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Thursday, November 17, 2016


Settle down, this is going to take me a while.  I should like to attempt a thoughtful response to Robert Shore, who writes as follows:

“Prof. Wolff,
I don’t mean to minimize your fears about what we can expect from the Trump Presidency. However, along with many dreadful things it is possible that something important and positive may also come about; namely, a big step in the direction of normalizing relations with Russia. To provide some important background information the following interview, with Stephen Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University is very much worth listening to for two reasons. One, he talks eloquently of the awful revival of something close to the Red Scare and McCarthyism that is going on at present in which anyone trying to say anything positive about Russia immediately gets smeared as a Putin puppet as the Clinton campaign did to Trump. Indeed the New York Times has been demonizing Russia for much of the past year. The second reason is that Cohen presents a picture of what the world looks like from the Russian point of view with NATO expanding to the very borders of Russia carrying with it the frightening possibility of a nuclear war with Russia. If Trump indeed follows through on his campaign promises and is able to put an end to the uncalled for and terribly dangerous hostility towards President Putin, he will have achieved something of great importance for which we should be grateful. Nothing of the sort could ever have been expected had Clinton won the election.

Robert Shore”

First of all, let me thank Bob for taking on the role of Blog Tigger.  I am usually the one who sees a drop at the bottom of a tumbler as evidence of a glass half full, but the election of Trump has turned me into an Eeyore, and I welcome his capacity to see light at the end of a wormhole.  I admire Stephen Cohen’s work and I thank Bob for the link to his piece.

In these remarks, I am going to take off from a single word in Shore’s comment, namely the word “normalizing” in the second sentence.  I think it reveals a point of view with which I have considerable disagreement.  Let me explain.

The United States is an imperial power.  That is not a moral judgment, it is a statement of geopolitical fact.  It is not the first imperial power, nor will it be the last.  There are other imperial powers at present – China comes to mind – as well as a number of regional powers that aspire to at least quasi-imperial status, but the United States is currently the richest and militarily strongest imperial power, a status it maintains by spending a much larger fraction of its Gross Domestic Product on its military than do its competitors.  Russia was an imperial power when it was the Soviet Union, and it seeks to reestablish itself at least as a regional hegemon.

Imperial powers expand their spheres of control in a variety of ways, depending in part on geography and in part on history.  Some, like Rome, the Mongols, Great Britain, and the United States, seek to project their power well beyond their borders, establishing and manning permanent military bases in the portions of the world they dominate.  Others, like China and Russia, extend their imperial sway to areas contiguous to their homeland and are hesitant to seek control of areas not reachable by land bridges from the homeland.  Imperial powers generate a wide variety of self-justifications for their quest for dominion, sometimes laying claim to cultural superiority [Rome, Great Britain, France], sometimes invoking divine sanction [China], sometimes claiming moral and political superiority [the United States.]

The earth being shaped as it is, imperial powers expand their spheres of control until they bump up against other imperial powers or reach natural boundaries [the Pacific Ocean, for the United States, the limit of the territories feasibly reachable with available technology, for the Romans.]  For the past several centuries, Central and Eastern Europe have been contested areas, over which wars have been fought repeatedly.  [I assume at least the outlines of this history are familiar to the readers of this blog, and I shan’t attempt a summary.]  At any moment in history, the relative weights of the constellation of forces establish a geopolitical balance, either stable or unstable.  This balance is always contested, always challenged, always undergoing revision as the power of the competing imperial nations shifts.

Quite often, after a major war, a new balance is established which those living at the time consider “normal” or “appropriate” or “inevitable.”  This was true after the Napoleonic Wars, after the First World War, and again after the Second World War.  WW II changed the prospects and opportunities for virtually all the aspiring or existing imperial powers.  It destroyed the imperial sway of Great Britain and France, put paid to the imperial ambitions of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and established the United States and the Soviet Union as the two dominant imperia of the post-war world.  The Soviet Union expanded farther into Eastern and Central Europe than it could ever have hoped to do, and the United States in effect took control of whatever the Soviet Union was not actually sitting on.

None of this has anything at all to do with considerations of what is right, or what is best for mankind, or what can be justified by appeal to heaven, to history, or to the ideals of the human spirit.  It is simply a description of what happened.  The United Nations, like its predecessor, the League of Nations, is an attempt both at formalizing the power relations that existed at the end of a great war, and at freezing those relations so as to protect the hegemony of the existing imperial powers and stymie the ambitions of imperia on the rise.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, a shift in the power relations of Eastern and Central Europe took place, and the United States, with its agent, NATO, moved to expand its influence into regions that Russia could no longer control.  Vladimir Putin seeks to recapture at least some portion of that region as part of Russia’s sphere of influence and control.  If the United States [under President Trump] agrees to this Russian move, the balance of imperial control will shift.  If Trump resists Putin’s move, then in all likelihood Putin will fail, because the worldwide fall in oil prices has substantially diminished Russia’s power.

What would it mean to “normalize” America’s relations with Russia?  Would it mean to freeze things as they now are?  Return to the spheres of control of the so-called Cold War period, with Russia dominating and perhaps reincorporating Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, and so forth?  Return to the situation that existed in 1933?  In 1918?  In 1818?  There is no coherent meaning that can be given to the term.

But, you ask, what ought America to do?  What ought we, on the left, to want America to do, regardless of how little ability we have to determine what it will do?  What is the right thing for America to do?  That is a very much more difficult question to answer than it might at first seem.  Consider the possibilities.

First, America could eschew all imperial aims, close the overseas bases it maintains in most of the nations of the world, and reduce its military establishment to what is required to protect its territory from invasion.  It could then claim that it had foresworn Empire [try telling that to Native Americans, by the way.]  What would be the result?  Other actual or aspiring imperial powers would expand their spheres to fill the gap.  We [i.e., we on the left] might consider the consequences good or bad, but we could tell ourselves that we have clean hands, we are morally above reproach, because no matter what happens we did not do it.  I leave it to the professional moral philosophers to consider that defense [I assume we are not falling back on religious justifications in the style of Sergeant York.]

Second, we could embrace America’s military power as a reality and argue that it should be put to good use – to advancing the prospects of socialism, for example, or stamping out the abuse of women in nations around the world, or punishing nations that criminalize homosexuality.  If that is our choice, then what is the argument for withdrawing our sphere of influence from territories over which Russia seeks to reestablish its Imperium?

Third, we could embrace imperialism in principle and throw our support behind some other imperial power which for some reason we prefer to the United States.

This would be an interesting and enlightening discussion, but I cannot see that the term “normalizing” would play a useful role in it.


I. M. Flaud said...

Your approach to great power politics reminds me of the offensive realism of John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. He proposes that the Ukraine become a buffer zone' between NATO and Russia. [One attraction of offensive realism theory for me is its implicit rejection of methodological individualism -- states don't act like individuals in the aggregate. Methodological individualism was a tenet of neoliberalism--though states continue to act as you describe them, and public policy continues to function independently of public opinion.]

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I do not know Mearsheimer, but much of my way of thinking was influenced by a friend from an earlier time at Chicago when I taught there, Hans Morgenthau.

I. M. Flaud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
s. wallerstein said...

I think that a little honesty might be the first step for the U.S. Most of the discourse about U.S. imperial foreign policy (not yours Professor Wolff) that one reads in the media could still be categorized as "with God on our side": we are the good guys, we fight for liberty, we defend human rights and democracy, while they (who "they" are varies according to the enemy of the week, much as in Orwell's 1984) have evil intentions, want to dominate weak neighbors (something we never dream of), mock human rights, and are corrupt and authoritarian.

About a month ago I clicked on the NY Times website and there was so much stuff about what an evil guy Putin is that I haven't visited the NY Times since and that vacation has been good for my sanity. I'm no Putin fan, but as many point out (Chomsky says this too), Putin in the Ukraine is going pretty much doing what we would do if we saw that Russia aimed to put military bases in Mexico.

So a sane first step would be for everyone to recognize that the U.S. is an imperial power, that it acts on its geopolitical interests (as defined by the elite and by big corporations) and that God is no more on its side than God is on the side of the Ayatollahs of Iran.

LFC said...

[Apologies in advance for the length of this comment. I've trimmed it but it's still on the long side.]

The three choices (for progressives or leftists) at the end are given as: (1)close all U.S. military bases and reduce the military establishment to what is required for self-defense, narrowly defined; (2)embrace US mil. power and put it to "good [i.e. progressive] use"; (3)support some other 'imperial power'.

When it comes to thinking about the basic US role vis-a-vis the rest of the world, these three choices are not exhaustive or even, imho, all that illuminating. On the question of US military spending and global military footprint, there is a big middle ground between choice number (1) close all 800 (or whatever the figure is) bases and retreat to homeland defense and (2) use mil. power to crusade for xyz goals around the world. Indeed, neither (1) nor (2) would be very desirable: (2) would promote more conflict in the world directly, and (1) might well lead indirectly to more conflict.

Another option (though not the only one) would be what Mearsheimer and others call 'offshore balancing' i.e., a military posture that would allow the US to prevent e.g. China or Russia from expanding their influence and power to the extent that they threatened countries or regions beyond their 'backyards' or 'near abroads'. A policy of offshore balancing would not have favored expanding NATO into E Europe after the Cold War, but would have made clear in less obviously provocative ways that, e.g., Russian reconquest of the independent Baltic states was not acceptable. It would probably require keeping a certain number of bases, but not the worldwide network of approx. 800 the US now has. It's not very helpful to think in binary terms of: should the US have 800 bases around the world or zero? Should it have 14 (very costly) nuclear-armed submarines in its arsenal or none? Etc. These binary all-or-nothing choices seem not v. good responses to the extant complexities.

On Russia specifically, while I don't favor 'demonizing' Putin, it shd be recognized his actions in Syria (to take an obvs. example of a current issue in US/Russian relations) are almost certainly war crimes (and not on a trivial scale). The recent Russian withdrawal from the International Criminal Court is noteworthy in this connection. No one has clean hands in that region, certainly not the US, but to view Russia's actions in Syria as somehow pre-ordained by some putative structural "logic," as opposed to being a conscious strategic and tactical choice by a regime that might have chosen differently, seems to me mistaken.

In the opening of his renowned textbook Politics Among Nations (starting with the second and subsequent editions), Morgenthau wrote that "politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature." If you (meaning anyone) believe that politics is governed by objective laws, if you believe (as Morgenthau seems to have, at least in some incarnations) that 'the national interest' has an objective content discoverable by wise statesmen, and esp. if you believe (as most or all 'realists' claim to) that the absence of a world government ('international anarchy') imposes very strong structural constraints on how states behave, then you will not be able to understand a fair amount of what goes in international politics, or even in great-power politics. The states-under-anarchy model might explain some things, but there are a lot of other things it cannot explain. That's always been true, but it's especially true now.

LFC said...

p.s. correction:
should read "a fair amount of what goes on in international politics"

mesnenor said...

This article (published just before the election) is quite pertinent to this discussion here.

Foreign affairs would be just about the only area where Trump would appear to have somewhat clearly defined views.

Brian Leiter said...

Surely the relevant sense of "normalizing" is to stop threatening to pull Ukraine into NATO, to cede Crimea, which Russia has already claimed, and in general to stop pushing NATO to the Russian border. This is, indeed, John Mearsheimer's position, who is the preminent international relations realist these days, much influenced, of course, by Morgenthau. There is almost nothing good to say about Trump, but if he, in fact, stops America's belligerent behavior towards Russia, that would be good.

Matt said...

I'm sorry to see the praise for Stephen Cohen here. He was once an important counter-point to over-reaction to the Soviet Union, but he has not been able to adapt to the post-Soviet world. (Like many academics, he has one or two ideas that he will ride until they can't walk anymore.) His account of what Russia is like under Putin is shallow, and shows a poor understanding of the importance of both institutions and norms in governance (both internal and external) (This is also a serious weakness in most "realist" thought, both historical and recent, and one reason why I'm much less keen on Mearsheimer's thoughts than Brian Leiter is.)

(The idea that the US's behavior towards Russia has been particularly "belligerent" is, at best, and exaggeration, mostly a fantasy of Russia to explain it's own problems. It also leaves out the real fact that the people who would be dominated in these scenarios have no interest in or desire to be dominated. I'm always amazed to see people who would think it's obviously wrong that, say, the US should overthrow the government of Haiti thinks it's just the way of the world that Russia will dominate Georgia or the like.)

A very good account of the dangers we face can be found here:

The take away is that there is a real worry to our institutions and norms, that they will end up in a situation like Russia's, essentially a mafia state, a situation that is vastly easier to get into than get out of. People who consider themselves to be on "the left" should really not be trying to convince themselves or others that their might be an upside of this situation.

s. wallerstein said...


I'm going to echo Chomsky's argument here.

As U.S. citizens, we are responsible for what our government does or does not do. So if the U.S. foments disorder in Venezuela against an elected government (as seems to be the case) or backs a coup in Honduras (as is the case), we are responsible for that. Political ethics, says Chomsky, begins with taking a look in the mirror and seeing what we are doing or what those whom we have the power to elect are doing.

On the other hand, we have little political responsibility for what Putin does or does not do. In fact, so much enthusiasm for condemning Putin for pushing around his neighbors and so little energy for condemning the U.S. for the coup in Honduras or for the attempts to undermine the fragile stability of Venezuela (I know that it's an economic disaster area) seems vaguely suspicious.

I realize that there are situations of aggression which should awaken the attention and indignation of every person on earth (Nazi Germany, the U.S. in Viet Nam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), but so far Putin is not in that league, as far as I can see. Putin's style turns me off and Obama's charms me, but this isn't about style.

J. W. F. said...

Whatever your take on hard power, the fact that we are drifting toward nuclear conflict should be a matter of concern for all persons of good conscience. Putin is playing a game of chicken that one can be reasonably confident Trump will flinch at the moment he wises up. It's no comfort that Trump appears to be most easily swayed by whomever is the last person to press their case before him.

LFC said...

...shows a poor understanding of the importance of both institutions and norms in governance (both internal and external) (This is also a serious weakness in most "realist" thought, both historical and recent...)

yes. W.r.t Mearsheimer, there is a divergence betw. his policy prescriptions, some of which make a fair amt of sense, and his theory of offensive realism as set forth in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which is unpersuasive on certain major points and dismisses norms as unimportant or epiphenomenal when in fact they're quite important.

Mearsheimer btw is not really all that much influenced by Morgenthau, except in a very general way. [And Prof. Wolff's perspective in the post is more in the tradition of Mackinder ("The Geographical Pivot of History", 1904), Nicholas Spykman, and to some extent R. Gilpin and P. Kennedy.]

It also leaves out the real fact that the people who would be dominated in these scenarios have no interest in or desire to be dominated. I'm always amazed to see people who would think it's obviously wrong that, say, the US should overthrow the government of Haiti thinks it's just the way of the world that Russia will dominate Georgia or the like.

A fair point inasmuch as one shd apply the same standards to the behavior of regional hegemons in their near abroads or immediate areas of influence etc. Not have one standard for Russian behavior in that respect and another for others'.

Though the same standards should apply, one should recognize the repercussions are different partly b/c of the US's and Russia's different physical locations. When Russia acts up in its near abroad, the repercussions can often be felt across Europe, whereas when the US went into Grenada in '83 or Panama in '89, few outside the immediate region cared. That's partly b/c Russia is not surrounded by water in the way the US is, but is much more cheek-by-jowl w other potential or actual great powers on the European continent. This distinction ('insular' vs 'continental' states) does come out of the geopolitical and realist traditions. Those traditions aren't worthless by any means, just limited.

LFC said...

@s wallerstein

What Putin and Assad are doing in Syria is pretty nauseating, though there are war crimes on all sides there. While it's understandable on one level that Assad is fighting to stay in control and Putin is supporting him, great powers are supposed to have responsibilities to uphold certain normative features of the intl system -- on some definitions, that's actually part of what it means to be a great power -- and going all in on behalf of a regional client to the point that you act w/o any restraint or discrimination, which is what Putin has been doing in Syria, is behavior unworthy of any country that wants to be considered a great power (just as were the worst aspects of US behavior in Vietnam). Russia also acted w extreme brutality in Chechnya, which drops out of the headlines when things there are not being blown up every day.

Daniel Langlois said...

'The United States is an imperial power. That is not a moral judgment, it is a statement of geopolitical fact.'

The United States is the most powerful country in the world. The recent unilateralism of the Bush administration and the colonialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century could be considered two high points of American imperialism. Many have decried the actions of the Bush administration as the latest in a series of imperialistic actions undertaken by the United States. Also, I think that most of the world sees the United States as a nascent imperial power. Some nations support the United States precisely because of this.

Nevertheless, I quibble: When one thinks of imperialism, one usually thinks of the UK in its hey day when the sun never set on the British Empire. One would also think of France and its colonies in North Africa and South-East Asia, or the Netherlands and its Indonesian colony, or Italy with its Ethiopian colony, or even Spain and Portugal with their vast South American empires. These imperialist nations of the recent past used brute force to conquer and enforce their control over their colonies. They were quick to punish errant colonies by crushing any revolts therein, using their superior arms. They always needed to occupy the countries they colonized to maintain control and to ensure their hegemony over their hapless inhabitants.

Times have certainly changed. I know that the United States maintains the strongest and most advanced military in the world, and one might say that it has appointed itself the global leader and policeman, or maybe that the entire civilized world is America's colony. I don't think one can say with a straight face, here, though, that 'That is not a moral judgment'.

s. wallerstein said...

In Latin America the United States many times uses force to crush countries that get out of line.

The invasion of Panama in 1989. In Grenada in 1983.

The funding of the contras to destroy the Sandinistas.

The Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba.

The invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Participating in the 1973 coup in Chile as co-conspirator.

Participating in the 1964 coup in Brazil as co-conspirator.

Participating in the failed 2002 coup in Venezuela as co-conspirator.

There are lots more examples.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I don't see anything in the substance of your comment that challenges the claim that "That is not a moral judgement." Could you please clarify?