George Kennan, the U.S. diplomat and historian
who popularized the Western strategy of containment, is broadly
considered the ideological father of the Cold War. This is despite
the fact that he later lamented the manner in which his ideas were
Pentagon and U.S. State Department officials were
not particularly interested in Kennan’s analysis of the political
psychology of the Kremlin. In what has come to be known as «the
long telegram,» sent by Kennan while he was working at the U.S.
Embassy in Moscow in 1946, they found not so much an explanation of
the motives behind Soviet behavior as an ideological basis for the
conflict for which many were looking. Nobody bothered to examine
the details. Conflict was a condition more easily understood and,
in many ways, more expedient than a difficult search for a balance
of interests and areas of agreement.
Today, we can see the same mechanisms at work in
the genesis of a Cold War with our own eyes. The absurdity of the
situation is that there is no clash of ideologies, no arms race,
and not even irresolvable geopolitical conflicts between Russia and
the United States. There are the mutual jabs and little barbs that
unwind into a spiral of irritation, but the real problem is an
inability or lack of interest when it comes to making a sober
assessment of the state of affairs.
Instead of trying to understand new problems,
politicians are constantly looking for ways to revisit old
There is a discourse emerging from Western
publications on the development of a new ideological conflict
between democratic societies and authoritarian countries, with
Russia and China provided as the prime examples from the
authoritarian camp. This discourse calls on democratic countries to
unite, not to be afraid that nondemocratic countries might also
unite in response, and to stop placing their hopes on global
organizations like the United Nations, based on the idea that their
actions are just being blocked by authoritarian states anyway.
There are many examples of arguments of this
type, one of the most shining of which was published a week ago in
Britain’s Sunday Times by one of the chief ideologists of U.S.
neoconservatism, Robert Kagan. The essence of the piece is easy
enough to grasp from the shoot-from-the-hip nature of the
sub-headline: «Forget the Islamic threat, the coming battle will be
between autocratic nations like Russia and China and the rest.»
Kagan writes that «the world has become normal
again,» in the sense that we are returning to a divergence of ideas
and ideologies. He calls for the abandonment of the idea of
«international community,» claiming that «the term suggests
agreement on international norms of behavior, an international
morality, even an international conscience.»
The refusal on the part of Russia and China to
move toward «Western liberalism,» in his argument, has lain to rest
hopes that the world was becoming «a global commonality of thinking
about human affairs.»
Whenever discussions turn to formulations like
«international conscience,» it is hard to resist the inclination to
flinch a bit. The politics of the 20th century should have trained
us to understand that the more grandiloquent the rhetoric, the more
unsightly the goals it is being used to achieve are. In the rapid
developments of today’s world, it is difficult to identify the true
ideological opposition. This, of course, doesn’t rule out the
existence of serious conflicts, given conditions of competition and
differences in ideas as to how problems should be solved.
Five years ago, Kagan attracted attention with an
article in which he argued that the West can be divided along
ideological lines into two camps: the old and the new world. The
old world, Europe, has sunk deep into the sweet dream of the «end
of history.» Conversely, the new world, the United States, has not
only maintained, but also continued to build on its ability to
solve global problems.
The piece was written at a time when the
neoconservative establishment was at the height of its euphoria,
and it seemed that declaring war on terrorism demonstrated that the
United States was the sole international actor able to turn the
But conceptions change, and the results of U.S.
policy have meant that Washington is again looking for allies.
Trying to mobilize them with a call to battle against a degraded
Islamic threat is unlikely to pan out, so they are focusing on
something more promising — a tangible and traditional enemy.
George Kennan was a strident anti-communist, but
his analysis was built on a deep and thorough knowledge of Russian
history and culture, as well as of the realities of life in the
Soviet Union. The ideologues of this «new conflict» display a much
more shallow understanding. They are not interested in nuances like
the fact that it is difficult to find, on closer inspection, much
that Russia and China have in common. Instead, they offer
simplistic formulations and jingoistic dogma. Can
oversimplification to the point of caricature really form the basis
on which decisions for action are made?
The quality of political analysis by Kagan and
those who share his ideas is one result of the difficulties in
Iraq. The current message means, for example, the following: «We
were mistaken in our assessment in the 1990s, we overshot on the
Middle East, but now we know who our real opponent is and what to
do about it.»
Of course, the neoconservative position could
simply be disregarded, especially since it seems that
neoconservatives’ days in the White House are numbered. But the
problem runs deeper. Their attempts to construct a nonexistent
ideological confrontation simply demonstrate their confusion in the
face of current events and changes.
The current reality can’t be folded into a simple
system of «democratic and undemocratic» because this is not where
the lines of demarcation lie. The claims and speculations of this
democratic rhetoric end up discrediting the very ideas of
democracy, which really are very important in maintaining some kind
of point of reference in a chaotic world.
The United Nations is, indeed, an ineffective
organization. But we have seen the results of opting to work around
it. The search for ways to solve the long list of global problems
associated with this approach is difficult and nasty, making it
simpler just to build new propagandistic bastions. This helps
cultivate a general level of irresponsibility and, in the end, is
evidence of intellectual bankruptcy.
Russian policy can be criticized for many things,
but it has managed so far to avoid the inclination toward ideology.
True, there have been some signs that something different is
beginning to emerge from Russia’s pragmatism. Moral overtones have
slipped into more recent utterances, and something more messianic
could always develop from the simple idea of multipolarity, with
claims to be the defender of diversity in values. But this is the
last thing Russia needs. There is no point in trying to compete
with the missionaries on the other side of the Atlantic.