Letters to the Editor(1)

July 7, 2004

Letters to the Editor(1)

Dear Editor:In her letter in response to my article "Gunboat Democracy" (Volume 3, Issue 19), Roberta Cohen makes a distinction between interventions that are to "save lives" and "not at all about democracy" and interventions that are solely intended

Dear Editor:

In her letter in response to my article "Gunboat Democracy" (Volume 3, Issue 19), Roberta Cohen makes a distinction between interventions that are to "save lives" and "not at all about democracy" and interventions that are solely intended to promote democracy.  She cites Somalia and Kosovo as instances of the "save lives intervention." Cohen then writes that Grenada was also a case in which democracy "was not an issue." Instead, Cohen argues, President Reagan's publicly-stated reason for sending in U.S. troops was "to save lives of American citizens being held hostage by the [Grenadian] regime."

First, it is worth mentioning that there were no U.S hostages at the time of the Grenada invasion. Rather, the Reagan administration ordered the invasion in order to, among other things, ensure that a Tehran-style hostage crisis did not occur.  Among the other factors that led to the invasion was the perception that Grenada's hardening alliance with Cuba, the Soviet Union and North Korea represented a geopolitical threat to the United States.  If there had not been a Soviet/Cuban component to the crisis, then there almost certainly would not have been an invasion.

But in addition to the threat to American lives and raw geopolitical interests, the invasion of Grenada was unquestionably about democracy.  The vicious regime in Grenada was antithetical to democracy and the Reagan Administration made it publicly clear that it intended to support efforts at building democracy after the invasion. In fact, even before the Reagan Administration had made the decision to launch the invasion, Grenada's neighboring island nations were begging Washington to send in the Marines in order to remove the regime and establish democracy.

To be sure, democracy was not the sole or even critical factor in the decision to intervene. Yet, Ms. Cohen is on shaky ground when she argues that Grenada cannot be seen as a case of democracy by force. Instead of making this point myself, it is more fitting to listen to the views of the Grenadian people. A couple of days following President Reagan's recent death, the Grenadian Parliament passed a resolution praising Reagan for his "significant role in restoring peace and democracy."  Gunboat democracy pure and simple.

Perhaps an easier way to look at this question of "democracy by force" is to understand that the United States will rarely if ever intervene solely to promote democracy. Geopolitical considerations, American lives and humanitarian crises are the sparks that tips the balance in favor of intervention.  This was certainly true in Vietnam when stopping communist dominoes was infinitely more important to U.S. policymakers than was any notion of democracy. Thus, it is curious that Ms. Cohen selected Vietnam as a case of a U.S. intervention that was all about democracy. In any case, it's a more viable argument to claim that Vietnam represents one case where the United States failed to promote democracy by force.

Ms. Cohen could very well be correct that interventions should normally be reserved for episodes of "mass starvings, mass killings, or genocide." Yet, cases such as Grenada and the invasion of Panama in 1989 suggest that there might be a time and place for interventions that do not directly relate to the criteria that Ms. Cohen puts forth. I also agree that democracy promotion should not necessarily be a component of every U.S. intervention. But these points are entirely different than arguing that democracy has never been brought to countries on the barrel of a gun. Just ask the Grenadians.



Russell Crandall

Davidson College


Dear Editor:

Janusz Bugajski, in his reply last week to my article in the June 23 issue of In The National Interest provides an illustration of the point I was trying to make - the persistence of zero-sum, Cold War outlooks in the think tank milieu. The personal aspect of the reply is perhaps unfortunate, since no particular individual or institution was at issue, but its contents can help us understand the milieu situation.

The reply takes the form of throwing my argument back at me - "[Straus'] comments are the most poignant example of that other Cold War mentality - namely that America and Russia were equivalent and basically shared the same objectives." However, this is a simple mistake; I don't have an "equivalence" mentality, and the imputation of it to me in the above sentence is achieved by conflating two different things: (1) the proposition that "America and Russia were equivalent", (2) the proposition that they "basically shared the same objectives." One can believe either one of these propositions without believing the other; they have no necessary relation. My article did have something to do with the second proposition, but nothing to do with the first - the "equivalence" one.

For me there is something surrealistic in being attributed a held-over "equivalence" mentality from the Cold War. In the days when there really was a moral equivalence crowd in America, I was always speaking out against it. I don't have to do so anymore, because that crowd has left the field in America and moved on elsewhere. (But I do sometimes have to speak against it in Moscow nowadays.)
What my article was actually about was not moral equivalence or moral distance, but the need for a more effective reconciliation of U.S. and Russian interests, particularly in Central Asia. After the dramatic regime change of 1991, a broad review of interests was needed between Russia and the West, in order to see - with the passing of the former regime interests that were specific to the Soviet regime and had global anti-Western implications - to what extent there were new shared interests that deserve the effort that would be needed for making them operational, and residues of old tit-for-tat adversarial interests that could be ended by cooperative strategy. In the absence of the work being sufficiently done on the official level, independent reviews of the interests have been undertaken by a number of scholars and by parliamentary bodies. They have all -- at least, all that I am familiar with - found that the shared interests of Russia and the West are considerably more far-reaching and more fundamental than the opposing ones; that old mutual oppositions of strategy are standing in the way of real and vital interests on both sides; that it is therefore feasible to pursue a more far-reaching reconciliation of interests with Russia than as yet achieved; and, if feasible, then necessary.

Whether or not everyone agrees with these propositions, I hope they're clear enough that they won't be confused again with moral equivalency propositions.

Further: Russia's "managed democracy" is quite wrongly identified in Bugajski's reply as a continuation of the "democratic centralism" of Soviet times. Actually, "managed democracy" emerged in response to the chaos of Russia in the late 1990s and arranged a coalescence around the political center rather than the extremes. This came a number of years after Gorbachev had abolished "democratic centralism" and the other totalitarian control structures of the Soviet regime, which had enforced an ideology of activism and extremism. There was a sharp historical discontinuity between the two phenomena. The current Russian regime justifies its "managed democracy," not as a global norm or a basis for attacking Western democracy, but as a particular necessity for stability during its transition -- made necessary by the immaturity of its society. One may disagree with the regime's claim of its necessity, but it would be a poor basis for equating Russia with the Soviet Union or for viewing it as an internationally hostile force.

Nevertheless, it seems that a fair number of writers nowadays are prone to understate the differences between Russia and the USSR. The actual differences need to be recalled and kept clearly in mind in a discussion like this.  

Specifically, the USSR was run by a Communist Party with affiliates and clienteles all around the world. It defined its goal in terms of global leadership for its power structure and for its system. It carried on a worldwide geopolitical and ideological struggle against the mainstream Western-led world order. It had regime interests - as distinct from national interests - considerably more far-reaching than most regimes. These regime interests gave it not simply various empirical differences of interest from the West but a global enmity to the West; the thing that softened the enmity were the empirical interests, which overlapped with those of the West.

Russia today has no such global regime interests or ideological pretensions. There is no global moral-ideological competition between Russia and the West. Consequently, no moral equivalency strand of thought has appeared again in the West vis-à-vis Russia. No popular movement in the West is attacking the responsible Western elites for considering themselves morally superior to Russia; responsible elites are not striking back by calling this "moral equivalency" thinking. The whole issue has disappeared as regards Russia; the surviving fragments of the equivalence milieu have shifted over to saying that it is the Islamic world that the West should not consider itself superior to.

Despite the effective disappearance of equivalence thinking on Russia in the West, some of the analysis community is still imputing such an outlook to people as a way of dismissing them. One wonders: why?

The most likely explanation is that it serves certain milieu purposes. It is not hard to see how it fits in with group habits. It was an easy way of dismissing disagreement in the past; it is tempting to use it the same way in the present. It can also help sustain group morale, provide a common language, and facilitate group consensus. It draws a clear line - and a comforting, moral-sounding one - between "our side" and "the other side". But this comes at a cost: the line is misplaced, large slices of reality are excised from the group's universe of discourse, and the style is not only accusatory but unfounded.

Denunciations of "moral equivalency" can be understood as a part of a demand for an anti-Russian attitude which can still be sniffed in the air in some circles. It is a demand that not only excommunicates many good people as if they were on "the other side", but that has led some of its own adherents to end up on the actual "other side" that we face nowadays - the side of the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban to power was viewed sympathetically by the U.S. in the mid-1990s, on the basis of arguments for "strengthening the independence" of the region from Russia - a goal that was somehow confused at the time with promoting democracy in the region. It was a mistake that was terribly costly to American interests. Russia made some effort to get us to correct it, but few people over here were ready to listen to advice from that source.
Ordinary Americans have no difficulty viewing the American political regime as good and identifying with its power and purposes, without at the same time taking a purist view of it or disabling themselves from recognizing its moral defects and practical mistakes. And they can take a critical view of Russia's defects without ascribing malicious virtue-free characteristics to it, or adopting attitudes that would prevent them from cooperating where interests are shared.

The description of Russian and American policy in the reply is almost stereotypically dogmatic in denying this: "America seeks partnerships with allies and collaborators (including Russia) ... Russia tolerates arrangements with America either because it is currently too weak to oppose them or because it seeks to pragmatically use U.S. capabilities to leverage and strengthen its own positions [which were described in each case as intended for bad purposes, such as crushing the Chechens and increasing the power of the KGB]."
While this way of seeing things is obviously wrong, given its determinedly negative interpretation of everything that Russia does, nevertheless there is a significant milieu that is partial to it. For this reason, it is not without consequence. Its implications are clear: 1) It is always right to diminish Russian power and influence, since the latter is always evil in intention, 2) It may be alright for the West sometimes to make use of Russia's cooperation, but since Russia cooperates only in order to increase its capabilities to do evil, we must do everything along the way to prevent any of the benefits from accruing to Russia, and 3) Any kind of action that can be taken against Russia, should be taken. One can behave in a completely hostile manner, all the while stating and believing that one is "seek(ing) partnerships ... including Russia," since any shortfall in the resultant cooperation is simply blamed on Russia.

My earlier article had been getting at pretty much the same point: by insistently attributing a zero-sum approach to Russia, some Westerners create space for following zero-sum approaches themselves, while dumping all the blame on Russia and leaving Russia little choice but to do what it is accused of in advance.

It is fortunate that Western national officials, faced with their acute responsibilities to their countries after September 11, have on the whole taken a more accurate view. Otherwise no positive sums could have emerged, and American national interests would have suffered still worse.