Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why Russia?

Daniel Larison seems to be stupefied about why anybody ought to be worried about Russia, particularly since Vladimir Putin became President. This one seems pretty simple to me, and it has a great deal to do with the changes in history about what constitutes a great nation.

First of all, let's recognize that in practical terms Russia is currently a basket case. It's a demographic nightmare, it's economy is a shambles, the criminal element is wildly out of control, there is no rule of law but there are rogue nuclear weapons. What's not to like? Moreover, in spite (or because of) these things, Putin, the Russian leadership and to a substantial extent the Russian people regard Russia as a Great Power, equal to or at least roughly of the same stature as the United States. This would be very funny if it were meant as a joke.

Instead, Russia intends to use its energy resources to bully other nations into adopting Moscow's line on the various controversies bouncing around world. Often, Moscow doesn't really care about the substance of its own line very much. But, by defending it aggressively and forcing other countries to come to heel, Moscow demonstrates its capacity to exercise power and preserves its amour-propre.

This would be a great strategy if we still lived in the 18th century. National powers were of necessity much more restrained. Theoretically a monarch might have absolute power but his real control over society was limited by logistics of enforcing it. Therefore the hunt for position and treasure among nations could be endured, because there was hope at the local level that the adverse consequences might miss them. Today of course, there is nowhere to hide from Big Brother.

Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin is still pretending to be the second coming of Napoleon. It ought to be the diplomatic policy of the United States to tell him that that game is stupid. If there were any point to that game, America would have won it a long time ago. America is the preeminent nation in the world today because it has shown that it can see the world through a bigger lens than its own parochial interest and can act on what it sees. The other nations of the world willingly give America its power. When it hits the fan and something needs to be done, people know who to as (hint: it's not France or Russia).

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