Sunday, May 22, 2022

From dilettantism to war: a review of Andrei Kozyrev’s political memoir

 Russia is remarkably ill-starred by having had very incompetent leaders. They have done the opposite of what they intended to accomplish. Brezhnev planned to introduce a degree of predictability in domestic and foreign policy; he presided over a long period of technological decline of the Soviet economy.  Gorbachev wanted to create a democratic federation; he ended by having to accept the break-up of the Union and the rise of nationalism everywhere. Yeltsin set out to create a democratic Russia; he oversaw the greatest plunder of assets in history and in the end could rely on old KGB hands only.  Putin’s objective was to overturn the decay of Russia, but when he leaves the office, Russia will be weaker, smaller, and more isolated than it has been in at least 250 years.

Andrei Kozyrev was Yeltsin’s minister of foreign affairs between 1990 (when Russia was still part of the USSR) and 1996. He was the most pro-American foreign minister in Russia’s history, dubbed the “Mr Da” as a contrast to Andrei Gromyko, the long-serving Soviet minister of foreign affairs, who was called by the Western press “Mr. Nyet”. In “Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy”,  Kozyrev has written the political reminiscences of his ministry. They are well-written and easy to read. (The subtitle is misleading: the book has hardly anything to do with democracy, but a lot with Russia’s foreign policy.) The book however lacks any analytic framework whether regarding diplomacy or international relations, and has none of the usual scientific “apparatus”: there is not a  single footnote in the book, nor reference to anything –article or book—except various Russian and American newspapers.  One has the feeling that Russian foreign policy was conducted unencumbered by any theory of international relations. (Compared to similar political memoirs by Henry Kissinger “On China”, reviewed here, and Soviet diplomat’s Ivan Maisky’s extraordinary war diaries, Kozyrev’s book is much inferior.)

And whatever “theory” existed was an incredibly naive view that Kozyrev held throughout the first half of the 1990s, that “democracies” have a specific “friendly” relations amongst themselves, and “totalitarian” counties like the Soviet Union have an entirely different, imperialist foreign policy. It was, unawares of Kozyrev, just the same old Soviet theory, except that the absence of contradictions that was supposed to adorn communist regimes, was now transposed to democratic regimes. Kozyrev uses the same “boxes” but just fills them with a different content. Both “theories” were, of course, unrealistic: countries have interests and fight for them regardless of the domestic political set-up. Kozyrev was soon, if grudgingly, to realize this in face of American intransigence and contemptuous treatment of all Russian demands. The second part of the book is thus much darker.

All the problems that have led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are already there—and one somehow feels that the current war was almost preordained. (That was not the objective of the book, published in 2019, however. And Kozyrev has been scathingly critical of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.) The Russian-Ukrainian problem emerges from the moment No. 1 of the Belovezha accords that dissolved the USSR (Kravchuk’s aides, while being in Belovezha, refused to participate in the drafting of the accords, and the Ukrainian parliament passed the version of the accords that included an additional amendment regarding inviolability of the republican borders). The accords themselves were of the most dubious legality: not least because presidents of the three republics made a decision that properly should have been made by the presidents of all fifteen republics. (Predictably, Kazakhstan’s president was not amused by having to read that the USSR was dissolved, and that his republic became independent, in a morning paper.)

The NATO expansion takes the center-stage commencing from the second year of the Clinton administration and never leaves its role of the most important issue in the US-Russian relations all the way to 1996 (when Kozyrev resigns). It is very clear that the conflict over NATO expansion cannot be thought of as originating in George W. Bush 2007 explicit invitation to Ukraine and Georgia to join the military alliance, nor in Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, but at the very beginning of the debates as to how to transform/expand NATO, i.e. basically to the early- to mid-1990s.

That history is full of bizarre details, related by Kozyrev, including Lech Wałęsa’s sly organization of a tête-a-tête meeting with Yeltsin where the Russian president is supplied by endless quantities of vodka so that he accepts a sentence to the Polish-Russian communiqué agreeing to Poland’s NATO membership. Alarmed Kozyrev (having seen an earlier similar “treatment by vodka” of Yeltsin by Nursultan Nazarbayev) walks into Yeltsin’s room to find him incapable of rational conversation. The next day, the Russian ministry tries (so to speak) to water down the sentence, but most of the damage has already been done.

Other than by the absence any analytic framework, and thus the realization that the Russian foreign policy was conducted by dilettantism, the reader is also surprised that Kozyrev does not seem to realize the main contradiction which is at the heart of the US-Russian misunderstanding. Once the Bush administration that treated the USSR (and Russia) with respect gone, for the Clinton administration and, one presumes, increasingly so for the next US administrations, Russia was a supplicant country that would beg for financial help while asking to be treated as a global power. The gap between the two “roles” widened even further as Russia declined economically in the 1990s. Neither Yeltsin nor Kozyrev could expect that, while in the first part of the conversation, they would beg Clinton for money, their pretenses as to the global power status would, in the second part of the conversation, be taken seriously.

If Russia wanted to “punch in its desired weight” it had not to make meaningless claims to its democratic status, but to strengthen its economy, introduce order in its political system, reduce corruption, begin producing useful things that the world wants to buy, and cease being a petro-state. Had Russia done so in the next two decades, it would have been regarded entirely differently by the US. The US might not have ceased to see Russia as a strategic competitor (a thing which it did apparently since 1991), but it would have treated it with respect, the way that the US treated China until Trump came to power. But this simple truth seems inaccessible to Kozyrev who (explicitly) evinces no interest in economics, nor in corruption that was at the same time destroying the fabric of the Russian society and the foundations of Yeltsin’s regime.

Since Russia could not accept not to be treated as a great power, and was unable under either Yeltsin or Putin to transform itself into a meaningfully important international player, it could rely on only one type of power where it was indeed a force to be reckoned with: nuclear arms and the ability to annihilate half of the world. It thus had to rely on this “negative” power, that is, the power of destruction, because economically or ideologically (unlike during the Soviet times) it could provide very little even in the areas of the world where historically its cultural influence, language, and exposure to the great Russian art of the 19th century was common.

Kozyrev does not acknowledge, or perhaps realize, this main issue. His memoirs are interesting to read, but, above all, they illustrate, despite the author’s wishes, the amateurish nature of Russian diplomacy as it was conducted in the 1990s.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The many in one: A review of Amartya Sen’s “Home in the world: A memoir”

No contemporary famous economist has as broad interests and knowledge, nor as diverse life experience as Amartya Sen. It is not surprising that many have been looking forward to reading the first volume of his memoirs. It covers the period from his birth in 1933 to the beginnings of his academic career in the United States in the early 1960s. That very term “the beginning”, I realized as I wrote it, is misleading. Not for 99 percent of ordinary economists whom at thirty one might consider the academic beginners. But for Sen who got his first professorial position at 23, the age of thirty was that of an already “seasoned” academic!

The precociousness of the young Amartya is one of the two most striking things that every reader will notice.  At eight, Amartya is engaged into historical discussions with his father and grandfather. At 12 or 13, he is into the study of the Sanskrit (his first language being Bengali) and the foundational basis of mathematics. I do not think that I have read a memoir where such level of interest for very abstract topics is evinced by such a young person. Perhaps John Stuart Mill may be the only contestant.

The second striking thing is Sen’s passion for the intellectual history of India (as a subcontinent), and his disdain of ethnic and religious exclusivism. The first three  parts of the book, about 250 pages, that deal with India are written with an extraordinary passion, and for many readers (including this one) they are full of new things that one can learn from even the shortest discussions of the Indian Buddhist heritage, diverse interpretations of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the elegance of the Sanskrit.  The discussions are brief –by necessity since it is a book of memories, not a philosophic treatise—but coming from somebody as knowledgeable as Sen, these short one- or two- page commentaries inspire confidence, and may perhaps lead some readers to try to learn more. For we know that they are supported by much more evidence than can be produced in this book.  

The relationship between Amartya and his grandfather K. Mohan, a scholar and compiler of Hindu rural poetry, provides the backbone of the early—up to the university years—life of Amartya. Another influential person was Rabindranath Tagore, a close family friend. Amartya did his middle and high school in a school organized according to Tagore’s principles.  In a chapter entitled “School without  walls”, Sen describes the exhilarating atmosphere of a place where students are motivated not by a combination of incentives and punishments, but by being allowed to follow their inclinations while helped by committed professors. The idea is quite extraordinary even if one doubts that it can be expanded to a larger scale. But for students like Amartya, it was, as he writes, the best possible fit, much better than the more orthodox and competitive St. Gregory in Dhaka that Amartya attended only briefly, and gladly left, being ranked the 33rd of 36 students!

We are then taken, in several beautiful chapters, to the tumultuous life of Calcutta of the early 1940s, with the beginning of the World War II, Japanese invasion of Burma, formation of Bose’s Indian National Army, pro-independence effervescence among Calcutta’s youth and Sen’s own family (with several members kept in British jails), and the momentous split between the Hindus and the Muslims. The political excitement, the fear of war (the Japanese having bombed Calcutta’s harbor) and the looming intra-communal conflict are the background –and perhaps an indispensable condition—for the exciting intellectual life carried on in innumerable Calcutta’s cafés and bookstores. One almost wishes to have been there and then--obviously in the knowledge that he or she would have survived all the upheavals.

While reading that part of Sen’s memoirs, I thought of the two autobiographical books written by Sen’s Bengali compatriot Nirad Chaudhuri,  The autobiography of an unknown Indian” and “Thy Hand, Great Anarch!”, perhaps among the most beautiful books of political reminiscences ever. They, only in part, touch the same period (Nirad being much older), but convey to the reader the same intellectual fervor of Calcutta. Chaudhuri, not always liked by all Indians, was the proponent of the view that the mixture of European, i.e. British, and Indian, i.e. Bengali, cultures produced a unique Euro-Asian fusion. I thought that, in a brief chapter where Sen assesses the contributions of British colonialism—and damages it wrought (not least the Bengali famine of 1942)—he tacitly endorses, or comes close to agreeing with, some of Chaudhuri’s vision.

 The book is written in a simple, engaging style. It is a different style from that used by Sen in his economic and philosophical writings. I find the latter, to the extent that I understand them, written in, at times, unnecessarily obscure style. But here I had the opposite impression: I wanted to read more and wished that Sen’s recollections and discussions of political and ideological issues were more extensive. There is, for example, a story of the difference in the perceptions of Tagore in India and in Europe. For Sen, Tagore was a rationalistic thinker while in Europe he was praised and promoted by Yeats and Ezra Pound as a mystic. Yeats and Pound seemed to have seen in Tagore whatever they wanted to see and Tagore became a prisoner of that false image created in the West.

The last third of the book when Sen moves, temporarily, to the West, first to Cambridge, England and then (mentioned very briefly at the end of the book) to MIT in Boston, is much more “problematic”. While Sen’s youth is convincingly and absorbingly described in both its political and personal aspects (e.g., Sen’s bout with cancer), the European part takes place in a social vacuum. There is almost nothing that Sen tells us about the political and social milieu of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Even more surprisingly, there are hardly any observations, other than trivial ones, about the encounter of the East and the West that must have impressed such a brilliant and precocious mind like Sen’s. Even Sen’s European travel reads like a travelogue of places he has visited with no many insights offered: yes, we all know that Michelangelo’s David is impressive: is this worth repeating in a memoir? The only memory of Warsaw in 1956 is a one-sentence mention of a political conversation in a bathroom.  

The life in Europe seems to take place on campuses and among the multitude of students, teachers and philosophers. Now, this  would be interesting in itself since Sen had a chance to study with, discuss, and observe some of the most brilliant minds of the time: Piero Sraffa, Dennis Robertson, Joan Robinson,  Maurice Dobb, James Meade. Unfortunately for many of them, like for the cities in Europe he visited, Sen lists the names with a sentence or two of generic praise. (The only exceptions are Sraffa and perhaps Maurice Dobb; see below.) It seems that the ubiquitous mention of everyone who has crossed paths with Sen may have been done so that no one could feel slighted or excluded. Glowing adjectives are abundantly assigned (“most original”, “delightful”, “close friend”, “splendid economist”, “superb mathematician”, “astoundingly talented”). This somewhat skeptical reader cannot believe that several hundred people whom Sen had met had all invariably been extraordinary scholars and the kindest human beings.

Trying to be nice to everybody is a wrong approach in a memoir by one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. A memoir is not a letter of recommendation that one writes for his friends. Neither us, nor future readers, will be interested in the names of the multitudes who have met Sen. We, and they, are interested in Sen’s comments on the times and important people. There are, as I mentioned, indeed some, alas too short vignettes: on Dennis Robertson,  Joan Robinson, Sraffa and Dobb. By his own reckoning, Sen had spent hours and hours conversing with Sraffa and Dobb. But we are given much less of their personalities than is the case with Tagore and people from Amartya’s youth.

Rather unexpectedly, among the few persons who are openly criticized (even if mildly) is Joan Robinson for her “dogmatism” and unwillingness to listen to contrary opinions. Samuel Huntington is twice, very indirectly, criticized for his “clash of civilization” thesis that Sen quite convincingly debunks through his own experience. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese president, who was Sen’s friend, and whose reversal from a pro-democracy martyr to de facto supporter of ethnic cleansing, is censured, and her transformation is found both disturbing and incomprehensible.

The non-Indian part of the book seems rather flat, offering less of original thinking than we get from Sen’s reflections on India and his life there. Perhaps Sen himself, by being not just an economist, but a historian and a philosopher, is “guilty” of having made us expect a uniformly high level of insight. But even with these minor flaws, “Home in the world” is an extraordinary book written by an extraordinary person.