Everything I know about Chavista geostrategic thinking I learned from a fat gringo neo-con

Quico says: If you’re looking for some mind-broadening reading this weekend, I heartily recommend this New Republic piece by Iraq War-monger extraordinaire Robert Kagan. It’s about the rising contours of 21st Century Geopolitics, and though it’s long, I found it exceptionally enlightening. Actually, it did more to help me understand Chávez’s geostrategic stance than a truckload of Centro Miranda policy papers could have…which is remarkable, considering the guy never once mentions Venezuela.

Kagan’s piece is hard to summarize. It deals mostly with the global impact of the autocracies in China and Russia, their role in “the end of the end of history.” For Kagan, we’re heading neither towards some Fukuyamesque shangri-la of liberal hegemony nor towards some Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, but rather towards an international order that looks a lot like the 19th century’s: democracies on one side, autocracies on the other, and a lot of conflict between the two.

Most of the piece is devoted to a dissection of the big autocracies’ strategic outlook, and the way liberal universalism unwittingly pushes them into muscular defensive stances that often look downright paranoid from the outside. For Kagan, there’s nothing irrational about Russia and China’s rulers’ deep distrust of the U.S.-led west; the West’s whole understanding of the idea of sovereignty really does threaten their survival:

The presumption over the past decade has been that when Chinese and Russian leaders stopped believing in communism, they stopped believing in anything. They had become pragmatists, without ideology or belief, simply pursuing their own and their nation’s interests. But the rulers of China and Russia, like the rulers of autocracies in the past, do possess a set of beliefs that guides them in both domestic and foreign policy. It is not an all-encompassing, systematic worldview like Marxism or liberalism. But it is a comprehensive set of beliefs about government and society and the proper relationship between rulers and their people.

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe their large and fractious nations need order and stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations, and in the case of Russia that it already did so. They believe that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding and advancing their interests. Chinese rulers know from their nation’s long and often turbulent history that political disruptions and divisions at home invite foreign interference and depredation. What the world applauded as a political opening in 1989, Chinese leaders regard as a near-fatal display of disagreement.

So the Chinese and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in autocracy. The modern liberal mind at “the end of history” may not appreciate the attractions of this idea, or the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world; but historically speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company. The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced, as a matter of political philosophy, of the superiority of their form of government. Along with Plato, Aristotle, and every other great thinker prior to the eighteenth century, they regarded democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob. And in the first half of the twentieth century, for every democratic power like the United States, Great Britain, and France, there was an equally strong autocratic power, in Germany, Russia, and Japan. The many smaller nations around the world were at least as likely to model themselves on the autocracies as on the democracies. Only in the past half-century has democracy gained widespread popularity around the world, and only since the 1980s, really, has it become the most common form of government.

For all their growing wealth and influence, the twenty-first-century autocracies remain a minority in the world. As some Chinese scholars put it, democratic liberalism became dominant after the fall of Soviet communism and is sustained by an “international hierarchy dominated by the United States and its democratic allies,” a “U.S.-centered great power group.” The Chinese and Russians feel like outliers from this exclusive and powerful clique. “You western countries, you decide the rules, you give the grades, you say, ‘you have been a bad boy,'” complained one Chinese official at Davos this year. Putin also complains that “we are constantly being taught about democracy.”

The post-Cold War world looks very different when seen from autocratic Beijing and Moscow than it does from democratic Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. For the leaders in Beijing, it was not so long ago that the international democratic community, led by the United States, turned on China with a rare unity, imposing economic sanctions and even more painful diplomatic isolation after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Communist Party, according to Fei-Ling Wang, has had a “persisting sense of political insecurity ever since,” a “constant fear of being singled out and targeted by the leading powers, especially the United States,” and a “profound concern for the regime’s survival, bordering on a sense of being under siege.”

In the 1990s, the democratic world, led by the United States, toppled autocratic governments in Panama and Haiti and twice made war against Milosevic’s Serbia. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), well-funded by western governments, trained opposition parties and supported electoral reforms in Central and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. In 2000, internationally financed opposition forces and international election monitors finally brought down Milosevic. Within a year he was shipped off to The Hague, and five years later he was dead in prison.

From 2003 to 2005, western democratic countries and NGOs provided pro-western and pro-democratic parties and politicians with the financing and organizational help that allowed them to topple other autocrats in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Europeans and Americans celebrated these revolutions and saw in them the natural unfolding of humanity’s destined political evolution toward liberal democracy. But leaders in Beijing and Moscow saw these events in geopolitical terms, as western-funded, CIA-inspired coups that furthered the hegemony of America and its European allies. The upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia, Dmitri Trenin notes, “further poisoned the Russian-Western relationship” and helped to persuade the Kremlin to “complete its turnaround in foreign policy.”

The color revolutions worried Putin not only because they checked his regional ambitions, but also because he feared that the examples of Ukraine and Georgia could be repeated in Russia. They convinced him by 2006 to control, restrict, and in some cases close down the activities of international NGOs. Even today he warns against the “jackals” in Russia who “got a crash course from foreign experts, got trained in neighboring republics and will try here now.” His worries may seem absurd or disingenuous, but they are not misplaced. In the post-Cold War era, a triumphant liberalism has sought to expand its triumph by establishing as an international principle the right of the “international community” to intervene against sovereign states that abuse the rights of their people. International NGOs interfere in domestic politics; international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor and pass judgment on elections; international legal experts talk about modifying international law to include such novel concepts as “the responsibility to protect” or a “voluntary sovereignty waiver.”

In theory, these innovations apply to everyone. In practice, they chiefly provide democratic nations the right to intervene in the affairs of non-democratic nations. Unfortunately for China, Russia, and other autocracies, this is one area where there is no great transatlantic divide. The United States, though traditionally jealous of its own sovereignty, has always been ready to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. The nations of Europe, once the great proponents (in theory) of the Westphalian order of inviolable state sovereignty, have now reversed course and produced a system, as Robert Cooper has observed, of constant “mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages.” This has become one of the great schisms in the international system dividing the democratic world and the autocracies. For three centuries, international law, with its strictures against interference in the internal affairs of nations, has tended to protect autocracies. Now the democratic world is in the process of removing that protection, while the autocrats rush to defend the principle of sovereign inviolability.

I found myself nodding in amazement at all this: for the first time I was able to discern a smidgen of rational thought hiding behind the seemingly pure paranoia that defines Chávez’s ranting anti-Americanism. But only a smidgen because (did I mention?) the entire looooong piece makes all of one passing reference to “Latin America” and none at all to Venezuela itself.

Which, I think, is pretty indicative of just how small the hemisphere looms in US geostrategic thinking: autocrats in the areas of actual interest to the US probably should freak out if a Sumate pops up in their countries…but in South America? The continent and the folkloric strongmen it sprouts are a footnote, an afterthought in gringo strategic thinking, if that.

Even the mighty US has finite resources at its disposal: is it really going to malversarlos on Chávez?

It doesn’t hang together.