Why the US and Britain Lost Russia in 2014

Despite differences between them, the United States and Britain share profound faults in their political systems. Because of these faults, both make bad decisions in foreign policy. In this current crisis in Ukraine, I think both made these mistakes.

English-speaking people have a long-term disdain for Russia or hostility to Russia. It is deep in our literature and lore about Russia, and we neither recognize it as a prejudice, nor deal with it.

Also, disdaining Russia, United States and British leaders act toward it largely from calculations of short-term domestic political advantage, seldom from a calculation of long-term foreign policy interests. They use Russia as a prop for political theater. They rant and rave about Russia only to obtain electoral advantage with a particular constituency at home.

Speaking about sanctions imposed by the United States against Russia, Professor Stephen Cohen, a noted US expert on Russia, said the sanctions attest to the lack of policy in Washington with regard to Russia. Instead of a policy, there is an attitude, a negative attitude against Russia and President Vladimir Putin in particular. This attitude stems from fear and insecurity, I believe. This fear and insecurity is a direct cause for the recent incident with the Malaysia Airlines plane that has claimed 298 lives.

So here is my argument: White males in Britain and US are angry and insecure. Unscrupulous politicians play on these fears. They use an argument about democracy and human rights to make political theater, and Russia provides them with their current opportunity for political theater. Unscrupulous, these US and British politicians can seem decisive by being angry at Russia. Their argument is circular. They assume that the United States and Britain embody democracy and human rights. Any opposition to United States or Britain is ipso facto an opposition to democracy and human rights. Russia is inferior because it lacks democracy and human rights, and it lacks them because it opposes US-British policy. Therefore, the United States and Britain are right to oppose Russia.

Mind you, it does not matter that this argument is untrue and unpopular in the outside world. Russian voters think Putin acted skillfully and in accord with the best interests of the nation. They think they live in a democratic nation with secure rights and liberties. They think Iraq and Vietnam were earlier victims of US aggression. Many other Europeans are uneasy about the English-speaking hostility to Russia.

These policy mistakes toward Russia in 2014 arose in both the United States and Britain from dysfunction in their domestic political systems. Both countries have what Americans call “political gridlock.” Gridlock is what Russians call propke, cork.

Gridlock occurs in city traffic when cars block intersections so that green and red lights come and go but without any movement. Drivers fume and curse and honk their horns. The British and US political systems suffer from something similar. The US Congress is so divided that nothing significant can pass, and the politicians fume and curse. In Britain, the parliament became a mere talking shop, and the cabinet exercises the real political power. The only checks on the cabinet are quirky and occasional bouts of public outrage. Parliamentary or legislative authority in both countries became weak and ineffective as a result.

Angry white males made the British and US parliamentary or legislative systems dysfunctional. That is the essential background for foreign policy. Angry white males make compromise difficult in domestic politics. Politicians find political theater useful in foreign policy because they can do nothing in domestic politics. Since they cannot do anything real at home, the politicians deal in illusions abroad. Angry white males are the constituency to whom these theatrical illusions are especially directed.

When white males in Britain and the United States are angry, it is because they have lost power at home and because they fear that their country has lost power abroad. Recently, as the Bible says, a new pharaoh arose in Egypt who knew not Joseph. Heterosexual Christian white males have been in charge of Britain and United States time out of mind. White males experienced a loss of control in both countries, and power passed to a coalition of women and minorities, sexual, religious, racial, etc. This change seems permanent.

Just as I write these pages, David Cameron, the British prime minister, trumpeted a blast against Russia and its president. Meanwhile Cameron reshuffled his cabinet. He fired a number of white males, and he replaced them with women. He is preparing for a minority government. The United Kingdom Independence Party took white male votes away from Cameron and his Tory political colleagues, and he hopes to replace them with votes from other constituencies.

At the same time that US and British white males lose power at home, Britain and the United States seem to have lost their preeminent power in the world. A multipolar world appeared comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and other great countries. A considerable literature attests to this point. [1]

Let us presume that former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul is correct so far as bald facts of the current confrontation in Ukraine are concerned. In sum, McFaul said that Russia was on track for good relations with the English-speaking world before 2012, but Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, decided that the United States and Britain wanted political revolution in Russia and neighboring countries. Two specific events convinced Putin of this. The dissident demonstrations in Moscow in 2012 comprised the first circumstance, said McFaul, and the second was the 2014 ouster of Victor Yanukovych from his post as president of Ukraine. Things turned really ugly after the fall of Yanukovych. McFaul further said that Washington cannot now have good relations with Moscow so long as Putin remains in office because Putin became permanently hostile. [2]

I have no way to check these facts, but this account seems plausible. I will posit it as the factual basis of this article. Americans thought that things just happened one after another without any master US or British plot behind them. No one in 2012 Washington or London had War in Ukraine as their computer sign or August 2014 as their computer password. Please note also that McFaul thought the Russians suspected a plot or conspiracy on the English-speaking side. McFaul however thought this was a sign of poor judgment on their part. While accepting McFaul’s statement of the bald facts, I nevertheless in this article reject his analysis of them.

Three more important facts. First, two facts about Britain. Of course Britain differs from the United States. McFaul said that Russia and the United States were on the road to good relations before 2012, but that was not true of Britain and Russia. They were not on the road to good relations even in 2012. They traded accusations of criminal activity instead. The British said that the Russians murdered people on British soil, and the British made other complaints. The Russians said that Britain knowingly harbored Russian criminals and laundered their money. Britain also has a long history of prior hostility to Russia. The Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 had many suggestive parallels with the present crisis in Ukraine for instance. Second, Correlli Barnett, Martin Wiener and many other historians say that Britain is in decline. Its culture is hostile to modernization, said Wiener, and the two world wars severely damaged its economy, said Barnett.

Second, it is also a bald fact that things have turned ugly with Russia. English-speaking opinion now diverges sharply from Russian opinion. The Pew polling organization recorded a large drop in Russia’s favorable image in the English-speaking world. Like McFaul, many of these people blame Vladimir Putin personally. On the other hand, Russians overwhelmingly support their president, and they strongly welcomed his reunification of Crimea with Russia. Someone told me that he was in a railway train when the union was announced, and the ordinary people in the train spontaneously stood up and sang the Russian anthem. Most Russians also now distrust Britain and the United States. [3]

Third, McFaul also said that Putin’s personality was at fault because Putin made erroneous judgments. This view of Putin is important because it is shared by many members of the US and British political establishments. McFaul and the politicians are wrong. The US and British view of Putin arises from the first two points that I mentioned: English-speaking people act from short-term political motives, and they anyway disdain Russia. For these reasons, US and British politicians find it useful to make Putin seem both ridiculous and threatening.

Readers of these pages are accustomed to the phrase “predatory capitalism.” It refers to “a savage form of free-market fundamentalism,” one that thrives in the present global context. National governments are too weak to control this phenomenon. It is especially characterized by vast movements of finance capital across international boundaries. [4]

I wish to draw attention to the British and US use of democracy and human rights rhetoric. This rhetoric is a tool of predatory capitalism. Of course democracy and human rights have much to be said for them. So does capitalism. Of course Adolf Hitler was a bad man, and the English-speaking powers were right to oppose him. Even Soviet Communism looked good in comparison to Hitler and his followers. However, these arguments are not germane at the present hour. Please note two things about British and US use of democracy and capitalism as arguments in current foreign policy.

First, the rhetoric is old. US historians earlier invented the phrase “master race democracy.” They described English-speaking use of democracy and human rights as measures of the superiority of white male English political culture. The British settled North America and colonized the British Empire using master race democracy as their justification. In past centuries, Christianity was also a justification for English-speaking mastery. Of course English-speaking men confined democracy and human rights to themselves, and they justified black slavery for instance by extending only Christian baptism, not democracy, to people of color.

Second, predatory capitalism in present-day United States feeds on the huge, and obscene and unnecessary US arms budget. Democracy and human rights rhetoric is a justification for this expenditure. The problem now is that the United States and Britain have no creditable enemy, and they pillory Russia because they need such an enemy. The vast English-speaking expenditure on arms is foolish.

False though it is, and although it does not work abroad, the democracy and human rights rhetoric nevertheless still works in domestic US and British politics. Republicans had success with it, saying that the United States stands for democracy and human rights when it opposes Russia, and we see that success with President Obama’s change of policy toward Russia. He is a Democrat and McFaul was the person by whom Obama and Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, intended to establish good relations with Russia.

Republicans like Mitt Romney denounced Obama, saying that he betrayed US secrets to Russia. They said Russia was a hateful enemy, Putin a second Hitler. For domestic political reasons, the Democrats had to take a tougher line with Russia. We do not know exactly what happened in Kiev, but the elected government there fell and was replaced by people who relied on force and on US support. The Russians reacted. McFaul therefore wrote his article. Hillary Clinton went on TV to denounce President Putin. The reasons for this Republican success are too complex for this short paper. Suffice it to say that US voters do not know much either about their own history or about the outside world. They are easily duped by charlatans and demagogues.

1. One such source is Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987).

2. David A. Graham, “The Two Events That Turned Putin Against the U.S.: Former ambassador Michael McFaul on what really motivated Russia to invade Ukraine,” The Atlantic, July 2, 2014.

3. Marjorie Connelly, “Public Opinion Against Russia Hardens After Ukraine Intervention, Poll Finds,” Associated Press July 9, 2014.

4. See C. J. Polychroniou, “Predatory Capitalism and the System’s Denial in the Face of Truth,” Truthout (July 5, 2014) at ; and C. J. Polychroniou, “Predatory Capitalism: Old Trends and New Realities.” Truthout (July 12, 2014)