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Avoiding Weimar Russia

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Matthew Yglesias: Beyond Economics: Over at Brad DeLong's site you can see a fascinating discussion of America's Russia policy in the 1990s between DeLong, Martin Wolf, and Lawrence Summers. One remark I would make is that to an extraordinary extent, all three participants are willing to accept the premise that the only goal of US policy toward Russia in the 1990s was a good-faith effort to induce Russian prosperity, with such efforts being hampered by political constraints, the objective difficulty of the task, and pure policy errors...

Well, yes. Russia was once a superpower and may be one again. One would have thought that the history of 1914-1945 would teach ample lessons about the national security undesirability of trying to keep great powers--like Weimar Germany--poor and weak. One would have thought that the history of 1945-1990 would teach ample lessons about the national security desirability of trying to help great powers--like Japan and West Germany--become prosperous, democratic, and well-integrated into the world economy.

One top of the national-security strategic argument there is the economic argument: the fact that richer trading partners are better trading partners: they make more and more interesting stuff for us to buy.

Plus there is the moral argument. "Russia" is not a government. "Russia" is people, families of people--people dead, living, and unborn. Those of us alive today in western Europe, North America, and elsewhere are eighted down by a heavy burden. We owe an enormous debt to many Russians who are now dead: the soldiers of the Red Army, the peasants who grew the food that feed them, and the workers of Magnitogorsk and elsewhere who built the T-34C tanks they drove saved us from the Nazis. We are all under the enormous obligation created by this debt to repay it forward, and Russia's living and unborn would be appropriate recipients for this repayment.

Last, there is the credibiilty argument. The people of the United States, the nation of the United States, and the government of the United States will have a much easier and happier time if they are and are perceived to be a people, nation, and government that plays positive-sum games of mutual aid and prosperity and resorts to negative-sum games of encirclement, sabotage, and war only when the necessity is dire. And the the necessity now is not dire.

Compared to these four mighty, weighty, and heavy reasons to make the only appropriate goal of U.S. policy a good-faith effort to induce prosperity in Russia, the prospect of a minor advantage in some penny-ante Bismarckian-Metternichian-Tallyrandish-Kissingerian game of diplomatic realpolitik is lighter than a small chickenhawk feather.

But Matthew Yglesias does not see it that way:

In the real world... policymakers and presidents -- though perhaps not Treasury Department economists like Summers -- concern themselves with questions of power politics. A prosperous Russia was seen as.... not nearly so good as a Russia... willing to concede to the United States an equal (or even greater than equal) share of influence in Russia's "near abroad." This is a big part of the story of the relatively uncritical backing the Clinton administration provided to Boris Yeltsin...

Not inside the Treasury it isn't. Inside the Treasury the belief is that a Russian that is properly assertive would be much better in the long run than if reformers were to be seen as beholden to foreigners who want a weak Russia. That was, after all, the card that Hitler and company played against Rathenau and Stresemann in the 1920s.

Sigh. If only Matthew Yglesias had been an economics rather than a philosophy major. But at least he wasn't an international relations major.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias responds:

Matthew Yglesias: I think Brad DeLong and I are talking about cross purposes with regard to Russia policy in the 1990s. I agree with him as to what the goal of America's policy should have been. In his earlier post, though, Brad was writing about why our policy didn't achieve those results and all I'm trying to say is that we should consider the possibility that we didn't achieve what Brad (and I) think we should have achieved because these weren't the actual policy goals the Clinton administration was pursuing. They may well have been the Treasury Department's goals (it seems to me that economists generally have sound foreign policy views) but the Treasury Department doesn't ultimately set policy toward major countries like Russia.

To which I reply:

In the making of U.S. policy toward Russia in the 1990s, there are four players (a) the Treasury, which means Rubin-Summers-Lipton; (b) the Congress, which is unwilling to vote any Marshall Plan-scale aid package; (c) Strobe Talbott at the State Department; and (d) Bill Clinton.

I saw Clinton in action: Clinton felt that he might have turned into Yeltsin had he been born in the Soviet Union, empathizes with Yeltsin, and is willing to cut him enormous slack. I didn't see Talbott in action doing anything other than agreeing with Clinton, but I presumed that Talbott had talked to Clinton privately beforehand, and it was extremely rare for anybody to do anything other than agree with the president in any meeting large enough for me to be a part of it. I saw Congress in action, and they were unsympathetic to the argument that $10 billion in aid now might well save us $500 billion in military spending in a decade. And I saw the Treasury.

My sense is that AEI and PNAC and Condi Rice and company saw the U.S. victory in the Cold War as a chance to act toward Russia like Clemenceau had acted toward Germany in 1919: a chance to permanently enfeeble the hated adversary. My sense is that simply wasn't a consideration among the players in the Clinton administration. But I didn't see everything.

The extent to which AEI and PNAC and Condi Rice and company influenced the thinking of Gingrich, Dole, and company in the Congress is not something that I saw.