CULTURE

Westsplaining versus eastsplaining | Eurozine

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Westsplaining emerged in the 1990s but gained visibility when Russia escalated its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Political scientists Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz describe the phenomenon as an ‘unending stream of Western scholars and pundits’ that ‘condescend to explain the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.’ And the gist of this ‘explanation’ is that ‘the situation’ came about when Western malice and recklessness were amplified by East European egocentrism. In the aftermath of communism’s implosion, Westsplainers aver, Russia could have been unproblematically integrated into something described as a ‘pan-European security system’. Instead, the West engineered NATO’s eastward expansion. Westsplaining proposes that Moscow, in feeling excluded and threatened, has been acting in self-defence on morally and rationally unimpeachable ‘Russian logic and motives’.

Eastsplaining, as I construe it here, is a response to Westsplaining. Ad nationem disputation, or the propensity to summarily dismiss East European views, thoroughly permeates Westsplainers’ rhetoric about NATO’s post-1989 evolution: these views, in reflecting the historical experiences of peoples linked to a particular part of the world, are perceived as somehow flawed. This propensity is both intellectually incapacitating and politically injurious. While Eastsplaining might be seen as a form of moral pleading – or voicing of the heartfelt grievances of small nations that have been repeatedly betrayed in the past, urged to get to grips with their own marginalized situatedness today – this opinion isn’t accentuated here. Rather, I demonstrate that if Westsplainers silence Eastsplainers, grave policy errors might be committed as a result. Thankfully, Westsplainers have failed to entrench themselves as a globally hegemonic elite faction so far and East Europeans aren’t being systematically muzzled. But unless the tendency to expunge the perspectives of East Europeans on developments related to their own region, Ukraine, Russia and NATO is thwarted, the West’s collective decisions, which such developments necessitate, will be based on ignorance and wishful thinking rather than empirically grounded deliberations and hard-nosed assessment of probabilities and odds.

More than political furniture

All Eastsplainers share the opinion that East Europeans possess agency and are capable of formulating and pursuing their own foreign policy agendas. In contrast, some Westsplainers seem convinced that East Europeans are nothing but pawns moved around by jingoistic, greedy geopolitical masters.

According to one particular version of Westsplaining, NATO’s eastward enlargement was driven exclusively by American political elites’ insatiable desire to expand the global writ of their imperial power at the expense of Russia, and by the profit-maximizing strategies of the military industrial complex. For example, hard-core Westsplainer John Mearsheimer incessantly repeats that tensions in the post-Soviet European space began to fester when ‘the Clinton administration … began pushing for NATO to expand’ and several East European countries were thereafter ‘brought in’, an expression that suggests that East Europeans possessed as much agency as furniture installed in a renovated apartment.

The ‘business side’ of NATO’s expansion is ‘highlighted’ in an open letter released on the website of the Eisenhower Media Network in the aftermath of Russia’s attack. The dozen ‘national security experts’ who signed it, including fanatical Westsplainer Jeffrey Sachs, presented a summary of the events that ‘served to provoke Russian fears’ and deemed it imperative to inform the world that in 1996 ‘a group of neoconservatives and top executives of US weapons manufacturers formed the US Committee to Expand NATO’ and ‘the largest arms manufacturer spent over $51 million on lobbying’. But they failed to even mention that a number of East European countries had already applied for, and energetically sought, NATO membership by that point. The overarching message is clear: NATO’s membership increased solely because the US decided to stick it to the Russians and then enable ‘weapons manufacturers’ to make some money in the process.

How should Eastsplainers react to this blatant erasure of East European agency from the historical record? The following is an analogy to which Eastsplainers could resort that highlights how such manipulative deletions suit boilerplate thinking but obviate efforts to learn and understand. Imagine that in the 1990s a self-anointed Western sage opines that the end of apartheid had nothing to do with the actions of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress but everything to do with the pressure exerted by American politicians bent upon revamping the balance of power in sub-Saharan Africa, and with large corporations scheming to replace embargos with free trade. Surely, it would have been pointed out to him that his ‘explanation’ smacked of Western supremacy, because it unambiguously implies that the only modes of agency that matter geopolitically are the ones with which Western actors (politicians as well as capitalists) are endowed. But a more devastating charge would be that he has no idea what had been going on in South Africa from the late 1940s until the late 1980s. It is the same charge that Eastsplainers should level against Westsplainers whose accounts of NATO’s expansion erase Vaclav Havel and the Visegrád Four when obsessing about the US arms industry. Such accounts straitjacket complex dynamics propelled by a multiplicity of agents into a one-size-fits-all narrative about how American imperialists and capitalists ruthlessly pursue their interests across the globe.

The acknowledgement that East Europeans shaped these dynamics is not just a matter of getting the story right. It is also a forewarning of what might happen if US and EU policymakers assume that East Europeans will do whatever they are told. What Western gurus fail to comprehend is that if some of the countries in the region are ‘assigned’ to a sphere of influence which Russians, according to their unassailable ‘logic and motives’, consider their own, the emergent status quo will never be stable because it will flagrantly contradict East European aspirations.

When Gavrilo Princip, a defiant East European unhappy with the demarcation of sphere of interest brokered by great powers, shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, his action triggered a massive geopolitical crisis with unpredictable consequences. Such crises may well happen again if the assorted Westsplainers’ view that East Europeans lack agency prevails.

The dubious upbeat narrative

Truth be told, most Westsplainers do recognize that East Europeans have agency, but they find this fact profoundly irritating. So what is it that provokes Western intellectual elites’ ire exactly? They find another fundamental Eastsplainer proposition frustrating: namely that East Europeans can and should make important contributions to the conversation about the possible futures of post-Soviet Russia.

For Westsplainers, the conversation starts with Russia’s miraculous rebirth in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion, which a constantly malevolent West might imperil. Russia emerged brimming with desire to democratize and cooperate with the rest of the world, or so the story goes. Westsplainers never mention Francis Fukuyama, but their analyses of 1990s Russia invariably proceed as if everything the American political scientist wrote was true: the country’s centuries-long history of domestic repressions and foreign aggressions had ended. Its public sphere was shaped by Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’, which explicitly acknowledged that democracy has no alternatives. Domestic reforms were steered by the likes of Gaidar and Yavlinsky, politicians who did their utmost to replicate what was considered the only ‘working’ model: a market-based liberal-constitutional system. And its international affairs were run by pro-Western politicians – like foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev – bent upon demonstrating what a reliable and benevolent partner Russia could be.

Of course, Westsplainers hasten to add that the outcome of the transformations wasn’t predetermined. The key factor that would determine their fate was the West’s behaviour. The reforms would be successfully wrapped up if Western politicians treated Russia ‘properly’: ritualistically reaffirming the ‘obvious’ truth that, while all states are equal, Russia is a regional hegemon far more equal than any East European country or the former Soviet Republic; or granting it veto power over decisions supposedly affecting its national security. But if the Kremlin’s logic and motives were subjected to critical scrutiny, a wonderful opportunity to turn Russia into a normal country would be wasted.

From the point of view of anyone who buys this upbeat narrative, the problem with Eastsplainers is precisely that they dare to question and even oppose Moscow’s demands. Westsplainers graciously concede that nations across Eastern Europe have had some unpleasant encounters with Russia/the Soviet Union in the past. Unfortunately, however, East Europeans, it is ventured, have been so traumatized by such encounters that they cannot think straight. And that is why, Westsplainers resolutely hold, to allow Eastsplainers to participate in the conversation about Russia would be the equivalent of letting the lunatics take over the asylum.

Belligerent Westsplainer Clare Daly, for example, used her access to the floor of the European Parliament to denounce the ‘East European far right’ as purveyors of ‘hysteria’ and ‘lunacy’ who threaten ‘to undermine Russia’. Seasoned Westsplainer Anatol Lieven agrees: ‘Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and historically embittered Swedes, Poles and Balts’ … ‘Involving them in the negotiations will simply be a recipe for making the entire process hostage to elements opposed to any settlement at all.’ Prolific journalist James Carden is incensed by the fact that a nefarious ‘Captive Nations Lobby’ composed of ‘immigrants and their descendants from the Balts, Poland, Ukraine and parts of Western Russia … connected through marriage to foreign officials’ continues to defend ‘extra-American views’ that wilfully damage America’s national interest. ‘In our view, the interests of Ukraine and of regional security lie in Biden and the core NATO states not yielding to the understandable yet deeply misplaced enthusiasm of the eastern periphery for a victory over Moscow,’ write ubiquitous media personality Katrina vanden Heuvel and Carden, as if East Europeans were intellectually ill-equipped to comprehend elementary truths.

The better argument

Poster for a theatrical adaptation of ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886. Image via Wikimedia Commons

How should Eastsplainers respond to such slights? They could point out that Westsplainers routinely depict East Europeans in derogatory ways. Westsplaining clearly contravenes the conventions of polite intellectual discourse, according to which cultural stereotyping is frowned upon, memories of past injustices are kept alive, the ethnic diversity of decision-making elites is celebrated, and the dichotomy of ‘us-versus-them’ is unsophisticated. But even better would be this rejoinder: It is reassuring, indeed, to hear that Dr. Jekyll is in jovial mood, but should we therefore assume that Mr. Hyde is never coming back? Stripped of its literary flavour, this argument boils down to the following: even though Westsplainers grudgingly admit that Russia is a multifaced case, they refuse to duly think through the implications of this proposition. They bet everything on the country’s awe-inspiring metamorphosis. In contrast, Eastsplainers maintain that debates about Russia’s future should revolve around realistic assessments of what scenarios, more preferable or more frightful, are likely to unfold there.

No Eastsplainer has ever questioned that Russian reformers needed all the assistance they could get in the 1990s. It is safe to say that the Eastsplainer maintains close personal relationships with several Russian liberals, fully sympathizes with their struggles and supports most efforts to integrate Russia into international alliances: no East European objections were raised when Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme in 1994, for example. But how likely is it that such assistance will shape the course of events in Russia? And does a pragmatic assessment of the chances and likelihoods warrant the conclusion that the world is witnessing Russia’s cathartic rebirth?

It is questions such as these, Eastsplainers stress, that, amidst the hoopla surrounding Russia’s ostensible transfiguration in the 1990s, should have prompted anyone familiar with the country to sound cautionary notes. For example, Westsplainers’ conviction that Russia’s incipient democracy can be nurtured from abroad is noticeably redolent of Western hubris. Developments there have always been driven almost exclusively by domestic dynamics: if a cause is weak in Russia, there is very little foreigners can do to boost it; if it is popular, outsiders will fail to deflate it.

What causes were popular in Russia in the 1990s? Certainly, the country’s heterogeneity was on full display throughout the decade. Liberal reformers did emerge and gained notoriety, seemingly putting to rest the notion that Russia is a cultural and political monolith. But the common-sense questions Eastsplainers ask are: what happened to these reformers and were the credos they espoused lastingly embraced, or swiftly spurned? The facts speak for themselves. By December 1992 Gaidar was gone, replaced by an anti-reform Soviet apparatchik. In early 1996 Kozyrev was fired; the fact that he personified the idea of a pro-Western Russia made him the target of vilification, which was so virulent that he was eventually forced to leave his native country. Later that year Mikhail Gorbachev, the eloquent champion of the notion of a ‘common European home’, received only 0.52% of the presidential vote. Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party slipped from an unpromising 7.34% of the vote in the 1996 general elections into insignificance and eventually disappeared.

Electoral trends also belied the Westsplainer belief that Russia’s domestic and foreign policy priorities can be rapidly reordered. By the late 1990s, East European voters were getting rid of temporarily empowered anti-Western politicians such as Slovakia’s Vladimir Mečiar and Bulgaria’s Zhan Videnov. At the exact same time, Russians were throwing their support behind the even more anti-Western Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Moreover, Eastsplainers emphasize, whether Russia has changed radically or only outwardly depends on the context in which non-Russians interact with Russian politicians. Some of the messages Russia’s ruling elites sent to the West were ‘new’: allow us in, cooperate with us, let’s treat each other as equals. Yet, as any Eastsplainer would underscore, the list of demands ‘new’ Russia presented to its East European neighbours was quite reminiscent of its ‘old’ one. To borrow an expression from Shakespeare, these demands were intended to keep its neighbours ‘in servile fearfulness’: deal with us bilaterally and don’t seek ‘hostile’ alliances; recognize the enormous asymmetry of power that characterizes our relationship and draw your conclusions; do our bidding, or face retaliation.

Those who believe that Russophobia tarnishes East Europeans’ views of Russia might consider the following (admittedly somewhat shocking) statement: for the most part, Eastsplainers agree with what George Kennan wrote in his famous 1997 letter to The New York Times. Knowledgeable readers are surely jumping out of their seats: this makes no sense! Didn’t he write that ‘expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy’? Well, he did – and that is the part Eastsplainers disagree with. But there are other issues that he raised which very much fit Eastsplainers’ interpretative narrative. For instance, he describes Russia as a place where ‘the executive power is in a state of high uncertainty and near-paralysis’ and points out that ‘nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies’, if ‘inflamed’, might ‘impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.’ Moreover, he makes it clear that the main concern of both elites and citizenry is not some rational calculation of the costs and benefits associated with collaborative interactions with the rest of the world but ‘prestige (always uppermost in the Russian mind)’.

In other words, what Kennan portrays is a volatile situation which might easily engender ominous dynamics. This is exactly the depiction offered by Eastsplainers as well – which is why they consider his conclusion a non-sequitur. Theoretically, it is possible to consider that if NATO had announced in 1997 – in response to Moscow’s demands – that it wouldn’t accept new members, this gesture of good will could have provided, bingo-like, the missing piece to permanently stabilize Russia’s unsteady domestic situation. But another scenario is also possible. The gesture could have gone the way of other Western good-will gestures of the 1990s: the institutionalization of a set of financial measures – known as ‘the policy of Russia first’ – that poured billions of dollars into the Russian treasury’s coffers without any strings attached; the establishment of a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council in 1997; the addition of Russia to the G-7 in 1998. All of these acts, which generated fleeting positive effects, were quickly superseded by new waves of Russian protests and provisos. And, eventually, each time, executive power was captured by elites energized by ‘inflamed’ Mr. Hyde-ian tendencies, leading to the country’s prestige-related whining being even more vociferously vented.

The Eastsplainers’ straightforward question is: which of these scenarios is more plausible? Needless to say, their response would favour the second option. And the reasonable conclusion from this standpoint would be the exact opposite of Kennan’s: a decision not to grant East Europeans the protection afforded by Art.5 of NATO’s Treaty would have been ‘a most fateful error’. Even if Moscow’s de facto veto over NATO decisions had been honoured, Europe would still have had to deal with the kind of Russia described by Kennan: a turbulent, crises-generating country prone to perceive itself as unjustifiably maltreated by a world that allegedly resents its geopolitical might and cultural-civilizational pre-eminence. But the West would have been in a markedly weaker position. Its influence in Eastern Europe would have been curtailed, and instead of teaming up with regional allies, it would have had to cope with several replicas of Belarus.

Asserting that Kennan was partially wrong and Eastsplainers right doesn’t mean that Eastsplaining should be immune to criticism, a pontification driven by illusions of cognitive superiority. Eastsplainers are fallible and can be blinded by polemical zeal. However, the evidence that Eastsplainers and not Westsplainers got Russia right in the debate over NATO’s expansion is overwhelming. Kennan’s letter was one of many rhetorical salvos discharged in the course of an open, robust and civilized discussion about the military alliance’s future triggered by East Europeans’ membership bids. Those who shared his position were allowed to speak, lobby, lecture, publish, broadcast – and give testimonies at Congressional hearings. Eventually, they lost – because it was East Europeans who had the better arguments.

Those who doubt this should talk to the Swedes and the Finns. Why would these nations apply for NATO membership after decades of seemingly tranquil neutrality? They decided to drastically alter their position vis-à-vis Russia in light of newly acquired knowledge. As Eastsplainers would point out, this turn of events is not particularly surprising: there was nothing that the Finns and the Swedes learned in 2022 which East Europeans didn’t already know.

 



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