Kremlinology: A Quick Primer

It is rare that an interviewer, rather than his subject, should be responsible for the most insightful remarks of a discussion. But that’s what happened in this old interview between journalist David Samuels and the shadowy strategist Edward Luttwak, published in Tablet on September 6, 2011. Samuels and Luttwak discuss, among other things, U.S. foreign policy and Russia. At one point, Samuels prefaces a question with the following, which I urge you to commit to memory:

I would start with the moment when George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin and said, ‘I looked into his eyes and saw this was a man I could really trust.’ So, my thesis is this: If you’re Vladimir Putin, and you rise to the top of this chaotic and brutal society after going through the KGB, you must be some kind of strategic genius with amazing survival skills, because the penalty for failure may be torture or death. This kind of Darwinian set-up exists in many countries around the world. What does it mean to be head of the security services in Egypt? It means that you had to betray your friends but only at the right time, and you had to survive many vicious predators who would have loved to kill you or torture you, or otherwise derail your career. By the time you become Vladimir Putin or Omar Suleiman, your ability to think ahead and analyze threats has been adequately tested.

By contrast, what does it take to become a U.S. Senator? You have to eat rubber chicken dinners, you have to impress some rich people who are generally pretty stupid about politics, and smile in TV commercials. The penalties for failure are hardly so dire. And so, American leadership generally sucks, and America is perennially in the position of being the sucker in the global poker game.

These two paragraphs could replace entire textbooks on international relations and diplomacy. They capture perfectly the institutional pressures that exist within closed societies and how these pressures differ so fundamentally from those in the West.

Vladimir Putin rose to power within a system that thrives on and rewards corruption, patronage, and ruthlessness. The obvious retort to this is that there is corruption in the U.S. as well. Of course there is. Lots of it. But if you don’t recognize the difference between corruption in the U.S. and corruption in Russia—it’s a difference not only of degree but of kind—then I can’t help you.

After Putin took over Crimea, many commentators said he viewed the West as weak, soft, and decadent. This is almost certainly true. Western politics today consists of running a perpetual re-election campaign, giving vapid speeches to pressure groups, calling everyone who disagrees with you a bigot, and very little else. This fecklessness is the result of several self-destructive tendencies that have been going on in Western civilization for the past half century.

There was nevertheless a time when the West, particularly the United States, was well equipped to handle someone like Putin. One needn’t go back very far in history to find such a time. The utter embarrassment that the U.S. (under Barack Obama) suffered at Russian hands during the crises in Syria and Ukraine would have been inconceivable under any other American president—including Jimmy Carter, who at least had Zbigniew Brzezinski to balance his (and Cyrus Vance’s) dovishness. Such embarrassment would have been especially unlikely under Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan.

Most conservatives would nod their heads vigorously on hearing that last name. They would say it’s because Reagan was “tough” and “hawkish.” That’s true in a very general way, although it misses much nuance. Reagan balanced his hard-line rhetoric (e.g. the “evil empire” speech, which was desperately needed) with brilliantly pragmatic negotiation (e.g. the INF treaty, which was also desperately needed). He also recognized the limits of U.S. military power and, despite the image of him as an idiotic bumbler, learned quickly from mistakes such as Lebanon and the Able Archer incident.

But there’s a broader point to be made. Reagan (and every president before him, to varying degrees) had a view of foreign policy that placed U.S. interests above all else, including “democracy promotion.” Reagan hated the Soviet system and preached freedom whenever he could, but he never proposed a no-fly zone over Moscow or a takeover of the Eastern bloc.

The U.S. hasn’t really practiced realpolitik since the administration of George H.W. Bush. American foreign policy since 1992 has been a kind of globalized, militarized social-work project. Traditional realism is nowhere to be seen in the Republican Party, except among certain figures like Rand Paul, whose foreign-policy views will make any run for the presidency quite tough for the Kentucky ophthalmologist.

I would go so far as to say that the United States, as of this writing, does not practice foreign policy in any meaningful sense. There is no grand strategy, no vision, no realistic idea of how to accomplish the most basic goals. The DC establishment is, as Samuels notes above, full of people whose backgrounds have not prepared them for the kinds of decisions that Putin must make all the time. If we are not going to practice realpolitik, let us at least acknowledge that others are practicing it against us.



  1. Hmm, well to begin with, lets identify the prime culprits in US foreign policy’s decade long streak of screw-ups: the NeoConservatives. Once their ideas (regime change as a tool to accomplish anything other than destabilization, and the whole “american exceptionalism” nonsense, the whole “new world order” concept) — once these ideas are dead and buried, maybe some form of progress, whatever direction it takes, may be possible.


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