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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#18 - JRL 2007-66 - JRL Home
From: Ira Straus (IRASTRAUS@aol.com)
Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2007
Subject: Re JRL 65 #7a, Does the West still exist

It is an unusual honor, I think, when the editor of JRL goes to the trouble to attach another article as a supplement to mine ((# 7a, "Does 'the West' still exist?" Bridget Kendall, BBC, supplementing my # 7, "Russia-West relations"). Since the attached article is not about Russia, I am doubly honored that you went to the trouble of finding it.

I think I should welcome the BBC article as confirming my point, even if unintentionally, that Westerners often seem share to much of the same incomprehension as Russia about the enduring nature of the West. With the difference that Russians often take the intra-Western angst too seriously, and let themselves get fooled into thinking their fantasies about the dissolution of the West might finally be coming true.

It is at bottom the same old problem pointed to by Vekhi: Russians take up the latest surface radical rhetoric of the West, and carry it to dangerous extremes, while what Russians need to assimilate from the West is the enduring foundation. The West meanwhile is busy figuring out how to use its internal criticisms constructively for reforms and tinkering.

The possibility cannot be excluded that the West will do does itself some damage by the ignorance and exaggerations in its internecine arguments. But usually the damage is quite limited. The Western structures have sufficient support, and there is sufficient determination to make them work, to weather many a wave of rhetoric and many a fit of ignorance. Sharp mutual contradiction in debate is a part of the democratic process; soft evolution is its normal outcome.

One thing pretty much ensures that this will be the case with the intra-Western polemics, despite their oft-apocalyptic rhetoric about the demise of the West. It is, that these polemics mostly have limited utilitarian purposes, which Russians seem rarely aware of, but Western policy-makers keep carefully in perspective. Americans bash Europe decade after decade as irrelevant weaklings, unworthy of NATO -- invariably with the blatant motive of trying to get more defense spending out of Europe and strengthening NATO. Europeans counter that American isolationists are risking to dissolve NATO; but the bashers on the American side consistently -- at least those with any power, if not the village ideologists -- stick to their actual goal of maintaining and strengthening NATO. (A case in point. Robert Kagan, who got loads of publicity for his book ridiculing Europeans for being "from Venus", is in reality a committed Atlanticist. His wife has been working at NATO for a number of years and deserves credit for pushing forward several measures to deepen the Alliance.) Americans say their concerns are global, unlike the Europeans, who aren't worth consulting much if they stay so provincial; they mean that Europeans should make more of an effort for global security, as they used to before their empires came to an end. Europeans bash American unilateralism, saying it makes America unworthy of their loyalty; the actual aim, at least those of them with any power, is to get more consultations out of America.

The French play a particularly misleading role in this, as followers of a paradoxical policy, seeking to remain privileged allies of America while at the same time seeking to carve out more space for their own autonomy by opposing America. This Gaullist policy is one that Russians often both ape and misunderstand, embracing its anti-Americanism, which is indeed a strong rhetorical strand in one of its two contradictory facets, as if it were meant at face value, and carrying it sometimes to extreme "logical" conclusions without regard for the restraints imposed by the opposite strand in the French reasoning. The policy in its original French form has often enough a comic aspect; with its Russian twist, it can become dangerous -- for Russia no less than for other countries.

In specific intra-Western debates, the French object to widening NATO, warning that it will dilute NATO's intimacy. The meaning: despite all their anti-American rhetoric, they want to keep America's attentions more for themselves. Australia, New Zealand, and Japan would have always been welcome into NATO throughout the Cold War if they had ever wanted to join, and were indirectly linked to it in a number of ways; today, when they are building a closer relation to NATO, the French have the luxury, in the absence of a Soviet threat, of obstructing this, calling it as a danger to the purity of NATO as an Atlantic and Western institution. The argument forgets a few things, e.g. that the Australia and New Zealand were a part of the original English-speaking group whose rapprochement in the 1890s was the beginning of the Atlantic alliance, and were still included in the proposals for Atlantic Union in the 1930s; the Japanese were already recognized as a European Great Power after 1905; they all have intimate alliances with the U.S., and have all been part of the OECD or extended Atlantic grouping since the 1960s. Americans repeat the French arguments for shock value in reverse. The BBC article gives great importance to an unnamed American whom it quotes as saying, "The West is an outdated concept. And if there is still a West, then it includes Australia, Japan and South Korea." As -- apart from South Korea -- the West always did, for half a century now and more. Lots of smoke and mirrors; no fire anywhere in sight.

The French also resist having NATO undertake peacemaking and peacekeeping functions out of area, making an almost comically unfounded argument that it violates the NATO Treaty since the Treaty does not require such actions; it is a dilatory debating and bargaining tactic, nothing that NATO lawyers would ever worry about, since nothing in the NATO Treaty excludes such functions, and Article IV positively implies the desirability of them.

Many Russians, however, take these French debating points seriously, at least when it is convenient for Russians diplomatic argumentation. They start repeating them on a truly surprisingly widespread scale. In 1999 it became something of a nationwide slogan among Russians that "NATO was acting illegally against its own charter" when it intervened in Kosovo. Presumably few of them had ever looked at the NATO Treaty, but they were quite ready to repeat this slogan; I suppose they felt it was the patriotic thing to do. One heard this, not just in 1999 but for years after, from educated Russians, even specialists in international relations and law, who could have quickly seen what nonsense they were talking if they had bothered to check the Treaty. The comedy of the French debating points gets magnified beyond measure when it is taken this seriously in Russia; it takes on a tragic element, as it misleads the Russian public and government on a vast scale.

But enough of this. I'll get around in a few days to my promised follow-up on what is right and wrong in Russian perceptions on unipolarity and on the existence of the West.