Mind reading is a tough business. How can we read Putin’s mind?
Many pundits in recent days have tried. They have compared Putin’s intervention in Ukraine to Hitler’s Nazi-expansionist actions on the eve of World War II. This comparison insinuates that Putin’s model of victory is ultimately malevolent, and that he is a threat to the United States.
Perhaps Putin does have nefarious motives. Perhaps not. Putin saw an opportunity in Ukraine and seized the initiative. But Putin’s actions, as well as American and international responses to them, have opened an endoscopic window into the minds of Western decision makers and into both the current and future health of American power.
Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May demonstrate in Thinking in Time that our use of narratives in history is an important way that we orient ourselves to new situations. However, sometimes quick and easy narrative sense making does not apply. Just because World War II is fresher in our collective memory, it does not follow that that Ukraine is becoming or has become Czechoslovakia.
When we evoke World War II to explain the Ukraine Crisis, it is natural to assume that the West is in the right, and that America and Europe are joined in common cause against a foe. But World War II and the Cold War are much too simplistic metaphors for the Ukraine Crisis. They will blind us to the meaning of this crisis if we are not careful.
There are better metaphors than “This is World War II all over again.” Here are three. But some of them may seem more historically remote to us, and require us to remember a little history. I will also use these three examples to explain some important ideas we must keep in mind to understand what the Ukraine Crisis means for America’s future.
Metaphor One: America is Athens on the eve of the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) is that war that your junior high history teacher always mentioned but never explained. It was basically a long war between Athens and Sparta. Athens is the first great democracy of history and a model for certain aspects of the American political system. Athens was a nation, what the Greeks called a polis, a city state in which all men were sovereign citizens who could vote on all matters of public policy (literally “men” because women couldn’t vote). Though seriously flawed, Athens represents a first step toward many positive values that have defined America.
Athens model of legitimacy (her warrant to wield power among her international community) rested upon the fact that she lead Greece to victory in the Persian War, World War II for the 5th Century BC. Thucydides, in his classic history of the Peloponnesian War, shows how Athens appealed to her role in the Persian War over and over and over again to establish the legitimacy of her power.
While just I compared America to Athens, that analogy does not exactly hold in a way that will be important for gaining insight into the current situation in Ukraine. The eminent Yale historian Donald Kagan, in his On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (a book which international leaders should read carefully over the coming weeks), shows how the hostile relationship between Athens and Sparta after the Persian War was not like the cold war between America and the Soviets. Kagan shows that Soviet Russia was more like Athens than Sparta, at least in terms of her foreign policy. Athens used her military power to subjugate other cities into vassal states. However, Sparta, during the 5th Century, was able to build international coalitions of other city states because she encouraged them to live free of Athenian tyranny. Sparta’s foreign policy resembled that of America after World War II.
Kagan’s On the Origins of War published in 1996, just after the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving America as the world’s sole superpower. This absolute power transformed the character of America’s foreign policy. America is no longer the moral big brother to the world. Anyone who has traveled internationally over the last decade or so, even in Europe, knows that the international mood toward America changed when America invaded Iraq in 2003. We are now the “Spy-Machine Empire” that comes up with false evidence to justify breaching the sovereignty of other nations.
Thucydides famously said that all nations go to war for “fear, honor and interest.” Nation states behave like people. They want things, which is not to say that everyone in a nation state wants what the state wants. Many people in America would like our nation state to return to the rule of law and following the Constitution. Got to keep dreaming.
But nation states have models of victory, things they want to achieve, goals that explain their actions. Since America’s invasion of Iraq, the world has discerned that America’s model of victory has shifted. America acts as though her national interests now depend on forcing nations to serve her national interests. Certainly America played at this before the Second Iraq War, but now this reputation defines America.
America’s exercise of power has become more like Athens before the Peloponnesian War, because America has changed her model of victory. The American state does not check the power of some other evil empire, rather the American state serves both the domestic and international expansion of the American states power. However, the international legitimacy of our power depends on the pre-Iraq model.
This creates a contradiction in American foreign policy that is currently working its way out in Ukraine. We used to have a model of legitimacy that supported our model of victory. The international legitimacy of America’s exercise of power depends on our consistently living out that narrative that we established in World War II.
This contradiction between America’s model of victory and her model of legitimacy explains President Obama’s slack appeal to diplomacy on March 6, and Secretary Kerry’s vague offer to help the rebels two days before Obama’s slack appeal.
Offering the Ukrainian rebels our help is consistent with our previous model of victory. It makes America appear to be in the role that we have historically embraced where possible.
However, Kerry does not seem to understand that his vague message of hope further undermines our model of legitimacy. We will not back up Kerry’s words. Furthermore, we cannot. America has made policy decisions during the last five years, and before, which financially undermine America’s ability to wage a real war. Thus, the American state lacks the power to back up Kerry’s promises. Putin knows this, and he wanted the world to see it. This is why Putin recalled his ambassador to Moscow.
Kishore Mahbubani, former Singaporean ambassador to the UN, wisely observes in Superclass by David Rothkopf, “There has to be a big reshuffling of the deck in terms of global governance[.] I mean, you cannot have a UN Security Council that represents the victors of the 1945 war. As a result, one thing I would say, by 2045 they will no longer be there in those roles, because between now and 2045 the world is going to change profoundly.” Asia and Russia are working to reshape world power, in part by exploiting the narrative contradictions in America’s model of legitimacy.
Toward this end, Putin demonstrated great foresight in calling his own ambassador home to force Kerry to cross the Atlantic for talks. It makes one wonder what Kerry was thinking before he got on the plane over. Did Kerry not see Putin wanted him to make that flight. Putin has been able to play America because he has correctly discerned the contradiction between our model of victory and our model of legitimacy, so he is able to play one against the other. A man who lacks the circumspection to see this should not be Secretary of State.
Putin maintains a model of legitimacy and a model of victory which are substantially consistent, but which are ironically enabled by both America’s post-World War II model of victory, and America’s post-Gulf War II model of victory. Putin conjures the heady days of Sputnik, Uri Gagarin, and the Russian Navy (he currently is attempting to acquire naval bases in eight countries around the world). He is rebuilding Russia’s national pride after the 1990’s reaped the devastating economic fruit of nearly a century of communist central economic planing. Putin is leading Russia to be proud of herself again by politically outmaneuvering her old Cold War foe, while also apparently taking moral authority over American hypocritical foreign policy. Thus, he is using both the American models of victory described above, to lead Russia to be proud of herself again. Like Pericles of Athens, Putin knows that national pride is important for leading a people to work for a better future. Like Pericles, Putin is personally shouldering the responsibility to teach Russians how to be Russian. In America, we have no Pericles and we are cannibalizing our own national narrative.
Metaphor Two: Russia and China are Carthage and Macedon on the eve of the Second Punic War. Rome was an accidental empire. It attacked its neighbors before they attacked her because she feared them. In a quest for greater safety she found herself mistress of a great empire. Like Rome, America desires safety, and for this reason, America’s situation is slowly beginning to resemble Rome’s on the eve of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).
Livy, the ancient pro-Roman historian, paints the Second Punic War (that war in which the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal earned his eternal fame) as a just Roman cause. The reality is that Rome aggressively provoked the Carthaginians in Spain. Once Hannibal won his brilliant victory at the Battle of Cannae, the kingdom of Macedon came to the aid of Carthage. To win, Rome had to fight both Carthage and Macedon.
When America’s leaders demonstrate their incompetence with Putin, they further undermine the old model of legitimacy, hastening the day that Kishore Mahbubani predicts. Neither Carthage nor Macedon wanted the expansion of Roman power. Hannibal’s success convinced Macedon to trust Carthage’s effectiveness, and Putin’s success has convinced China to trust Russia’s effectiveness.
Given this situation, the inability of American leaders to untangle the contradiction between America’s model of legitimacy and her model of victory compromises America’s relationship to the EU. Germany is currently the center of gravity for the EU, but Russia supplies 30% of Germany’s gas. If America does not have the power to back its word, this further delegitimizes America’s model of legitimacy. And given that America invaded Iraq to protect our interests, why shouldn’t Russia do the same?
Metaphor Three: Ukraine is that girl…. Suppose two gunslingers walk into a bar, but through opposite doors. One man wears a white hat, and he’s known in the past for standing up for the little guy against bullies.
The other man used to wear a black hat, and he’d always bring in this one particular girl. Always the same girl. And if she talked back he’d hit her. Everyone in town knows the history between the man with the black hat and his girl. Everyone in town knows how the man in the black hat has treated this girl. But it seems like he’s put his black hat away. He’s tried to clean himself up, and he doesn’t push the girl around much any more. But the girl seems dependent on him in complex ways, which to understand would require you know more about her and their history. It’s complicated.
While the man who used to wear the black hat has been trying to turn his life around, the man in the white hat has tried to rescue several guys in the bar from being beaten up by other men, but whenever the man with the white hat steps in, the people that he helps always seem to get hurt really bad. It even started to make the man in the white hat wonder if he should keep doing this.
Then suddenly the man who used to wear the black hat starts violently shoving his girl, he might even hit her. Should the man in the white hat intervene?
Let’s suppose he does. What will everyone else in the bar do? How will they feel about the girl? As the girl sees the man in the white hat coming, how will some of her affections change toward the man who used to wear the black hat?
To answer the question posed in the title of this article trace the intersecting implications of these three metaphors.
Dr. Michael Collender did his doctoral research in how metaphor and narrative model complex systems in neuroscience and economics. He has been a Visiting Fellow in the Philosophy Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and has researched and lectured at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA. For more resources subscribe at SolveWickedProblems.com and follow @mcollender.