Russia in Afghanistan and Vietnam by mattsteinglass
February 23, 2009, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Clifford J. Levy’s piece in yesterday’s NY Times wavers interestingly between two ways of talking about intentionality in foreign relations. Russia has been making apparently contradictory moves over the past month or two, persuading Kyrgyzstan to close its Manas airbase to US forces in Afghanistan, while at the same time welcoming overtures by US Vice President Biden at Munich and hinting at a thaw in relations and cooperation on Afghanistan. The title of Levy’s piece, “Poker-faced, Russia Flaunts Its Afghan Card”, describes the obvious explanation of the moves: Russia is showing that it has the power to prevent the US from operating in Central Asia, and demanding that whatever NATO does in Afghanistan be done through Russia. While cooperation on Afghanistan may be in both sides’ interests, Russia has a strong interest in protecting its status as the gatekeeper. There’s no particular difference between this and the “carrot and stick” diplomacy the US employs constantly, except that the US version is supposed to be explicit and is usually couched in terms of some beneficent moral world-order (which may, in practice, be only a minor factor driving US policy).

On the other hand, Levy’s article also speaks of “contradictory impulses” and “Russia’s ambivalence”. At first I found this irritating; there was no need to be confused about what Russia is doing here, and when US SecDef Robert Gates says Russia is trying to “have it both ways” on Afghanistan, he seems completely off the mark. When Adrian Barksdale beats up some street dealers operating unauthorized in his territory in the Towers, then goes to their boss and says he hopes they can continue working together according to their longstanding agreements, he’s not trying to “have it both ways”; he’s enforcing his claim to hegemony over his neighborhood.

But on second thought, I think Levy’s reference to “ambivalence” is actually smart and interesting. It is true that different players within the policymaking elite of any country have different views, and diplomatic moves by a country emanate out of a profusion of interests which are held by different players. It’s a bit naive to treat the actions of any country as if they arise out of a single unitary intentionality rather than out of a contest between different interested players within that country’s hierarchy. One of the biggest mistakes the US made in Vietnam was to view moves by Hanoi as emanating from a single global “Communist” intentionality, rather than differentiating between the motives of different players. Of course one of the problems is that Vietnamese and Russian governing institutions are extremely opaque, so even if one wanted to give full credit to the complexity of different players’ interests and actions, it’s usually almost impossible to discern what they are.


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