A common gene connects the dominant systems of the past; they were mostly dictatorships. Rarely could a major power be rated, by the standards of its time, as free. Applying that criterion, Athens comes to mind. The Netherlands and Britain are on the short list. It is ends with the United States.
Another link, where personal freedom and state power are connected, is a bit of natural isolation, when its security bolstered by sea or, later, air power. That leads to a complementary component. It is access to a technology – a mighty navy – to multiply the quantitative weight of population and of territory. Know-how and capital to develop it did more than to bolster might. The multiplier reflected economic power attained through good governance, applied knowledge, and a climate to encourage innovation. Good government implied freedom and the emphasis on the autonomous individual that was enabled to act in his own behalf. To sum up: freedom “to” and freedom “from” were components of national might. Accordingly, the power of the country and the liberty of individuals were related.
As stated, the above condition rates as a historic rarity. Most imperial powers constructed their position by relying on a different amalgam. This is where the ongoing and the coming crisis involving Russia enters the picture.
Where in the context of backwardness the instinct to be a great power emerges, a reaction to the challenge must enter the picture. It is created by the condition of state and society. Progress and backwardness are manmade. Overcoming the latter is a valid goal. The frequent alternative is to detect in retarded development a pillar of stability that favors the ruler. The Habsburg Emperor that disliked railways in the 19th century because it would spread strange ideas is a suitable illustration.
Often, rulers that covet a great power status recognize that the backwardness and the immaturity that gives them power is a handicap once they fight, not against society, but confront other states. Modernization is the obvious response to this challenge. Since internal development and the pressures of international politics coincide, the response will be, as in the case of Prussia, selective development. The emphasis will be on areas with an immediate military utility. Since Peter the Great, with Lenin through Stalin, Russia’s modernization fits this pattern.
To pit the martial instruments coming from a weak economy against advanced competitors demands great sacrifices. The price of equality on the battlefield is, in relative terms, higher for the underdeveloped than for its advanced foe. Reagan understood this and used the insight effectively.
The dividend handed to a primitive society that fields an advanced military, is the glory that, as Putin put it, derives from membership in a nation with victory in its genes. Coercive instruments in reserve are needed to enforce the surrender of personal interests to collective splendor. This closes a circle that touches the mutually reinforcing points of backwardness, dictatorship and conquest. We take this to explain why dictatorship is not a “private” matter of a nation; domestic dictatorship and conquest abroad are supplementary. Except for small entities, an expansionist foreign policy and local autocracy are riveted to each other.
School teaches us that the oppressed hate tyranny. Indeed, even if some are detested, dictatorships can be popular. Hitler would have won an election had his system allowed it. Putin, a national, collectivist, racial and an expansionist adventurer (you are to find the analogy) sits on cushions that swell through aggression. The lesson: as the state that produces collective pride grows stronger, the thereby impoverished people find gratification in a proud collective self.
Some of the above could indicate that, some dictatorships are, like mummies, cast for the future. Well, not quite. What we have said is that to legitimize them, dictatorships have to be successful on an upward leading spiral. The chimera of collective grandeur that compensates for sacrifice and denied liberty, demands ever more glory.
This contract with society; “you obey and we lead you to triumph” cannot be fulfilled on a continuum. For one thing, the potential foe will detect the pattern. That nudges it to rally its means. The change from Chamberlain to Churchill, or Truman’s post-Roosevelt awakening, illustrates the point. Such belated defiance limits the dictatorship’s forward march and that resistance ushers in a dangerous epoch.
Dictatorships who challenged the advanced world needed to compensate their developmental gap by imposing low living standards. This means poverty in peace and extensive losses, i.e. human wave attacks in war. Backwardness requires the sacrifice of people to compensate for the disadvantage. To do so, connecting backwardness, aggression and dictatorship, a system is required that can compel a submissive society to bear the burden.
In Russia’s case, an imbalance is defining. First, the system, demands continued success. Russia had been the first Great Power to be defeated in WWI because failure had delegitimized Nicholas, which led to his removal. Second, limited material means and the habit of expansion, demands a forced and excessive investment of resources into what is militarily relevant to match advanced competitors. This imbalance continues. Its future, the loss or gain, depends on another discrepancy. It is the weakness of the European Union and of a laggard USA.
Europe, “rich” and fat, presents, just by existing, an alternative to a system of economy of scarcity, and as such, it is a provocation. The EU generates wealth; nevertheless, it is, of its own volition, short on power. That weakness applies not only when compared with its foe, but also relative to its own potential. America is, albeit endowed with means and size. However due to misgovernment, a false sense of security, and her compulsive under reaction, she remains muscular but understated by her postponed actions.
The West is conditioned to misjudge the effect of crisis management through unconditional compromise upon its aggressive challengers. It likes to assess situations by placing them within the framework of its own system and its rationality, which are expressed in its way of life. In that light, compromise is a way to persuade a challenger that its assumed foes are moved by good will. In this context, yielding is a signal that the security of assertive systems is not endangered by differently structured entities. Such reassurance is expected to pacify the aggressor and to reassure it that its security is not threatened. From this psychotherapy by one-way concessions masked as diplomacy, it is expected that the result will be behavioral change. The outcome should be a peace based on self-assurance and acceptance.
This effort has a built-in way not only to disappoint, but also to damage those that try to buy peace by sacrificing others. What is a sincerely extended hand bearing a gift, confirms the contempt felt for the decadent. Giving way to an aggressive push is a smoke signal that is predestined to be misread. The forgiving accommodation of aggression convinces perpetrators that the other side is weak, and, what is worse, foolish. That illusion programs the next crisis and awakes the wolf’s instinct to provoke a no risk conflict with the sheep.
Allow the writer to conclude by adding a few words from a personal note sent to friends several days ago:
“In the Crimea, Putin has taken, by relying on improper means, what was not his. Then, to the horror of those scheduled for slaughter later, he reached out violently for another goal. By repeating his tactics in the east of the Ukraine, he scared the West.
Then Moscow responded graciously to the invitation of the world that dreads to provoke an impostor. Thus, Russia attended a summit in Geneva. There, the right to intervene was reaffirmed. The Kremlin claims to be free to act in case its forces, camouflaged as local thugs, are opposed.
On that basis, a deal was made.
Putin promised to abstain from taking more of what was not his in exchange for a title to what he stole in the Crimea. That was amended by the right to intervene to settle new conflicts he might ignite. What he gets in an “I win, or you lose” arrangement is symbolic chastisement. The sanctions will be lifted at the first opportunity.”