International Affairs

Conservatism in Russia and America

February 26, 2014

Multiple Pages
Conservatism in Russia and America

Similarities and differences between Russian and American conservatism—especially in regard to the topic of the moment, Ukraine—can be observed in the thought of Russian geopolitical theorist Aleksandr Dugin, director of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University.

Dugin’s program of “Neo-Eurasianism” has come under attack in the West since Vladimir Putin proposed a Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics to compete with the European Union.

Dugin has cleverly adapted traditional Czarist and Soviet political goals to postmodern tropes about diversity and multiculturalism:

The world today finds itself on the brink of a post-political reality—one in which the values of liberalism are so deeply embedded that the average person is not aware there is an ideology at work around him. As a result, liberalism is threatening to monopolize political discourse and drown the world in a universal sameness, destroying everything that makes the various cultures and peoples unique.

Yet Dugin’s analysis of the implications always seems to point toward the same solution: greater power for the Kremlin. Dugin proudly proclaims himself a “statist,” which doesn’t make him in sync with the Tea Party. And in his vision the Muscovite state expands in territory and influence.

After last week’s coup in Kiev, Dugin said in an interview on Russian state television:

I suggest that it is necessary that Russia, in an organized way, help Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

When asked by the interviewer what he meant by “an organized way,” Dugin replied, “with tanks.”

“It would be useful for Americans to try to grasp why we increasingly irritate the rest of the world.”

But like many American invade-the-world spokesmen, Dugin went on to say that he wasn’t calling for an incursion out of concern for his country’s national interest:

We need to militarily strengthen the East and Crimea, not in our own interest but in the interest of Ukraine.

Dugin at least has the justification that invasion and autocracy are ancient Russian traditions. He recently pointed out:

The fundamental axiom of Russian conservatism can be traced to the time of the monarchy and is known by a simple formula: “Good tsar—bad elites.”

(That explains much of the popularity of Vladimir Putin with the Russian electorate: After the anarchic looting of the Yeltsin years, the new oligarchs are now at least under Kremlin control.)

In contrast, the document once respected as the most carefully considered legacy of the Founding Fathers—George Washington’s Farewell Address (which received help from Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay)—advised against “foreign entanglements.”

Because Ukraine (a word that may mean “borderlands,” although like everything else about the place, the etymology remains in dispute) lacks both natural defenses and an agreed-upon national identity, this wide expanse of Slavic-language-speaking territory has long attracted the attention of the most audacious geopolitical philosophers. They have seen it as the crucial blank slate upon which to inscribe their designs for world domination. In turn, Ukraine’s fundamental vulnerability motivates locals toward extremes of nationalism (although not always in agreement with their neighbors).

Ukraine’s perennially precarious geopolitical situation was memorably parodied in a 1995 Seinfeld episode in which Kramer and Newman are playing the board game Risk on the subway. Kramer taunts Newman, “I’ve driven you out of Western Europe, and I’ve left you teetering on the brink of complete annihilation.”

Newman desperately bluffs, “I’m not beaten yet! I still have armies in the Ukraine.”

“The Ukraine? You know what the Ukraine is, it’s a sitting duck,” scoffs Kramer. “A road apple, Newman. The Ukraine is weak. It’s feeble. I think it’s time to put the hurt on the Ukraine….”

A fellow passenger, a deep-voiced Ukrainian in a fur hat, is naturally outraged. He asks, “Ukraine is game to you?” before smashing the board.

To the misfortune of the people who live there, Ukraine is a game to the idea men (and women, such as neoconservative insider Victoria Nuland) of numerous surrounding deep states.

As the most populous European region of arguable nationality, Ukraine has long played a sizable role in geopolitical theorizing about oceanic versus continental strategies.

The land v. sea distinction is fundamental to Dugin, who argues:

We have to see the struggle for geopolitical power as the old conflict of land power represented by Russia and sea power represented by the USA and its NATO partners.…The 1990s was the time of the great defeat of the land power represented by the USSR. Mikhail Gorbachev refused the continuation of this struggle. This was a kind of treason and resignation in front of the unipolar world.

The notion of America as, by nature, a sea power was popularized by Alfred Thayer Mahan. America’s energies were long absorbed settling its West, but in 1890, the year the Census Bureau found the frontier to be finally closed, Captain Mahan introduced Americans to geopolitical strategizing with The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783.

Mahan’s analysis of Britain’s rise provided a suitable ideology for the Spanish-American War of 1898, with consequences for which we’re still paying. The Los Angeles Herald reported on December 2, 1898:

Mahan insists weightily on the great military importance of Porto Rico, which is to Cuba, to the future Isthmian canal and to the Pacific coast what Malta is or may be to Egypt and beyond.

Puerto Rico remains an expensive and not terribly useful luxury, and if it goes broke, we’ll pay even more. Similarly, Cuba helped bankrupt the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Recently, Putin offered to bail out Ukraine, but that honor now seems to be incumbent upon the West.

In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder’s article “The Geographic Pivot of History” reversed Mahan’s emphasis on sea power by designating Afro-Eurasia the “World-Island,” with the Russian Empire more or less as “the Heartland.” Mackinder summed up his credo:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world.

On March 3, 1918, the new Bolshevik government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in effect ceding Ukraine to Imperial Germany. This enormous triumph allowed the Germans to concentrate their forces in the West to try and seize Paris before the American army arrived en masse. This high point of German might, followed by its sudden collapse that same year, convinced Corporal Adolf Hitler that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” and needed to reconquer Ukraine and additional lebensraum.

From 1945-1989, the Cold War played out in large part as a struggle between the realms of sea and land, or as they were called in Orwell’s 1984, Oceania and Eurasia.

After the Cold War, some of the more insightful American national security intellectuals have found non-Atlanticist theories of interest. For example, Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose aristocratic Polish ancestors hailed from what’s now Western Ukraine, subscribed in part to Mackinder’s Eurasian theory.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis drew upon Dimitri Kitsikis’s conception of a vast “Intermediate Region” between Western Europe and East Asia whose natural capital is Istanbul.

Born in 1962 to a colonel-general in the GRU (the Soviet equivalent of the NSA), Dugin has worked tirelessly since his dissident days in the 1980s to elaborate new ideologies for ex-Soviets to replace internationalist Marxism-Leninism.

In the 1990s, when official Moscow turned to American advisors such as Larry Summers and Stanley Fischer, Dugin was a fringe figure. But privatization turned into piratization, validating Dugin’s fundamental anti-Americanism, which opened doors for him among the political elite.

Dugin’s multiple attempts at entering electoral politics under the banners of various parties he has joined or invented have repeatedly foundered, which is hardly surprising given his love of complex intellectualizing. In the continental manner, Dugin would be superb at the Parisian café pastime of extemporaneous philosophizing.

Still, Dugin now enjoys a professorship at the top Russian university and is a frequent television commentator. Dugin sees himself as a Neo-Eurasian, the heir to an intellectual tradition of exiled Russian whites who saw communism as only a temporary phenomenon. To Dugin, the Eurasian empire will be built upon “on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”

His 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics advocates a new Moscow-ruled Eurasian sphere of influence that would, among much else, re-absorb Ukraine. (His Ukrainian ambitions seem more territorially limited today.)

In compensation, Germany would get back Eastern Prussia, and China would be given the green light to take Australia.

In reality, this grand strategy is largely compensatory bluster. Compared to Uncle Sam, Russia—like Ukraine—is weak. It’s militarily feeble.

Still, it would be useful for Americans to try to grasp why we increasingly irritate the rest of the world.

By geography, history, and culture, America is a more privileged place than Russia, and thus American conservatives have more and better privileges to conserve than the poor Russians do. But American governments have been aggressively pushing their luck overseas, with inevitably diminishing returns.

Consider our history of sea power since 1890. Americans, especially New Englanders, came to view large navies, with their high-tech requirements and commercial applications, as morally superior to large armies. Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian and Naval Reserve officer, argued:

But sea power has never led to despotism. The nations that have enjoyed sea power even for a brief period—Athens, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England, the United States—are those that have preserved freedom for themselves and have given it to others. Of the despotism to which unrestrained military power leads we have plenty of examples from Alexander to Mao.

In this line of thinking, a sea power needs money and technology but seldom needs to conscript all that many sailors. In contrast, a land power such as Prussia or Czarist Russia needed to impose army discipline upon much of the male population.

Of course, most of the continental powers haven’t had much choice about being a land power. Without an English Channel, much less an Atlantic Ocean, to protect them, they’ve felt the need to build highly centralized states to avoid the fate of Ukraine.

And as Mahan predicted, the Atlanticist sea powers have had both more success and more fun in recent centuries, as shown by English increasingly becoming the world’s dominant second language.

It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that being protected by a sea that you control can be used not just for defense. Consider the career of the English national hero Sir Francis Drake, whose victory over the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 set off a spectacular late Elizabethan outpouring of national self-confidence, epitomized by Shakespeare.

But why did Drake have to play Defender of the Realm in 1588? In sizable part, it’s because he’d previously been playing Pirate Captain, plundering Spanish treasure ships in the Atlantic and Pacific.

Thus, while Anglo-American history looks like a triumph of liberty and democracy to Anglo-Americans, to much of the rest of the world it often resembles impudent piracy.


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