Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Russians are Coming

Vladimir Putin made a very significant speech this weekend. An edited version is now available on Comment is Free. The central theme of his speech is encapsulated in this paragraph:
Today we are witnessing an almost unrestrained hyper-use of force - military force - in international relations, a force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible. We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. One country, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.
Putin, the wily ex-KGB officer, knows full well that it's a message which will be well received by huge numbers of people all over the world. I certainly can't find much fault with the message itself but that doesn't mean it's time to join the Vladimir fan club. Putin is seeking to exploit the whole "enemy of my enemy is my friend" thing but he's really not the sort of man progressives ought to be befriending.

And not just because of Alexander Litvinenko, Chechnya, or Russian restrictions on the operation of NGO's.

There are underlying motivations to Putin's speech and they shouldn't be ignored. Russia's involvement with the Iranian nuclear programme and it's wider economic relationship with Iran is the most obvious. Putin's opposition to military action against Iran should be welcomed but it should also be recognised that it's a position based largely in a desire to protect Russian national interests.

And, while it would be an exaggeration to say that Putin seeks a return to the days of the Cold War, it is clear that this speech signals a desire to build a new coalition which would challenge the current hegemony of the United States. Potential allies might include China and India but there's no doubt that Putin expects Russia to lead this new alliance. Again, Russian national interests are the driving force in this desire to challenge American dominance of international relations.

This might still appear useful to progressives worried about the current U.S. administration's unilateral approach to international affairs but it doesn't offer the prospect of any real reform of the way nation-states interact with each other. Putin isn't standing up for multilateralism, he's attempting to recreate a bipolar world with his nation at the head of one of the two dominant blocks.

Putin's message may be appealing but his proposed solution is a return to the past, not a step into the future.


Friendly Fire said...

Putin's message may be appealing but his proposed solution is a return to the past, not a step into the future.

I would prefer the stability of the Cold War thanks, rather than the three amigos, Bush Blair and Howard starting unprovoked wars

RickB said...

Great post, back patting is in order. Here's to a future that isn't just empires warily manouvering around each other.

CuriousHamster said...

Thanks rick.

ff, I do disagree with you on this one. This post was the result of a couple of conversations I've had recently and was party about challenging my own view of the Cold War.

The first point is the one rick has mentioned. Even if the Cold War was better than today's circumstances, I don't think a return to that would be progress. I believe that reform of the UN and other multilateral institutions offers the possibility of real progress.

The second point I'd make is that the Cold War was actually a lot hotter than the name suggests. Proxy wars between the two blocks did enormous damage to people in the developing world.

If we take Vietnam as an example, millions of South East Asians died as a result of U.S. Cold War policy. Back then, the U.S. military carpet bombed North Vietnamese cities, something no longer acceptable in today's climate (much to the disgust of Shotgun Cheney). In many ways, the "war" on terror can be seen as an attempt by the U.S. govt to create conditions similar to the Cold War. For the likes of Cheney, those were the good old days when they could really let rip with their machinery of death.

There was stability of a sort during the Cold War for us in the West but things looked very different in the developing world. The damaging effects of the Cold War are still with us today in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

In my conversations, I realised that there was a danger that I might easily be tempted to gloss over all of that with a layer of nostalgia and this post resulted from that.