor force of a dangerous enemy to impel us to strengthen our alliance institutionally and get the decision-making streamlined. It is a kind of opportunity; existential danger is a stronger motivation than historic hope. It would be the better part of wisdom to use this motivation as an opportunity to finally streamline the alliance decision-making. If we do, we will have at least a fighting chance, if the wheel turns back to a democratic Russia, to work out the Russia-NATO relation more fruitfully the second time around.


7. Conclusion: embracing both horns of the contradiction, as we did with Germany after 1933

Here I have to implore the reader once again to use a basic, yet rare, mental capability: a capacity to embrace two seemingly contradictory thoughts at once. One is the thought that Russia is in the wrong in reverting to enmity, wrong in invading Ukraine, wrong in the accusations that it throws at us. The other is the thought that we bear a large part of the fault for Russia reverting to enmity, and that there is significant truth buried within some of Russia’s false accusations, after translating them into a modified meaning.

These thoughts seem hopelessly contradictory to each other. Yet they are both true. And we need to be able to hold them both in mind.

Our elite navigated the same contradiction once before: on Germany after 1933. We need to remember how.

Back during World War II, our elites had the wisdom to hold in mind the following contradictory thoughts regarding Germany: that we the Western democracies were heavily at fault for driving Germany back into enmity; that Germany was entirely in the wrong in embracing enmity as its posture, in its paranoid accusations at us and at the world, and in launching another world war; that we need to fight the Nazi regime hard, without equivocating out of guilt for past mistakes; that a form of consistent democratic integration of free Europe would have been needed after 1919, both for reassuring France that another attack would be deterred, and for stabilizing and integrating Germany itself; that this would be needed again after the Nazi regime ended; and that that future integration, not by appeasing the Nazis, is how we would have to redeem ourselves with Germany.

We owe a lot to this wisdom of our foreign affairs elites. They did not just begrudgingly accept both horns of the contradiction; they thought them through, and fully embraced them both. Thanks to this, our elite was able, after 1945, to think up the ways to integrate Germany with the West, by building NATO and the European Communities -- making huge efforts, really heavy diplomatic lifting, to build these institutions and consolidate German democracy within them.

We need the same wisdom today. We will need it even more in the future if we get the good fortune of a friendly regime in Russia again.

We did not have that wisdom in the 1990s, despite a rhetoric of integrating Russia that seemed right on track. We are paying the price now. It is a dangerously high price. We cannot afford more rounds of this.

Yet I still do not see that wisdom in evidence today. We need to recover it.

What can we do now to recover some of that wisdom? We can begin by rethinking the problems and policies I have discussed in this paper. We can work on figuring out how to disabuse Russians of the notion we have given them, about wanting their country to come apart. This will help us with our needs in this war here and now, as well as with our needs in the future with Russia.

And that brings me to …


The Bonus Step

Dear reader: Please come up with your own ideas on what to do to change this situation. Jot them down. Work them out. It is too important to let it slide and fall short on this. My own steps, even if we found in ourselves the moral strength to act on them, would get us only part of the way there. I count on you to provide value added to what I’m able to come up with.



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