Law of the Strong

Every imperial power needs a storyline that successfully perverts the historical record

How curious that those who live by the adage “might makes right” are often so unwilling to say so. In fact, they go to great lengths to say the opposite—that they are abiding by international norms of civility and decency. The Crimean situation provides another stellar example; U.S. power never tires of furnishing the history books with ever fresher case studies in unwarranted aggression. Despite the uncovered and too predictable role of U.S. cash and employs, we find former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issuing proclamations on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s astonishing criminality in accepting Crimea back into Russia or, if you prefer, as the New York Times put it, his “lightening annexation” of the former Soviet territory. Perhaps tired of repeating the same farcical bromides to blank-faced media zombies, Clinton finally declared that although neither she—nor any right-thinking peoples—wants another Cold War, that fate is “up to Putin.” Clinton’s fear-mongering is rushed into print by our lapdog media, which hastily confects a couple of cookie-cutter op-eds designed to bring John Le Carre fans bolting out of their armchairs. This week’s freshet of fantasy invective included a piece of notable hand wringing in the Wall Street Journal on the rapidly fading strength of NATO and another model of histrionic chest-thumping in The Times, begging the West to “Stand Up to Russia Now” with a series of provocative moves that would certainly reboot Cold War antagonism, but before the irredentist Russian bear achieves “absolute hegemony” in the region. It’s enough to make the average reader assume the apocalypse is nigh. With repeated calls for this kind of myopic posturing, it may well be.

Shift the scene slightly (although never leaving the confines of the blinkered beltway) to the rollicking burlesque of the House of Representatives and you’ll find House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers’ theatrical references to Russia’s “brutality and expansionism” while waxing nonsensical on his particular obsession—the likelihood of world-historical snitch Edward Snowden being a Russian spy, most certainly under the direction of the Kremlin.

But this is standard fare, although Russian scaremongering has been largely decommissioned since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But these scripts can be hastily reproduced, as recent weeks have shown. The general storyline is and has always been to characterize Russia as violent imperial hegemon wielding nukes in one hand and a tattered copy of international law in the other. As usual, reality is very nearly the opposite of what the White House says.

President Obama ostensibly lectured Mr. Putin, and presumably the world, on the value of international legal frameworks, etc. (Given Obama’s soaring credibility, this was about impactful as his rambling oral history of surveillance.) Had only Putin responded with a “speck and plank” parable. Alas, he did point out that the “West” abides only by the “law of the strong” by which it pursues its own savage hegemony. Putin also noted the exceptionalism that seems to form the basis of America’s moral blindness. Of course, the sense of exceptionalism might be said to follow directly from might; the concepts are probably interdependent, although a heavy dose of “chosen people” claptrap might free the presumption of the former from the actuality of the latter.

Likewise, a political science professor from Barnard College was thumping the bully pulpit on NPR’s popular Fresh Air program this week. Again the narrative was a risible hash of the facts. Barnard’s Kimberly Marten characterized Putin a rising threat: “The leader of a state that wields a massive strategic nuclear arsenal, controls a significant portion of the world’s petroleum and other raw materials, and holds a veto in the U.N. Security Council, has just revealed his willingness to use force on behalf of ethnic nationalism. This was the nightmare that Western policymakers hoped to avoid when the Soviet Union collapsed.” Marten also noted that, “There’s no question he’s stirring it up,” meaning ethnic strife. She fails to mention, as her kind always do, the context. That America certainly “stirred it up” by funneling billions of dollars into Kiev, backing far-right elements such as the Ukrainian Svoboda party. A recent European Parliament report highlighted the party’s xenophobia and racist proclivities. (Note their leader Oleh Tyahnybok claiming that “organized Jewry” controlled Ukrainian government.) It was the U.S.-backed putsch by these Nazi sympathizers that led to the Crimean vote to secede and join the Russian federation. The motif of an expansionist Russian threat can only be adequately sustained out of context—by removing both the contemporary chronology of events, but also historical regional dynamics.

The West’s Original Backyard

In fact, history reflects the accuracy of Putin’s words. Noam Chomsky has written—along with numerous historians—on the idea that the North-South dynamic in global economics, with the North using the South as its raw materials depot, was modeled on the traditional East-West model, in which Eastern European countries were supposed to serve as the natural resources hub of Western enterprise. Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia has thornily defied this objective. Hence the post-revolutionary interventions from the West, the Cold War and the West’s repeated rejection of Russian efforts to thaw military buildups, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev.

Once the Berlin Wall fell, the world got a taste of what the West had in mind for the East. Numerous former Soviet satellite republics were integrated into the Western economic system, set on a path to deindustrialization, debt, and collapsing standards of living, while protectionist measures were eviscerated, even as they were strengthened in the western countries. The threat of competition was muted, the raw materials grab stepped up. The Russian people, too, saw much of their national wealth fall into the hands of a handful of “oligarchs,” the Jamie Dimons of yesteryear. Men like Boris Berezovsky guided former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the privatization of state assets—essentially handing over public resources to private interests, the better to loot the nation’s wealth. (It was Berezovsky who once said, “Privatization in Russia goes through three stages. The first stage is privatization of profits. The second is privatization of property. The third is privatization of debt.”)

External to Russia, since glasnost and against the promises of George H.W. Bush that NATO had no interest in moving an “inch” in easterly directions, nearly all of the Eastern European nations freed from Soviet dominion have been rapidly shuffled inside NATO. The Ukraine is just the latest effort in that long-term strategy of building hyper-threats all along Russia’s western borders. The U.S. use of fascists as agents provocateurs to unsettle and overthrow popular governments surely called to mind the Nazi attacks of the Second World War, which bled the Soviet Union of millions of men.

Yet despite their history of being attacked by fascist regimes as well as Western democratic nations, President Obama and Secretary Clinton expect Russia to stand aside and permit a neo-Nazi putsch in Kiev that seems to have the obvious objectives of a) bringing Ukraine into NATO and positioning ABMs on the Russian border; b) introducing IMF prescriptions to plunder and loot the Ukrainian economy; and c) eject the Russian Black Sea fleet from its post in Sevastopol. Given the historical record of anti-Russian aggression, not to mention criminal activities in Libya, Venezuela, Honduras, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, American hypocrisy is, as they say, “breathtaking.” But then, it seems that for a healthy majority of the world’s population—at least outside America—to say so is simply to rehearse common knowledge.

A Hesitancy to Embrace the Narrative

I hesitate to characterize Obama’s statements on Wednesday as a positive development, but the President said at the The Hague that Russia was simply a “regional power” that had acted in Crimea “not out of strength, but out of weakness.” The President at once insulted his rival and handed himself a suitable pretext for doing nothing about the annexation of Crimea, aside from a smattering of ineffectual sanctions. With two years left in the Oval Office, Obama clearly has little appetite for an open-ended proxy war with Russia that could bleed into the next decade, much like the Iraq War, his criticisms of which help launch Obama into the presidency.

Aside from Obama’s legacy considerations, terrorism may be experiencing a resurgence. American interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere has helped reinvigorate Al-Qaeda as myriad rag-tag militias and rebel groups begin to blend together, perhaps the incipient stages of a global jihad. Successive administrations have created a self-fulfilling prophecy, generating monsters where there were few, and hatred were there was once indifference.

Seemingly in an effort to recapture the chilling note of 9/11, the President added that his far greater fear was a “nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” This was likely an attempt to shift the media focus away from Eastern Europe, with its Cold War dynamics, and back to the vaguer and thus more manipulable war on terror. Secondly, though, Obama’s was simply rehearsing the same scare tactic George W. Bush had absurdly invoked with his “mushroom cloud” imagery.

The last person that needs to paint dire pictures of the apocalypse is Obama. Yet neoconservative elements within the administration may still convince him that resuscitating the Soviet poltergeist may be a necessary step if the terror narrative becomes increasingly threadbare from overuse. In terms of its appeal as a technique used to disquiet a population and surface latent societal anxieties—and in so doing enable the closure of civil liberties and intellectual resistance—the “Red Scare” has a long, sordid but eminently useful track record. Perhaps Obama is this very minute weighing the two narratives in the balance alongside his imperial storytellers. In either case, the tale told will prove some distance removed from reality.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at Read other articles by Jason.