Where Does American Democracy Go From Here?

  • Where Does American Democracy Go From Here? New York Times (behind paywall), March 17, 2022

    Freedom House: The United States had slid down its ranking of countries by political rights and civil liberties — it is now 59th on Freedom House’s list, slightly below Argentina and Mongolia.

    Mason: The word “identity” keeps coming up, and this is a really crucial part of it. And remember that we have research about intergroup conflict, right? Don’t look at this as, like, a logical disagreement situation. We’re not disagreeing on what kind of tax structure we should have. We’re not just disagreeing about the role of the federal government in American society. What we’re disagreeing about is increasingly the basic status differences between groups of people that have existed in America for a very long time. One of the things that Nathan Kalmoe and I found in our forthcoming book is that if you look at Democrats and Republicans who really, really hate each other and call each other evil and say the other party is a threat to the United States, the best predictor of that is how they think about the traditional social hierarchy. (read more) (behind paywall)

American “Progress” and Putin’s Mysticism

  • American “Progress” and Putin’s Mysticism

    Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Timothy Snyder

    “…So by the politics of inevitability, I mean the notion that sometimes goes under the heading of progress. I mean the idea that some kind of outside force is going to guarantee that the things that we desire and wish for are actually going to come about. And if that seems abstract, then what I mean in particular with reference to the United States after the end of communism in 1989 is the notion that there are no alternatives left in the world.

    To quote Margaret Thatcher or to quote Frances Fukuyama, history is over. And it’s inevitable that a larger force, namely capitalism, is going to bring about the thing that we desire, namely, democracy and freedom. And that idea was in the air. That idea shaped everything else. And I think that idea has a lot to do with the crisis of democracy and freedom that we’re in right now.”


This Is Putin’s War. But America and NATO Aren’t Innocent Bystanders.

By Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2022.

When a major conflict like Ukraine breaks out, journalists always ask themselves: “Where should I station myself?” Kyiv? Moscow? Munich? Washington? In this case, my answer is none of these. The only place to be for understanding this war is inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head. Putin is the most powerful, unchecked Russian leader since Stalin, and the timing of this war is a product of his ambitions, strategies and grievances.

But, with all of that said, America is not entirely innocent of fueling his fires.

How so? Putin views Ukraine’s ambition to leave his sphere of influence as both a strategic loss and a personal and national humiliation. In his speech on Monday, Putin literally said Ukraine has no claim to independence, but is instead an integral part of Russia — its people are “connected with us by blood, family ties.” Which is why Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine’s freely elected government feels like the geopolitical equivalent of an honor killing.

Putin is basically saying to Ukrainians (more of whom want to join the European Union than NATO): “You fell in love with the wrong guy. You will not run off with either NATO or the E.U. And if I have to club your government to death and drag you back home, I will.”

This is ugly, visceral stuff. Nevertheless, there is a back story here that is relevant. Putin’s attachment to Ukraine is not just mystical nationalism.

In my view, there are two huge logs fueling this fire. The first log was the ill-considered decision by the U.S. in the 1990s to expand NATO after — indeed, despite — the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And the second and far bigger log is how Putin cynically exploited NATO’s expansion closer to Russia’s borders to rally Russians to his side to cover for his huge failure of leadership. Putin has utterly failed to build Russia into an economic model that would actually attract its neighbors, not repel them, and inspire its most talented people to want to stay, not get in line for visas to the West.

We need to look at both of these logs. Most Americans paid scant attention to the expansion of NATO in the late 1990s and early 2000s to countries in Eastern and Central Europe like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all of which had been part of the former Soviet Union or its sphere of influence. It was no mystery why these nations would want to be part of an alliance that obligated the U.S. to come to their defense in the event of an attack by Russia, the rump successor to the Soviet Union.

The mystery was why the U.S. — which throughout the Cold War dreamed that Russia might one day have a democratic revolution and a leader who, however haltingly, would try to make Russia into a democracy and join the West — would choose to quickly push NATO into Russia’s face when it was weak.

A very small group of officials and policy wonks at that time, myself included, asked that same question, but we were drowned out.

The most important, and sole, voice at the top of the Clinton administration asking that question was none other than the defense secretary, Bill Perry. Recalling that moment years later, Perry in 2016 told a conference of The Guardian newspaper:

“In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.

“At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy … but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”

On May 2, 1998, immediately after the Senate ratified NATO expansion, I called George Kennan, the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union. Having joined the State Department in 1926 and served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1952, Kennan was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia. Though 94 at the time and frail of voice, he was sharp of mind when I asked for his opinion of NATO expansion.

I am going to share Kennan’s whole answer:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.

“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.

“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”

It’s EXACTLY what has happened.

To be sure, post-Cold War Russia evolving into a liberal system — the way post-World War II Germany and Japan did — was hardly a sure thing. Indeed, given Russia’s scant experience with democracy, it was a long shot. But some of us then thought it was a long shot worth trying, because even a less-than-democratic Russia — if it had been included rather than excluded from a new European security order — might have had much less interest or incentive in menacing its neighbors.

Of course, none of this justifies Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine. During Putin’s first two terms as president — from 2000 to 2008 — he occasionally grumbled about NATO expansion but did little more. Oil prices were high then, as was Putin’s domestic popularity, because he was presiding over the soaring growth of Russian personal incomes after a decade of painful restructuring and impoverishment following the collapse of communism.

But across the last decade, as Russia’s economy stagnated, Putin either had to go for deeper economic reforms, which might have weakened his top-down control, or double down on his corrupt crony capitalist kleptocracy. He chose the latter, explained Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life,” who is now writing a book about the future of Putin’s Russia. And to both cover and distract from that choice, Putin shifted the basis of his popularity from “being the distributor of Russia’s newfound wealth and an economic reformer to the defender of the motherland,” Aron said.

And right when Putin opted for domestic political reasons to become a nationalist avenger and a permanent “wartime president,” as Aron put it, what was waiting there for him to grasp onto was the most emotive threat to rally the Russian people behind him: “The low-hanging fruit of NATO expansion.”

And he has dined out on it ever since, even though he knows that NATO has no plans to expand to include Ukraine.

Countries and leaders usually react to humiliation in one of two ways — aggression or introspection. After China experienced what it called a “century of humiliation” from the West, it responded under Deng Xiaoping by essentially saying: “We’ll show you. We’ll beat you at your own game.”

When Putin felt humiliated by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO, he responded: “I’ll show you. I’ll beat up Ukraine.”

Yes, it’s all more complicated than that, but my point is this: This is Putin’s war. He’s a bad leader for Russia and its neighbors. But America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders in his evolution.

Vladimir Putin’s Clash of Civilizations

Vladimir Putin’s Clash of Civilizations, Ross Douthat, The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2022.

“…In this vision the future is neither liberal world-empire nor a renewed Cold War between competing universalisms. Rather it’s a world divided into some version of what Bruno Maçães has called “civilization-states,” culturally-cohesive great powers that aspire, not to world domination, but to become universes unto themselves — each, perhaps, under its own nuclear umbrella.

This idea, redolent of Samuel P. Huntington’s arguments in “The Clash of Civilizations” a generation ago, clearly influences many of the world’s rising powers — from the Hindutva ideology of India’s Narendra Modi to the turn against cultural exchange and Western influence in Xi Jinping’s China. Maçães himself hopes a version of civilizationism will reanimate Europe,…” (read more)

Ukraine-Russia crisis: What is the Minsk agreement?

France’s Macron says the 2015 ceasefire deal between Kyiv and Moscow offers a ‘path’ to peace.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pointed to the 2015 Minsk Agreement between Kyiv and Moscow as the blueprint for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.

Following talks with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, Macron said on Tuesday that the Minsk II agreement – which was aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine – is the “only path on which peace can be built”.

But the deal, named after the Belarusian capital where it was settled, was never fully implemented.

It came on the back of Minsk I, an earlier failed attempt at a ceasefire agreement.

Brokered by France and Germany, Minsk II again sought to halt the conflict that began when Russia-backed separatists seized swaths of territory following Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

But years on, there has been no full political settlement and deadly fighting between Ukraine and the rebels continues.

Here’s what you need to know:

What are the Minsk agreements?

Minsk I

Ukraine and the Russia-backed separatists agreed on a 12-point ceasefire deal in September 2014.

Its provisions included prisoner exchanges, deliveries of humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. However, the agreement quickly broke down, with violations by both sides.

Minsk II

Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of separatist-held regions Donetsk and Luhansk signed a 13-point agreement in February 2015.

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine gathered in Minsk to mark the occasion and issued a declaration of support.

The deal’s 13 points were:

  • Immediate, comprehensive ceasefire.
  • Withdrawal of heavy weapons by both sides.
  • OSCE monitoring.
  • Dialogue on interim self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk, in accordance with Ukrainian law, and acknowledgement of special status by parliament.
  • Pardon, amnesty for fighters.
  • Exchange of hostages, prisoners.
  • Humanitarian assistance.
  • Resumption of socioeconomic ties, including pensions.
  • Ukraine to restore control of state border.
  • Withdrawal of foreign armed formations, military equipment, mercenaries.
  • Constitutional reform in Ukraine including decentralisation, with specific mention of Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • Elections in Donetsk and Luhansk.
  • Intensify Trilateral Contact Group’s work including representatives of Russia, Ukraine and OSCE.

Why has the 2015 agreement failed to end fighting in eastern Ukraine?

The Minsk II deal set out military and political steps that remain unimplemented.

A major blockage has been Russia’s insistence that it is not a party to the conflict and therefore is not bound by its terms.

In general, Moscow and Kyiv interpret the pact very differently, leading to what has been dubbed by some observers as the “Minsk conundrum”.

What is the ‘Minsk conundrum’?

Ukraine sees the 2015 agreement as an instrument to re-establish control over the rebel territories.

It wants a ceasefire, control of the Russia-Ukraine border, elections in the Donbas, and a limited devolution of power to the separatists – in that order.

Russia views the deal as obliging Ukraine to grant rebel authorities in Donbas comprehensive autonomy and representation in the central government, effectively giving Moscow the power to veto Kyiv’s foreign policy choices.

Only then would Russia return the Russia-Ukraine border to Kyiv’s control.

Why is the agreement in focus now, and how might it help resolve the crisis?

The Minsk II deal offers a vehicle for direct talks between Ukraine and Russia and, due to France’s mediating role in the agreement, provides Macron with the opportunity to play the peacemaker on the world stage as he gears up for re-election at home.

Moscow may see Minsk II as a way to guarantee its central security demand – that Ukraine is never allowed to join NATO. Washington and NATO have already rejected that demand.

For ex-Soviet state Ukraine, the deal could present an opportunity to wrest back control of its border with Russia and end the threat of Moscow ordering another invasion, at least for now.

Kyiv says it will never allow Russia to have a de facto veto on Ukrainian foreign policy decisions, and many in Ukraine see the fulfilment of Minsk II as a concession to Russian aggression. But there may be room for compromise – all parties have expressed willingness for dialogue.

What might happen next?

Macron said on Tuesday that envoys from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet in Berlin for so-called “Normandy Format” talks on Thursday, two weeks after a previous round in Paris.

That meeting marked the first in-person gathering of political advisers from the four countries which were involved in the Minsk II accord for more than two years.

Separately, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is set to hold a discussion next week on the implementation of the peace deal. The February 17 meeting will become the latest in a string of regularly scheduled UNSC talks on the agreement, which was endorsed by the council in 2015.

Some of Putin’s Darkest Fears

On the Edge of a Polish Forest, Where Some of Putin’s Darkest Fears Lurk
A U.S. missile facility in Poland is at the heart of an issue animating the Kremlin’s calculations over whether to go to war against Ukraine.

The New York Times
Andrew Higgins
By Andrew Higgins
Feb. 16, 2022

REDZIKOWO, Poland — Tomasz Czescik, a Polish archaeologist and television journalist, walks his dog each morning through a forest near his home here on NATO’s eastern flank, wandering along the edge of a green chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

He enjoys the fresh air and morning quiet — until loudspeakers on the other side of the fence, strung with “Keep Out” signs in Polish, English, German and Russian, start blasting “The Star -Spangled Banner” at high volume.

“I don’t know anyone who has ever been inside there,” Mr. Czescik said, pointing across the fence toward a cluster of haze-shrouded buildings in the distance.

The fence is the outer perimeter, guarded by Polish soldiers, of a highly sensitive U.S. military installation, expected to be operational this year, which Washington insists will help defend Europe and the United States from ballistic missiles fired by rogue states like Iran.

But for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the military base in Poland, and another in Romania, are evidence of what he sees as the threat posed by NATO’s eastward expansion — and part of his justification for his military encirclement of Ukraine. The Pentagon describes the two sites as defensive and unrelated to Russia, but the Kremlin believes they could be used to shoot down Russian rockets or to fire offensive cruise missiles at Moscow.

On Wednesday, Russia announced further troop withdrawals and Ukraine signaled a willingness to forgo its ambitions to join NATO, a critical issue in the current conflict with Moscow. But tensions ratcheted up later in the day when a U.S. official said that Russian claims about a reduced troop presence were “false” and that there was fresh evidence Moscow was “mobilizing for war.”

As he threatens Ukraine, Mr. Putin has demanded that NATO reduce its military footprint in Eastern and Central Europe — which Washington and European leaders have flatly refused to do. Mr. Putin has been fuming about American missiles near Russia’s border since the Romanian site went into operation in 2016, but the Polish facility, located near the village of Redzikowo, is only about 100 miles from Russian territory and barely 800 miles from Moscow itself.

“Are we deploying missiles near the U.S. border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing at our doorstep,” Mr. Putin said in December at his annual news conference.

The Polish base, the heart of which is a system known as Aegis Ashore, contains sophisticated radars capable of tracking hostile missiles and guiding interceptor rockets to knock them out of the sky. It is also equipped with missile launchers known as MK 41s, which the Russians worry can be easily repurposed to fire offensive missiles like the Tomahawk.

For villagers in Redzikowo, the idea that they are living at the forefront of Mr. Putin’s oft-stated security concerns has already caused jitters for some local residents.

Ryszard Kwiatkowski, a civil engineer who works in construction, said a customer who reserved an apartment in a new block his company is building recently called to cancel her planned purchase because of worries that Russia could strike the missile defense facility at Redzikowo and send property values through the floor.

Nobody really thinks that is likely — it would put Russia into direct conflict with NATO, of which Poland has been a member since 1999. But assumptions of a unified and peaceful Europe that took hold with the end of the Cold War are crumbling as Russian troops mass on the border with Ukraine and the United States sends thousands of additional soldiers to Poland.

Mr. Kwiatkowski, who took part in protests against the American facility at Redzikowo when it was announced in 2016, said Russia had stoked unease by exaggerating the threat posed by NATO. But, he added, both sides have created “a self-propelling machine of fear” fueled by nerve-jangling uncertainty over what the other is up to.

Thomas Graham, who served as senior director for Russia on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said Moscow had never believed Washington’s assurances that its missile defense system was aimed at Iran, not Russia. The issue, he added, had become a powerful symbol for the Kremlin of a post-Cold War order that it views as dangerously one-sided and which it is now trying to revise through military threats.

“The current crisis is really much broader than Ukraine,” Mr. Graham said, “Ukraine is a leverage point but it is more about Poland, Romania and the Baltics. The Russians think it is time to revise the post-Cold War settlement in Europe in their favor.”

In a meeting with Mr. Putin on Monday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov emphasized that Russia wanted to see “radical changes in the sphere of European security,” far-reaching changes that go beyond just Ukraine to include a pullback of NATO troops now in Eastern Europe, limits on the deployment of offensive weaponry and restrictions on intermediate range missiles.

Tomasz Smura, director of research at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, a Warsaw research group, said, “This is a huge issue for Russia.”

But shutting down the Redzikowo site, as Moscow wants, he added, is a “red line” that the United States and Poland will not cross, though NATO, in response to a list of demands made by Moscow in December, recently offered discussion of an unspecified “transparency mechanism” in the hope of calming Russian concerns over the Polish and Romanian sites.

But Moscow wants much more than that.

Missile defense has long been viewed by Russia as a dangerous American attempt to degrade the main guarantor of its great power status — a vast nuclear arsenal. The possibility that the United States could shoot down Russian ballistic missiles undermines the deterrent doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which posits that neither of the two biggest nuclear powers would ever risk a nuclear war because it would mean both get annihilated.

During the Cold War, Russia and the United States both worked on developing antimissile defenses, but agreed in 1972 to abandon their rocket shield programs so as to preserve mutual vulnerability and, they hoped, peace.

It worked for nearly 30 years. But, at the end of Mr. Putin’s second year as president in December 2001, President George W. Bush infuriated the new Russian leader by pulling out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty and directing the Pentagon to build a system to ward off the possible threat of missiles from Iran.

The U.S. withdrawal from what had been a cornerstone of superpower relations for decades has since been cited repeatedly by the Kremlin as the start of its disenchantment with the United States and Mr. Putin’s belief that Russian interests are being needlessly trampled.

“We tried for a long time to persuade our partners not to do this,” Mr. Putin said this month in the Kremlin. “Nevertheless, the U.S. did what it did — withdrew from the treaty. Now antiballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and are being set up in Poland.”

Should Ukraine draw closer to NATO, Mr. Putin thundered, “it will be filled with weapons. Modern offensive weapons will be deployed on its territory just like in Poland and Romania.”

The Aegis Ashore site in Romania has been operating for five years without incident, but Russia views the Polish missile defense facility, previously stalled by construction and other problems, as a more serious menace.

The weapons system was installed last summer in the facility, which is scheduled to start working sometime this year, Rear Admiral Tom Druggan, the program’s director, said in November. “It is specifically not focused on threats out of Russia, despite what they say,” he said.

American assurances that only Iran need worry, however, were undermined during the Trump administration when the president stated that U.S. missile defense systems would “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Washington has also struggled to convince Mr. Putin that its two missile defense sites in Eastern Europe do not also have an offensive capability that could easily be turned against Russian targets.

Responding to Russian complaints, NATO declared last month that interceptor missiles deployed at Aegis Ashore sites “cannot undermine Russian strategic deterrence capabilities” and “cannot be used for offensive purposes.” It added that the interceptors contained no explosives and could not hit ground targets, only airborne objects.

“In addition, the site lacks the software, the hardware and infrastructure needed to launch offensive missiles,” NATO said.

Some independent experts, however, believe that while requiring a rejiggering of software and other changes, the MK 41 launchers installed in Poland and Romania can fire not only defensive interceptors but also offensive missiles. Matt Korda, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, said that “without visual inspections, there is no way to determine whether or not this Tomahawk-specific hardware and software have been installed at the Aegis Ashore sites in Europe.”

So far only NATO military personnel have been allowed anywhere near the launchers or their control units. The U.S. Navy, which operates the Aegis Ashore site in Poland, did not respond to a request by The New York Times for a visit.

Beata Jurys, the elected head of Redzikowo, said she had never been inside the facility, installed on the grounds of a former Polish air force base and a shuttered civilian airport, and does not follow technical arguments over what missiles can be fired from behind the fence near her house.

But, no matter who is telling the truth, Ms. Jurys said, the finger-pointing by Moscow and Washington has made the village a potential target in the event of war.

“If something happens, we will be the first to know, unfortunately,” she said.

Status Anxiety Is Blowing Wind Into Trump’s Sails

  • Status Anxiety Is Blowing Wind Into Trump’s Sails (behind paywall), The New York Times, February 9, 2022, Thomas B. Edsall. “…It is hardly a secret that the white working class has struggled in recent decades — and clearly many factors play a role — but what happens to those without the skills and abilities needed to move up the education ladder to a position of prestige in an increasingly competitive world?

    Petersen’s answer: They have become populism’s frontline troops.

    Over the past six decades, according to Petersen, there has been a realignment of the parties in respect to their position as pro-establishment or anti-establishment… ‘Economic insecurity translates into support for the far-right’”. (read more; behind paywall)

Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation, Simone Weil

  • Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation, Simone Weil. “…Over time she lost faith in political ideologies and was drawn to Christianity. Her religious writings often emphasized sacrifice and martyrdom through an ascetic lifestyle, a lifestyle that Weil personally adopted and which led to her early death at age 34 from tuberculosis. In this 1943 essay, written during the last year of her life, which she spent working with Gen. de Gaulle in the struggle for French liberation, Weil makes the case for the existence of a transcendent and universal moral law, and describes the social responsibilities that accompany it. (read more) [Posted on Americans for Humanity under Personal/Spirituality.]