Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A Gloomy Take on Nation-Building

TNR's Noel C. Paul has a rather despondent view of the prospects of Western-style liberal democracy taking root in Russia, and he suggests that there are lessons to be drawn from this in thinking about the Middle East.

Many foreign-policy analysts are citing the trial of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently taking place in a Moscow courtroom, as evidence of ideological backsliding in Russia. But if the ruin of the country's first icon of capitalism signifies anything, it is that Russia is behaving like Russia again. After a decade of democracy, capitalism, and billions in foreign aid, Russia remains a country in the thrall of authoritarianism. While U.S. reformers could help dismantle communism, they couldn't erase 500 years of culture. It's a lesson that has taken a decade to discern, and it should be considered in Baghdad, Kabul, and every other capital where "nation building" is at work.

It would be easy to mistake Vladimir Putin's reign with a mini-Soviet resurgence. Putin himself is a former KGB agent, and much of his government is run by erstwhile Soviet intelligence officials. Opinion polls show a romantic nostalgia for the Soviet era. The Kremlin has nationalized gas and electric companies, and will possibly absorb Khodorkovsky's giant Yukos Oil Company. But foreign-policy makers should guard against conflating communism with culture. Soviet Russia is surely dismantled, and the communists' dismal performance in national elections shows few Russians want to resurrect the party of Stalin.

What they do want back is the power of Stalin. They want political centralization and a strong ruler. This explains Putin's approval ratings, which exceed 70 percent, and the widespread animosity toward Khodorkovsky and the other "oligarchs" whose fortunes are viewed more as threats to order than engines of progress. The authoritarian instinct is deeply ingrained in Russian culture. Christian Orthodoxy, Mongol invasion and rule, and four centuries of czarist governance created a gulf between the leaders and the led. Even Peter the Great, known for his progressive reforms, founded Russia's secret police and forced thousands of serfs to leave their homes and construct his capital, St. Petersburg, out of empty marshland. More than 30,000 died in the process. Censorship, exile, crushed rebellions--they are all legacies of Russian history, not communist rule.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government and international NGOs confused the two. They looked on post-communist Russia as a tabula rasa. Having rejected communism, they assumed, Russia would naturally embrace liberal-democratic capitalism. But much to the surprise of many policymakers, 500 years of culture got in the way.
I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think there was a great deal of truth to this argument; as I myself have said before, the difference between a stable democracy like the United Kingdom and any number of banana republics where coups are an everyday affair and generalissimos come and go at dizzying speed likely has far more to do with the atittudes of their respective citizens than it does with the purely formal legal and political arrangements with which they must make do.

Having said all this, however, it still seems to me that what Mr. Paul is advocating here is essentially a council of despair. Boiled down to its essentials, what his argument comes down to is that people are incapable of learning, and that they are mere prisoners of their cultural heritage, unable to do more than pass it on unaltered. This claim is clearly false, for if it were not so, large-scale cultural changes would be impossible, yet they happen all the time.

I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I think that there's a valuable kernel of truth in Paul's argument that is well worth paying heed to. In particular, I think that any would-be nation-builders must come to terms with the fact that while cultural groups can change, it is likely to occur only slowly and over a number of generations, as the older members who are more set in their ways die off and are replaced by those who are only familiar with the new dispensation; in other words, the idea that places like Iraq can be turned into vibrant American-style democracies with just a few years of aid is a pipe dream, and the realization of such a vision will require in practice a long-term commitment that few commentators have bothered to acknowledge, much less advocate.

On the reasons for optimism side of the scales, I will also point out that Iraq is unlike Russia in being of such a scale that such long-term support shouldn't be an intolerable burden for those who provide it; that Russia is too large to be conquered from the outside is at once both the greatest strength and weakness of that autocratic state.