Recently a friend emailed me the link to an article by a distinguished American historian, Emanuel Wallerstein, about an interview given by Hamid Karzai to the French paper Le Monde that laid out very clearly Karzai's position on relations with the U.S. going forward, but which the New York Times only mentioned in passing. Among other things, it revealed that if Karzai continues to refuse to sign the Status of Forces Agreement to regulate the continued presence of American military after the official pullout, President Obama is considering the possibility that it could just as well be signed by another Afghan official! Evidently, the slide away from legality affects not only drone strikes.
Wallerstein's comment came to me just as I was beginning a several days-long effort to report -- in lieu of the New York Times -- on Vladimir Putin's year-end speech to the Russian Duma and guests from business and industry.
Our pundits pore over every Presidential speech like divines reading tea leaves. But although the United States shares the planet with 200 other nations, they studiously ignore the speeches of other leaders, depriving Americans of the ability to evaluate their government's foreign-policy decisions.
Washington does not so much fear voters hearing the other side's story, as discovering its worldview. Americans must never know that most foreign leaders truly believe dialogue and negotiation are preferable to confrontation, an attitude that goes back to the early days of socialist thought. Whatever the failings of central planning, the belief that war is bad is inseparable from the desire to improve the human condition. Our culture has become so twisted that we see every Other as a potential threat, to be punished if he disagrees with us. Recent events in Ukraine illustrate this attitude at its most shocking: American diplomats in the streets of Kiev warning the government that if it does not cave in to protesters' demands to sign a trade deal with Europe, sanctions would follow!
For a century and a half the Other has been anyone concerned with equity. Now it is purported to be religious fanaticism; however, Islamists are okay if they are pro-capitalist, as shown in the current embarrassing situation in Syria. The conflict between the 1% and the 99% is as real today as it was when Marx and Engels wrote 'Das Capital'; however it's no longer about central planning versus entrepreneurship; rather it is about consumerism and the rape of the planet versus civilization.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin unleashed cowboy capitalism in Russia, but Putin has increasingly realized that this is a terrible system. While supporting entrepreneurship, he defends the idea that government is the primary purveyor of human solidarity, as clearly reflected in his end-of-the-year speech. You can read it at http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/6402. Here are a few excerpts, starting with two basic ideas:
"Our Constitution brings together two fundamental priorities -- the supreme value of rights and freedoms of citizens and a strong state, emphasizing their mutual obligation to respect and protect each other. But life does not stand still, and no constitutional process can ever be regarded as final." The necessary dialectic between a strong state and individual freedoms, as well as the common-sense notion that constitutions need to evolve with society, are diametrically opposed to the American canon in which the constitution is immutable and a strong state is seen as incompatible with individual freedoms.
Recognizing that the Russian economy is inefficient and that some technology is harmful, Putin called for a modern technical and environmental regulatory system, albeit sensitive to economic complexities. Admitting that the Russian slowdown was due less to the global economic crisis than to internal failings such as low labor productivity and corruption, he called for high-quality professional education, a flexible labor market, a good investment climate, and modern technology, as do routinely the Presidents of European welfare states. (Today, Angela Merkel was sworn in for a third term and pledged to uphold the welfare state...)
Turning to education, the Russian president stressed the need for increased mobility between the members of the Russian Federation, noting that the government had raised salaries in education and healthcare in order to attract top students, but condemning exorbitant prices for student dorms. Similarly with housing construction, he called on local authorities to make more land available and lessen the time it takes to get a building permit, while warning developers who fail to begin construction on schedule that they would lose the land.
With respect to Russia's mandatory health insurance, it should fully cover the provision of free medical assistance, but patients should be clear as to what they are entitled to free of charge. Meanwhile the quality of social services should be improved with more efficient spending.
Putin defined the welfare state as consisting of 'the mutual responsibility of the state, the business community, and every Russian citizen', and called for greater participation of civil society in local government.
Undoubtedly, some Americans would find this speech disturbing: the government appears to be organizing everything, to the point of putting a time frame on actions to be taken by the Duma and declaring that once a decision is taken, it should be implemented. (Imagine Obama doing that!) But in today's ultra-complicated world, does the ordinary citizen really benefit from an economic and political free-for-all that allows the few to disregard the many?
Oblivious to this reality, the media continues to treat the Russian leader as negatively as during the Cold War. Comparing two recent books about Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen and The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia by Angus Roxburgh, the New York Times' Bill Keller made the following comments, while acknowledging that neither author had access to Putin:
"The Russians -- in the attitude passed down from czar to party boss to this elected autocrat -- must be instructed, talked down to, disciplined, kept in the dark, managed, manipulated. In Russia, what is called "Western-style democracy" leads to childish blithering and disorder. Russians know this in their hearts, supposedly, which is why they vote for Daddy Putin."