Tuesday, April 01, 2003
Trapped by their publics - 1st April 2003, 22.40

One can never be sure the course that nations take at times of crisis are an indication of longer term trends or just the confluence of short term political pressures and opportunism. No doubt, historians with the benefit of hindsight can pick out the combinations of longer term policy and tactical objectives. But if any argue that French or Russian intransigence was predictable, then they would have wilfully misunderstood the rules of the game that applied to the United Nations during the 1990s: the support of the great powers was available for a price, even if it conjured up perceptions of cynical manoevrings amongst a public audience.

In 2003, the rules changed for reasons that are not yet apparent. Perhaps the stakes for power were higher and neither France nor Russia were willing to acquiesce in what they perceived as a brazen attempt at US dominance in the United Nations. It is almost certain that they equated diplomatic power with military and economic power, boosting their willingness to oppose US/UK actions and only facing the problem of 'overstretch' after their wishes had been brushed aside.

What it does mean is that articles such as this ring hollow, with a Westerniser's hope for:

Russia's direct national interest to craft a special relationship with America, both to underpin its modernisation strategy and to deal with the countless security problems facing Eurasia.

It is unlikely that such a "special relationship" will be constructed in the near future. Not only do most Russians want Iraq to win, although this would deepen their own decline, but the current campaign of anti-Americanism has been set in train by the Putin administration itself, jeopardising their bilateral relationship with Washington.

The current spate of anti-American hate fests on just about every Russian television channel has proven much more effective in the ratings. The tone and language used in news coverage of the war cannot have been left to chance, especially on the state-owned and state-controlled stations.

If, as the responsible leader of his country, Putin should try to halt the growing anti-American hysteria at some point in order to preserve the diplomatic capital he has accumulated over the last 18 months, his actions would be interpreted as capitulation and a show of weakness. The Putin administration did much to set the current wave of anti-Americanism in motion, then quickly lost control of it. If Putin decides to ride that wave, he will be forced to adopt positions that directly conflict with his entire post-Sept. 11 foreign policy. His political opponents would rush to fill that breach, from the Communists to Boris Berezovsky, by reminding the nation of the U.S. bases in Central Asia, the bases that we closed in Vietnam and Cuba, and many other "concessions" made to Russia's past and present Enemy No. 1.

Both France and Russia used this crisis and war to enhance the political support of their existing regimes and found that they were constrained by the expectations that they had nurtured and unleashed. Since America is very likely to win this war, it is not a question of if but when they follow the backtracking that Schroeder has commenced, now that domestic considerations no longer play a primary role in Germany's foreign policy.

What accounts for the nuanced but unmistakable shift? Two things: the war is on, and the German elections that originally induced Schroeder to play the peace card, first in September and again for two regional votes in February, are over. Foreign policy, as a result, is said to be back in the hands of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his professional diplomats instead of Schroeder's political advisers.


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