The Wrong Side of History

“The strong condemnation that Russian has received around the world indicates the degree to which Russia is on the wrong side of history”

-Barack Obama

“It was only a very small elite around Yeltsin who were buying [that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified the triumph of Western democratic capitalism. Too many people (Westerners) saw what they wanted to see, rather than what was happening.”

-Fiona Hill, director, Center on the United States and Europe


Pictured: The Right Side of History.

Pictured: The Right Side of History

The crisis of Syria, Crimea, and Ukraine has weighed very heavily upon Barack Obama’s presidency. His foreign policy has been about redeeming American power after 8 years of neo-conservative mismanagement and about ending two deeply unpopular wars. It is a nasty challenge to a Democratic President in the midst of winding down prolonged conflicts and championing unilateral disarmament to suddenly be looking down the barrel of Russian aggression or watching one of the crossroads of civilization tear itself apart for three years.

There has been a reaction against the supposed utility of what Andrew J. Bacevich Jr. has called ‘the New American Militarism’, a neo-Wilsonian belief in American values complimented with the active use of the Cold War’s standing military. It has serious proponents on the right and the left, and a military-industrial complex to further its cause of employing American military force across the globe. On the other hand, interventionism’s mixed results and declining popularity, coming on the heels of the rather chaotic ends of the Arab Spring, have deeply shaken the conviction that having the world’s largest military means you should use it to maintain hegemony or further Wilsonian ideals. Profoundly rebuked for even considering military action to punish the Syrian Army’s chemical weapons usage, Obama is now being slammed for attempting to reign in the military’s expansive size (a budgetary inevitability) as Russian soldiers enter the Crimea.

In a position no one would envy, especially an easy-to-hit on defense issues Democrat, the President has chosen relative inaction in Syria and economic and social unity against Russia while considering options. While doing so, he banished his authoritarian opponents to a rhetorical land familiar to his predecessor: “The wrong side of history.” To hear this was worrisome, because it was not only a Bush-era slogan (which diplomatic pragmatism would hope to forget), but also because it rings hollow as Assad drops barrel bombs on Aleppo and Egypt readies to elect as President the General who ousted democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.

Being on history’s wrong side is something that one wants to be. History is the realm of the dead and the judged, some pardoned and some punished. Mortality is a weakness we have not overcome, and generations, with their actions and convictions, pass away and become lost but for the judgement of history. Ergo history is often treated as a record of finality and a scorecard for humanity. “Those who do not learn from history…”, etc, etc etc. With this sort of utilitarian understanding, history is rather useful because it shows that there is, among all the noise, a way that things naturally progress and peoples ultimately act:  Whigs proving that the end of history was British liberalism, Marxists proving the end of history was social revolution, and Fukyama proving that American liberal values and free-markets had defeated authoritarianism.

As any historian of the past ten years will tell you, increasingly the assumption is being questioned. The infuriating works of post-modernists, who see the past as a foreign country with a dead language with almost no keys, are generally a reflection on the sources of our knowledge,the subjective perceptions of authors and authorities, and the intricacies of long epochs, not individual lives or events. With this they prove that history’s progression is complex and often ephemeral. It is maddening to those of us who like to argue using history, because it seems pedantic and nauseatingly self-questioning. Nothing taken at face value means that it is hard to render judgement, and history’s utility is lost or filled with so many qualifications that most people simply won’t read it.

But there is an important point to be made in post-modern critiques of history: don’t put too much weight on the meaning of a single event or assume that history as you were taught correctly identifies the nature of the beast. What we are taught to believe is important, because it will ultimately form much of our rational value judgments for our own decisive actions, but when it comes to history our perceptions, especially at a distance, cannot accurately see all the complexities. While I have previously warned about making too many assumptions based on historical typecasting about what Putin’s endgame in Ukraine is (if he even has one as defined as people make it out to be), it would also be a great mistake to assume that history is an agent which already tells us how this is all going to end.

In ascribing the power of history to be the ultimate judge (“History will absolve me” Castro has assured us), there is an assumption of a covenant between the righteous (marxists, liberals) and the results of history. The historical covenant seems to trust that history is a fixed agent with a given allegiance to a set of values it deems correct by benefit of experience. Liberalism based on market economies will triumph over authoritarianism based on nationalism because that is how history has proceeded thus far in enriching the ‘First World’. The rhetoric is pseudo-religious and suggests history is an actor whose hand blesses the right and curses the wrong. It is an invective which rallies friends and castigates enemies, an idea that history will ultimately fight and win our battles for us if we are true to values that history commends.

History, however, is not like the Almighty. It is a record of human experience: its scriptures and catechisms are not revealed but formulated from empiricism based on human perception. That at least is the theory. In practice, the teleology of history, especially as it is used in speaking to popular understanding, is nearly scriptural. Anyone who got a healthy dose of “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War by using American economic power to overwhelm the Soviets” in High School knows this well. Accident of geography, timing, and nature are too often discounted in order to impose structures of historical determinism.  The innate quality of liberalism and the western tradition of democracy overcomes dictatorship because all peoples desire liberty and freedom over communism and authoritarian rule; that is neo-Wilsonian thinking writ large. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 this seemed to confirm this idea, and it was promptly stamped thus by Fukyama and the Montgomery County High School History Curriculum, which is why I believed that Russia was finished as an aggressive world power until very recently.

The problem with it is, as I noted above, the realization that history might be greatly subjective. “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it” is falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, though he did write his history, and history has mostly been kind to him. If indeed we take the Fall of the Berlin Wall as a final judgement on authoritarian states, a historical equivalent of the slaying of the first born of Egypt, it means that it must be self-evidently so to all parties, and not subject to interpretation. Pharaoh has to see the working of the Hand of God as much as Moses does, otherwise the Israelites don’t get to leave their bondage. Putin is not playing along; he is using nationalism and ethnic unity politics to annex Ukrainian territory reminiscent of Stalin and Hitler’s designs on Poland and the Baltic. History already told the Russians that these policies would ultimately flounder and that international censure would lead to their downfall, or so Obama and NATO claim in their justification for their economic strategy.

Pictured: The Wrong Side of History (though I wouldn't tell him that)

Pictured: The Wrong Side of History (though I wouldn’t tell him that)

Many Russian specialists, like Fiona Hill quoted above, do not accept that line of thinking. The Russians never lost their community ties in other countries, nor did they accept that Yeltsin’s government meant that Russia’s borders were perpetually fixed as they were. Putin also watched the world evolve and history is telling him a different story. The 2013-14 Ukrainian crisis, the long buildup of tensions in that country over the Orange Revolution and then Tymoshenko’s ouster, the unwillingness of the West to act decisively on Syria, a push-back against the Arab Spring’s threats to Russian hegemony, the successful prosecution of a similar War in Georgia, and the recovery of the Russian military’s face in the Second Chechen War: all of these are factors that influenced the Russian move towards Crimean annexation by force. The Russians obviously have not accepted the judgement of history, because, despite what Fukyama said, their history did not end.

‘Covenants, without swords, are but words’ wrote Thomas Hobbes, 17th century father of political realism. While undoubtedly there may well be some virtues to the economic and rhetorical attack upon Russia, as it may undermine confidence in Putin’s policies among thinking Russians, it is unlikely to have much of an effect if Putin, driving the state’s policies, calls the bluff and nothing happens (or if Putin’s government, like Assad’s, can ride out the consequences). If the West doesn’t actually intend to employ hard power in Ukraine or put forces in place to threaten do so, it is ultimately an empty vessel. Being on the wrong side of history does not appear to have stopped the Russians from running up their flag over Simferopol or Assad’s forces from turning the tide against the Syrian rebels.

The historian and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed, “We have had to learn that history is neither a God nor a redeemer.” It is now time to consider what actions need to be taken to show that the West is willing to act, and it appears that  judicious military deterrence may be necessary. After all, while military actions devoid of sound political control do not make for lasting victories, it is occasionally necessary for someone to be put on the wrong side of history by the threat of arms and the coercion of force.

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