Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Misremembering Reagan's Willingness to Meet With Soviet Leaders

During last Friday's debate McCain invoked Reagan when arguing for the necessity of setting pre-conditions before meeting with Iran.  This led Brad Delong to point to an article in Pravda from 1982 in which Brezhnev declined an offer by Reagan to meet informally, which Matt Yglesias picked up on his blog. The discussion in the comments to the latter's post got me thinking about how the American right has allowed Reagan's aggressive rhetoric to overshadowed the reality of his diplomacy, and how this has led to the neo-con right's absolutist stand regarding negotiations with Iran and other states that have been longstanding security threats.

Brezhnev's refusal has been a boon for American right's view of Reagan because it meant that Reagan ended up not meeting with a Soviet leader until the Geneva summit with Gorbachev in November of 1985.  Yet, the reality is that far from shaping events through steadfastness Reagan was a hostage to the poor health and age of the CPSU politburo leadership.  Meanwhile, Gorbachev's association with glasnost and perestroika has been used as an ex-post facto justification for Reagan's readiness to meet with Gorbachev.   Yet contrary to how the neo-cons construe it, when Reagan initially invited Gorbachev to come to Washington in March 1985 and ultimately met with the Soviet leader in Geneva that November, Reagan was not rewarding Gorbachev.   While Gorbachev had already introduced the terms glasnost and perestroika as necessary for reform in speeches, there was little sign in his first year in office that apart from curbing alcohol consumption his reformist talk was more than window dressing.  Thus, were the neo-cons to apply the standard they do to talk with our current enemies to the Geneva summit, they would be bitterly disappointed.  If anything Reagan's willingness to meet Gorbachev, as well as the latter's readiness not to over react to Reagan's harsher anti-Soviet rhetoric intended for domestic consumption, seems to back up the view that even when the results are not certain diplomacy is worth the risk.  

(Blogger's note:  This entry had its origins in a comment made to the post at Matt Yglesias's blog linked to above.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lessons from a Republic in Decline

As America's founding fathers were holed up in Philadelphia working on forging a more perfect union one of their greatest anxieties was the poor record of republics from enduring over time. In fact at that very time, what had been the largest republic in history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was in its death throes after coming into existence in 1569 just over two centuries earlier.

Most Americans know little about the Commonwealth and its collapse beyond the fact that it ceased to exist at the end of the 1700s -- if they know that.   That negligence can in large measure be explained by wise decisions the founding fathers made based on their observation of why earlier republics had failed.  Thus, they made a strong executive -- something the Commonwealth lacked, and created the checks and balances system.  In  addition they insured the basis for a strong military explicitly under civilian command, even if the army of the early American republic was miniscule.  Thanks to such forethought our republic has endured. Nonetheless as proud citizens of a republic it behooves us to pay attention to how republics go into decline, so that we avoid this fate.

I first started thinking about the relevance of the Commonwealth's decline during the 1990s when it struck me that the culture wars and increased partisanship seemed to reflect an alarming complacency about the resilience of the Republic based on the notion that we had the greatest military and were the only remaining superpower.  It reminded me all too much of the complacency that followed after the Commonwealth survived a series crises (including a civil war and foreign invasions) in the middle of the seventeenth century.  True, the situation in the Commonwealth was not quite the same.  It did not come through those wars unscathed -- it lost all its longstanding claim to territory east of the Dnipro River -- something that ought to have provoked some serious soul searching about the need for structural reforms to strengthen the executive.  Instead, the Commonwealth's nobles, who ran the Republic, retreated into Catholic orthodoxy and a cult of Polish noble exceptionalism, which included a blatant disregard for towns' and the enserfed peasants'  role in the importance of the Commonwealth's economy.  

Today thank goodness anxiety about the health of our Republic is a regular part of political discourse again, although sadly it has taken the excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration to bring that about.  But we are not out of the woods yet by any means.  Although I take great heart that neither a Clinton nor a Bush is on the ticket in this years presidential race, the selection of Ms. Palin as McCain's running mate has reminded me of another aspect of the Commonwealth's decline: the readiness of many nobles to put personal ambition above the national interest. 

Once again the analogy is far from exact.  At the heart of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth political difficulties lay two factors that have no clear parallels in our America.  The first is the constitutional requirement in the Commonwealth that the Sejm reach consensus for the decisions of that session to become legally binding, which gave birth to the so-called liberum veto, which allowed a single noble at the Sejm to block any decisions being reached even if they merely objected to one item.   The second was the curious combination of huge socio-economic differences and the rhetorical insistence on the equality of all nobles that made it possible for a magnate to lift up the status of impoverished nobles, who did not meet the official qualifications for full noble status, so that they could take part in a session of the Sejm by gifting them possession of a few villages in exchange for obstructing its proceedings by exercising the liberum veto.  

The Polish Enlightenment figure and ally of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, depicted just such an instance in one of his poems, parodying the impoverished noble's short-sightedness and his delight in suddenly being a player who could disrupt the Sejm because it was his constitutional privilege to be able to do so.  This poem recently came to mind as I thought about Sarah Palin's rapid political ascent.  To be sure, unlike the impoverished noble Niemcewicz described, Sarah Palin has become a political player through her own efforts.  Still, McCain's decision to invite her to join his ticket and her ready acceptance strike me as very much akin to the self-serving bargain between a magnate and a petty noble described above.  

It is painfully clear that despite McCain's chosen slogan "Country First" he picked Palin for short-term political advantages her feisty social conservatism would bring to his flagging campaign just as Polish Magnates used the liberum veto for their own self interest rather than that of the Cmmonwealth as a whole. Similarly, Palin's apparent immediate acceptance of the offer and confidence of her ability to fulfill the duties of the Vice-President reminds me of the petty noble Niemcewicz parodied.   Like him, there can be no denying that Palin meets the legal qualifications to be Vice-President.  Yet, it is also clear that she accepted the role as VP candidate because it appealed to her vanity as a rising star in the Republican party, rather than through a sober consideration of whether her present qualifications are a sufficient basis to take over that post, let alone the presidency, a fact now implicitly acknowledged by leading Conservative intellectuals.   

It is most probable that our Republic will survive should a McCain-Palin administration thanks in no small measure to our founding fathers' foresight, at least in name.  Perhaps conservatives are right that once seasoned Palin will be a competent leader.  Yet, our republic,  in its current constitutional form, is now over 200 years old.   As the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth illustrates proud as such an achievement may seem it is a dicey position for a Republic to be in.  Our success makes it easy to think republic will be here for eternity, and at the same time our connection to the times which forged the our republic is so tenuous that we no longer necessarily appreciate the priorities and anxieties that caused our founding fathers to think as they did.    


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why Did Georgia Attack South Ossetia?

Two weeks ago,  in my first substantive entry, I suggested that the only way to understand why Georgia had risked going to war was if Russia had deceitfully led Georgia to believe that Russia was prepared to let Georgia regain control of South Ossetia.  

 Today the New York Times reports that Georgia is making a case of provocation almost entirely opposite to the scenario I speculated about.  The articles states that over the past week Georgia has been informing allies about intercepted Russian phone conversations that suggest Russian troops had actually moved into South Ossetian territory before Georgia went on the offensive.  The Russians, not surprisingly deny this.

I have no idea about who is telling the truth here, and it is fine with me if my own rampant speculation is eventually proven false, but I'm not yet ready to concede I was wrong either.  At this point I would like to know why Georgia found these troop movements so troubling.  From what these documents purport, however, I think  that even if entirely genuine they will not exculpate Georgia as much as Saaskashvili would like.  It still seems implausibly rash for Georgia to react to just the reported Russian troop movements into South Ossetia by attacking South Ossetia, unless there was something else that made retaking South Ossetia a real likelihood.  Admitting to rashness, however, will not win many converts to Georgia's speedy accession to NATO, so it will be some time evidence crops up that definitively proves Georgia's leaders acted rashly either out of fear or because they believed false intelligence.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Remembering the Polish Strikes that Ended Communism

The end of August saw the 28th anniversary of the accords setting up Solidarity and ending 1980 strikes at the shipyards in Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin.  It also marked the 20th anniversary of the last wave of strikes before the leadership of the Polish United Workers Party moved to initiate roundtable talks with the Solidarity opposition.  The 1988 strikes have always been overshadowed by the events of 1980-81 and the end phase of Communist rule in early 1989.  Yet without those strikes the end of Communism in Eastern Europe might not have had a model for the orderly transfer of power from Communism to democratic opposition, which made the revolutions of 1989 so successful and peaceful.  

Nonetheless, incorporating the 1988 strikes into the official narrative of the transition from Communist rule to democracy in Poland has proven difficult.  According to Gazeta Wyborcza while over 2000 people are known to have participated in the 1988 strikes, only 41 people were recommended for presidential recognition for their efforts.  President Kaczynski, however, only ended up honoring 17 (of which only 3 were on the list of known 1988 strikers). It is unclear why the president was so stingy about recognizing he veterans of the 1988 strikes, although the 1988 strikers did not have the same kind of organizational backing as the 1980 strikers.  In fact the old Solidarity leadership was nearly as surprised by the strikes as the government, and had little direct influence on the 1988 strikers.

Having experienced the events of 1980-81, the 1988 strikers were radicalized, and ready to challenge authority in ways the Solidarity leadership of 1980-81 would not have done.  Realizing that the government began to reach out to the established solidarity leadership rather than risk dealing with more uncompromising 1988 strikers, and the solidarity leadership reciprocated.  That tactical decision has put the 1988 strikers in a state of limbo ever since.  Not only were they were unrepresented at the roundtable talks, they did not have a chance to develop as a cohesive group through the common experience of persecution.

Ironically, given the Kaczynski twins disenchantment with the roundtable compromises, one would think they would be eager to champion the radicalism of the 1988 strikers.  Yet, clearly they do not quite know what to do with a group that made their own decisions rather than deferring to the traditional Solidarity opposition. 

The Georgia Crisis and the Collapse of the Orange Coalition

If you don't follow Ukrainian politics, you may not be aware of the fact that the two heroes of the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Iulia Tymoshenko have long been bitter rivals, so much so that they have difficulty being in the same room with each other.  As such, with presidential elections looming next year and both planning to run, it was only a matter of time before the current coalition fell victim to political maneuvering.  That finally happened this week when ministers from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine/National Self- Defense bloc walked out of a cabinet meeting.  Of course they were not unprovoked, when parliament began its new session Iulia Tymoshenko's Bloc joined with the Party of Regions headed by the Orange Revolution's nemesis Viktor Yanukovych and the Communists in voting to limit the president's powers.

Had that sequence of events not killed the coalition the two blocs would soon have contrived to find another way to formalize their divorce.  Yet coming when it did, the end of the coalition has been framed in terms relating to the crisis in Georgia and Ukraine's response to the crisis and anxieties about Russia's growing assertiveness.  Yushchenko, no doubt with an eye to Washington's response to the war in Georgia, adopted a belligerent stance urging Ukrainians to go to fight in Georgia as volunteers and threatening not to allow Russian navy ships that participated in the war to return to Sevastopol.  Tymoshenko did not, and Yushchenko is now accusing Tymoshenko of a engineering a rapprochement with President Medvedev.  

Sadly, the whole affair has once again demonstrated why Yushchenko has become one of the least popular figures in Ukraine, because it revealed how poor his strategic thinking is.  There was no way he could effectively enforce his threat to keep Russian ships out of Sevastapol, making Ukraine look weak --hardly what is necessary in the changing political climate Ukraine operates.  Tymoshenko and all Ukrainians must all live with the consequences, which in and of themeselves are not likely to prove pivotal in shaping Russian-Ukrainian relations in the long run.  Still, it is worth remembering that had Yushchenko recognized Ukraine's limited ability to affect the outcome in Georgia as Tymoshenko did Ukraine would not have looked weak unnecessarily.  All this does not bode well for the once popular president's reelection prospects next year.