Speech to the Boston Meeting of the Economists for Peace and Security (EPS)

Historians and economists see the world in a different way. Economists tend to see progress in terms of the linear ascent of reason. Historians tend to see progress as an ascent through disaster.

This year’s theme of EPS is the avoidance of a second cold war. It’s a very urgent and necessary topic, for on its achievement rest our hopes for peace and security in the post-communist era.

And by peace – to bring in an economic consideration – I mean a peace dividend – the end of the insane expenditure on armaments, which is the only exception our rulers allow to fiscal austerity.

It is wicked to be appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars to guard against largely imaginary dangers while starving our healthcare, education and welfare services of the money they need to help the poor to a better life.

Yet the foreign policy and defence establishments are busily constructing a narrative in which an arms build-up appears a justified response to Russian expansionism.

In April of last year, Britain’s Observer newspaper published a striking cartoon showing Putin sitting on a throne of outward-pointing daggers and rockets, turning off the Ukraine gas tap. The cartoon’s background was a flaming red, a hammer and sickle and skull were painted on Putin’s breast.

This image comes straight out of the Cold War ossuary.

Peace today faces two main challenges. The first is an age-old one which we have rarely been able to solve successfully: how to fit a rising power into a world order dominated by the established powers.

Britain and its allies failed to find a way of giving Germany the place in the sun which it craved. The result was two of the bloodiest wars in history which created a new world system dominated by the United States.

Today we face the same problem with China. In the years to come China will not just a place on the board of directors of an American-run company, but an active role in shaping the policies of the company, in proportion to its own power and ideas.

I find no real willingness of the existing board members to accept that China’s rise is bound to change the nature of the world system.

The second challenge is one that the last century faced for the first time in human history: how to secure the peaceful coexistence of different social systems.

One can trace the start of ideological wars -indeed of ideology itself – to the French Revolution. But the 19th century was a single world ideologically. It was not fractured along ideological lines.

In the 20th century these global fractures started to appear with fascism and communism, today perhaps with Islam.

‘International Relations’ itself was a a newly-minted term to describe a world of nations with no obvious ideological centre of gravity.

The result, of course, has been that today we fight wars of values, not of interests; we aim to overcome civilizations, not to adjust frontiers.

No more pernicious utterance was made than by Tony Blair when he said in Chicago in 1999: ‘The spread of our values makes us more secure’. If that happens peacefully, his observation was right, if banal.

But if it means, as he meant it to, that the imposition of our values by force or pressure on other countries makes us more secure, he couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a recipe for permanent insecurity, for permanent wars, hot or cold, to end war.

In looking to counter the drift into a second cold war with Russia there is no wiser guide than the American diplomat George Kennan.

Kennan’s ‘long telegram’ of February 1946 is credited with the start of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, and the foundation of NATO in 1949.

But the irony is that this so-called architect of the western response to Soviet expansionism was against all the doctrines and institutions set up by the USA to deal with it, with the single exception of Marshall Aid.

The correct response to Soviet ambitions, Kennan argued, should be the ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union by ‘the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce’ at ‘every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world’.

Kennan saw the Truman doctrine, which offered a blanket protection to free peoples,as product of the ‘American urge to seek universal formulae…in which to clothe and justify particular actions’. He was against the formation of NATO because, he said, it solidified the division of Europe into armed camps.

Foreign policy, he argued, needed to steer a delicate and difficult course between Russian paranoia and American moralism.

He presciently wrote that ‘I see the day will come when I will be accused of being pro-Soviet with exactly as much vehemence as I am now accused of being anti-Soviet’.

It was Kennan’s view that the Cold War was prolonged by the West’s refusal to negotiate with the Soviets until they had secured the equivalent of ‘unconditional surrender’.

How many people know that Khrushchev’s Soviet Union applied to join NATO in 1955 -an application which one Western strategist described as ‘like an unrepentant burglar requesting to join the police force’.

That the Soviet Union offered the reunification of Germany in 1952 and 1954 on condition of German neutrality? That it proposed a general European collective security treaty in 1954 open to all ‘regardless of social system’? That the Warsaw Pact was only formed in 1955, six years after the start of NATO, following the rejection of these overtures?

Was Kennan wrong to say in 1996, at the age of 92, that NATO expansion into former Soviet territory was a ‘strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions’ or when he warned the same year against a foreign policy that was ‘utopian in its expectation, legalistic in its concept…moralistic…and self-righteous’?

I find Kennan a deeply satisfying guide for the present. But just as he was simultaneously accused of being anti-Soviet and pro-Soviet, I find myself sounding anti-Russian when I speak in Russia, and pro-Russian when I speak in the UK or USA. For there is a lot that was and is wrong with post-Communist Russia, which needs to be said, and said loudly.

The regime’s fake democracy and fake religiosity, its corruption, media censorship, rigged judiciary, persecution of NGOs offend me, but except for corruption they do not offend most Russians.

But the West also needs to be told that if the present cold peace escalates into a new cold war, it will be chiefly responsible.

Its record since the fall of Communism is replete with folly and error.

How many people know that Gorbachev conceded the reunification of Germany on the promise that NATO would not expand beyond Germany?

How many people know that he proposed a new Atlantic -European collective security system to supersede both NATO and the Warsaw Pact?

How many people in this room can share the shame and humiliation Russians felt in the 1990s when their country was invaded by swarms of Harvard MBAs, armoured against reality by their ignorance, preaching human rights and the free market, only to let a cabal of criminals bleed the country dry; or understand how western democracy & free markets came to be associated in the Russian mind with disorder and disintegration?

How many people know that Putin backed America fully at the time of 9/11, and, over the protests of his own military, made Russian bases available to US forces?

How many people know that Putin wanted Russia to join NATO in 2001?

I listened to this whole narrative of the jilted lover from Putin’s own lips at Sochi a couple of months ago. Far from joyfully accepting Russia as a partner in the war against Islamic terrorism, the west, he claimed, had deliberately set out to weaken and dismember the post-Communist state, through the interlocking instruments of an eastward expansion of NATO, ‘orange revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia, and finance for every anti-Russian NGOs going.

Russia’s Ukraine story is simply the latest chapter of this general anti-western dirge. As the Russians tell it, an illegal coup against the democratically-elected government of President Yanukovich brought extreme anti-Russian nationalists to power in Kiev on 22 February. Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a pre-emptive strike against US military deployment. Russian communities in Crimea and in Donbass were forced to organise in self-defence against persecution and even massacre. Russian ‘volunteers’ from across the border came to the aid of their beleaguered brothers.

The Western narrative is almost the polar opposite. The fall of the evil empire’ was a victory for human rights, democracy, free markets and, in general, of western value. Russian failure to take advantage of the opportunities this opened up is seen as a form of recidivism, rooted not just in communism, but in its autocratic history.

On Ukraine, where Russians talk of a nationalist coup, orchestrated, organised, and financed by the CIA and other murky bodies, the West see a popular uprising against a corrupt, despotic, and increasing violent government.

Whereas Russia talks of Russian volunteers helping threatened fellow Russians, the West sees an invasion of Ukraine by Russia’s armed forces, in an opportunistic attempt to stop Ukraine pivoting its economy and security system on the west.

In short, both sides accuse the other of deliberately manipulating Ukrainian domestic politics for their own advantage. And both are right.

As former Czech president Vaclav Klaus pointed out in an incisive essay, ‘The state of Ukraine today is a sad outcome of Stalin’s attempts to mix up nations and boundaries, disrupt historical ties and create a new Soviet man by turning original nations into mere ethnical residual and historical left overs’.

The Ukrainian state created in 1991 has remained illegitimate to sizeable fractions of its own population. No common Ukrainian identity was forged. Democracy has been a sham, with disputed elections, and messy power transfers. In the economy, wealth is fought over by alternating Russian and non-Russian oligarchic clans, to the accompaniment of stagnation, industrial decay, and high unemployment.

In short, Ukraine was ripe for the manipulation of its internal politics by Russia and the West: by Russia to keep it within its own sphere of influence, by the West to pull it towards the EU and NATO.

We have in fact two different world views, not as polarised as in the Cold War, but so far apart one despairs of dialogue. To decide between them would take us deep into civilisational questions, on which I confess to be conflicted, being a British lord of Russian parentage. There are my Russian friends -mostly western-leaning Russian liberals, brave and admirable people, but they do not reflect popular sentiment.

But this is exactly where Kennan was so wise when he said that foreign policy should be based on interests, not values. What would he be advising now? I imagine Barack Obama turning to him and saying ‘George, the Russians are getting a bit foot loose. How would you contain them?’

I can’t hope to give an answer in the few minutes remaining. But I can readily believe that George Kennan would have said two things.

First, ‘Get off your moral high horse, stop lecturing. It only makes the Russians -and incidentally the whole of the non-western world -more intransigent. Look after security and morals will look after themselves’.

Second, ‘Let’s work out what America’s real interests in the region are. Would they be served if Ukraine joined NATO? Would they be harmed if Ukraine doesn’t join NATO, or keeps Crimea’? Are you sure that America’s interests and those of the EU coincide?

Surely, Kennan might have continued, we can do a trade here: no NATO membership for Ukraine in return for reassertion of Kiev sovereignty over Donbass. And let’s agree to put Crimea into cold storage

In return, the EU and the US to offer Ukraine a new Marshall aid to clean up its economy and prepare it for EU membership.

Excluded from NAT0 membership, a Western-leaning Ukraine would lose most of its sting for Russia. And who knows – a post-Putin Russia might even want to follow it into an expanded European Union and a pan European, or even Atlantic, collective security system.

I don’t know whether Kennan would be saying precisely these things. But from reading Gaddis’s magnificent biography of Kennan this is the way I think his mind would have been moving. And I think ours should be too.