The Double Sputnik of 2008: An End to Illusions

09/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Pinkerton Contrib. editor, American Conservative; Fellow, New America Foundation

With apologies to George W. Bush, I don't think our President looked very clearly into Vladimir Putin's eyes and saw the alleged goodness of his soul . I think Putin was wearing his KGB happyface when the two men first met in 2001, and Bush fell for it.

With apologies to Al Gore, I don't think the Russian invasion of nearby Georgia will be "carbon neutral." I don't think the Russians give a kopeck about our precious global warming concerns, and to the extent they might believe that global warming is a real phenomenon, they are all for it: Who wouldn't want to warm up Siberia and turn the Russian Arctic into a blue-water coastline?

With apologies to Bill Clinton, who let the Chinese have our missile technology, and then called the Chinese our "strategic partner," I don't think the Chinese have any sort of plan for "partnering" with us. China has a plan for trading with us, and for building up its financial capital and their industrial capacity, and so far its plan is working marvelously.

Meanwhile, the Chinese achievement at the Olympics -- especially the opening ceremony, which made virtually no political or cultural concessions to the West -- is a signal as to where China is headed. They have every intention of cooperating with us in areas agreeable to them (free trade and other international competitions that they can win), and no intention of cooperating in areas disagreeable to them (human rights, autonomy for Tibet, independence for Taiwan).

The truth is that the Chinese aren't looking to America for a single thing other than money and technology. They don't want our national vision, they want their national vision. They don't want to be Americans, they want to be Chinese. To be sure, there are plenty of Chinese who don't agree with the overall thrust of Chinese politics -- but most of the vocal critics live outside of China.

Today, in August 2008, we are seeing the end of the illusion that American political values will shape the rest of the world. Indeed, we are seeing what Michael Lind of the New America Foundation first called a "Double Sputnik" -- that is, incidents in which the Russians, as well as Chinese, show their strength, their determination not to let the 21st century be another American Century.

In the meantime, President Bush, in Beijing as the crisis deepened, seemed more interested in schmoozing with the Chinese -- on their terms, not his -- than in confronting the geopolitical upheaval of the Russian invasion of Georgia. The photo of the president on the White House website as of 3:30 pm ET on Monday, showing him tossing a pitch to the US Olympics baseball team, leads one to ask: Just what, exactly, is going through 43's mind? Most likely, Bush is thinking to himself that the US is already fully committed to Iraq and Afghanistan -- with an Iran war always a possibility -- and so America simply can't afford to have another enemy.

Late Monday afternoon, Bush belatedly came out against the Russian offensive, about the time that the Russians announced that they would stop the offensive. But nobody takes the Russians seriously, and one has to wonder, too, about Bush.

And so where's the rest of the world on the Georgia crisis?

Let's start with the United Nations: What's the UN Security Council going to do? Well, we know the answer, of course: Nothing. If the five permanent members (the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China) can each veto anything coming out of the Security Council, then nothing negative about any of them will ever emerge from the Security Council.

So what of other political formations? How about NATO? Sure, European leaders are talking, but the Russians aren't listening -- because they don't need to heed mere talk. To be sure, a few European voices have been raised: The BBC reports that Tory leader David Cameron has labeled Russia a "dangerous bully." And Cameron has further suggested that Georgia's membership application for NATO membership be "speeded up."

Well, that's a nice thought, coming from someone out of power, but it isn't going to happen, even if Cameron were to gain power and become the next British Prime Minister. Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty calls for full mutual defense among NATO members -- that is, an attack on one is an attack on all. Which is to say, if Georgia were in NATO right now, all 26 members, including the US, would be at war with Russia. So that's why Georgia will not be in NATO.

Many insightful observers believe that Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili badly overplayed his geopolitical hand. That's no excuse for Russia's bad behavior, of course, merely one more explanation for why the "world community" isn't doing much.

In the meantime, Saakashvili is surely correct when he says that the Russians "want to get rid of us. They want to make regime change." Indeed. And that's a reminder that more than one country can play the regime-change game.

What's happening in Christian Georgia is surely tragedy, but one of the illusions that we must part with, in 2008, is the notion that we are moving toward some sort of "end of history" -- in which countries will grow closer together through democracy and capitalism, leaving us more time to concentrate on such peaceable pursuits as the reduction of carbon emissions. To put it another way, the environmental movement has hit a big roadblock: The world can only really think about difficult environmental cooperation in the absence of overt military confrontation.

The truth seems to be that the world might be moving away from communism, but it is not moving toward freedom--and certainly not carbon reduction.

As syndicated columnist Cal Thomas put it in a a column last week commemorating the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian dissident was a firm enemy of Soviet-style totalitarianism, but he was not particularly a fan of American-style freedom--certainly not for his homeland of Russia. As Thomas put it:

"Mr. Solzhenitsyn warned the West not to be deluded by what he said was a false belief that all nations yearn to be like us. This thinking is at the heart of President Bush's doctrine for dealing with the Arab and Muslim world. Mr. Solzhenitsyn called this 'the blindness of superiority' and warned against thinking that only 'wicked governments' temporarily prevent other nations from 'adopting the Western way of life.'"

And so if the world isn't becoming more like the West, then what is it becoming like? The answer, most likely, is that the world is going to revert back to the way it was before the US won World War Two and imposed a Pax Americana on what we called "The Free World." Pre-1945, there were lots of great powers jockeying around, fighting proxy wars constantly, attacking each other when it suited them. And now, it seems, we are returning back to that world.

It is indeed sad when the illusions of an age melt away in the hot glare of a new era--although, of course, the great work of defending the United States, and its values, must continue in any era.

But meanwhile, the Russians are going to be Russians, the Chinese are going to be Chinese - -and the rest of the world, too, will go its various ways.

So in the future, we Americans will look out at the world and see power plays, fighting, more power plays, and more fighting. And we had better be ready.