Russia is Raising the Price of Western Ambition
20 February 2006
Guided by President Putin and his foreign ministry, Russia’s foreign policy is pushing America deeper into a corner it has come to know and hate. After declaring a “universal principle” on January 31, President Putin said that the fate of Kosovo (a UN protectorate within Serbia) should be the same as secessionist regions across the globe, specifically post-soviet nations like those in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin implied that secession has become an expression of self-determination. In so doing, Russia has added serious legitimacy to a movement well under way: the altar of western values is crumbling under the feet of its most confident sermonizer, America. And Russia would never miss an opportunity to shift the terrain in their favor.
Since the end of the Cold War, American and European politicians have trotted around the globe stamping out injustice after injustice—proudly mopping up the mess left in the wake of Soviet disintegration. From the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Balkans and South America, the West has rescued millions of helpless people with a formula that is said to be end of ideological history. For the last sixty years, the West has charitably spread the values of self-determination and tolerance to all corners of the globe.
Yet now, after years of watching America take credit for cleaning up its own backyard, Moscow has forced Washington into a lose-lose game dead-set on tearing a hole in the sanctity of self-determination. Does America want to save Kosovo or Georgia? Does it want democratic cooperation or fiery rhetoric about freedom? The answers to these questions go beyond President Bush’s ambitious foreign policy; they challenge our most fundamental questions about liberty and democracy.
With terrorist militias like Hamas getting comfortable in the Palestinian Parliament, Western institutions are actually having to defend their sacred principles, which were presumed (much like in the Soviet Union) to be the purest and clearest ingredients to a blessed civilization. What’s more, steadfast defenders of self-determination within Western governments are now divided at a critical moment—where some want to make exceptions to the rule in order to blacklist movements like Hamas, while others remain loyal to self-determination no matter the details. Even Israel is unsure of its long term strategy.
Within this framework, President Putin has forced the West and the UN to simultaneously defend the same democratic principles, but from another angle of attack: not democratic terrorism, but democratic secession. Russia knows that the US will not publicly accept the analogy between Kosovo and Abkhazia/S.Ossetia, if only because Washington will never let anyone else dictate its own foreign policy. Yet regardless, because Russia is (quite starkly) speaking the western language of self-determination, the West has to respond, and any response will require a specific alternative standard (or “universal principle”) whose application will then be closely monitored by the international community.
But for all its bombastic rhetoric, the West—and in particular, the Bush Administration—hates using standards and principles simply because they get in the way of the less sexy (but more important) goals like energy security. Once a policy gets more specific than “democracy on the march,” any deviation from that agenda is a natural invitation for costly criticism. It is easier and less costly to improvise. This has always been true, but now, those inconsistencies cannot be manipulated with word games. Now the hypocrisy is the result of the West’s inability to coherently defend its own values, not just its policies.
Democracy is on the retreat in the minds of Americans and Europeans. The fact that voter turnout in Iraq is consistently ten points higher (roughly 60%) than turnout in America is not enough to convince Americans that Iraq is a functioning democracy. Democracy, the West is learning, isn’t quite as easy as it once thought. And accordingly, Putin is trying to humiliate Western ideology at a time when it needs serious nurturing and self-confidence. Moscow has even invited Hamas to a state dinner at the Kremlin, which (coming so soon after Hamas’ victory in Palestine) is a common practice used to officially recognize a government. Putin is daring the West to dig itself deeper into its own ideological grave, as any attempt to answer the questions raised by Putin’s Kosovo analogy will show the inherent liabilities of self-determination. After all, Hamas was elected in a fair and democratic election.
So is Kosovo different from Abkhazia and South Ossetia? Any answer gets too specific for talking points to have an impact, so the issue will be skirted to keep the burden off of Lady Liberty’s shoulders. And besides, Russia will do as it wishes regardless of international precedents. If Western foreign policy was not so cosmically ambitious, Russia would have to watch the game from the sidelines and hope for more democratic backfires like Palestine. But because Washington shoots for the moon, Moscow is in a great position to show the inconsistencies of intentionally vague Western standards.
For example, Serbians have made it abundantly clear over the years that they would love nothing more than to obliterate Kosovo. But it is not “officially” part of their government’s platform, in contrast to an explicitly hostile Hamas. Yet does this “official” difference really warrant western sanctions, when everyone knows that hatred on a piece of paper is not more threatening than thinly concealed aggression? These standards are inconsistent and deserve scrutiny, but until the Iraq war, until Hamas’ rise, the West was not prepared to question its own values. And the fact that Kosovo’s final status will be decided in late February meetings only adds to the stress of creating and maintaining democratic standards.
There was a time when President Putin also avoided these foreign policy standards, especially this one, as the separatist republic of Chechnya would also qualify for independence under this universal principle. But 9/11 changed all that. When Bush bought Putin’s support in the global War on Terror, Putin implicitly required that Washington regard Chechens solely as terrorists (instead of oppressed victims seeking independence). And as a result, President Bush cannot afford to suggest that Chechnya also passes Putin’s universal test. If he did, Putin would loudly accuse Bush of being soft on terror, and Putin knows that Washington needs a consistent War on Terror more than it needs a consistent standard for democratic self-determination. In practice, this priority will force Washington to back off from Georgia, save face with an independent Kosovo, and avoid reminding Moscow how Putin’s “universal” policy could backfire with Chechnya.
Even fifteen long years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ideological war continues unabated, and the frightening insurgency is somehow taking place within democratic circles. The ingredients for a blessed civilization seem to be getting increasingly specific, and the contagion of democracy is on the march. We asked for it. Now it’s time to get ready for the fallout.