Two years ago I ran a small reading group that met over zoom. Our reading topic: Leninism. Curious about the claims that modern Chinese politics are an outgrowth of Marxist ideas and practice yet feeling insufficiently familiar with the Leninist political tradition to properly judge its influence on contemporary Chinese politics, I organized a group of China-watching politicos to read both classic Marxist texts and historical studies of the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
In the aftermath of the First World War, military theorists across the West were desperate to fashion a path around the next war’s trenches. Engineers and tacticians spent that war tinkering away on machines that promised an escape from attrition: the gas shell, the U-boat, and the armored tank were all deployed with these hopes. All were found wanting. The aeroplane was not expected to have quite the same impact. The flying contraptions of the First World War were feather-like: they were both too light for heavy ordinance and too slim for bulky fuel storage. Few of these biplanes and triplanes could penetrate deep behind enemy lines. None carried a payload capable of making a serious dent in the nearer trench works. Thus the incipient air forces of the First World War were chiefly used to reconnoiter the static defense works of the enemy—or to shoot down the enemy’s reconnoiterers. But the airmen flying and dying in Europe’s gray skies dreamed of something more.
I have an op-ed out in the New York Times today arguing that we must intentionally ground our response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in careful, cost-benefit calculation instead of emotional reaction or moral fervor. The piece is given the unfortunate title “Ukraine’s Cause is Righteous. That Shouldn’t Shape Policy.” My argument is not that the rightness of the Ukrainian cause does not matter, but that in moments of crisis it is easy to do things that feel right even if they do not help us achieve the right outcomes. The righteous demand to do the right thing—now!—unnaturally speeds the tempo of decision making and warps the policy review process. The end result are statesmen rushing into policies whose consequences they have not fully gamed out.
Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.
The Western response to Russian invasion falls hard and fast. The actions of the E.U., the Anglosphere nations, and Japan are both extraordinary and consequential: multiple NATO states have brazenly declared their intent to arm Ukrainian forces with conventional ammunition, precision munitions, and even military aircraft. European airspace is closed to all Russian planes. Western capitals have not only announced sanctions on Kremlin oligarchs, but also restrictions on Russia’s central bank. Russian institutions are being removed from the SWIFT system. The Norwegians— in a maneuver sure to be copied—have dumped all Russian assets in their sovereign wealth fund. Olaf Scholz repudiated the last decade of German defense and energy policy with one speech. And now there is talk of bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO.
None of these actions are as audacious as the Russian invasion which precipitated them. They are a natural, proportional, and even predictable response to Putin’s decision to settle the question of Ukrainian nationhood through the force of arms. Yet it is precisely the naturalness of our policy that we should be wary of. A righteous reaction may be a dangerous one. The imperatives of action disguise an ugly truth: in the field of power politics it is outcomes, not intentions, that matter most. Failure to slow down and examine the assumptions and motivations behind our choices may lead to decisions that feel right in the moment, but fail to safeguard our interests, secure our values, or reduce the human toll of war in the long run.
Approximately three hours ago, the official twitter account of the United States Embassy in Kiev posted this meme. The meme is idiotic at even the surface level: in face of Russian claims that Ukraine is a 20th century political fiction artificially dividing the Russian people into national categories that would not have made sense to any European who lived before Lenin, and that this cradle of Russian culture should not be allowed to fall within the geopolitical ambit of a hostile anti-Russian alliance, the American embassy tweets a meme that highlights Kiev’s role as the origin point of Russian civilization. This is not hard. A Russian sixth-grader could explain why celebrating the glories of Kievan Rus does not subvert Putin’s claims about the history of the Russian nation so much as reinforce them.
The American diplomat who posted this meme should have known this.
Every year I post a list of every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded.. As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books I read bit by bit over several months. Others I finished the day I started them. All include a url, but the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for “ten best books of the year.” A more condensed list of books that I started but read only in excerpt (or did not finish) can be found at the bottom of the post.
Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.
While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.
One of the great ironies of 20th century history: Marxist revolutionaries could only ever seize power in the wrong countries. Marx imagined a revolution of industrial proletariat; he expected that this proletariat would at first achieve its aims in highly industrialized nations like England and Germany. His theory of socialism presupposed that a successful transition […]
We rush towards disaster and greet it with a smirk.I sketched out what this disaster might look like when Bloomberg broke the story of Andrés Sepúlveda, a man who claims to have help hack elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela, this spring: Andrés Sepúlveda is a challenge […]