‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Wishful thinking

…..and its consequences.

How do you deal with half-truth or dissimulation, with hyperbole – or simple wishful thinking? Or simply two versions of the truth – see my last post on the subject of identity. I might disagree with Roger Scruton, but I’d never doubt his integrity.

Government isn’t about certainties. Most government policies don’t deliver on their original intentions. But if based on clear principle and sound argument then we can accept them, for good or ill, as part of the political process. Not so wishful thinking, which can have malign consequences.

Workforce planning in the NHS  From the Department of Health, last December: ‘Brexit will be a catalyst to get [workforce] planning right.’ [Source: The New European] This in the context of a steep rise in the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK. And the answer, we’re told, is to train more of our own nurses.

Why Brexit should in any way be a catalyst for workplace planning in the NHS I can’t see. There is an ongoing need to train more nurses, Brexit or no Brexit. Desperation, as we find our health services understaffed, is hardly the way forward. And if anyone has seen cold, clear planning on the Brexit side over last few months, please let me know.

Trade deals and food standards  ‘Mr Gove has insisted that the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower deal” with the US.’  Retaining access to EU markets, vital for many farmers, ‘will require continued adherence to EU standards’. That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU. But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal, it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.’ [Source: Financial Times 25/26 November]

Remember the context: 70% of the UK’s food exports last year went to the EU. 80% of our food exports come from the EU.

Obama warned how difficult a trade deal with the USA could be. Maybe under Trump we wouldn’t be at the back of the queue – but only, as Wilbur Ross makes clear, only if we accept American standards, and abandon the EU standards we ourselves have done so much to nurture over forty years. The first lessons of negotiation are to be sure of your argument, and negotiate from a position on strength: neither would true of any post-Brexit US trade deal.

Remember also that this is the USA of Donald Trump, busily posting anti-Muslim videos produced by the British extreme right. More than ever, we need to stand our ground, and know who our friends are, friends who share our values.

A new generation  There’s a breed of establishment liberals, all avowedly Remain voters, who may see Brexit as an economic mistake, but ‘put the blame for the mistake on liberal leaders rather than the benighted masses’. Robert Peston is one such: I’m quoting here from The Economist’s review of his new book, simply entitled ‘WTF’.

This isn’t to say that ‘the self-renewing elite’ Peston refers to shouldn’t be in the dock. And I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether ‘establishment liberals’ are true liberals. My focus here is on wishful thinking, and I’ll let The Economist’s review of Peston’s book speak for itself:

And his conviction that ‘out of the current swamp a new generation of politicians with credible ideas will emerged primped and pristine on the shoreline of our ageing democracies’ looks delusional. There is little evidence that Britain’s elites are prepared to use Brexit as a spur to bright new policies. There is ample evidence, by contrast, that Brexit is being handled in the worst possible manner: dividing the country still further and distracting attention from what ails us.

That last sentence, and the last clause, ‘distracting attention’, is key. ‘Wishful thinking’ in everyday life may help keep us all afloat, but in politics the damage it can do is extreme.

 

 

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Obama chops Trump down

Lovely to see – to hear – Obama chopping Trump down. Being president is not about a being a talk show host, about marketing, about publicity, it’s about making difficult decisions, and some are unpopular, some will hurt people, and being well-briefed in your dealings with other world leaders – they too have ‘their own crowds back home’. That last point I especially liked – you, Donald, are not alone in this world.

There’s a piece in the Economist on American conservative talk radio, hosted by the semi-crazed (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck) who somehow in the rarefied air of the prairies don’t just to get a hearing but strike a few big chords – or a few bum notes. If bum notes are all you hear, would you recognise a chord?

Does it give joy to Trump to be supported by such people – how much of a conscious game is he playing with them – feeding them pap?

Ted Cruz is no better, but while you feel that for Trump it is a big game, and a big ego, for Ted Cruz it is deadly, evangelically serious. He also feeds the talk shows with great material. The trouble is – he believes it all, and he can express himself with a degree of coherence. And he is so sure he’s right that compromise and balance, which is what the American constitution requires, gets shown the door. And America becomes ungovernable, as it halfway is now.

What also bugs me is Cruz’s call on the Bible, and Jesus, to support him. He sure as hell – almost literally – wouldn’t get close to the pearly gates. America has always been too good – the prairies again – at creating its own religions.

Only one small pleasure in all this – a little bit of humour – Fox News almost the good guys. They do at least have a small idea that politics is about governing – and governing, as John Kasich the best of the Republican contenders has made clear, is a serious matter, about results and balanced budgets and not public platforms.

The UK is – to use totally the wrong expression – a different ballgame. But we also have the same populist right-wing nonsense to deal with and it’s big in the media – thank God we’re spared talk shows. But we do, sadly, have the Mail.

Obama mentions that one aspect of government is looking out for the underdog – ‘standing up for people who are vulnerable and don’t have some powerful political constituency’. And that is the ultimate litmus test of any politics.

To quote Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which I’ve done before:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse/ An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Reaching agreements …

We’ve seen a positive outcome to the climate change talks, and now an agreement at the UN in the Security Council for a peace plan for Syria. It’s not just the agreements themselves but the willingness to argue and discuss and actually reach agreements that I find encouraging. Both are under the auspices of the UN. And both have come about because of the engagement of all parties. China now fully recognises the urgency of measures to combat rising CO2 emissions, so too the US administration, if not the coalheads behind the American far-right in Congress. And Russia is now fully engaged in the Syria peace process, seen by some in the West a few weeks ago as a backward step, but as an interested party committed to the support of the Assad regime, with a naval base at Tartus in Syria, essential if a peace process was to move forward.

One reason for the failure of Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Putin was the fact that it was one-sided. Putin has now established himself, as he’s wanted all along, as an ‘equal’ partner. 2003 the US and UK tried to call the tune, and that can’t be the way forward anymore. We don’t have a democratic Russia, as we all hoped for after the fall of the Soviet regime, but we do have a government with whom we can deal and – possibly -reach agreement at a global level. We can establish areas of vital common interest and work out from there. Likewise with China: combating climate change has potential for being a major area of cooperation between China and the West. We can’t as yet resolve issues surrounding China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea, but working together in one area can only improve the prospects of doing so in others.

And there are serious – fundamental- issues of human rights. We have Saudi Arabia as an ‘ally’, and that’s pretty cynical in the scheme of thing. But we have to work from where we are. And what conflict tells us is that the big stick never works. So if we have to work with the likes of Putin, best to get on with it. Pragmatism is the best ally of idealism.

Another lesson – the importance of bodies such as the UN, above all the UN, under whose auspices the nations of the world can come together, and argue, and find common ground. Doing exactly what it was set up to do.

I’d put the European Community in the same category. What’s remarkable is that countries are working together, at a European – and a global level. War shattered Europe st  twice in the 20th century, and European institutions over the last sixty years have  cemented peace in a quite remarkable way. Walking away from the EU would be lunacy. Putting all our energies into reforming it so that it is and is seen to be an institution working for people at all levels is the only way forward.

And that requires strong leadership. Whether it’s Obama and Kerry, Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Hollande and Fabius, who acted as convenor at the the Paris talks – presidents and foreign ministers, the recognition of the interests of each of the parties involved is essential if common ground is to be established and agreements achieved.

This may be stating the obvious – but it’s why were getting agreements now, and we didn’t before.