Thursday, 1 January 2015

“O rus!..”

I studied for a time at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire and fell in love with the United States in general, but in particular with the Granite state. I remember all the cars with their licence plates stating “Live free or die” and having a feeling that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Since it first came into existence, I believe, the US has been on the right side of history. Mistakes have been made, and like every country, it is possible to find fault with the historical record, but unquestionably the world has been a better place because the US existed.

What I’m going to write is controversial. People I like and agree with on much else may disagree with this. I hesitate therefore to write it, but do so because friends sometimes disagree. It is, I hope, possible to criticise from the perspective of friendship.

Since the Second World War it has broadly been the policy of successive UK governments to support the US in foreign policy. This was and is correct. Friends support each other and the UK gains by having the US as a long term ally. For this reason I have generally supported, though sometimes with reluctance, the UK’s support of our ally in the wars of the past 20-30 years. We’ve fought side by side twice in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. When a US president asks for help, my first reaction is that we should help, simply because we are an ally and have been asked.  However, I am beginning to become uncomfortable with this policy of unconditional support.

The United States has intervened pretty much where it has pleased and then found justification for doing so. That justification amounts to we think we ought to intervene. The US is itself the judge of the morality and legality of its actions. For a long time I have been willing to go along with this, on the basis simply that the United States historically has been a force for good. It remains one. But I begin to question the wisdom of the foreign policy choices that have been made in recent years. Many of these wars have not turned out well. Iraq is unquestionably worse off today than it would have been if we had not intervened. The same can probably be said of Libya. It is unlikely that the intervention in Afghanistan will turn out well long term.

If wars go well and lead to a better outcome for both victor and vanquished, then I’ve always been willing to be not overly concerned about the cause of the war. Wars have been fought for far worse reasons than toppling dictators. But when wars go badly and the outcomes are chaotic, then I’m forced to notice that the US has frequently had no real right to intervene. I have in the past been willing to accept the justification that the United States thinks the intervention morally justified, but this position has become ever more untenable and made me ever more uncomfortable as each intervention fails to turn out well and, moreover, does not have the support of other great powers.

In 1962 the world appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war, because the Soviet Union wished to put missiles on Cuba. The United States objected. What right did they have to object? The reason was that Cuba was nearby. They considered the whole region within their sphere of influence. Fair enough. I’m glad the crisis ended with there being no missiles on Cuba. The United States still maintains its sphere of influence. Imagine if today a foreign power sought to overthrow the government in Mexico and replace it with an ally. What would have happened if the Soviet Union had tried to do this? The United States would unquestionably have gone to war. How far does the US sphere of influence extend? They have been willing to intervene in Korea, in Vietnam, in Chile and really pretty much anywhere else they please. The justification for such action is the national interest of the United States and the West in general. In many instances it has been right to intervene. But let’s not kid ourselves the US has sought to change regimes for the simple reason that it wants to, and has frequently had no more justification for doing so than its own self-interest.

I believe, we made a long term strategic error in 1991. The West chose to treat everyone in the Eastern Block as an ally except one country, Russia. We expanded NATO and the EU right up to the border of the Soviet Union and beyond. Russia was excluded from the ever expanding club. We chose to enlarge in this way even though the condition for the possibility of the Eastern Bloc collapsing more or less peacefully was that Russia agreed not to fight the collapse. Russia did so solely on the basis of an agreement that the Warsaw Pact would not simply be turned into NATO.  History teaches us the folly of crossing strategic red lines and backing a great power into a corner.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union also had a sphere of influence. The West stood by when the Soviet Union sent tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We would have stood by, too, if the Soviets had crushed the revolts which took place between 1989 and 1991. They could easily have done so. A few shots and a couple of tanks would have stopped those chipping away at the Berlin wall. Why would the West have done nothing? Because the Eastern Bloc was within the Soviet sphere of influence and to intervene would have led to nuclear war.

Imagine if present day Russia tried to implement regime change within the US sphere of influence, let’s say in Canada or Mexico. How would the United States react? They would go to war to prevent it. But the US and the EU think it is justified to bring about regime change in Russia’s neighbour.  The sphere of influence of the United States now extends even as far as Ukraine, which until relatively recently was commonly known in Russian as ‘LittleRussia’.

Russia began in Kiev. The present day borders of Ukraine only exist because of Russian and Soviet military action and arbitrary decisions made by Lenin and Khrushchev when everyone thought the USSR would be together for ever. The population of the Ukraine is linguistically mixed, but there are nationalistic forces, particularly from Western Ukraine, that would prefer that there were not Russians and Russian speakers in that country. What has happened over the past number of years in Ukraine is a tragedy for both Russia and Ukraine. People who did not even think of themselves as particularly different during the Soviet Union now hate each other. There has been great wrong on both sides. But we in the West have also been wrong.

It was wrong of the US/EU to agitate to overthrow the elected leader of Ukraine. No doubt, he was a rogue, but it would have been possible to vote him out if only everyone had waited a few months. It was wrong of Russia to intervene in the Ukraine. But it was no more wrong than countless military actions undertaken by the United States. Russia, too, has a right not to have a hostile power seek regime change right on its border.

There is inequality here.  The United States can have wars where and when it pleases, with no more justification than that it decides such a war is in its national interest, but when Russia decides to act in its own interest, the United States brings down the Russian economy causing suffering to millions.  Russia was not justified in using force to change international borders. But at least their intervention was on behalf of people who speak Russian. How many GIs could speak Pashto? Ukraine is just one more of a growing list of countries where the West has intervened and caused disaster. If the EU/US had just left Ukraine alone, it would today have the same borders as it did in 1991, and we would not have had what amounts to a fratricidal civil war.  

The United States must cease intervening in places that it does not understand. It has more power than at any time in its history. Its control of international finance begins to look like dictatorship.  Democracy is about everyone in the world having the same rights as Americans. Let us live free, too. At the moment the US can say “Do as we tell you or we’ll ruin you.” They can say this to anyone. Far from being the land of the free, the US is beginning to resemble a Southern plantation owner, whose freedom depends on the slavery of others. It took a Civil War to erase that blot on the historical record of the United States. Let’s just hope ruining Russia doesn’t put the world back in to the Cold War. History wouldn’t look very favourably on that either.

If you like my writing, please follow the link to my book Scarlet on the Horizon. The first five chapters can be read as a preview.

† My title is a quote from Horace’s Satires “O rus! quando ego te adspiciam?” [Oh rural home! when shall I behold you?] used as a motto at the start of Chapter 2 of Pushkin’s Onegin.  Pushkin makes a pun with “О Русь!“ [O Rus’ i.e. O Russia ]


  1. I agree 100%......Never thought I would see the day....Chapeau !!!

    1. People usually find they can agree on some things even if not on others. Glad we agree this time.

  2. Very interesting. I have to confess relative ignorance about the former USSR. However, I do feel some of the actions of a Putin led Russia are unequivocally spiteful. Remember when Russian tea meant it had lemon in it, not Polonium? And wasn't there a similarly creepy attack on an uncooperative Ukrainian leader? I can imagine many Ukrainians very keen to get out of that "sphere of influence". I have only recently discovered your blog, and find it articulates well many of my own half-formed thoughts. The price of that compliment is that I'd love to hear you comment on the above. Also, could I pick your brains on an article I read a few months ago. The article stated that when Ukraine separated, it relinquished it's share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. To overcome any reluctance to do so, part of the agreement was that the new state would have its borders protected by the "West" (presumably NATO). Is that true? If it is, then rather than poking its nose in, the West is abandoning its responsibilities.

    1. I've been away so I hope you will excuse the delay at getting back to you. The piece I wrote was by way of corrective, but I am well aware of the faults in present day Russia. It is a just criticism of Russia over the past century that so many of its neighbours want so little to do with it. Russia has not done nearly enough to encourage friendly relations.

      You're quite right that there was an agreement when Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons that had been left over from the Soviet Union. Both Russia and I think the UK and the US agreed to some sort of guarantee of Ukraine's borders. The change in these borders is however a consequence of the United States seeking regime change in Ukraine. More tragically they have by their "friendliness" to the Ukrainian leadership induced these people to fight a war which in the end the US would not back. This is exactly what happened some years ago in Georgia, with similar results.