Nathan Gardels Headshot

Putin's 3 Gurus vs. the G-8

Posted: Updated:
THE WOLDPOST RUSSIA3
Keystone via Getty Images

BARCELONA -- What we are witnessing in Ukraine today is not so much the revival of the Cold War as the sharp edge of a clash of civilizations in the unfolding post-American era.

American-led globalization since the end of the Cold War has led to the convergence of patterns of growth and the spread of technology worldwide, enabling the rise of the emerging economies such as China, Russia, India and Turkey. But far from creating a flat and homogenous world, this convergence has led to a new divergence because economic strength engenders cultural, political and even military self-assertion.

As we are seeing every day from the East China Sea to Syria to Crimea, the American-led West is no longer at the helm of today's order. Indeed, no one is. Above all, globalization today means an interdependence of plural identities.

The first phase of self-reassertion from the rising rest seeks to revive traditional civilizational identities or "organic communities" of the past, but gets its sharp nationalist edge and political energy as a response to both perceived and real humiliation at the hands of the West during its era of global dominance.

Isaiah Berlin, the British historian of ideas, saw very clearly that aggressive nationalism is the result of a backlash, of "bent twigs springing back" after being stepped on.

This is evident today as a neo-Confucian China ratchets up its military might around East Asia. We see it in neo-Ottoman Turkey. We see it in the revival of Hindu fundamentalism as the elections approach in India.

And we see it in these very days as Vladimir Putin takes over Crimea, invoking the right to protect ethnic Russians and their language in the name of a civilizational renaissance of the Orthodox-Slavic world.

To be sure, there are hard interests at stake -- gas pipelines and massive revenues. But the nature of this moment of the "twig springing back" is that such interests are inseparable from notions of national cultural revival.

As the Washington Post noted in a recent blog, over the 2014 New Year's holiday Putin sent a reading list of his favorite philosophers of the Russian spiritual renaissance of the early 20th century -- Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin -- to the governors of Russia's regions. Putin also often refers to them in public speeches.

In the stead of Dostoyevsky, and later Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, all of these thinkers considered themselves custodians of the Russian volksgeist, or unique way of life. Orthodox Christian mystics, they all worried about the leveling of the noble Russian soul by democracy -- preferring monarchy or autocracy as guardians of the family of Russian society -- and contamination of the spirit by the cosmopolitan culture of the materialistic West. They also held a messianic belief in Russia's Eurasian destiny as the civilization in between East and West (At the same time, to be clear, Solovyov in particular was in his later life a non-Western liberal, opposing forced "Russification" and discrimination against non-Russian minorities).

Revering and promoting these thinkers, President Putin seems to see himself as Vladimir the Restorer in the wake Russia's post-Cold War humiliation, which he has called the "greatest catastrophe" of Russian history.

No doubt, Ivan Ilyin articulated the historic task Putin sees himself fulfilling: "We trust and are confident that the hour will come when Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness," Ilyin wrote.

WESTERN DARLINGS: SOLZHENITSYN AND GORBACHEV

Putin's sense of contamination and humiliation might be seen by Westerners as the paranoia of an out of touch autocrat if they weren't shared by two of the West's Cold War darlings -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Solzhenitsyn returned from exile to live in Russia during the dissolute presidency of Boris Yeltsin, when Russia, at its weakest, was invited to join the G-8 as an invitation to integrate into the world.

Back in Russia, Solzhenitsyn quickly came to see the liberal freedoms and permissiveness of the Yeltsin era and the invading commercialism of capitalist shock therapy as a catastrophe of the Russian essence. At the time, he actually said, "Gorbachev's glasnost has ruined everything."

Gorbachev himself turned bitter against the West for what he considered its betrayal and its "victory complex." When I interviewed him in Moscow in 2005 on the 20th anniversary of his reforms, here is what he said:

Americans have treated us without proper respect. Russia is a serious partner. We are a country with a tremendous history, with diplomatic experience. It is an educated country that has contributed much to science.

The Soviet Union used to be not just an adversary but also a partner of the West. There was some balance in that system. Even though the U.S. and Europe signed a charter for a new Europe, the Charter of Paris, to demonstrate that a new world was possible, that charter was ignored and political gains were pursued to take advantage of the vacuum. The struggle for spheres of influence -- contrary to the new thinking we propounded -- was resumed by the U.S. The first result was the crisis in Yugoslavia in which NATO was brought in to gain advantage over Russia.

We were ready to build a new security architecture for Europe. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact, NATO forgot all its promises. It became more of a political than a military organization. NATO decided it would be an organization that intervenes anywhere on "humanitarian grounds." We have by now seen intervention not only in Yugoslavia, but in Iraq -- intervention without any mandate or permission from the United Nations.

So much for the new thinking of 20 years ago the West so eagerly embraced when I announced it.

The same sentiment expressed by Putin and Gorbachev is also readily evident in Chinese President Xi Jinping's worldview. He publicly invokes Confucian ideas and sees his main historic task as presiding over a "Chinese Renaissance."

In a conversation in Beijing last November with other members of the Berggruen Institute's 21st Century Council, he spent the first 10 minutes recalling the greatness of China's 5000 years of continuous civilization and his pride at overcoming the humiliation of Western imperialism going back to the Opium War 170 years ago.

THE G-8 AND INTERDEPENDENCE

From this passionate perspective of Russian restoration, one might think that the threat to kick Russia out of the G-8 would actually be welcomed by Putin. Indeed, he shrugged his shoulders dismissively when asked about expulsion in his recent press conference. And the head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, rightly noted that the G-8 has been supplanted in any case by the G-20, and what matters as much these days is what China and India will do, not just Europe and the U.S.

Yet, like Xi Jinping, Putin at the same time seems to understand that there are limits to identity geopolitics in an interdependent world. In response to a question in his press conference about how Russia would react to sanctions imposed by the West over his military moves in the Ukraine and Crimea, he said:

Those who are thinking of imposing sanctions should be the ones first of all to think about their consequences. . . in the modern world, when everything is so interconnected and everyone depends on everyone else in one way or another, it's of course possible to do some damage to one another, but it will be mutual damage.

A COSMOPOLITAN IDEAL VS. IDENTITY GEOPOLITICS

What the emerging conflicts from the East China Sea to Crimea suggest is that we need to find a new hybrid path in an interdependent world that does not erase plural identities, but erases those borders that exclude instead of embrace, that enclose instead of open out.

The revived yearning for national purity enshrined in the "organic community" of an imagined past is the real danger to peace and prosperity today. If, in reaction to the "contaminations" of globalization, group or ethnic rights are asserted against others -- within or without borders -- the clash of civilizations can indeed lead to outright violent conflict.

In dreaming of a united Europe after two disastrous wars in one century, Francois Mitterrand, a former French president, put it bluntly: "Nationalism means war." Pierre Trudeau, Canada's legendary prime minister, understood this as well:

Nationalists, whether of the right or the left, are politically reactionary because they are led to define the common good as a function of an ethnic group or religious ideal rather than in terms of 'all the people' regardless of individual characteristics. This is why nationalistic government is by nature intolerant, discriminatory and, when all is said and done, totalitarian.

The alternative, as the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak writes elsewhere in The WorldPost, is a "new cosmopolitanism" that is the antidote to the perilous momentum of xenophobia and nationalism building up around the planet.

"Instead of reducing ourselves to the binary opposition of identity politics, we need to do the exact opposite: multiply our attachments and affiliations, " Shafak writes.

I am an Istanbulite and there is a part of me that is from the Aegean and the Middle East and Asia and the Balkans and East Europe and Europe and from nowhere and a global soul. The more definitions linked to the individual, the bigger the chance of my selfhood to overlap with someone else's selfhood. Overlapping selfhoods bring people closer and reduce tension, hatred and chauvinism. It is harder to hate another person when we believe we have much in common.

The tempered hope for the future is that we can avoid disintegration and violent conflict as humiliations are overcome and identities revived in this initial phase of the post-American world order. Then a more balanced interdependence of plural identities that balances the global and the local, bolstered by rules-based institutions and a hybrid culture of the global citizen, might be possible.

There is no guarantee, however, that 2014 is not 1914 all over again, and we will all go back to square one.