Dialogue of the Deaf in Geneva

Strategic Culture, 17.01.2022
Alastair Crooke, exdiplomático británico y director del Conflict Forum-Beirut

Western politics today are no more about considered strategy: It is pretty evident that the U.S. team arrived at Geneva strategy-less

A curious event occurred on Monday in Geneva. It seems that the only substantive outcome from the U.S.–Russia talks is that the U.S. has promised to provide a formal response to the earlier Russian demand for security guarantees within a week. The Russian counterparts outlined their own position unambiguously, and in full detail. This, however, was wholly disdained by the Biden Team, who, according to the Russians, were “diehard/stubborn”. The Russian delegation was told that its key request of ‘no more NATO eastward expansion’ was simply “a non-starter”.

It plainly was not then ‘a negotiation’. The U.S. is discussing only missile deployment issues and mutual limitations on military exercises, but avoiding the crux of Russian demands (the roll-back of NATO from its near abroad, to be achieved either through diplomacy or a by ‘a strategy of tension’, i.e. escalating pain). And the U.S. has neither a negotiating strategy tied to realisable objectives, nor real options, beyond the symbolical assertion of NATO ‘openness’.

NATO’s door must remain ‘open’ is the U.S.’ meme-narrative – yet it is an assertion that lacks substance. Washington has already conceded that neither it, nor NATO, will fight (at least overtly), over Ukraine – whereas Russia has said that it will so do, were Ukraine to be subsumed into NATO.

The U.S. electorate today is wholly indifferent to these far-off tiffs. Ukraine could not be less consequential to the average American, who remains wholly focussed on Covid ; is preoccupied by inflation; and worried about his or her personal economic prospects. There is absolutely no lust for another foreign war. The worry increasingly is centred on domestic civil strife within the U.S.

Yet, America’s other meme-narrative – repeated by Biden in his virtual summit with Putin – is the wearily familiar U.S. one of unprecedented, harsh sanctions being threatened, should Moscow ‘escalate’ in respect to the Ukraine.

This too, however, lacks substance since both the U.S. Treasury and the State Department are warning that the envisaged sanctions would hurt U.S. allies (i.e. Europeans), more than they would hurt Russia; and that their imposition could even trigger a counter-productive economic crisis that would touch the U.S. consumer, via increased energy prices, thus giving a sharp kick to already record U.S. inflation rates.

Needless to add, that in these hard times, American voters are likely to be very unforgiving towards any U.S. actions that needlessly pushes up inflation. It is likely too, that Russian officials had already made this prior calculation. The U.S. Treasury has this right : Sanctions will hurt Europe, more than Russia.

In short, both these U.S. narratives are symbolic – their inner substance already having been conceded. They are pursued, at least in part, to lend credence to the U.S. meta narrative of ‘Democracies versus the Autocrats’. The Russian narrative of the steady encroachment of NATO on to her borders, on the other hand, touches on existential fears reaching back a thousand years. This has been the path every enemy-invader took.

So, should we now simply ‘move on’, post-Geneva, assuming that the show is over, and that its speaking-points will be discussed by the two sides over the next decade? May we say that the Geneva talks were more of a ‘parade’, a ritual procession by two adversaries, rather than a negotiation? In a certain sense, yes. But it is far from ‘over’.

For, if the average American voter doesn’t care a toss for Ukraine, there is nonetheless, another influential American constituency that does passionately care to see Putin humbled before the U.S. ‘moves on’, to fully to focus on containing China’s challenge to its primacy.

It is the U.S.’ ‘Russia hawks’, and they are optimistic about the prospects of seeing Putin ‘damned’ should he invade Ukraine, and damned (humiliated domestically), should his ‘red lines’ prove a flop.

Recall however, the sequence of events that brought us to this point : The earlier Maidan coup ; the attempted Belarus coup – a crisis that ‘happened’ to coincide with the deployment of Kiev’s military forces to the Contact Line separating them from the Donbass militias – amid belligerent threats of action against the Donbas republics; and then the Orthodox Christmas eve attempted coup in Kazakhstan that ‘happened’ on the eve of the strategic talks in Geneva.

It is not hard to see that Moscow would not take this curious series of ‘coincidences’ seriously. Moscow knows the depth of Russophobia that exists within U.S. foreign policy circles, irrespective of the general sentiment of indifference amongst the public to foreign policy issues of the day.

A Washington Post Board Editorial (representing the views of The Washington Post as an institution) well reflects this ‘other’ constituency:

A brutal dictator, having staked a claim to power based on conspiracy theories and promises of imperial restoration, rebuilds his military. He begins threatening to seize his neighbours’ territory, blames democracies for the crisis and demands that, to solve it, they must rewrite the rules of international politics — and redraw the map — to suit him. The democracies agree to peace talks, hoping, as they must, to avoid war without unduly rewarding aggression.

[This Munich analogy] can be, and has been, overused and overstated. But given how closely the first paragraph of this editorial describes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current bellicosity toward Ukraine, and given that the U.S.…enters negotiations with Mr. Putin in the coming week, it’s [an analogy] worth reflecting on…What the United States cannot do is allow Mr. Putin to win concessions at the point of a gun. In the — all-too-likely — event that he is not bargaining in good faith, and does invade Ukraine, President Biden will have to help that country defend itself, rally NATO and ensure that Russia pays a heavy price.

A report in Axios has reported that Jake Sullivan prepared for U.S. talks with Russia in Geneva by seeking the advice of well-known Russia hawks across Washington. Predictably their advice focused on confrontation with Russia by sending more arms and military supplies to Ukraine in order to prepare for potential conflict: “A group of Russia experts urged National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to send more arms to the Ukrainians when he spoke with them ahead of this week’s high-stakes diplomatic meetings with Russian officials, participants told Axios”.

Michael McFaul, a former Ambassador in Moscow (and well-known hawk) tweeted: ‘And I want a “waterproof” “ironclad” “bulletproof” guarantee Russia will end its occupation of Ukrainian and Georgian territories, will never invade Ukraine or Georgia again, and will stop its efforts to undermine democracy in Ukraine & Georgia’.

So, why then, did Moscow so publicly launch the draft treaty and declaration, setting out Russia’s red lines, with President Putin proposing a ‘dialogue’ during his virtual exchange with Biden, if Washington’s dismissive reaction was so predictable, and expected? And if walking-it-back would be a cause of political humiliation for the leadership in Russia.

Well, perhaps the reason that Russia went to the trouble so carefully to draft these two documents lay not so much with the expectation of reaching some compromise with the U.S., though would have been a surprise bonus – but rather, their purpose was to situate the coming events for the benefit and understanding of the Russian public.

In fact, by setting out the demands so starkly, Putin was, as it were, burning his bridges behind him: There was thus no way back, short of unacceptable political humiliation (which is not Putin’s style). Deliberately, the President was signalling to his public that it was Russia, and not just Putin, that was up against the wall; that there were no bridges left standing, over which the Federal Republic might retreat. Russian security was at stake.

It was, in short, a signal to the gravity of the situation. Were Russia’s demands to be rejected, after the further talks with the Russia-NATO council and the OSCE – as seems likely – Russia likely will move to a ‘strategy of escalating tension’ with the U.S. and its allies.

America’s ‘tin ear’ to the gravity of the Russian quasi-ultimatum is directly related to today’s infatuation with meme-politics, designed – not as strategy, per se – but rather, as messaging aimed specifically at America’s domestic audience, and designed to trigger (i.e. ‘nudge’) an unconscious electorally advantageous psychic response in the electorate.

It is built therefore, around mobilisation at home, rather than true diplomacy, or the pursuit of strategic objectives. Indeed, strategic objectives are being eschewed in favour of short-term and ephemeral political ‘wins’ (such as slapping-down Putin).

And just as in the domestic arena, where the notion of politics by argument and suasion is being lost, so the notion of foreign policy managed through argument, or diplomacy, is being lost too.

Foreign policy then becomes less about geo-strategy, but rather, about ‘big issues’ such as China, Russia or Iran. These hot-button topics are given an emotional ‘charge’ to mobilise certain swing constituencies in the U.S. Which is to say: ‘nudged’ into mobilisation behind some issue (such as more protectionism for business against Chinese competition), or alternatively, imagined darkly (as the Washington Post Board editorial so well illustrates), in order to delegitimise a bogeyman (in this case, President Putin).

This is a high risky game for Washington, for it forces a resistance stance on those targeted states, whether they seek it, or not. This is precisely the case for Russia today, which now feels obliged to ‘burn its bridges’ as the only means to have its red lines addressed seriously. This is the point of the ‘ultimatum’. If Moscow does not act, its military encirclement by NATO becomes inevitable.

This fixation with meme-politics inevitably results in Russia’s demands being misconceived: Instead of their being seen as real red lines, they become wrongly perceived as Moscow merely setting out a rival meme-narrative, in competition to that of Washington. Their gravity consequently becomes erased. The meme-politics logic to such declarations then becomes: Russia’s red lines are no more than ‘a trivial something’ to be batted away into the ‘long grass’ through asserting the ‘moral superiority’ of ‘confronting autocrats’ and ‘supporting democracy’. The notion that these issues are existential for Russia becomes lost; they become just another agenda item in a long, and never-ending ‘dialogue’.

This underlines that western politics today are no more about considered strategy: It is pretty evident that the U.S. team arrived at Geneva strategy-less. It is also about the more recent trend for the U.S. to lose strategically (even militarily), in order to win politically – which is to say about a supposed, largely symbolic, ‘win’ prompting a favourable, albeit short-term, unconscious emotional reaction – amongst American voters, even at the expense America’s longer-term strategic decline.

This shift to seeing foreign states in this emotional-propagandist mode has forced those targeted states to respond. Russia, China, Iran are but now but cultural ‘images’ of demonised ‘authoritarianism’ that are prized mainly for their potential to be loaded with a ‘nudge’ emotional-charge, in a western cultural war for domestic political advantage – in which these states have no part.

The result is that these states are forced antagonists to the American presumption to define a global ‘rules of the road’ for all to adhere. They only can stand jointly, steadfast, and warn against trespass beyond their explicit ‘red lines’. This, they have jointly done – a Global Times editorial just days ago warned it was simply “delusional for [the] U.S. to overwhelm China and Russia by brute force”.

But will the U.S. practitioners of meme-politics, absorb and comprehend that this latest stance by the Russia – in riposte to its real security concerns – may not be some same-ilk, meme-mobilisation, but rather, that their ‘red lines’ are ‘red lines’ … literally?

Unfortunately, probably not.

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