Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Anyone wishing to master the art of confusing the issues, scoring effective but unfair debating points, and persuading others to miss the point, should make a study of what is widely accepted in the West today as enlightened, liberal discussion of international politics. Many politicians, some of whom perhaps agree with Wilde's proposition that to be understood is to be found out, make no sustained or imaginative effort at clarifying issues and explaining policies; and many intellectuals seem to consider marching, sitting, signing, visiting, going to jail and attending conferences (all activities which involve contributing prestige rather than intellectual talent) as more important political activities than attempting to raise the standard of public discussion. Debating devices which are manifestly unfair and which can do nothing but mislead are accepted as normal weapons of controversy, even by, and in fact especially by, those who make the highest moral claims for their case. Such techniques are not for the most part new, but it is interesting and perhaps important to see how they are applied to the facts of contemporary international politics.
Here, then, is a short list of techniques of confusion that seem to be meeting with considerable success. The list does not claim to be comprehensive; others will be able to add their own examples.
The first technique is to confuse ends and means by insisting on treating a disagreement about means as if it were a disagreement about ends. This involves the initial tactic of appropriating some widely accepted goal to the particular means being advocated. It is seen in operation in Britain at present in controversies about disarmament. Almost invariably, except when some lunatic fringe is involved, these are controversies about means. They arise because people give different answers to questions as to the best way of securing peace. Is it better to be well armed in the hope of securing peace? Or is it better to adopt one of the innumerable schemes for disarmament? These are serious questions and there is much to be said either way. But instead of saying it, some of the participants (and usually, though by no means always, it is the ones in favor of disarmament) are certain to convert the argument about means into one about ends. Opposition to a particular means, e.g. unilateral disarmament, is treated as if it is opposition to the goal, i.e. peace-which is, in fact, held in common. Then all reason goes out through the window as phrases like "enemies of peace" and "warmongers" are bandied freely about.
Different countries provide different examples. In America this appropriation of common goals is attempted most frequently perhaps by the extreme right which tries to corner the market in anti-Communism. Anyone who does not accept its bludgeoning methods, who does not believe that sacrificing civil rights is a necessary part of an effective response to the Communist threat, who argues that complex and subtle attacks may require complex and subtle defenses, is in danger of being attacked as "soft on Communism."
This particular gambit stands first in my list because it not only creates confusion and misunderstanding, which is serious enough, but it also embitters and poisons public discussion to an extreme degree. It makes disagreements appear much more fundamental and irreconcilable than they really are because, in so far as it is successful, it converts intellectual differences into moral differences, into a disagreement about goals. It is one thing to tell a man that he has made an error of calculation; it is quite another thing to tell him that he is really against what he says he stands for.
The second technique is to dismiss good arguments on the grounds that they are capable of being abused, or, closely related to it, to regard the imputation of motive as a sufficient reply to such arguments. These methods are frequently encountered by someone who points out the difficulties and dangers attached to a course of action. Examples appear constantly in discussions about colonial issues. Thus some will argue that democratic self-government is not the sole alternative to colonial government, that in many cases civil war, anarchy, dictatorship or occupation by another and more oppressive foreign power may more likely result, and that in such instances there is a strong case-strong at least for those who believe in democracy-for supporting the continuation of colonial rule until such time as genuine self-government is a real possibility (simultaneously doing everything possible to hasten that time). This argument is likely to be met not with a refutation but with the reply that it is the classic excuse of the reactionary, that for him the time is never right, that he can always find reasons for perpetuating a régime which is in his own interest.
Now it is true that an argument of this sort can be abused, but it does not follow that the argument is invalid or should be abandoned. Any argument at all can be wrongly applied, and if one accepted this reasoning one would simply have to stop thinking and discussing. The conclusions that do follow are that great care must be taken in accepting such an argument, that one should be vigilant in distinguishing between proper and improper uses of it, and that everything possible should be done to expose misuses of it. These are, admittedly, more difficult and time-consuming tasks than simply shouting "Fraud!" and "Immediate self-government!" and pretending that this constitutes an adequate reply; but then an intellectual's lot was ever a hard one.
Probably one reason why liberals cannot take such arguments seriously, but dismiss them out of hand as being the excuses of interested parties, is that, despite recent experience, they find great difficulty in considering the possibility of a change as being anything but a change for the better. Not long ago Edmund Wilson remarked that men of his generation and background find it extraordinarily difficult to divest themselves of the assumption of inevitable progress. They were brought up on it, their whole picture of the universe was constructed around it and, however much events may seem to refute it, they still cling to it. To the extent that this is so it constitutes a very great handicap for anyone trying to appraise what is possible and what is not possible in the world today.
I do not want to suggest that this form of debate is peculiar to one country or one political group; on the contrary, it is very widespread. Just as liberals often dismiss what may be a sound argument as a dishonest attempt to justify vested interests, so their arguments are in turn often dismissed, unexamined, as selfish attempts to assuage guilty consciences or as symptoms of a destructive self-hate or as a manifestation of envy. This tendency to question motives as a substitute for genuine argument, to shift attention in debate from issues to persons, may be in part a consequence of the popularization and vulgarization of psychology. Carried far enough, it rules out discussion of any kind, even of motives themselves, since it denies the possibility of a disinterested view. Faced with it, one can only keep insisting that if an argument is a good one, it is good whatever the motive of the person putting it forward. Only when an argument has been shown to be unsound can an examination of motives serve some useful purpose in discovering the cause of error. Sidney Hook once expressed this as a rule of controversy: "Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they may legitimately be impugned, answer his arguments."
Another way of causing confusion and creating a distorted picture of world politics which has a considerable vogue at present is to anticipate history by a process which may be described as the projecting of presumed characteristics of the future backward into the present. This intellectual device can frequently be seen in discussions involving China. It is true that China will, if the pace of development achieved in the last ten years is maintained, and if other countries do not substantially increase their rate of growth, be one of the two or three greatest powers in the world by the end of the century. But this is no reason for proceeding as if it had already achieved this status, which is what many commentators on international affairs do, contrasting what is usually called "this new giant" or, depending on style, "this looming, menacing colossus," with the older countries of the West, to the detriment of the latter. The fact is that, in 1961, China is not in terms of power a giant at all, whatever it may become by 1991; and while the possibility of a tremendously strong China should be borne in mind in formulating long-term policy, to pretend that it already exists is to distort reality and to add to our problems unnecessarily.
China is not an isolated instance. To a lesser degree, the same process takes place in discussions about the "emergent" nations of Asia and Africa, which are credited now with the power and sense of responsibility which it is predicted they will have in the future. This accounts partly at least for the exaggeration of their importance in current international affairs.
When a country like Britain is being discussed, on the other hand, the device is used to obtain the reverse effect. Because British power has been declining in recent years, it is taken for granted that the same downward curve will inevitably continue; the collapse of British power is then projected from an imagined future into the real present; and discussion proceeds on the basis that Britain is already washed up. From assuming certain things about the future relative power of China and Britain, many commentators go on to elaborate arguments based on the thesis that the former is a much more potent factor than the latter in the world today. Indeed, one would hardly guess that the announced target of the Chinese Communists is to catch up with the British economy by 1970-a target which, even if they achieve it, will still leave them with an income per head of less than one-twelfth that of the British; and, of course, the new "giant" will still be far, far behind the United States and the Soviet Union.
Now this sort of thing is not new. Orwell noted 15 years ago that it was the method habitually used by James Burnham, who simply predicted the continuation of whatever was happening at the time he was writing. As the situation changes, this of course leads to contradictory predictions. It also leads to a situation where "whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible," Orwell claimed that the tendency of some commentators to proceed in this way "is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration which can be corrected by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice." He linked it with the defeatism of English intellectuals during those periods of the last war when things were not going well, remarking that "the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory," What is true of a war is also true of a cold war.
A fourth device is the use of multi-meaning words or phrases, Many of the key words in discussions about the cold war have more than one meaning. By a judicious but unacknowledged switch from one meaning to another during the course of discussion it is often possible to get people to agree with something which they would strongly oppose if they understood clearly what was going on.
The classic multi-meaning concept is, of course, "coexistence." There are at least two quite distinct meanings of coexistence. In the first place there is coexistence in the military sense, that is, acceptance by both sides of the fact of military stalemate and agreement not to go to war. Secondly, there is what Irving Howe has conveniently called "moral coexistence" which involves not merely not going to war, but doing as much as possible to become more friendly with the other side, accepting the other system as politically and morally valid, not being critical of it, and relaxing military preparedness.
The two meanings are, of course, quite distinct. One can consistently accept the fact of military stalemate and still reject "moral coexistence" completely. In practice, however, they are not kept distinct, and there tends to be a sliding back and forth from one meaning to another. When a commentator sets out to persuade people to accept coexistence as something desirable he usually gives it its narrower meaning, since the case for that is easier to make. In fact, the basic argument for coexistence, summed up in the phrase "coexistence or no-existence," will support only military coexistence; the case it sets forth derives its force from fear-it is a case for not initiating war and for nothing else. But this argument having been accepted, the advocates of coexistence then proceed as if the case for "moral coexistence" had been made also. This is clear from the fact that if all that was meant was military coexistence there would be no need to get passionate about advocating it-it already exists.
"Coexistence" is not the only concept which allows its advocates to move among several meanings and to choose the best of several worlds. Other important concepts like "disengagement," "free world" and "neutralism" share the same characteristic. "Disengagement" can mean anything from the creation of a demilitarized and neutral Germany to the complete withdrawal of all armed forces behind their own national boundaries. "Free world" sometimes refers to all those countries which are not under Communist control; sometimes it is restricted to the members of various alliances; and sometimes it is restricted even further and used to refer only to the dozen or so genuine democracies. "Neutralism" can mean old-fashioned neutrality in the Swiss sense, or it can mean membership in the Afro-Asian bloc and very active interference in the affairs of the world at large.
Number five is insisting on applying irrelevant tests. An example will best explain this technique. Western democracies, in the process of defending themselves against Communism, often ally themselves with countries which are not democratic; and these alliances provide a basis for much effective criticism by those who wish to discredit the West, and are a cause of much embarrassment to those who support it. A few years ago the best example of such an alliance was that with South Korea; currently it might be that with Portugal. The effectiveness of the criticism and the strength of the embarrassment stem from treating as relevant the question: "Is the régime in Portugal one of which genuine democrats can approve?" As the answer to this question is clearly "no," the way is then open for denouncing the alliance and for accusing the West in general of hypocrisy.
The error in this manner of proceeding is that what is at issue here is not approval or disapproval of a régime but approval or disapproval of an alliance with the régime, and these are two very different matters. The character of the régime is only one factor entering into a calculation of the wisdom or morality of such an alliance. If an alliance with a non- democratic régime strengthens genuinely democratic countries (by, for example, better enabling them to withstand attack from another more powerful and aggressive and immediately menacing non-democratic régime), then a democrat both can and should support such an alliance; and no sacrifice of principle is involved. This was seen clearly during the last war when it was not felt necessary to approve or condone Communism in order to support the alliance with the Soviet Union required to defeat Hitler. Similarly today, approval of an alliance with a state need not involve approval of the régime within that state. To think that it does is a mistake made not only by critics of the West but also by those of its defenders who spend much time and effort in futile attempts to show that countries like Portugal are not really dictatorships.1
Two additional points are worth making. First, to agree that Portugal, South Korea, South Viet Nam and others are not democracies is not to admit that "they are as bad as the Soviet Union." For what makes the Soviet Union "bad" in terms of international politics is not merely or even primarily its internal character but the fact that it is aggressive and expansionist. Because of its ideology and its power, it provides a threat to democracy and liberty throughout the world. Portugal, for example, does not. Secondly, I am concerned here not with justifying the Portuguese alliance but with showing the proper test by which to judge it. If this test is applied, I think that in fact there is very strong ground for concluding that it is, all things considered, an unwise alliance.
I have left until last the most widely used of the techniques under discussion, partly because it has already become notorious. This is the use of a double standard in judging the respective actions of Western countries and Communist countries. A minor but striking example occurred recently in what might be called the "winemanship" of international politics. Many intellectuals in Britain were active a year or two ago trying to organize a boycott of South African wines, as a protest against the injustice and tyranny perpetuated by the South African government. Recently, during an exhibition of Russian products in London, some of the same people were writing appreciative little paragraphs about the charm of Georgian wines and giving advice as to which were the best to buy. There was no suggestion anywhere that people should refuse to buy these wines as a gesture of protest against the denial of liberty in the Soviet Union. On the contrary, the general line was that an increase of trade with the Communist world, in the interest of "better relations," was highly desirable.
A more serious example is the way in which different attitudes are adopted toward the United Nations and its Charter on different occasions. Actions by Western governments are regularly condemned in some quarters as being "inconsistent with the United Nations Charter" or a "betrayal of our obligations under the Charter." On these occasions, political morality is equated with obedience to the Charter, and any defense of a certain action in terms of vital interests or political reality is brushed aside. But it is from the same quarters that the demand for the admission of Communist China to the United Nations comes. Now according to the Charter there is no room in the organization for a state which regards a military conflict with other states both as inevitable and desirable, as the Chinese Communist Government does. It can be argued, and it may well be true, that the United Nations would function better if China and other states not now members were admitted, that this would be politically more realistic. This is a valid line of argument; but it is not a line which can properly be taken by those who insist that the Charter stands above any consideration of interest or reality, and that consistency with it is the highest political obligation. Neither are they entitled to argue for China's admission because other states who do not fulfill the conditions laid down in the Charter are already in. This is a realistic argument and they have committed themselves to the view that realism must be subordinated to consistency with the Charter. Having committed themselves thus, the only consistent action for them is not to try to get China into the United Nations, but to try to get those countries which do not conform with the Charter out of it-however difficult that may seem.
There are various ways in which one can assess, compare or judge the two sides in the cold war. One way is to hold both of them alongside a Utopian ideal-the perfect democratic state or the perfect socialist state-and see how they measure up. Another way is to compare each with an earlier version of itself and to assess the progress it has or has not made. Now if the first of these methods is applied to one side-if, that is, Western countries are always judged by standards of perfection-while the second method is applied to the other-if the Soviet régime of today is compared with the Stalinist régime of the thirties or with Tsarist Russia-the whole process is rigged in favor of the latter. Or again, if each is judged "in terms of its own moral values" the comparison is unfair and useless (the Nazi régime would have come out well from such a test).
Another way of applying a double standard is by ignoring magnitude. Thus a single fall from grace by one side is equated with systematic evil on the other. As Professor Seton-Watson once pointed out, in the minds of some Western intellectuals a single lynching in the Southern states of America is treated as if it were the equivalent of the murder by starvation of a hundred thousand Ukrainians by the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the commonest, simplest and safest way of all of applying a double standard is merely to be silent about the sins of one side while commenting on and condemning the sins of the other. After all, what you do not say cannot be quoted against you.
Some of the worst offenders in applying a double standard are the spokesmen of the non-aligned states, who employ it not only when commenting on the cold war (see Nehru's reactions to Suez and Hungary respectively) but also when comparing their own actions with those of Western powers (see Nehru's different attitudes when the U.N. interferes in any Western colonial dispute and when it interferes in Kashmir or seeks to interfere in Goa). It might be said that this is perfectly understandable in view of the historical background of these countries; but to understand something is not to justify it, and all this amounts to saying is that there are good reasons to explain why the non-aligned nations do not have the moral superiority they claim.
Sometimes, under pressure, those who employ double standards seek to justify what they are doing by saying that of course they expect a higher standard of behavior from the West than from the Soviet Union; or that they make more of Western sins because they can hope to influence Western behavior while no such hope exists in the case of the Soviet Union. But as in most cases the whole tenor of their argument is that one side is as bad as the other, and as they frequently claim that Western democracy is a sham, it is difficult to take these justifications seriously.
It is not only left-wing critics of the West who employ double standards; they also appear regularly in the arguments of its defenders. But this latter habit, however deplorable and however much it deserves exposure, is hardly surprising, for people have always tended to give their own side the benefit in this way. We are automatically on our guard against it and make allowances for it. What is novel in the present situation is that people who insist that they are loyal to the West and what it stands for persist in operating the double standard in favor of its enemies.
The foregoing list makes no claim to being exhaustive; neither is it a balanced list, for it takes most of its examples from British political discussion, this article having been written in Britain and under the stimulus of things read and heard there. No doubt someone writing in another country would have placed the emphasis differently. However, I think the methods described are in common use in all the Western democracies. In so far as this is the case, the ability of people to see things as they are is impaired and the quality of the public debate in those democracies (and there is little public debate elsewhere) is lowered. Whether these techniques are employed consciously or unconsciously is an important question if one is concerned about the psychology of those who use them; but it is not of consequence in assessing their effect-which is to encourage muddled thinking, the assumption of irrational guilt, contempt for politics and politicians, and the perpetuation of illusions about how international politics really work. If, as we are often told, the battle is for men's minds, these fraudulent techniques amount collectively to a formidable fifth column. 1 I am aware that a moral absolutist would reject my argument here and would insist that a means is either good or bad in itself and that a bad means cannot be justified in terms of a good end. I believe, however, that among those who oppose these alliances the number of honest and consistent absolutists is negligible, and that this can be demonstrated by an examination of their general political position.