American foreign policy is more sitcom than CENTCOM. That in a way is the good news. Our failures are comic while those of other nations are tragic. Americans do not understand the tragic impulses of other peoples because they are exceptional. The Europeans failed as nationalists, and are failing as post-nationalists.
Because Americans are not an ethnicity but a union of immigrants committed to a concept, our nationalism discloses a universal impulse. We blunder when we forget how exceptional we are, and ignore the tragic impulses that impinge on other peoples.
Only once in the past century have we read the world aright. We got it wrong when Woodrow Wilson proposed a utopian postwar vision in 1919, when the isolationists tried to stay out of the European conflict in the late 1930s, when Roosevelt and Truman let Stalin absorb Eastern Europe, when we overextended and then turned tail in Vietnam, and when we undertook to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into Western-style democracies. Ronald Reagan got it right when he decided that it was time to roll back communism – but he also understood that we would have to live with Russia as a nation.
We have stumbled into the world’s troubles like incongruous clowns in a tragedy: we observe the anguished faces of the other characters and conclude that everyone else on stage is insane. That is how Americans view Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Time magazine reported last week:
An Obama administration official leaked to the New York Times on Sunday the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Obama she wasn’t sure if Putin was in touch with reality. “In another world,” Merkel reportedly said, according to the leak. Then in a conference call with reporters later in the day, three administration officials took turns firing rhetorical shots: “[B]eing inside Putin’s head is not someplace anyone wants to be.”
I doubt that Merkel ever said it, but that’s a different question. Russia, as Colonel Ralph Peters (retired) told Sean Hannity last week, “believes in Russia”; to the Obamoids, belief in one’s country is prima facie evidence of mental defect. Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain and Senator Marco Rubio meanwhile compare Putin to Hitler, an example of what the late Leo Strauss derided as “reduction ad Hitlerium.”
Contrast that to President Obama’s characterization of Iran in his interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg:
[If] you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.
That’s been the longstanding view of this administration.
Just how does one define rationality in global politics? Here is a question that helps: What is the rational self-interest of a nation that will cease to exist within the horizon of present-day expectations? We look uncomprehendingly on the petty wars of perished peoples and marvel at the sheer vanity of their forgotten battles. How do we know that someone in the future won’t look back at us the same way? There have been Great Extinctions of the Peoples before in world history, but never with the breadth and speed of the demographic declines in our own era. That should give us something of an objective gauge with which to judge the rationality of actors.
Iran’s unprecedented fertility decline has accelerated – from about 7 children per female in 1979 to only 1.6 last year, according to a UN estimate. Russia, meanwhile, is struggling to emerge from what seemed like a demographic death-sentence only a few years ago. Ukraine is Europe’s poster-boy for demographic death.
Iran is dying a slow and dreadful death: by mid-century more than a third of its people will be over 60, and by the end of the century, half its people will be over 60, imposing an impossible burden on a poor country. Its rulers are taking urgent steps to reverse the fertility decline, opening clinics to treat infertility, which reportedly affects one-fifth of all Iranian couples, against a world average of around 8%. Why infertility is so widespread in Iran is unclear; it might be due to the fact that the reported incidence of chlamydia, a bacterial STD that causes infertility, is several times higher in Iran than in Western countries. Former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad began campaigning for earlier marriage and bigger families in 2009, but fertility has continued to fall.
I argued nearly a decade ago (see Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, Asia Times Online, September 13, 2005) that Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons is an entirely rational response to its demographic decline: “Iran’s motives for acquiring nuclear power are not only economic but strategic. Like Hitler and Stalin, Ahmadinejad looks to imperial expansion as a solution for economic crisis at home. … This may appear to be a desperate gamble, but conditions call for desperate gambles. Ahmadinejad is not a throwback, as I wrote with a dismissiveness that seems painful in hindsight. He has taken the measure of his country’s crisis, and determined to meet it head-on. Washington, from what I can tell, has no idea what sort of opponent it confronts.”
Iran is rational, but not in the way Obama seems to believe. If you need $100,000 for an operation that will save your life and have only $10,000, it is rational to bet the whole stake at 10:1 odds. Iran must break out or break down. That is why it will gamble on nuclear weapons acquisition.
Total fertility rate for Russia, Ukraine, and Iran
Source: UN and CIA
Apart from some fine work by the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, though, the glaring facts of Iran’s demographic predicament have escaped notice by America’s policymakers. Not so the demographics of Russia: the prevailing view among Western analysts (and especially hawkish ones) holds that Russia is a doomed nation. In December 2011, Professor Eberstadt published an essay entitled “The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster” in Foreign Affairs. Last year I reviewed on this site Ilan Berman’s book Implosion, which stated this widely held view as follows:
Russia is dying. Russia is undergoing a catastrophic post-Soviet societal decline due to abysmal health standards, runaway drug addiction, and an AIDS crisis that officials have termed an “epidemic.” The population of the Russian Federation is declining by close to half a million souls every year due to death and emigration. At this rate, the once-mighty Russian state could lose a quarter of its population by the middle of this century. And according to some projections, if Russia’s demographic trajectory does not change, its population could plummet to as little as fifty-two million people by 2080. It’s a phenomenon demographers have described as “the emptying of Russia” – a wholesale implosion of Russia’s human capital and a collapse of its prospects as a viable modern state. (See Reports of Russia’s death are exaggerated, Asia Times Online, October 15, 2013).
A specter is haunting Russia: the specter of depopulation. The cohort of Russian women of child-bearing age is so depleted that even a recovery of Russia’s birth rate will not forestall severe problems. Nonetheless I thought Berman’s thesis one-sided and overstated. Russia’s total fertility rate has recovered from around 1.2 a decade ago to 1.7 last year, and Russia’s population increased slightly in 2013 for the first time in almost two decades.
We do not know quite why this has occurred, but it seems that Putin’s aggressive efforts to promote fertility have had some effect – unlike in Iran. Like Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh, the threat of extinction may have motivated Russia to change course. And like Jonah, our modern prophets rankle at the prospect that the ban of doom may have been lifted.
I suspect that Russia’s revived nationalism has a great deal to do with rising fertility. That includes the revival of the Orthodox Church, which is consubstantial with the Russian state. Countries that lose their faith and their identity also lose their motivation to bring new generations into the world; that is how civilizations die, the title of my 2011 book on demographics and geopolitics. Putin’s nationalism is also a rational response to an existential threat. The Germans might go gentle into that good night, but Russia will fight for its identity and its future existence.
Russian nationalism – historically an imperial more than a national identity – always was a brutal business, and especially nasty towards national minorities, as my ancestors from the Pale of Jewish Settlement on the Western order of the Russian Empire knew all too well.
A core goal of Putin’s national revivalism is the reintegration of Russians left stranded in the “near abroad” by the collapse of the Soviet Union: Russia’s imperial policy of salting its border states with Russian settlers backfired when the evil Soviet empire collapsed. From the Russian vantage point this is not a matter of scoring points but an existential issue, a sine qua non of what it means to be Russian, and exemplary of the motivation for Russians to want their culture to continue.
Western pundits ridicule Putin’s claim that Russia is a bulwark against Western decadence. From a Western standpoint, Putin’s methods are repugnant. But they are the only methods Russia has ever known. The problem is that Western Europe is decadent. Most European countries are headed for demographic extinction. Russia, which seemed passed the point of no return, is struggling to retrace its steps.
Total Fertility Rate for Russia and Selected European Countries
Source: UN and CIA
That leaves the West with a conundrum concerning the Russian intervention in Crimea and possibly elsewhere in Russian-majority areas in Ukraine. Russia does not want to be like other European countries. Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic States have the lowest fertility rates of any nations in the West, ranging from just 0.82 children per female for ethnic Magyars in Hungary (excluding the Roma) to about 1.2 for Poland. That is where Russia was in 2000. Russia prefers the fecund past to the bleak future of the Europeans. That is why the nations of Europe fought the First World War 100 years ago: to avoid becoming what they are today. They fought to sustain belief in their destiny as nations. As Col. Peters said in the cited interview, “Putin believes in Russia’s destiny.”
The re-assertion of Russian identity, meanwhile, is as brutal a business as Russian self-assertion has been since the time of Peter the Great. Putin’s patriotism is not my patriotism. I don’t particularly like what Putin did in Crimea, but it was delusional to expect any other course of action. Russia is short of Russians, and it cannot ignore the 22 million Russians left stranded in newly independent republics of the former Soviet Union.
The Obama administration is staffed by the sort of utopian liberal internationalists who attended conflict-resolution seminars at Ivy League colleges. Putin seems a throwback, and that is just what he is: he is trying to revert to Russian identity prior to the 1917 October Revolution, not without some success. To compare him to Hitler is Billingsgate. The hawks seem upset that Russia has not chosen to accept its decline with Stoic resignation. It is easier to condemn Russian brutality than to suggest an alternative path by which Russia would remain viable a century from now.
It was inevitable that Russia would intervene if Ukraine became unstable. It is tragic in the full sense of the world, namely an outcome to which the participants are driven by circumstances they cannot control. Russia’s interest in Ukraine, particularly in the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, is existential not opportunistic.
As in Georgia, there was nothing the United States (let alone the Europeans) could have done to hinder it, and nothing they can do to reverse it. The tragedy will play itself out, and at the end of it – the very end – there will be no Ukraine, because there will be no Ukrainians.
Whether Russia survives into the next century is an open question upon which the crude conclusions of hawkish foreign policy analysts shed no light. I do not know the answer, but I am sure that America will have to deal with Russia as a strategic power for the indefinite future – a power of second rank, perhaps, but not one to be trifled with in its back yard.
I am an American and a hawk who wants America to be the world’s dominant superpower. Whatever our errors, we are the only nation in the world capable of altruism. We hawks had a mandate after September 11, 2011, such as no-one had in America since Pearl Harbor, and we misplayed hand after hand until our chips are nearly gone. If we fail to understand the underlying trends that drive events and the motivations of the main actors, we will be out of the game entirely.
What should we have done in Ukraine? As I wrote on February 20, the West had the opportunity to promote a constitutional referendum including the option of partition. If Russian speakers in Crimea or the Donbas region preferred affiliation with Russia, so be it. Ukraine’s constitution was in ruins before the Russians moved in. The odious Viktor Yanukovich beat the “Gas Princess” Yulia Timoshenko in a reasonably fair election in 2010, and proceeded to abuse his presidential powers. When the Maidan Square demonstrators chased him out, Ukraine’s parliament voted unanimously to dismiss him. The absence of a single “nay” recalls Soviet-era majorities.
The West could have been midwife to a new national consensus – either a single Ukraine reaffirmed by popular mandate, or a decent divorce on the Czech-Slovak model, or perhaps a federal solution somewhere in between. Instead, we encouraged a constitutional crisis in Ukraine. Now we are stuck with the dubious Ms. Timoshenko, one of the wealthiest oligarchs to emerge from Ukraine’s post-independence theft of national assets, and an intransigent Russia in possession of Crimea.