Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wilsonian Obama lectures the Russians


The above article, written by Luke Harding in Moscow and posted in the Guardian is entitled “Barack Obama urges Russia not to interfere in neighbouring States.” I’ll quote a few passages from it and then comment below:

. . .

“Obama delivered a tough, though implicit, critique of Kremlin foreign policy, rejecting the claim it has "privileged interests" in post-Soviet countries. He said the 19th-century doctrine of spheres of influence and "great powers forging competing blocs" was finished.

"’In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonising other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over," he said, speaking to graduates from Moscow's New Economic School.’

. . .

“Crucially, though, Obama indicated that Washington would not tolerate another Russian invasion of Georgia. Russia is winding up full-scale military exercises next to the Georgian border amid ominous predictions that a second conflict in the Caucasus could erupt this summer.

“On Monday Obama reaffirmed Georgia's sovereignty – severely undermined by last year's war and Moscow's subsequent unilateral recognition of rebel-held Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Today Obama defended "state sovereignty", describing it as "a cornerstone of international order".

“He also said that Georgia and Ukraine had a right to choose their own foreign policy and leaders, and could join Nato if they wanted. Russia is deeply opposed to Ukraine's and Georgia's accession, and wants the White House to rule out their future membership. Today Obama responded by saying that Nato sought collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.

“. . . Last week Obama described Putin, Russia's prime minister, as having ‘one foot in the past’. Today, however, he talked to him for two and a half hours – longer than planned and an admission of Putin's continuing importance. The meeting, their first, was ‘excellent’, Obama said.

“During his speech, however, Obama delivered a withering assessment of Putinism. Without mentioning Russia by name, Obama spelled out the US's commitment to ‘universal values’. These included the rule of law, the equal administration of justice, and competitive elections – all things missing from Putin's vertically managed authoritarian state.

“Obama also stressed the importance of "independent media in exposing corruption at all levels of business and government". Russia's state-controlled TV has largely snubbed Obama's first trip to Moscow, apparently on Kremlin orders, either failing to mention him at all or relegating him to the lower regions of the news schedule.”


I haven’t had time to check and see if the Guardian is making all this up, but if they aren’t, there is enough toughness in Obama’s message to the Russians to satisfy almost any Redneck. And the fact that the Russians prevented his comments from getting out to the Russian people is also interesting, but I was most interested in Obama’s comments on Russia’s buffer states, the states which became independent – sort of -- after the collapse of the USSR.

Obama disparages the19th-century doctrine of spheres of influence and ‘great powers forging competing blocs’.” Will the Russians let Obama get away with saying this? They after all have rejected “American Liberal Democracy” and are insisted on 19th-century Nationalism which they call “Sovereign Democracy.” Obama when he said “Georgia and Ukraine had a right to choose their own foreign policy and leaders,” is insisting upon one of President Wilson’s most controversial points (of his famous 14-Points), the point that declares that all nations have the right of “self-determination.” That “point” gave hope to such groups as the Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, Magyars, and caused no end of trouble for the old Imperialist powers that used to control them.

Wilson’s “self-determination” proposal lost ground during the 1919 negotiations with the British, French, and Italians who wanted what the Russians today seem to want, control over the less-powerful nations in their orbits. Historians point to Wilson’s principle of “self-determination” as evidence of his naiveté, but here it is again, fresh from the lips of Obama in Russia, telling Russia that the Georgians and Ukrainians have the right to self-determination. Wilson would be proud of him.

Although Wilson was theoretically one of Obama’s Democratic ancestors, the Democrats have not gone out of their way to claim him in recent years. They have been too busy denigrating the Republican Neoconservatism which is, after all, nothing more than Wilsonianism with a little activism thrown in.

It is one of the interesting aspects of American politics that just when one of the major parties carves out for itself a unique popular position, the other party soon takes it up. The Democrats favored making peace with China, for example, but it took a Republican to actually pull it off. And we see traditional liberal programs such as health-care and social security being pushed by Republicans (albeit unsuccessfully); so it ought not be a surprise to see a plank in the Neocon platform (self-determination) being pushed by a Democratic President – but it is.


This idea of self-determination requires more elaboration. Someone might object that the “Neocons” opposed the “self-determination” of Saddam Hussein. But part of the entire Neocon position (if I can describe it as such) opposes politics that get in the way of a nation’s or a people’s ability to move toward Liberal Democracy. Saddam Hussein was opposing Liberal Democracy with his autocratic regime. Removing him was good from the Neocon standpoint, because now the Iraqis would be able to determine for themselves what they would do next politically. The Neocons did not assume that a modern Western-style Liberal Democracy would be the next Iraqi step. But they thought it very worthwhile to get rid of the Saddam Hussein impediment, and didn’t object to doing it militarily.

Obama probably doesn’t plan to do anything militarily (despite telling the Russians that “Washington would not tolerate another Russian invasion of Georgia”). His approach will be diplomatic; which is what caused me to wonder whether the Guardian’s Luke Harding heard Obama correctly. It doesn’t seem, on the face of it, very diplomatic to tell the Russians that their “Sovereign Democracy,” in essence, is something that must be done away with.

What Obama said isn’t original. We heard a bit of it from Ivan Krastev: http://www.lawrencehelm.com/2009/03/russias-sovereign-democracy.html . But it is remarkable when it comes from the bully-pulpit of a Democratic president – that is, from a Democratic president since Wilson.

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