Some time back, perhaps 2002 or 2003, maybe a bit earlier, I attended an international security conference in Singapore. Several countries had representatives there, including Russia and China. One speaker, a senior Singapore official--I think Tony Tan, but could be wrong as my memory for names is not great any more--said in blunt terms, the norm for Singaporean officials (Singapore's founder, Lee Kwan Yu, is one of the great and blunt statesmen of the 20th century) that he was proud of Singapore's alliance with the United States; very glad to live in a world in which the United States was the sole superpower; and, above all, to live in one in which the United States and its allies had won the Cold War. He stared at and spoke directly to the fidgeting Russian officials, saying that had the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact won the Cold War, the world would be far poorer, less free, and all around worse off. I had to restrain my impulse to cheer and stomp, but found heartening this rare, clear, unambiguous, no "moral equivalence" statement by a foreign representative.
I mention this bit of "ancient" history as I see on comment boards, including on this humble blog, certain people again trying to draw a moral equivalence between Russia and the United States, between Russia and the West. If the United States can have bases in many parts of the world, and can intervene in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, then why shouldn't Russia be able to take the Crimea or have military bases in Latin America? If Britain had an empire, why can't Russia have one? It, furthermore, is not just obscure commentators on obscure blogs; I have heard college profs and students say this, and most of you probably have heard more than one "progressive" and even a prominent libertarian (and here) come pretty close to justifying Russia's actions in Crimea, and deriding the idea of any US response--even Obama's absurdly tepid one.
Let's go back to the point raised in Singapore. Imagine that the Soviet bloc had won the Cold War. By "won" I mean that major Western countries had collapsed, economically and militarily, and undergone massive political upheavals that left them almost unable to act on the world scene. What kind of a world would we have? Would the USSR have shown tolerance and understanding as it stood on the borders of Western Europe and not sought to take advantage militarily, economically, and politically of the situation? What sort of societies would we have in Western Europe? Thriving and prosperous "liberal" democracies? Doubt it. At best, we would have a bunch of Vichy-like regimes, ever aware of the alpha wolf just outside their doors. The global economy would be a bleak shambles, with poverty and misery at historically high levels. Not only democracy, but liberty would have been in peril of being extinguished. It would have been the most dystopian of imaginable futures. Whatever grievances, including some real ones, Russia might have about how it was treated by the victorious West after the collapse of the USSR, they pale into insignificance with what we would have seen had the roles of victor and vanquished been reversed.
I don't want to go into a full-blown discussion of Russia and the West through the ages, but would say that Russia almost always, if not always, has been on the edge of Western consciousness. Before anybody gets offended, there is no doubt about the greatness of Russia's contributions to the hard sciences, literature, theater, and music. Russia for numerous reasons, however, never has been fully a part of Western civilization. Starting with Peter the Great, Russia's Tsars made on-and-off, and usually half-hearted efforts to become part of the West. Those rulers were attracted to the wealth, power, and technological advancement of the West, but had little to no interest in adopting Western ideas of democracy and, especially, liberty which made that wealth, power, and technology possible. There seemed always a dark, conspiratorial, even piratical tone to Russia's relations with the West: we seeing Russia, not unreasonably, as a crude, obscurantist, dangerous bogeyman, and Russia viewing the West, not always inaccurately, as looking down on Russia and intent on preventing it from finding its rightful "place in the sun." Russia's attempts to find this "place in the sun," of course, ran into notable obstacles such as Japan's own quest for that sunny spot which generated a massive defeat for Tsarist efforts to become a major force in Asia and the Pacific, and, lest we forget, World War I which ended the Tsars and served as midwife for the even more horrid Bolshevik rule.
Things did not change for the better during the Communist Interregnum. The seventy years of Communism proved a profound political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for Russians and the other people of the Bloc. Soviet Communism murdered tens-of-millions of persons, and proved incapable of producing a modern economy. Communism, however, did give Russia the illusion of owning the future: Soviet Communism, the Premier declared to the UN while banging his shoe on the podium, would "bury" the capitalist world. Moscow would become the new Rome; no longer just a backwater, it would speak for the world's workers, peasants, and intellectuals; it would show how Marxist Revolutionary thought could be harnessed and turn Russia into the world's foremost power. While the USSR built an impressive military apparatus, including the world's largest nuclear arsenal, the respect sought didn't happen. Except for "highly educated and extremely smart" Western and Third World university intellectuals, most people saw through Moscow's preening. Russia, in essence, remained the Congo with rockets. Reagan and Thatcher laughed off Communism's pretensions, put their faith in the West's ability to create wealth and generate overwhelming military power by the unshackling of individuals, and the Bloc fell apart in a way few if any empires have done before: quickly, almost bloodlessly (pace Ceaușescu), and with a whimper not a bang--and live on television. Again, no "place in the sun" for Russia.
The return of non-Soviet rule to Russia did not prove altogether happy. It was marked by extreme corruption and gangsterism, and the development of a semi-authoritarian political system. The once formidable Soviet military went into near-total collapse and Russia's foreign policy was characterized by confusion and a stunning lack of funds. A little anecdote: I was assigned to La Paz, Bolivia, 1992-95. A senior military attache at the Russian Embassy had a major heart attack. He told me the doctors said he had to leave La Paz and its 11,000 ft altitude or face serious risk of death. The Russian Embassy had no funds to send him anywhere. The poor man had to struggle on. Another Russian staff member had a seriously ill wife, who, too, could not leave La Paz. The Russian Embassy was forced to sell furniture, cars, and other items to buy food, and pay electric and water bills; it also had to move employees out of leased houses and onto Embassy grounds. The Diplowife reminds me that many of us took to inviting Russians to our events just to feed them. Defeat has consequences.
Did the West deal properly with Russia in the wake of the Soviet collapse? Perhaps not. In retrospect, we probably could find missed opportunities to help Russia make a dignified transition. In general terms, the greatest failing--Whom do we blame? I don't know--was Russia's failure to incorporate into the Western world. Unlike China, Russia never became a key player in the world's economy. It never developed an openness to outside investment, and the emphasis on an export-driven manufacturing economy. Yes, it had gas and oil, but that seemed more for use as a weapon against the West than a means by which Russia would become a full participant in the global economy. Certainly the incompetent, though amiable, Yeltsin did not help matters, and his apparently docile stance re the West fed rising Russian nationalist anger that would result in the Putin Restoration.
We can debate all this endlessly, but for now anyhow, we have Putin and his old fashion Russian nationalism in charge of an angry and revanchist Russia. We, the mighty victors of the Cold War, now have President Obama, a man determined to throw away that victory. This attitude of self-inflicted defeat, unfortunately, is not unique to the USA. Throughout the West, with a few exceptions noted before, to wit, Harper, Abbott, Netanyahu, we have elected inept leadership who fail to understand that history did not end with the collapse of the USSR, and that the West's freedoms and prosperity require constant effort to maintain in the face of domestic stupidity and foreign challengers such as Putin and the Jihadis.
Dealing with Russia will require resolve and determination. With the right policies, however, it should prove considerably less difficult than dealing with the once more powerful USSR. Russia is a much smaller nation, and one in serious demographic decline. It has not resolved its economic problems and has a shaky political system that is not certain to survive the departure--whenever that is--of Putin. What Putin has is Putin. He understands the multiplier effect of determined leadership and how that can make up for many orders of military inferiority.
I have discussed before how to deal with Russia's ambitions, and won't repeat. Let's go back, again, to the opening theme of this now too-long post: equivalence. Simply put, I do not want to live in a world of Russian predominance or one in which Russia, at least the Russia of yesterday and today, is a major player around the world, especially in our neighborhood. Western influence is a far superior product to what Russia peddles. Whatever flaws might have existed, for example, in British society in 1914, Britain was a far superior place to live than Tsarist Russia. A subject of the British Empire had vastly more freedom and opportunity than did one of the Russian Empire. Whatever flaws exist in Britain today, it still remains a far, far better place to live and raise children than does Russia. During the Second World War and the Cold War, the USA had serious domestic issues, not the least of which was racial discrimination. Despite our flaws and failures to live up to our own lofty ideals, America was a far superior place to live than Soviet Russia, and, despite Obama, still remains that way when compared to Putin's Russia. Overseas, Panamanians, for example, might not have liked the overwhelming US military and economic presence in their country, but they merely had to compare Panama's standard of living with that of Cuba's to understand that if you have to make a choice between coming under US or Russian influence, well, it wasn't much of a debate.
Russia is not a force for good, freedom, or prosperity. Whatever the flaws of the West, and they are many, the West is better than Russia; if you don't believe me, ask the many Russian immigrants who live around me. There is a difference between having Russian influence and having Western influence. Seems odd even to have to make this point, and that says something about the period of intellectual and moral decay in which we now live.