You’re wrong about Russia (and ex-diplomats), Mr MacShane

I have spent the last few days with a couple of former colleagues trying to get together a group of former British diplomats willing to sign a joint letter to The Times in reply to one by Denis MacShane, MP, published on 3 September (a pregnant date).  There was a widespread consensus among those whom we approached about the profoundly mistaken policies of the British and American governments in relation to Russia in general and the Georgia conflict in particular.  But some of those who had occupied key positions in the area during their diplomatic careers, and whose signatures were needed if the letter was to make any significant impact, now hold post-retirement appointments in both the public and private sectors, some actually in Russia, and are consequently precluded from joining in controversial expressions of opinion of this kind.  So we reluctantly decided to abandon the idea of a joint letter to The Times, despite many expressions of support for the point of view it expressed.

My own views on the way to handle relations with Russia and the folly of seeking to bring countries like Georgia or Ukraine into NATO will be clear from the most cursory glance at  my recent blog posts, e.g. here, here and here.   But since the decision has been taken not to pursue the idea of a letter to The Times, putting the draft of that letter on this blog seems to be the next best thing;  better, anyway, than simply chucking it in the waste-paper basket, or its electronic equivalent.

Most of Mr MacShane's letter was devoted to an attempted rebuttal of an earlier article by Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador in Washington (and famously the author of a racy, indiscreet and highly readable book about his time there).  As MacShane's rebuttal depended on a pretty blatant misquotation from and misrepresentation of what Meyer had actually written, it was hardly worth dignifying it with a reply.  But MacShane ended by implicitly categorising Russian action in Georgia and South Ossetia as "big power bullying", accurately echoing comments by our foreign secretary and prime minister and thus official government policy:

Vienna in 1815 and Yalta in 1945 are symptomatic of big states thinking they can dictate to the rest of Europe.  Far from creating peace, big power bullying stores up new hates and divisions. One can only hope the Foreign Secretary is getting better historical advice than that on offer from most retired ambassadors who have opined on the present crisis.

This casually gratuitous slur on a group of people who have more practical experience of international affairs than most seemed as good a peg as any on which to hang a letter about the regrettable direction currently being taken by our government in its handling, or mis-handling, of relations with Russia and misguided attitudes to the conflict in Georgia.  This is what we were going to write:

Russia and Georgia
Sir, Denis MacShane MP (Europe at war, letters, 3 September — appropriate date), having contradicted by misquoting Christopher Meyer’s assertion that the Congress of Vienna had helped avert "a general European war" for a hundred years, denounces the views of "most retired ambassadors who have opined on the present crisis" in Georgia.  He dismisses Russia's reaction to Georgia's reckless attempt to regain control over South Ossetia by force, and Russian objections to NATO membership for Georgia or Ukraine, as "big power bullying". The undersigned, all former British ambassadors, believe that this is a serious misjudgement and a potentially disastrous guide to western policy towards Russia.  Some of us were among the 52 former senior diplomats who signed a much publicised open letter in 2004 to the then prime minister criticising current policies on Iraq and Israel/Palestine: the views we expressed then have been spectacularly vindicated by subsequent events.

None of us condones the brutal overreaction and excesses of Russia's military intervention in Georgia, nor her continued occupation of Georgian territory. But the west's expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ring hollow in Russian ears after the US- and UK-led western rush to recognize Kosovo. Small countries bordering big and powerful states have always had to pay some regard to the interests and security concerns of their neighbours, or paid a heavy price for not doing so (cf Cuba and the US). Of course Russia cannot have a veto on membership of NATO; Georgia or Ukraine or Moldova are free to apply. In the same way, Turkey is free to apply for membership of the EU, and has been doing so for a generation. But it is for the existing members to decide whether or not to admit a new member; traditionally NATO has not admitted countries with unresolved territorial issues, like Georgia; and it is by no means certain that a majority of Ukrainians want to join NATO. 

If Denis MacShane doesn’t think much of the views of former British Ambassadors, perhaps he might respect the views of an experienced former US ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock, who has pointed out that —
so far as respecting the territorial integrity of other countries, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq without UNSC sanction also set an unfortunate precedent. (And, one might argue, the protection of the Kurds from Saddam Hussein in sovereign Iraq.) Appeals to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act have little resonance because one of these principles (which was observed during the Cold War, and right up to and through the dissolution of the Soviet Union) was that recognized borders can only be changed by mutual consent. The formal recognition of Kosovo independence without Serbia's approval was a direct violation of this principle.” 

He also urges that Georgia's future lies in developing the areas it really controls, making clear that it will not use force to try to regain South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and "taking care — the way the Finns have done ever since the Winter War — not to poke Russia in the eye."

The enlargement of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic made sense for historical, political and geographical reasons, but to continue enlargement for short-term political gain and to take advantage of Russia's perceived weakness until all Russia’s European neighbours are included in NATO does not. NATO could not possibly defend most of them short of using the nuclear deterrent. Those of us with experience of dealing with Russia both in Soviet and post-Soviet times know that Russians have historically always been preoccupied by fears of encirclement by a potentially hostile west, and concerned that their immediate neighbours should never fall under the influence of a potential great power adversary. Whether such fears are well founded in Russia's experience over centuries is irrelevant: as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. 

Our aim must be to develop a relationship with Russia based on partnership, cooperation, and mutual accommodation to each other's legitimate interests and concerns. The way to achieve this lies in the broadest possible engagement with Russia — in the G8, in the WTO, in every institution where our and their worries can be discussed and addressed. The current demands made in Washington, London and elsewhere for measures to 'punish' Russia by isolating her are dangerously misconceived. Isolation can only reinforce Russian paranoia and provoke more bad behaviour that is in no-one's interest — least of all our own. Baiting the country which Sir Terence Garvey memorably described as "a bear of uncertain temper" is irresponsible and dangerous. To label those who recognise this as followers of appeasement only compounds the folly.

A text produced by several different hands and designed to reflect the majority view of many more is bound to involve compromises:  no-one is likely to agree with every word and every sentence of it.  Thus I have my own reservations about the draft's assertion that "The enlargement of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic made sense for historical, political and geographical reasons":  this probably represents the majority view of those who were willing to co-sign the letter, but I continue to believe that even that initial expansion of NATO was a mistake, not only because it tended to feed Russian paranoia and thus to encourage a recrudescence of cold war frictions and misunderstandings, but also because it undermined the credibility of the collective security guarantee embodied in NATO membership.  We should not be making even implicit promises to give military support to countries in the event of their getting into a brawl with Russia if by fulfilling our promise we would risk starting a third world war between massively armed nuclear powers, something no government in its right mind would seriously contemplate doing.  To make such a promise gives its recipient a false sense of security, which may encourage it to act recklessly in defiance of a big and powerful neighbour — exactly as happened when Georgia foolishly tried to re-establish control of South Ossetia by force in the teeth of predictable Russian opposition.  It also devalues the NATO guarantee itself.  In 1939, as almost any Pole over the age of 50 will be happy to remind you, we had promised military support to Poland if she was attacked by Germany.  In the event we were quite unable to honour that promise: we should have known when we gave it that we would not be able to honour it.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we have promises to keep, and we do well to be sure we can keep them before we make them.  By encouraging the likes of Georgia and Ukraine to believe that NATO membership is within their grasp, and that the benefits of membership may already be available to them, we are practising a cruel deception on them, undermining the prospects for a relationship with Russia of mutual respect and maximum cooperation, and making future conflict in an always volatile region much likelier.

None of us is happy about the ugly aspects of Putin's post-Soviet Russia.  But she is a great nuclear power with a great and tragic history, one that did more than any other to defeat Hitler when all Europe and much of Asia was in danger of being overrun by fascism, possessor of huge energy resources which we need to be able to buy but which she needs to be able to sell, unrivalled contributor to European culture in every conceivable field, manic-depressive and often overwhelmed by an undeserved inferiority complex, dangerously humiliated by the failure of the huge disastrous Soviet experiment, proud and defiantly patriotic, paranoid about western intentions towards her out of a combination of neurosis and experience, and still after all the centuries of engagement with the world wholly devoid of the experience of democracy.  We have to learn to live at peace with this extraordinary friendly-suspicious-hostile unpredictable big grizzly bear — as Sir Terence Garvey, quoted in our abortive letter to the Establishment's house organ, accurately described her — and we won't do it by constantly baiting her.

Update (13 Sept 08):  My most stringent (living-in) critic berates me, justly, for having failed to make it sufficiently clear in this post that a number of those who responded to our trawl for signatures to our draft letter disagreed, often strongly, with almost all of it, one even suspecting that its effect, had it been published, would have been to give aid and comfort to Moscow as a validation of the Russian invasion of Georgia (although it's fair to say that we expressly condemned the Russian action);  a former ambassador to Georgia and a former ambassador to Ukraine were two of the most eloquent dissenters, perhaps predictably.  Some other refuseniks disliked the idea of a group of former British diplomats publicly criticising government policy; some opposed any collective expression of opinion by retired public servants.  On the other hand, those willing to sign included a former ambassador to Moscow, a former ambassador to NATO and a former UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations.  Opinion among former practitioners of our dubious trade is thus sharply divided.  I am glad to acknowledge the arguments of those who dissented, without of course agreeing with them.


1 Response

  1. Lorna says:

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