Monday, March 03, 2008


A BBC report on Sunday’s Russian elections reminded me of the famous George Kennan quip that “we will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed Bolshevism.” The reporter then substitutes the word “Democracy” for “Bolshevism” to make for a nice turn of phrase and pose what seems like a provocative question. . . but is it?

Should we eye the nominal change in Russian leadership through the Kennanic lens? Should we ask not how Democracy has changed Russia, and instead turn our attention to how Russia has changed Democracy?

At first blush, Kennan—an authoritarian at heart who once expressed dismay at the US entry into WWII—is an odd icon for a progressive to invoke. Kennan’s realism stands as a stark contrast to the Wilsonian idealism that envisioned a League of Nations extending peace and safeguarding basic human rights across the globe. Ask me anytime prior to 2001 which icon of “the American Century” spoke more to my heart, and I would have chosen Wilson over Kennan (and his realist disciple, Henry Kissinger), and done so without hesitation.

But a funny thing happened just after the close of the American Century, and though I really feel no more fondness for the likes of Kennan and Kissinger, I am suddenly a lot less sanguine about a Wilsonian world. (Note: no hero worship of Wilson is intended here, he was a problematic man and a problematic president, but this digression would require pages I do not at present have the time to write.) What happened in 2001? No, not the terrorist attacks of 9/11; I refer to the inauguration of George W. Bush as the 43 president of the United States.

I am not the first to cross-index Bush 43 with Woodrow Wilson, but now might be an interesting time to recall a story that comes up in a James Traub review of a Kennan biography from last year:

Back in the mid-1970s, Natan Sharansky and his fellow Soviet dissidents bitterly amused themselves by conducting mock trials of Henry Kissinger, the architect of the détente policy that left them feeling abandoned. Sharansky, as judge, would sentence Kissinger to exile in the Soviet Union without benefit of the Jackson amendment, which pressured the Soviets to permit Jews to emigrate. One can scarcely imagine the punishment he would have meted out to George Kennan (1904-2005), the diplomat-scholar who laid the foundations for the cold war policy Kissinger later executed. . . .

Americans, as Kennan was grimly aware, are enamored of their supposedly unique virtues and unique destiny. Indeed, Sharansky’s “Case for Democracy,” in which he tells the Kissinger anecdote, supposedly helped inspire George W. Bush to pursue a policy of democracy promotion, spreading those American virtues around the globe.

Kissinger believes that Wilsonian idealism is (and I guess that Kissinger would say “is wrongly”) America’s default foreign policy. While I am not sure I absolutely agree with Kissinger on this—the US seems mighty selective about when it gets all idealistic on the world’s ass, and when it shows realist “restraint”—the presidency of George W. Bush does make me question whether idealism should be the default.

So, ought we ask a Kennanesque question of contemporary Russia?

Vladimir Putin will likely come in for a world of criticism for the mockery he has made of a democratic election—and, in, dare I say, an ideal world, such criticism would be wholly deserved. Putin has done much to consolidate his own power and crush dissent. He has used the fight against “terrorism” for political ends and prosecuted a bloody war in a region where access to oil is not an inconsequential byproduct. And, he has gone to the ultimate ends to intimidate and constrain a free press.

But, Putin did not come to power in an ideal world. Indeed, he came to power in a post-Soviet Russia that was, in some ways, the victim of American idealism—or, at least, the victim of a faux-idealism. For, while Kennan’s containment might have kept the west from being overly disruptive of a militarist state’s fated devolution, the confusion of free-market capitalism with democracy by cold war idealists left a re-born Russia vulnerable to the worst kinds of abuses seen during the American gilded age. The lawlessness, privation, and economic chaos of the Russian 1990’s could make the authoritarian order of Putin’s decade seem more than a fair tradeoff to many who have been, as Sharansky might have put it, sentenced to live through it.

Perhaps, given where we find ourselves today, with America’s power and influence all stretched and stressed to the breaking point by our own fight against “terrorism” and bloody war where access to oil is not inconsequential, America should exercise a small degree of, if not Kennan’s “restraint,” at least Kennan’s introspection. For while Kennan’s realism made him all too comfortable with authoritarian regimes, it also made him, in the words of Traub, “unillusioned and often bleak [in the] assessment of America’s capacity to shape the world according to its wishes.” So, rather than talk of Russia, let’s bring the question closer to our home, and closer to our time.

For isn’t about time we took case studies like this weekend’s Russian election to heart, and asked a question about our own state of affairs? Granted, it would be wonderful to believe that the United States could simply serve as a shining example, and even more wonderful to believe it could act on our shining ideals to influence peaceful and positive change, but have we the prestige or the prowess left to play that role on as grand a stage as Eurasia? Likely, it is not just now so productive to ask how far Democracy has changed Russia—or vice-versa—as much as it might be beneficial to fully realize how far George Bush’s America has changed what we still so idealistically call “Democracy.”

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