Someone teach John Kerry about history!

There's a reason why Putin makes Kerry and the president look clownish: He understands the history others forget

Published April 3, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Secretary of State John Kerry                  (Reuters/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Many Americans flinch from the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis now that Vladimir Putin has taken control of it. It was the same in Syria last autumn, you will recall. The Western powers whip themselves into a dither, and the Russian president then makes some simple, galvanizing move that puts everything on a different course.

In Syria, Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov jumped on an offer Secretary of State John Kerry made but never intended to: Within two days of Kerry’s much-noted press conference in London last autumn, Moscow had Bashar al-Assad surrendering his chemical weapons stockpile. The U.S. threat of a missile strike melted, and Putin had wrested the initiative in the Syria crisis from Washington’s grip.

Same again now in Ukraine. Just as the Obama administration and its European allies reached high decibels last weekend, Putin telephoned Obama in Riyadh and said approximately, “My people need to talk to your people now.” Kerry and Lavrov have been negotiating ever since, the American declaring that there is no solution in Ukraine but a political solution.

Some readers will think I glorify the Russian leader and denigrate the Americans as if on autopilot. This is not it. Putin is a gifted statesman: I stand by this observation. He brings an understanding of history to his foreign relations. And in his dealings with Washington he exposes the very old American habit of refusing history any place in the understanding of anything — which is to say the habit of making nearly every mistake it is possible to make. This is why I like watching Putin.

Now it is worth watching the Kerry-Lavrov talks with this thought in mind. Many things will be on the table: NATO’s eastward thrust, a federalist reinvention in Ukraine. In my view, the true topic will be one Washington has danced around for months. This is spheres of influence. Putin’s question all along has been simple: What do you Americans and Europeans think of them? Sooner or later those who have traded in “anti-Soviet” for “anti-Russia” without saying so will have to reply.

What should anyone think of spheres of influence, then? As often suggested in this space, best to begin with the history.

Spheres of influence are extensions of control beyond a given polity’s natural or declared borders. They can be formally declared or informal, aggressive or defensive.

The first thing to know is that in one form or another spheres of influence have been around as long as there have been human communities. Second, among the primary tasks of our time is to outgrow them. The third thing to know is that we have not yet done so.

Anyone who knows much about Chinese history can see the tributary system developed in the dynastic era as a textbook case of the phenomenon. This puts claims to a sphere of influence in the context of a political order back several millennia. Rome and Carthage later fought the Punic Wars over claims to influence in the Mediterranean.

Closer to our time, we have the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, when the young American republic declared itself master of the hemisphere. In 1885, the European powers met in Berlin and drew lines on maps so as to share out Africa among themselves.

The Berlin Conference is ordinarily said to be the quintessential example of the spheres-of-influence model in operation. Point taken, but I disagree with it.

The Cold War took the construct to its perverse extreme. I see no argument here. The planet itself was divided in two, forcibly in a lot of cases. This is why the Non-Aligned Movement had to be discredited. It is why Cold War Washington detested social democratic leaders such as Mossadegh. Everyone knew they were not Communist threats. The problem was they took no interest in East-West enmities — which is to say they refused to define themselves in the terms the American sphere insisted upon.

The Cold War will go down (eventually, I am certain of it) as an ugly scar the modern world inflicted upon itself out of no necessity. It behooves us to push past it by recognizing that spheres of influence are a crude, spent technology. Any core definition of the post–Cold War era has to include the thought that nations, cultures and societies will at last be allowed to self-define, self-identify and self-determine.

We are not there yet, to state the very obvious.

Late last autumn, Kerry attended a meeting of the Organization of American States and declared the Monroe Doctrine to be dead. I assume Kerry said this with a straight face. I imagine those present wondered silently whether to laugh at or cry over another doozy from los Yanquis.

What are your people doing in Venezuela as we speak, Mr. Secretary? Are we supposed to think all those “civil society,” “institution building” groups are down there teaching Venezuelans how to sell Girl Scout cookies?

Keep in mind the history you are supposed to forget and now apply the template to the Ukraine case.

Steve Weissman, a journalist and writer living in France, gives us a superb, granular account of Washington’s subversion campaign over the course of years. Here it is. In this we see the prosecution of the Cold War by other means and without so much as a pause. We see complete disregard for any notion of a Russian sphere of influence even as a reversal of roles, Russians coming westward, would present an altogether serious threat of world war.

Spheres of influence and all the machinery that goes into them are anachronisms all right, but the paradox of the moment is that they cannot, regrettably, be ignored. As the Ukraine crisis tells us, they have to be observed even as they are not honored.

The analytic frame I suggest explains much. The Americans and Europeans are reluctant to acknowledge their provocations in Ukraine because the argument against Moscow is that Putin is an old-fashioned spheres-of-influence man acting according to his aggressive ambitions. It is disingenuous times 10.

NATO’s purpose is the maintenance and extension of the Western, American-led sphere of influence. Its push toward Russia’s frontiers since the Cold War’s end has been all about smashing the old Soviet sphere and then claiming it precisely in the spherical context. By my count, 10 former Soviet satellites are now NATO members. As may be clear, I take a specific position on the Cold War and now on Ukraine. The Soviet posture was at bottom defensive. There are other interpretations, to put it mildly, but I am of this camp. Moscow’s sphere of influence was of this nature, and its aggressions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere do not change this reality.

As noted, Putin knows his historical inheritance. This informs what he has done in Ukraine and should inform our judgment of it. No one can claim to know what Putin thinks of spheres-of-influence diplomacy and strategy. But his thinking has to be shaped by NATO’s presence on Russia’s borders. It is astonishing that Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Moscow and the administration’s point man with the media lately, can talk of “strategic containment” as the right stance toward Putin’s Russia and insist, as Washington did throughout the Cold War decades, that all would be well if only Moscow behaved according to our civilized norms.

Now you know why Kerry, Obama, Victoria Nuland and all the others in on the Ukraine caper come over to me as clownish. It is fine to pretend there is no such thing as history within the walls of the neoliberal hothouse Washington has made of itself. But it is never going to travel successfully in our century.

As to Putin, credit where due. The West has done much to make him, it starts to seem. He is accomplished at statecraft in part because those who set themselves against him have required it.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Crimea John Kerry Lavrov Spheres Of Influence Ukraine Vladimir Putin