“Information warfare” is a new centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, with demonizing an “enemy” the predictable first step sometimes toward actual war, as we’ve seen with Russian President Putin over Ukraine. But this propagandistic approach raises troubling philosophical questions about democracy, says Paul Grenier.
By Paul Grenier
Does America always live up to its ideals? If by American ideals we mean human rights and the rule of law, then the obvious answer would be “no.”
In the very recent past, as the Senate Report on Torture reveals, such ideals were massively violated at Guantanamo Bay and at various black sites all over the world. But they were also violated during America’s dirty wars in Central America; and during the Phoenix Program in Vietnam; and during America’s blood-stained imperial conquest of the Philippines. And of course, still earlier, during America’s violation of countless treaties with its native peoples
That is the obvious answer. But America’s apologists have at hand a more subtle, a more “Hegelian” answer: despite some occasional hiccups, America is always in the process of fulfilling its march toward universal freedom.
Critics may condemn America for its imperial war against the Philippines, for example, and the resulting deaths by starvation, disease or gunfire of more than 200,000 Filipinos. But by vastly strengthening American commercial power in the Far East, that war ultimately proved progressive. It furthered the cause, they will say, of freedom in the world.
Jumping forward a century brings us to the Iraq War, the legality of which, shall we say, is not at all obvious. How many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have suffered death, dismemberment or displacement is not exactly clear. What is clear is that the figure is very large.
But from the neoconservative position, which, as it turns out, is indistinguishable from the “liberal” position of President Barack Obama, the Iraq War in no way calls into question America’s moral grandeur, its preeminent position of moral leadership in the world.
“[E]ven in Iraq,” President Obama told the world during his recent speech in Brussels, “America sought to work within the international system.” What is more, “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people.”
The President’s claim about America seeking to work within the international system is, of course, rather embarrassing. Yes, we did indeed seek to “work within the international system” — by sharing with it lies about Iraq which we presented as facts, and we used torture) to manufacture some of those “facts.”
Obama’s assertion that America did not lay claim to Iraqi territory or resources conceals, of course, that America did its very best to grab Iraqi resources for U.S. oil corporations, just as it conceals that America only “left” Iraq because the promised “cakewalk” turned into an expensive, army- destroying nightmare.
But Obama’s idealistic phraseology also reveals a more subtle point: America’s genuine and long-standing blindness about the universality of its civilization. This blindness has been described by the neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan with an admirable forthrightness.
In his Dangerous Nation (2006), Kagan tells us that Americans frequently fail to realize how their “expansive tendencies bump up against and intrude upon other peoples and cultures.” Americans imagine themselves “inward-looking and aloof,” responding only when necessary to attacks from without. Kagan marvels that this myth persists “despite four hundred years of steady expansion and an ever-deepening involvement in world affairs.”
Kagan does not adequately address why this myth persists. The myth persists because Americans do not think. What is called “thought” in American business and political circles (and what else counts for anything in America?) is little more than a pragmatic calculation.
If thought in general enjoys little prestige in America, philosophical reasoning enjoys none at all. America is a pragmatic civilization oriented to action, not thought, and definitely not philosophy. Americans are therefore unaware that they bring to their action an unconscious philosophical anthropology, a prior conviction about “what man is.”
America’s “revolutionary” liberal anthropology (Kagan emphasizes precisely this revolutionary newness, which he considers admirable) is borrowed directly from Adam Smith. Humans are revealed to be acquisitive creatures. Henceforth, the eternal striving for the material “betterment of one’s condition” will be “human nature.”
That is the beating heart, as well as the sword, of American liberalism. Thus armed, America’s liberal civilization will unleash, Kagan says, “a mammoth self-generating engine of national wealth and power.”
Now comes Kagan’s punch line: “Americans believed a world reformed along liberal and republican lines would be a safer world for their liberal republic, and that a freer and multiplying commerce would make them a more prosperous nation. They were arguably right on both counts. An international order more suited to America’s interests and institutions would indeed be better for Americans.” (Emphasis mine)
Here at last we find the source of Obama’s and Bush’s and Reagan’s idealistic self-deception. If only every country in the world that wanders into America’s cross-hairs would calmly accept that it should become an extension of “America’s interests and institutions,” what a peaceful world it could be! From America’s innocent perspective innocent of thought, that is such peaceful capitulation would make everyone so much happier.
So now what? We began by talking about ideals, and contrasting them with realities. It turns out that America’s pragmatic philosophy blurs the distinction between the two. Since Americans, not just the John McCains, but also the Barack Obamas, see America’s civilizational type as universal, they often truly don’t notice that some other nation may simply not be an extension of America.
Sure, America isn’t now living up to its ideals; this is true within America as well as being true beyond America. No one denies that. But wherever America is acting, there the process of history is moving inexorably toward freedom, toward making the ideal of improving one’s condition more fully available to all. American idealism is non-refutable.
Antidote to Bad Thought
The new Cold War did not start with the Ukraine crisis. On the level of rhetoric, it started several years earlier. But once the Ukraine crisis heated up back in fall 2013, the rhetoric hardened. Now when mainstream media sources and government spokespersons talked about Russia, they almost always did so according to a certain formula.
Russia was to be judged according to its unpleasant actions, America according to its pleasant ideals. On the Russian side: soldiers occupying territory; protestors being arrested; people getting killed in an airplane; Putin not wearing a shirt. On the American side: President Obama in a crisp suit saying : “over the long haul as nations that are free, as free people, the future is ours.” On the Russian side: toilets that don’t flush; the trial of Pussy Riot.
So what is the alternative to this demagogic formula? A comparison of America’s harsh facts on the ground with Russia’s harsh facts on the ground? That might well be a good approach, and some day we should try it, but perhaps it is too ambitious for today.
How would we find out what both sides are actually up to “on the ground,” in Ukraine? And even if we did find out, what would we do with such knowledge? Imitate Gary Webb and print an exposÃ© about it in the San Jose Mercury News?
In liberal America the truth is shy in public. The facts-on-the-ground-in-the-present-moment kind of truth is particularly shy. The Iraq War was only the most glaring example of a historical constant: demagogy is for the present, truth is for the past (if at all). After an action has been taken, after a policy course has become irreversible, after powerful bureaucratic interests are no longer against it, and if raison d’Ã©tat can tolerate it, then the truth can be told.
We can learn all we wish to know about Vietnam. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Francis Bacon’s tired clichÃ© “knowledge is power” gets it backwards. To the contrary: power is knowledge. (There is no need here to invoke the name of Michel Foucault, or Nietzsche, or any of the other theorists and prophets of suspicion. I am making here a simple empirical observation, garnered from reading the Western mainstream press. In any case, my heroes are Socrates and Simone Weil, not Nietzsche. Behind the games of power, I think truth and beauty actually and “objectively” exist.)
Questions such as who actually shot down flight MH-17, or who actually were the snipers shooting the police and demonstrators in Maidan square, are precisely the sort of questions that, in America, can only be answered by the technique of power, not the technique of loving truth more than anything else.
To assume we can get and then effectively broadcast the facts about such things while such knowledge could still be politically effective is naive. It would be to assume that the power of the writer is on a par with the power of the modern state. That may have been true in the USSR in the time of Solzhenitsyn. It is certainly not true of today’s United States.
And yet, I cannot resist the temptation to expose at least one obvious falsehood. Over the past year we have been insulted with a stream of statements claiming that there is one, unified, legitimate Ukraine, sharing one legitimate opinion, and that opinion is oriented to “the West.”
In order not to embarrass itself with something so crude as reality, East Ukraine’s evident resistance to Kiev’s new pro-U.S. orientation has been air-brushed away as purely a function of malevolent Moscow manipulation.
But in fact we know, and have long known, that Ukraine is a divided state incorporating fundamentally different civilizations. Any student of history can see it is screamingly obvious the deep connections between Russia and Ukraine; but these connections have a particular geographic shape.
Clash of Civilizations
Harvard’s Samuel Huntington may have had his limitations as a student of Islam, but his writings demonstrate a sensitive knowledge of Slavic history and civilization. His famous The Clash of Civilizations is nothing but a study of the impact of civilizational difference and similarity on global affairs.
Writing in 1996, at a time when Power was not yet sure what it wanted to do with Ukraine, Huntington told his readers that his civilizational approach to international politics “emphasizes the close cultural, personal and historical links between Russia and Ukraine and the intermingling of Russians and Ukrainians in both countries.”
The main fault line here, he wrote, is not the border between Russia and Ukraine as a whole, but instead “the civilizational fault line that divides Orthodox eastern Ukraine from Uniate western Ukraine, a central historical fact of long standing.” The great danger, as a result, wrote Huntington, is that Ukraine will split in half, “a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than that of Czechoslovakia but far less bloody than that of Yugoslavia.”
Huntington’s thesis didn’t take into account, one must assume, the possibility that the United States itself would do its best to urge on the Yugoslav approach. Huntington, I might add parenthetically, spars in these same pages with the great proponent of political realism, John Mearsheimer, who tended to discount civilizational factors and focused instead on the behavior of Hobbesian states seeking to maximize their power and to protect their borders.
Huntington reproaches Mearsheimer for ignoring the cultural dimension and predicting a war between Russia and Ukraine as a whole. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Mearsheimer declared that the conflict in Ukraine was caused by U.S. blindness and folly.
Ideals and Civilizations
So what is the task at hand? The task is to find a form of dialogue not dominated by forces indifferent to honesty, a form that reopens the door to thought. If we can’t begin with a comparison of both sides’ actions on the ground, where can we begin? What are we left with?
My first thought was to propose a comparison of America’s ideals with Russia’s ideals. The propagandist and the PR firm have less power here. Ideas, after all, belong to the realm of philosophy. They exist in authoritative books by men like Adam Smith and John Locke (and Vladimir Solovyov and other obscure names on the Russian side) that anyone can have access to.
But this approach is also not quite right. As the much-maligned and surprisingly ill-understood Samuel Huntington admitted, America’s “ideals” are easy to identify for the simple reason that America in a sense is an ideology. Its institutions are the product of the ideology invented by Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Smith. In the Soviet period, Russia was similarly dominated by an ideology, the one invented by Marx.
Today, however, the Soviet ideology is gone, and Russia is wandering in the desert trying to decide what it is. Prior to the Soviet period, Russia was not ruled by an ideology. Part of it, the greater part, lived and practiced a tradition, a religious tradition. Western liberal ideology is and indeed has long been present in Russia, but this ideology, particularly in its most recent form, is incompatible with Russia’s roots.
Russia’s future will be more stable and healthier if it builds on its past; this is true of any country. But learning to have roots will be a painful process for Russia. It is not as simple a matter as simply taking on a new ideology. New habits must be formed. Tradition, as Huntington (and Alisdair MacIntyre, and Edmund Burke and for that matter Ralph Nader) realized, is a living thing, a practice. It lies at a deeper level than ideas.
One can speak thoughtful Russians like Nicholas Berdyaev do speak of the Russian Idea, of l’idÃ©e Russe, but they are not speaking literally of “an idea” or an ideology. What is needed, then, is a respectful conversation between our different civilizational types.
Because indeed what America faces in Russia, and in Eastern Ukraine, is a different civilizational type, exactly as Huntington stated. It is an unacceptable violence to demand from Russia, and from East Ukraine, that they take on the American civilizational type which is based on the ideology of liberalism. It is unacceptable and it is also futile.
As Huntington, in his apparently rarely- actually-read Clash of Civilizations tersely put it: “belief in the universality of Western culture suffers from three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
Paul Grenier is a former Russian simultaneous interpreter and a regular writer on political-philosophical issues. After advanced study in Russian affairs, international relations and geography at Columbia University, Paul Grenier worked on contract for the Pentagon, State Department and World Bank as a Russian interpreter, and at the Council on Economic Priorities, where he was a research director. He has written for the Huffington Post, Solidarity Hall, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places, and his translations of Russian philosophy have appeared in the Catholic journal Communio.