The Valdai Club, Realism & Anti-Determinism

The Valdai Club is proving to be an interesting source of information and papers on international relations and a bit of a home from home for ‘realists’. Founded in Russia and patronised by Putin himself, it might have been considered by some as merely a soft power tool to counter the influence of the Council on Foreign Relations except that it matches the latter in its intellectual aspirations.

Recently, it has been circulating what are called Valdai Papers. The latest (the sixth since late October) is a bit of a surprise – an essay on strategic intelligence and the problems facing Russia, placed in a wider context, from Stratfor’s George Friedman.

It is a cold and hard piece and has the opposite effect on us than anything that might consciously have been designed to meet Russia’s soft power needs – the bottom line here is that the United States has a somewhat brutal modus operandi that will ratchet up through stages towards the utter elimination of the Russian Federation if Moscow appears to make that necessary. That’s it. We can all go home now.

Whether Europeans would be happy by that late stage to be a mushed-up land of irradiated factories, tank tracks and merciless robot armies (no doubt covered by a better attempt at Wilsonian idealism than the one that failed to surround this week's infamous torture report) seems not to be at issue … they may not have much choice in the matter.

We are not always convinced by Stratfor’s often quite rigid geographical and nation-state determinism but it is generally more right than wrong and certainly more right than the fluffy idealism of the ‘useful idiots’ in the Western liberal establishment who think you can gain power for an ethical foreign policy against the brute demands of power.

What is fun though is to see Friedman cautiously come out for Karl Marx – albeit with caveats. Marxist analysis was revolutionary not just for its eventually failed attempt to build a class alternative to the nation (though it may be too early to say that it has failed in the long run) but in its ‘objective scientific materialist’ attitude to the world.

It is possible to detach the attitude and this aspect of the theory from the political intent and from the romantic overlay of utopian socialism to see that the relationship between productive capacity, culture and power has its own dynamic that, yes, is primarily expressed in terms of ‘really existing’ concentrations of power of which the organically developed nation state is the main one.

The sharp comment by Friedman (straight out of De Jouvenel) that “Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have far more in common with each other than either has with their general publics” (a comment that will resonate with a depressed American Left and a barely recovering British Left in relation to their unlamented Mr. Blair) reflects this cold reality.

We part company (and we are admirers of Stratforian analysis) where we part company with Marx as a Hegelian insofar as there may not be creative individuals in politics and economics (the average politician is the zombie outlined in philosophical thought experiments) but there are creative individuals and teams in science, technology and culture ... and in healthily irrational resistance to power.

The determinist analysis is fine where nation states are the most dominant centres of power 'all things being equal' but periodically they are disrupted. Whole systems can crumble from within on technological change or internal rebellion to create new entities and even the US' hegemonic drive outwards may be countered by centrifugal forces within itself.

Organic geographically-based states are probably historical necessities that will re-emerge within the same constraints periodically (China being the type of this process) but technological innovation and rebellion can radically change and disrupt these systems, above all in constraining what nation states think they can do.

Something as insignificant as Cameron’s inability to intervene in Syria was a direct consequence of the loosening up of political discourse within one nation state as a result of technological innovation. Was this predictable? We think so but only by looking outside the standard model of the realists. The new demotic politics is currently a middle class phenomenon and so weak but it need not be so in either respect. No deterministic model should be accepted without some cautious scepticism.