"Putin is the only major leader to utter a few simple truths about the role of the United States in the world today"

Perry Anderson on foreign policy: America's problem is it's a global hegemon without global ideology legitimacy

Published October 7, 2015 10:28PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Part two of our conversation with Perry Anderson. Find part one here.

Fifteen years ago, in the distant universe we now know as pre-September 11, Perry Anderson oversaw a renovation of New Left Review, the magazine he had long edited and brought to prominence from the mid-1960s onward. The Soviet Union was no more, life with “the sole superpower” had commenced. Things had to be rethought. “Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule,” Anderson wrote in that first issue of the redone journal. “No collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon.”

Those sentences—the whole essay, indeed—landed like a sledgehammer atop my admittedly damnable American optimism. It is part of the reason I leapt to the telephone when Verso, N.L.R.’s book imprint, published Anderson’s “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers” a few months ago. What did he think now?

“The striking fact remains that the neoliberal consensus—what the French call la pensée unique—has not so far really been shaken,” Anderson says in the following interview, Part 2 of a long conversation conducted this past summer.

It would be easy enough to assume Anderson’s vigilant dedication to realistic perspectives makes him an enemy of all optimism. But this is would be a mistake. It is better to recognize him as a rare kind of intellectual: A Briton, he has lived, lectured and written in Santa Monica since 1989. He sees with two sets of eyes—all four having clear, cold sight. Optimism or pessimism, as he explains below, are simply the wrong axis by which to judge the validity of one’s views. “In the desert of neoliberalism, there are now plenty of wells of promise,” he also said.

Before we got to optimism and its perils, Anderson offered an expansive exploration of American primacy, U.S.-Russian relations and specifically Vladimir Putin’s exchanges with various American presidents, including the White House’s current occupant. The timing is fortuitous, given Obama’s encounter with the Russian leader at the U.N. last week. Anderson’s remarks make a perfectly germane guide to the subtext.

Anderson gave me most of an afternoon. Of necessity, this concluding portion of the transcript has been edited down somewhat, the intent being to preserve all of Anderson’s larger points.

Let’s turn to Russia, which you’ve just written about extensively in N.L.R. How do you judge Putin? In a conversation with me [published in Salon April 16 and April 23], Stephen Cohen [the noted Russianist] remarked that the current demonization of him doesn’t amount to a policy. I agree. But what’s the sin Putin commits?

Putin has resisted the idea that Russia should become an imitation of the West, insisting on a historically rooted form of statist capitalism he holds more natural to the country. How important do you think this difference is? I’ve made something of his idea of “sovereign democracy”—your term—in my columns, because it seems a strike against neoliberal hegemony. At least it establishes a principle of self-determination within its encompassing system. That may be “alternative” enough for now. And this is his sin, in my view. But you seem to dismiss this side of Putin’s outlook as a delusion.  

Politically, Stephen Cohen has been very courageous, and his interview with you is a good expression of that courage. I do, however, have a significant difference with his interpretation of the end of the Cold War, one which is not exclusive to him but is to be found quite widely. In this narrative, the Cold War ended because two far-sighted statesman, Gorbachev and Reagan, saw there was no point in continuing it and to the credit of both of them wound it up. The conflict ended, so to speak, by mutual agreement. Soon afterward, communism collapsed and the Soviet Union with it. That was an internal development, unrelated to the achievement of Gorbachev and Reagan.

I believe, on the other hand, that the Cold War was a true war and that the United States won it as decisively as the Pacific War. The victory wasn’t military as such, though military pressure—an arms race that crippled growth in the USSR and with which, in the end, it couldn’t keep up—was decisive in winning it. The victory was economic, political and ideological, and it was as complete as if the U.S. had conquered and occupied its adversary.

Russia under Yeltsin found itself in a position structurally analogous to Japan or West Germany after 1945, with two differences. On the one hand, there were no American troops, nor a MacArthur or Clay on the spot to administer the reconstruction of the country. On the other hand, also unlike Germany and Japan, you suddenly had an entire political class not only welcoming the West, but eager of its own accord to do America’s bidding. Many wanted to be even more thoroughgoing capitalists than their models, and in practice were indeed often more radical, privatizing the country’s wealth at a speed and on a scale that would not have been possible anywhere in the West. This was never popular among the Russian people, and to stay in power Yeltsin’s regime required force and fraud, supported by the West. Such was the baseline for subsequent developments.

From Clinton onward, the underlying American attitude to Russia was that since these people have been defeated and are grateful to us for having defeated them, we are going to tell them what to do, and if they don’t like it—some of the actions we take may go against the grain—they will have to swallow it. Victoria Nuland, then an aide to Clinton’s henchman, Strobe Talbott, and today a Obama’s assistant secretary for European affairs, could not have been more explicit. After telling Yeltsin’s foreign minister that he should sign onto an impending American operation in Bosnia, she remarked to Talbott—as if the Russians were recalcitrant children—“They have to eat their spinach.”

Obama is no different. He could publicly tell reporters, “Putin reminds me of a sulky teenager in the back of the classroom.” Not an American eyebrow was raised, yet imagine if Putin had said something comparable about Obama: The sky would have fallen in. The casual condescension and contempt is palpable. This was the attitude that lay behind the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders. The elder Bush promised Gorbachev that NATO would not be extended into Eastern Europe? Who cares? It wasn’t written down, we’ll go ahead. Within a month of its expansion into Hungary comes the NATO attack on Yugoslavia. This from a supposedly defensive treaty organization.

But you can’t say the arrival of Putin made no difference to Russian attitudes toward America.

At first, there was no more than a modulation. The Yeltsin decade ended in a complete debacle, with the economic collapse of 1998. Putin came to power as his anointed successor. With a devaluation of the ruble [in September 1998] came a recovery, allowing Putin to restore order to the system he inherited, amid a widespread revulsion against the Yeltsin experience and a shift in the outlook of the Russian elites, to which Putin gave confident expression: Capitalism is fine, but we need our own version of it, in which the state is going to be playing a much more important part. Russia is still a great power, and we are going to become partners, not just dependents like Yeltsin, of the United States—genuine partners—and we’ll take the initiative to show our sincerity about this.

So what did Putin do at the outset of his tenure? Without even being pressed, he made every gesture of good will he could. He shut down Moscow’s outposts in Cuba. He closed its bases in Vietnam. When September 11th occurred, he was the first to call Bush offering every possible help and solidarity. Soon U.S. aircraft were overflying Russia for the attack on Afghanistan—later they got even landing rights in Russia—and U.S. bases were being set up in Central Asia. Putin thought: We’re going to help the West and in return they will respect us, not like the Soviet Union, but like the Czarist empire of the pre-1914 world.

Interesting. It’s not hard to read these expectations into the sense of “betrayal” he expresses in some of his major speeches.

It was a fundamental miscalculation. In the eyes of American policy planners, Russia was a diminished country. Its population was smaller than that of Bangladesh, its industry was rusting, its nuclear arsenal dilapidated, its only real resources were gas and oil. We don’t have to take it that seriously. China we do. But Russia, why should we bother? They are handing us most of what we want of their own accord anyway, giving a green light to virtually every resolution we require in the Security Council.

There came, however, a limit to Putin’s accommodation, once the West started to penetrate the soft underbelly of Russian’s “near abroad” around the Black Sea. Trouble started in Georgia [in 2008], when a regime feted in the West for the Rose Revolution, which brought it to power, launched an offensive against an enclave [South Ossetia, in August 2008] along its border with Russia, bringing down a sharp counter-attack from Moscow. Then came the Western operation in Libya, where Russia once again waved through a U.S. resolution at the U.N., this one authorizing the protection of civilians—Obama disavowing any intention of “regime change”—that became weeks of massive bombing, blatantly employed to achieve regime change, leaving Russia fooled and humiliated. Finally, the worm turned over Ukraine, when a popular uprising overthrew the incumbent oligarch and a government to Western liking—members picked by Victoria Nuland and the U.S. envoy in Kiev [Geoffrey Pyatt]—came to power.

Putin was bound to react to this. Most Russians regarded the separation of Ukraine from Russia in 1991 as a historically arbitrary, artificial affair. They weren’t right in this, but from any point of view the two countries were closely interconnected. The Ukraine that emerged after independence was a weak successor state, with low levels of internal coherence and legitimacy, that soon became a classic power vacuum, drawing in Russian encroachment on one side and Euro-American on the other, each contending for superior influence. Since the fate of the country was of much more vital interest to Russia than to the West, but the West had much greater resources at its disposal than Russia, tensions were bound to arise.

The conflict that exploded in 2013-14 was not, however, inevitable. It was open to Obama and his European partners to say to Putin: “We realize you have a very large interest in this country and we will guarantee not extend NATO to it. You should not interfere so much in its domestic politics, because that invites us to do so. But strategically we can agree on a mutual hands-off, like the Austrian Neutrality Treaty [the Austrian Independence Treaty, signed by the Western allies and the Soviet Union in 1955]. Austria flourished after that. Why not Ukraine? The mentality of the hegemon precluded this.

On his side, Putin doesn’t have any kind of coherent or sustainable policy in Ukraine, either. His first reaction to the toppling of the government in Kiev was to take Crimea as a reprisal. By the ordinary criteria of self-determination, this was scarcely an outrage, since if given a choice the majority of the population regarded themselves as Russians rather than Ukrainians, and all Russians regard the attachment of Crimea to the Ukraine by Khrushchev [in 1954] as a bureaucratic accident. But recovery of Crimea could not be ring-fenced, as irredentist risings broke out in Donbass [Ukraine’s eastern industrial region]—initially encouraged and subsequently assisted, but never fully controlled, by Moscow.

The result is an inextricable disaster all round. The Ukrainian economy is in steep decline because it is highly dependent on Donbass—which is not viable on its own and is in an even worse condition—and Moscow is no position to bail it out. For the whole of Ukraine, the conflict has been catastrophe, while Russia now finds itself under siege from Western sanctions, and in severe economic crisis.

Russia’s response to what I’ve called Washington’s “accelerated assertiveness” has been very activist. After the sanctions were imposed, Putin rolled out a remarkable agenda of state visits. Certain non-Western alliances seem to be forming or re-forming or intensifying : Moscow-Beijing, Moscow-Tehran, Moscow-Delhi, etc. Bilateral ties with Latin America have been developing. Will all this prove to be of some importance?

For 20 years after the Cold War, it is striking that the balancing process traditional realist theory would have expected to see failed to emerge. According to this, if one great power becomes too dominant, other powers will band together to form a counterbalance to it. But this is not what happened. If you looked at China, Russia, the E.U. or India—let alone Japan—in this period, in each case their relation to the U.S. was more important than relations among themselves. There was no formation of a set of balancers.

Rather the diplomatic scene resembled a hub-and-spokes system around Washington. In the Security Council, unanimity under American leadership was the rule, which was seldom infringed. That’s beginning to change, though how far is still unclear. Paradoxically, however, it’s not the most powerful of potential rivals to the United States, as realist theory would expect, that has broken ranks first. It’s the weaker of the two former adversaries of the high Cold War—not China but Russia.

The difference in U.S. relations with Russia and with China is night and day.

Yes. American policy planners have to treat China with a certain circumspection, which they don’t feel necessary with Russia. But there is also a difference on the other side of the relationship, too. Traditionally, the Middle Kingdom was at the centre of its own universe, with lesser realms organized in a tributary system around it. Imperial China had no sense of operating within an inter-state system of the European type. So in modern times, China developed what would elsewhere be regarded as a foreign policy very late.

Russia, on the other hand, was a leading power on the European stage, with a sophisticated diplomacy and highly active foreign policy, from the 18th century onward. It has a much deeper memory as a major player in an inter-state system and a stronger sense of what kind of moves this typically involves. The country is accustomed to being treated as an imperial peer among peers. So its sudden demotion rankles.

In China there is a widespread narrative—official and popular—of past humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, contrasted with pride in the rise of the country today. In Russia, humiliation is not an experience of the past, but an acute sensation in the present. It’s this combination—of a long diplomatic tradition as a great power, and sudden brusque mistreatment as a diminished power—that makes Russia the most outspoken political stumbling-block for Washington today, rather than the P.R.C.

Going back to an earlier question, isn’t this Russian resistance a highly welcome development?

Obviously, it’s a good thing that there be some pushback against an overweening American ascendancy. Putin is the only major leader to utter a few simple truths about the role of the United States in the world today. Whatever his current domestic record, he’s no fool in that sense. But so far as actual resistance to the hegemon goes, it remains quite limited. Russia is now suffering from very serious and damaging sanctions, affecting its financial system. So what does the regime do? It imposes retaliatory bans on Spanish tomatoes and French cheese—petty pin-pricks. Any serious counter-blows are off the table.

It was perfectly open to Moscow to say: “Sanctions on us? Then forget about our help with sanctions on Iran. Supply lines and landing rights for Afghanistan? No dice, until you lift the pressure.” Nothing like this was or is prospect. Rather, there is still the hope that the Americans can be persuaded to be reasonable, and treat Russia on equal terms. The illusion is naïve: Does anyone believe Russian planes could land in the States en route to military operations in Latin America?

That said, it’s clear there’s a bit more consultation between Russia and China than in the past, though such balancing is still quite tentative and irresolute. In both countries, however, there is a public opinion critical of concessions made by each regime to the West. The two situations are not symmetrical. Until the crisis in the Ukraine, opinion polls showed that Putin enjoyed more support from pro-Western than anti-Western sections of the population. Since then, the government has played the nationalist card very heavily and crudely for internal consumption. In China the government also plays also it, more discreetly. There, unlike in Russia, popular nationalism can outrun the official version, especially among the young, occasioning clashes—anti-Japanese outbursts and the like—with it. That’s a big change from the ’90s, when there was a widespread infatuation among Chinese youth with everything American, taken as the gold standard of modern living.

Still, you aren’t claiming that we are stuck in a world of unquestioned U.S. primacy. I think there’s been some advance beyond that.

There has. But discourses are one thing, deeds another. Chinese and Russian official statements insist that there can be no global hegemon, that the world of today is multipolar. You can also find voices in the foreign policy elite of the U.S. saying that, of course, we are entering this world and Americans must welcome it and adjust to it. There’s a polite set of tropes along these lines. But they don’t yet correspond to diplomatic realities. There, you can take the current American success in corralling all other powers into preserving Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East for a good while yet—this is what sanctions on Iran, to which they humbly signed up, have achieved—as a benchmark.

The second half of “American Foreign Policy” deals with our foreign policy thinkers, and it’s rewarding for a number of reasons. It includes individual critiques and classifications of these people as representing different lines of thought. You write of their “fantastical constructions”—splendid phrase. How do you explain the fact that nothing of consequence or use emerges from this country’s supposedly elevated strategists?

I don’t entirely go along with your way of looking at this. I wouldn’t have taken as much time and trouble going through the range of different thinkers I discuss if I thought that they were intellectually negligible. That’s not my view. Of course, I’m critical of all of them in one way or another. But when I started studying their work, I was struck by the difference between the output of the foreign policy establishment and the best American domestic political science.

Somewhat earlier, I had to write a piece on internal U.S. politics from Roosevelt to Obama, looking at changes in the political sociology of the country. American political science is a sophisticated discipline when it discusses its own country, and I learned a lot from going through the literature it produces. But this remains quite narrow. It’s technically competent, but most of it lacks much historical depth or comparative width. In that sense, it’s less interesting than the body of writing on American grand strategy.

I suspect the reason for the difference comes down to the fact that the domestic political system is so immobile. The degree of variation in it is very small. You have this rigid constitution handed down from the 18th century and treated as a sacred text, and a frozen two-party system, in which rhetorical antagonism can be great but, if you look carefully at the record since the New Deal, the area of practical dispute is not that large. In a sense there is not a great deal to engage restless or imaginative minds.

On the other hand, the American empire is a totally different matter. There the whole world is your mental arena, and the empire is not uneventful at all. There’s drama galore—surprises and crises of every sort, without end. At home there’s a certain sense of powerlessness. Presidents can’t do all that much, unless—a rarity—their party controls both houses of the legislature. Mostly, they just muddle through. But abroad the executive is unconstrained. Presidents can do virtually anything they want, other than ratify treaties or declare war—though now, of course, they avoid signing treaties and go to war without declaring it: You reach an “agreement” that is not a treaty, and you unleash “kinetic action” which is not a war; no need for permission from the Senate.

It is this freedom of action, across a vast stage, that attracts a different kind of mind to foreign policy, conceived as grand strategy. Not radical minds certainly, but analysts who have a broader and more historical outlook than most writers about domestic politics.

But is this so special to America?

 I think it is. If you cross the Atlantic, you realize that there is no equivalent discourse in Europe. You get books that are critical or laudatory of the American empire, but no grand strategy. The last two thinkers who could be accounted such were Raymond Aron in the ’60s and Regis Débray in the ’80s. Not by accident, two Frenchman. Since then, it’s as if Europeans have nothing to say. Russia produces a line in geopolitics, but most of it’s crude, chauvinist stuff. The Chinese are only beginning. The Japanese have never started. So this kind of thinking is virtually an American monopoly.

I have some respect for it. It needs to be taken seriously as a body of thought. It’s true, of course, that it often yields the fantastical constructions you mention, as I make clear. But that doesn’t mean it is all fantastical construction. The extravagant side emerges in assorted recipes for the future. The American imperial system confronts a quite new set of difficulties today. The United States still believes it is “the indispensable nation” and continues to be the global hegemon, but it no longer enjoys either the degree of material predominance or ideological legitimacy it once possessed. These are problems the current batch of strategists try to grapple with. They often come up with very improbable solutions.

I’m going to turn to other things. Can I ask you about the essay entitled “Renewals,” which you published in N.L.R. back in 2000, in the first issue of a new series of the journal ? I reread it before meeting you. To me and many others, it was a considerable occasion. “Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule,” you wrote. “No collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon.” These sentences alone were enough to bring one to a certain sobriety. What are your thoughts 15 years later?

I doubt whether anyone can write about politics without making mistakes of analysis or prediction. I certainly can’t. But I have no reason to repent of anything I wrote in that piece. At the time, I said that neoliberalism had become the most successful ideology in world history. Many people objected to that, and it s true, of course, that as a system of economic beliefs it has nothing like the depth of the major world religions. But it had become more universal than any previous doctrine, because there was virtually no country where it wasn’t taken as an ideological baseline. That was true even of countries like Russia and China, where state policy didn’t, of course, in practice conform to its prescriptions. But the consensus of economists around it was overwhelming.

Thatcher’s slogan, TINA—“There is no alternative”—had become the common sense of the age. That was my judgment then.

And since?

In 2008, the first really big crisis of the financialized and deregulated model of capitalism created during the Thatcher and Reagan years broke out. In some countries, the immediate effects were more drastic even than in the Great Depression. The underlying causes of the crisis have not been resolved. It broke out when the credit bubble that had been sustaining growth, albeit at an ever decreasing pace, across the advanced capitalist countries since the ’70s finally burst. What has been remedy since? In the United States, in Japan, in the E.U. and now in China, too, “quantitative easing”—i.e., massive injections of easy money to prop up asset values, in yet another round of what led the crisis in the first place. The system is being given pain-killers, not remedies, and faces another bout of disorders right now. But the striking fact remains that the neoliberal consensus—what the French call la pensée unique—has not so far really been shaken. The same core doctrine is virtually as prevalent today as it was 15 years ago. In some cases—look at what the European Union is like now, in social terms a regime of tough disciplinarian austerity more stringent than anything in 2000, leave alone its original period—the neoliberal grip is tighter than ever before. As for less central versions of capitalism, think of the economic order over which the A.N.C.[the African National Congress, the governing party] is presiding in South Africa. Or take Brazil, which departed from orthodoxy for a dozen years. What’s the headline news in the financial press from São Paulo today? Privatization of infrastructure and cuts in social spending. Neoliberalism is an ideological expression of capital unbound, no longer restrained by fear of communism, powerful trade unions, modest social-democratic reforms or peripheral nationalism. It has yet to be dislodged.

One of the things that comes through in your work is a vigilant attitude against Polyanna views that exaggerate or idealize the short-term prospects for structural change. Though back in 2000 you also spoke with cautious respect—or was it irony?—of those who believe that “capitalism may eventually prove soluble in the waters of profounder kinds of equality, sustainability and self-determination.” How would you describe your own outlook?

In that editorial, I remarked that when you’re in an objectively weak position, especially after a defeat or a set of defeats, there’s an instinctive temptation to look for silver linings or consolations to raise people’s spirits. If you are a leader or an activist in a political movement, I think that’s understandable and forgivable—perhaps virtually inevitable. But if you’re an intellectual, I believe you have a duty to resist that and to try to state the facts as you see them.

Well, let me put my question more pointedly. I once went around India for nine months and in my interviews I would say: “Sir, I’d like to end our conversation this way. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” I had all kinds of answers, every one interesting. The best of them came from Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist in Gandhinagar and one of Indian’s more interesting minds. “You have to ask? It goes without saying I’m an optimist,” he replied. “If a critic’s not an optimist, why would he bother?” Optimism, thus, is implicit in all critique. What about you?

Hold on. Can one say optimism is implicit in all critique? There’s a very powerful strain of Kulturkritik from the 19th century onward that is deeply pessimistic in outlook.

Isn’t there a subtext implicit in even pessimistic critiques that we could do better than this? Things could be otherwise? I tend to think there is this impulse at the bottom of every critical effort.

Wouldn’t that virtually rule out the possibility of pessimism as such? On those grounds, nobody would be a pessimist. But if you look at the mainstream of Kulturkritik from the second half of the 19th century onward, you see that the form it typically took was a diagnosis of Western decadence, without remedy. This wasn’t just a European phenomenon. You find the same thing in Henry Adams—history as entropy, humanity as decadence. It’s quite possible to be extremely critical of the world and extremely pessimistic about it at the same time. Visions of decadence don’t, of course, require any absolute pessimism—they can propose steps to salvation from it. In the second part of “American Policy and its Thinkers,” there’s an analysis of Brzezinski’s later work, which excoriates the U.S. as a decadent society in classic Kulturkritik style, but also offers a program for reversing this fall.

But where do you place yourself?

If you’re on the left, I believe fortitude is a better value than either optimism or pessimism. It doesn’t exclude either, in any given conjuncture. But since history is always capable of surprises, an a priori stance of either optimism or pessimism makes little sense—it’s always liable to discomfiture.

I emphasized very strongly a moment ago the continued hegemony of neoliberalism as set of obligatory ideas about the only way any contemporary economy can be run. But though this orthodoxy has not yet been shaken, it’s also true that new movements and media have arisen against it. These are movements of popular energy and incipiently movements of counter-ideas.

Over the past couple of years, New Left Review has been running a series entitled “New Masses/ New Media,” which I recommend to you and to readers of Salon. Kicking it off is a survey by the great Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn of the prospects for resistance to the order of capital at a global level. There he lays out a commanding inventory of the different social groups and forces across the world that are either actual or potential sources of opposition to it. The series has since included detailed accounts of the huge social protests in Brazil at the time of the World Cup, the big clashes in Istanbul, the landmark demonstrations in Hong Kong, the rise of Podemos in Spain, with articles on water protests in Ireland, the Common Man’s Party in India and more to come, alongside another set of pieces on new oppositional forms of expression, print and electronic, and proposals for democratic control of big data on the internet. The U.S. has been no laggard on either score, as Occupy Wall Street and periodicals such as Jacobin and n+1 are there to show.

In the desert of neoliberalism, there are now plenty of wells of promise. In taking the measure of this contemporary landscape, however, neither optimism nor pessimism are helpful guides. Needed, rather, is accurate calculation of the balance of forces in conflict, and the course of its changes.

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 patricklawrence.us.

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American Exceptionalism Foreign Policy New Left Review Perry Anderson Russia Vladimir Putin