Does the United States Have a Future?
Editor’s note: Gilbert Doctorow is a historian, political analyst and expert in Russian affairs going back to 1965. A graduate of Harvard College in 1967, Doctorow did his graduate research in Moscow as a Fulbright Scholar and got a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1975. He later worked in international business, including eight years as managing director of Russia for multinationals, beginning in 1994. Doctorow began writing on international affairs in 2008 and was a visiting scholar at Columbia in 2010-2011. Doctorow, who has a new book called “Does the United States Have a Future,” delivered the following talk at The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7. Following the talk was a Q&A with Doctorow and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. Video of that Q&A can be viewed below. The Q&A begins at 1:05:10.
This is not an overview of the book. It is essentially a new chapter of the book. For those of you who want a quick listing of the merits and highlights of the book, I refer you to the thorough review that appeared on Nov. 19 on the portal The Duran. This was republished the next day on Johnson’s Russia List, the digest of writings about Russia that is hosted by George Washington University and is received daily by all U.S. university centers and think tanks interested in Russian matters. I have several copies with me to distribute.
When I began preparation of this book six months ago, I never imagined the title and overriding concept would be so timely as it is today. Each new issue of The New York Times or The Washington Post provides additional material for the case. Each new revelation about “groping” or other sexual misconduct by U.S. Congressmen reveals the Nation’s capital as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. But that is today. The evidence has been piling up for at least as far back as the essays in this new book were being written.
In particular, the questioning of America’s future has become a mainstream issue ever since the election of Donald Trump.
The movement to obstruct and take down Trump began immediately. Open and public attacks not just on his policies but on his intellectual faculties and mental balance have appeared in our mainstream press every day. A beleaguered president is lashing out in all directions. We see chaos in policy formation. Executive staff contradicts one another and contradicts the president on a nearly daily basis. The president himself is flip-flopping on policy. He is issuing alarming tweets.
Some well-considered observers have drawn dire conclusions from all of this. I think of David Rothkopf writing in Foreign Policy magazine on May 10, 2017. The title of his article: “Is America a Failing State?“
The author was for five years chief editor of what is a respected international relations journal. He believes that the United States is well on its way to becoming a banana republic. And for this he blames Trump and his cronies in high federal offices. They are a threat to national security, a disgrace on the world stage. The cronies are feathering their nests at the expense of the broad public, while the commander in chief shows open admiration for thugs and authoritarians around the world and disparages his federal employees, mocks the Constitution.
In continuation of the same idea, an op-ed essay by E.J. Dionne, Jr. in the Washington Post on Nov. 30 was given the title “Our political foundation is rotting away.” Dionne concludes: “The longer this president is in power, the weaker our country will become.”
However, the gloom over the future of the U.S. also appears in other, still more moderate and respected establishment publications. I take as my marker Foreign Affairs magazine, which has a subscription in the USA and abroad of several hundred thousand and may be called the bedrock of the establishment. The essays there are issued in a neutral, scholarly tone, rather than deeply partisan attacks such as you find in the daily newspapers.
Tellingly, the September-October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs ran on its front cover the headline: “See America. Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”
More recently, in mid-August 2017, an FA article entitled “Kleptocracy in America” takes us entirely away from the personality peculiarities of the 45th president into the broader and more important realm of the systemic flaws of governance, namely the extraordinary political power wielded by the very wealthy due to the rules on election financing and the self-serving policies that they succeed in enacting while the general public has stagnated economically for decades now, setting the stage for the voter revolt that brought Trump to power.
Then as one final straw in the wind, I would mention the remarkable op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Sept. 1, 2017, written by Senator John McCain. He described American politics at the federal level as simply not working due to overheated partisanship that compromises the national interest (a problem to which he has himself contributed handsomely) and due to a never-ending electoral cycle.
Indeed, a country which appears to be unable to govern itself is hardly the exemplar and all-powerful state suitable to govern the rest of the world.
However persuasive these points of analysis may be, they overlook what I believe is the main determinant of the onset of America’s decline as a world power that we are presently witnessing and of its possible withdrawal into true isolationism: the decision going back to 2007 to break the back of Russia.
Why Russia? Because it has been the only major power to publicly reject the U.S. global hegemony both in word and in deed.
The U.S. has applied all imaginable efforts to put Russia in its place, as Washington sees it—namely as just another regional power, a European state that is in decline, that nods approvingly to whatever policy line comes out of Washington.
These endeavors have mobilized American soft power and hard power.
Soft Power—attempts to foment a color revolution in Russia that removes Vladimir Putin from power by financing opposition figures, by imposing personal and economic sector sanctions in the hope of splitting the Kremlin elites from the broad population and from Putin, by denigrating the president of the Russian Federation in terms that no one would have dared to use during the original Cold War in addressing Leonid Brezhnev, for example. I think of Hillary [Clinton] and her repeated description of Putin as a “Hitler.”
In parallel, there have been our attempts to contain Russia by our physical presence at its borders and off its shores through expansion of NATO going back to 1996 and more recently through positioning of NATO brigades in Poland and the Baltic States, and holding large-scale military exercises in these advanced positions, within easy striking distance of St. Petersburg and other Russian population centers.
Then there has been the U.S. drive to achieve a first-strike capability, namely development of weaponry and systems intended to decapitate Russia or any other enemy, systems which are globally positioned and in space.
Less dramatic technically, but from the Russian perspective equally threatening, has been the construction in Poland and Romania of U.S. installations that are nominally designated as elements in a missile defense shield but are easily usable for the launch of intermediate range missiles, i.e., offensive weapons systems that can strike Russian targets in minutes. This, despite the oft-repeated Russian objections and finally threats to respond effectively if asymmetrically.
The end result of these several intertwined policies has been to create the very Frankenstein monster we have talked up.
The few politicians and Pentagon generals who have identified Russia as the single greatest threat to American security are entirely correct. Today, as in the past during the original Cold War, Russia is the only country on earth capable of reducing the entire continental United States to ashes within a day.
But it is also, as was not the case during the Cold War, the state most capable of deterring American military action against it by its advanced conventional warfare men and materiel, meaning precision bombs and cruise missiles launched from air and sea, with global reach. This conventional capability was developed from virtually zero in the past 15 years and implemented throughout the Russian armed forces over the past five years with very specific target metrics for modernization of the fighting units, not just parade units.
This has been noted by U.S. security analysis. An article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine by Ivo Daalder, who was for several years the U.S. ambassador to NATO, makes precisely the point I just described about the new military capabilities of Russia. However, Daalder gives you the end result of Russia’s modernization program and does not give you the information essential to respond appropriately: namely how and why this threat came about. That is precisely what you find in my books: the action, reaction that has brought us to the present.
Moreover, an article like Daalder’s is not what the general public is reading.
Although Russia’s threat to American well-being features daily on the front page of our newspapers of record, this military threat is not what we read about. Instead, we are told about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections with the aim of discrediting Hillary Clinton and so promoting the electoral chances of Donald Trump, about Russian attempts through social media advertising and otherwise to discredit the institutions of the American political system and to call into question the reliability of the voting procedures.
This is fake news that obscures the far more ominous problem of Russian military forces and the dangerous confrontations with Russia over the past year that were played down to the American public by the very same Pentagon sources.
The closest that the media has come to identifying a Russian military threat is talk of cyberwarfare, itself only a small part of non-nuclear strategic and tactical means being deployed by Moscow.
Let me be specific about how the U.S. attempts to contain and control Russia over the past 25 years have backfired:
Objective One—Cripple the Russian economy by reducing its single biggest source of export revenues: gas and oil sales to Europe. You can trace this economic warfare back, as I did in my 2012 book “Stepping Out of Line,” to the policies of the second Clinton administration that are widely called the “Pipeline Wars” or “New Great Game.” This entailed U.S. promotion of new energy suppliers to Europe—Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and finally, most recently, the USA itself—and its promotion of new paths to the European market, whether pipelines that bypass Russia or LNG, as is the case today.
The second dimension of this economic warfare has been sanctions, which the U.S. first imposed in 2012, under the guise of punishing Russian violations of human rights—the Magnitsky Act—and which were vastly expanded in 2014 up to present to punish Russia for alleged violations of international law and of the post-Cold War world order by its annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Ukrainian civil war, in Donbass.
Objective Two: Isolate Russia and cast it as a pariah state, without friends or allies. Expel Russia from major international gatherings, like the G8. Strip Russia of its veto in the United Nations Security Council. Impugn its integrity, as in the world Olympics movement. See the decision last week to strip two more Russian gold medalists of the awards received in Sochi 2014. In these ways cripple Russia’s chances of interfering with American global leadership.
A subset of the “isolate Russia” campaign is to cut off Russian access to military technology. Halt the two way flow of materiel and components. We see this most recently in the decision by the organizers of the Farnborough Air Show to exclude Russian participation.
What have we gotten for these efforts?
First, the political effect of the economic warfare, especially of the sanctions, has been to rally the Russian population around the president and in defense of the nation. That is to say, it has been precisely the opposite of what the authors of these measures in U.S. think tanks and in the State Department had projected. All of this has driven the approval ratings of Putin from about 65 percent three years ago to over 80 percent for months on end this year.
Secondly, these attacks have only strengthened the resilience and self-sufficiency of the Russian economy. Indiscriminate importation of all possible consumer and investment goods has stopped. Import substitution is the slogan of the day, and it is heartily supported by the general population that has reversed its feelings about domestic products, which were formerly considered to be inferior, and encouraged a “buy Russian” mentality. With increased demand and less price competition from abroad, Russian producers have improved quality and variety of their offerings in striking ways.
In response to sanctions and its own embargo on imported foodstuffs from those who imposed sanctions, Russian agriculture has boomed, attracting large domestic investment. The result is that this year Russia had its largest grain harvest in 100 years and replaced U.S. and European suppliers on global markets. Russia this year also became the world’s largest exporter of beet sugar, displacing France. Poultry and livestock are also well on the way to self-sufficiency. Even milk production, which was one of the least performing agricultural sectors seems to be turning the corner and attracting substantial investment with government encouragement.
Thirdly, the Russians came up with other pipelines and other partners to ensure their dominant position as provider of imported gas to the EU. Russia has maintained and even slightly expanded its share of the energy supplies to the EU. But let us remember that Russia never was and is not today a monopoly supplier. It accounts for 40 percent of EU gas imports and 30 percent of gas consumption.
Russia continues to work on solutions that ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, those supplies pass directly from its shores to the EU consumers.
Despite all the objections and difficulties raised by the U.S., by Poland, by the Baltic states, Russia continues to pursue the Nord Stream 2 project and has replaced the frustrated South Stream project by the Turk Stream, which is in early implementation stage.
Gas and oil production remain strong, and Russia has been developing its markets in Asia. First and foremost is with China for pipeline-supplied gas and oil. Existing contracts call for supply to China of more than $300 billion in gas over 20 years via the Power of Siberia pipeline now nearing completion. New markets are being opened in Eastern and Southeastern Asia for LNG [liquefied natural gas], which is being supplied from new Russian fields in the Far North (Yamal) and Eastern Siberia.
The government’s import substitution program in other economic sectors has been making some remarkable progress, achieving what was long beyond reach in Russia due to the key role and profitability of energy production in the economy and to an accommodating policy on imports within the context of WTO membership. Government-sponsored national heroes lead the way. We see this in the revived civilian aircraft production. Also in pharmaceuticals, to name just two sectors.
2. Deterrence parity.
The Russians have done exactly what Vladimir Putin said they would do: react in asymmetrical ways, finding defensive solutions entirely designed and produced at home that are vastly less expensive to implement than the offensive systems developed by the United States, but having all necessary potency to neutralize the American initiative and to render useless all the U.S. scheming at gaining a first-strike capability that would decapitate the enemy and spell military victory at one stroke.
That objective today has been stymied on a Russian military budget that is 10 times less than the U.S. spends, which consumes just 5 percent of Russian GNP. For those who find the Russian military budget high, let us remember that in Soviet times the military consumed 25 percent of GNP. That was unbearable. Five percent is wholly supportable by a motivated government supported by a patriotic-minded population. Moreover, to put this 60 billion dollar annual spend in another context, let us remember that Russia spent $51 billion on infrastructure projects to hold the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
The most stunning dimension of Russia’s successful pushback to the U.S.-led Western world has been geopolitical, entirely neutralizing the efforts to isolate Russia.
The historic geopolitical achievement of the Nixon-Kissinger period, namely making Washington closer to Beijing and Moscow than they are to one another, has been utterly undone. Russia and China today are in a de facto strategic alliance that is changing the geopolitical landscape of the globe and promises to change the economic power balance as well as they pursue determinedly a policy of removing the dollar from its pedestal as the world’s leading reserve currency. The key measures have been to claw away at the petrodollar, which going back to the 1970s is what built up the dollar to its unique standing. This position as prime reserve currency has been a major lever in U.S. global hegemony. Russian sales of oil to China are now in yuan, and this factor also explains how Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the leading oil supplier to China.
The Chinese and Russians have put in place new global financial infrastructure to prevent the U.S. from imposing on them what it did to Iran. These institutions are parallel and alternatives to the U.S.-controlled institutions dating from just after World War 2, like the IMF and World Bank.
Furthermore, Russia, like China, has been developing new sea and land lanes for global goods movements, including movement of hydrocarbons, that can replace and certainly reduce the importance of the U.S.-protected sea lanes through the Malacca Straits and Suez Canal. In the case of China, this is the well-known New Silk Road, or One Belt One Road. In the case of Russia, it is the lesser-known but also game-changing Northern Sea route secured by the world’s largest ice-breaker fleet, and also the expansion of rail capabilities to and in the Far East. The latter will include the building of a bridge from the Continent to Sakhalin Island, to be officially announced early in 2018, and the follow-on construction of a rail bridge to Japanese Hokkaido, which will be the lynch-pin of the coming Russian-Japanese Peace Treaty.
In speaking of the Russian-Chinese alliance, I fully acknowledge that this was not something arrived at naturally. The two countries have one of the longest common borders in the world, with a history of disputes going back more than a century.
There is the obvious point that the Russian side of the border is almost empty, while the Chinese side is brimming over with population. That these sides have come together is the result of both simultaneously coming under threat and containment measures led by the United States and its allies.
The U.S.-led effort to drive Russia from the Middle East by toppling the government of Bashar Assad in Syria, the one secular Arab state where the Russian Federation maintained a significant naval base supporting its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, has been the bellwether in the U.S.-initiated struggle with Russia to maintain global “leadership.” By all parameters, the U.S. proxies in Syria have been defeated.
The tide turned for the Assad regime when the Kremlin sent in its air force in September 2015. The game is almost up, and the net result for Russia and net loss for the United States is vastly greater than Syria itself.
The war zone became testing grounds for Russia’s latest precision weapons systems, command and control, space and drone reconnaissance. Russia demonstrated capabilities in conventional warfare that none of the NATO countries has separately or even collectively without the United States participation.
Russian self-confidence allowed them to feature their actions on television and in real time. All of this, combined with their demonstrated diplomatic skills in working harmoniously with regional states that have difficult relations among themselves, by working in great secrecy, and by showing loyalty to their allies have won for Russia newfound respect in the region and in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, we received still more interesting news demonstrating Russia’s upper hand in Syria and the Middle East. I have in mind the meeting of the Russian, the Iranian and the Turkish presidents in Sochi to agree to a common approach and procedures for a political settlement in Syria that brings in all domestic parties to the conflict. The three states will be co-guarantors of a congress of the Syrian parties to be convened in Sochi in order to define the parameters of a new inclusive Syrian constitution on the basis of which parliamentary elections can be held and the country can return to normal functioning. Iran, Turkey and Russia: once again an “unnatural” coalition brought together by common interest in putting an end to the civil war that is a hotbed of terrorism in the region and in the wider world. It is a major achievement of Russian diplomacy and political will in which the United States is now just a bystander. The tables have been turned and U.S. “leadership” in the Middle East is waning.
My point is that by pursuing its at times vicious campaign against Russia, the United States has been setting itself up for humiliation.
These are trend lines that preceded Donald Trump’s accession to power. His personal contribution through his chaotic administration, inconsistent if not contradictory policy decisions from day to day, unconcealed boorishness and regular betrayal of his close aides and supporters has been to further undermine faith among America’s friends and fear among its detractors. His questioning of NATO has sent European politicians into a fit of confusion and despair. All of this gives greater impetus to the decline of U.S. standing that it will be very hard for any successor in the White House to restore.
However, all the foregoing pales in significance compared to the ongoing risk of World War 3 and nuclear armageddon from the present dismal state of U.S.-Russian relations. There is little communication. There is still less mutual trust. The two powers operate in war theaters like Syria and Ukraine within close proximity and without well-established rules of conduct that developed in the original Cold War in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Missed signals, accidents in the field can lead unintentionally but surely to the outbreak of hostilities that would escalate very quickly from local events to worst-case scenarios on the global level.
I have little doubt that many of you see this statement as overdramatizing the risk of war. However, I wager that your feeling of security comes from simply not being informed.
Regrettably, the information war that developed over the past several years has entailed news blackouts here in Europe and in the U.S. regarding Russia-sourced news. Not news about Russia but news coming from Russia, meaning the policy statements, the other side of the argument.
Hence, you were not aware of how grave the situation became in September 2016 when U.S.-led forces attacked the Syrian positions in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates killing more than 80 Syrian troops and possibly some Russian advisers as well. That attack dealt a coup de grace to the cease-fire arrangements signed off by U.S. Secretary of State [John] Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov less than a week earlier. As the Russians saw it, the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter overruled the secretary of state and even the U.S . president who had backed the agreement with the Russians. The Kremlin saw a U.S. government out of control, whose signature on a document means nothing. It cut the lines of communication with the U.S. military command in Syria and threatened to shoot down allied aircraft over Syria.
Another very sharp confrontation during which the Russians delivered an ultimatum to the United States came in the days following Trump’s cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base April 7, 2017.
This and other key moments of stress in U.S.-Russian relations that were underreported or simply absent from Western reporting are given due attention in my book.
Did it have to be this way?
That is, for my opinion, a strictly rhetorical question. The answer is a resounding “no.” From 1993, when President [Boris] Yeltsin visited Warsaw and consented to Poland’s accession to NATO, the Kremlin sought and expected to be admitted to NATO itself. This wish to be integrated into a single security architecture was a consistent theme of Russian foreign policy through the Putin era right up to 2010, when it was reluctantly abandoned for a go-it-alone policy and emphasis on the sovereign state not entangled with security obligations to others.
Let us recall that in 2001, following the attack on the World Trade Center, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush to express support for the USA in its hour of confusion and fear. Putin did more than any of our allies to facilitate the U.S. counterattack in Afghanistan by opening up Russia’s backyard in Central Asia to American forces. He was repaid with a slap in the face: the cancellation of the ABM treaty and the pressing ahead with NATO expansion to the exclusion of Russia.
Is there a way out? A solution?
I do not come before you today with ready, definitive solutions. To do so would be to compromise the principle for which I and others have been fighting for the last several years when all debate and public discussion of our key security risks stopped. It would be to replace one solution arrived at behind closed doors with another arrived at behind closed doors. My first mission is to raise questions, to show that the answers which official Washington has been implementing are poorly conceived and ineffective, not to mention destructive for the Greater Middle East, where we have brought chaos from our democracy promotion.
But having issued that warning, I do not shy from offering a tentative recommendation on how to step back from the abyss and enter on new, more promising paths to dealing with a world order in profound change.
It took more than two decades for us to reach the present difficult and dangerous confrontation with Russia. This cannot be resolved with wave of a magic wand. But there is a way back.
And while some see a rosy day of U.S.-Russian strategic cooperation in many areas, I would be content if the chances of accidental or intentional war between these two powers were vastly reduced. This is an objective which I believe is attainable fairly quickly.
The neocons faulted the détente policy with trying to manage a relationship, a coexistence with the Soviet Union which they believed was the wrong goal, when the destruction of the Soviet Union was achievable. They were almost right. The Soviet Union collapsed, but of its own weight, due to its own contradictions and the failures of Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic policies.
However, the destruction of Russia, which is arguably the objective of U.S. foreign policy today, is unattainable, or comes at the price of collective suicide. The Russian economy is today very well-managed by world-class professionals. It is a typically European mixed social and market economy. Meanwhile, the broad population is mobilized around the leadership and quite patriotic. We have no choice but to manage relations and coexist with Russia as it is. In doing so, we will comply with the Kremlin’s insistent demand that its strategic national interests not be violated and that it be treated with respect which it will repay in kind.