Camp Talk: Solving the world’s problems over a goblet of Bordeaux

Parfois dans les colonies de vacances on entend à table des conseils sur les questions de paix et guerre qui méritent bien la réflexion. Ainsi la question de la Russie comme membre-candidat d’OTAN se pose.



Camp Talk: Solving the world’s problems over a goblet of Bordeaux



By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


It is the dog days of summer in France. The country has shut down for the traditional August vacations. And the Russian colonies de vacances in the Département of Landes, between Bordeaux and Biarritz, on France’s southwest seacoast, are doing a brisk business. All the bungalows are fully let, mostly to Russian speakers from the Paris region, from the French provinces, from Central Europe…and from Mother Russia itself. Summer camps which were set up by the officer cadres of the White Army in emigration moved on to welcome the generation of POWs left behind by WWII, the generation of dissidenty and refuseniks who landed on these shores in the ‘60’s and ‘70s, the generations of simply curious travelers and nature lovers from Russia’s capitals who first appeared in the middle of 1980s Perestroika and continue to come for an exotic getaway and interesting table talk with the Russian diaspora. And it is a societal kaleidoscope including the occasional cinema and television series star from Moscow, present or former cabaret performers from the chic Rasputin in Paris and Cap d’Antibes bars who sing old Russian romances and maybe something recent from Alexander Rozenbaum to amuse friends and celebrate a birthday or departure, and some well-to-do businessmen from the Northern Palmyra who come just for the company at dinner and incidentally take day trips down to the corrida in San Sebastian, just across the Spanish border or join the pilgrims for the holy water and religious ministrations at Lourdes..


After languishing for several days at the table of some Franco-Czech rustici from the Jura, I had the good fortune to be re-seated with a newly arrived Russian, rumored to be almost an oligarch and hailing from one of the palace suburbs of St Pete where he heads the local Chamber of Trade and Industry. He says he is a friend of Evgeny Primakov, the advisor to the Russian President, and knows Sergei Lavrov fairly well. Over a bottle of the 1996 St Emilion which he generously passed around for sampling, the table talk moved on from the variable weather and dangerous ocean currents at nearby beaches to bigger economic and political questions, even to questions of war and peace. In that spirit, my interlocutor mentioned in passing that the best way to solve the world’s divisions and present dangers would be to combine forces – by inviting Russia into NATO. The suggestion was tantalizing. The next day, I asked how widespread was this notion, and I was told that it is the general view of the Russian leadership, from Putin on down.


Is this improbable notion of Russian membership in NATO truly the shared property of Russia’s political elite? Perhaps… But whether or not that is the case, it is surely an issue which merits fresh examination in the West, where it is routinely cast aside without any rigorous and consistent thought. Indeed, when fixtures in the Democratic Party firmament like Zbigniew Brzezinski speak today of such an eventuality in order to demonstrate their broadmindedness, they inevitably place it in a very, very extended time frame, generations away from our day, and they see no need to explain themselves, the point of keeping the fox out of the henhouse being so very obvious.


But is it in fact self-evident that Russia is no candidate for NATO in our own day? Given that in her July 15th speech presenting a conceptual framework for the foreign policy of the Obama administration Madam Secretary of State Hilary Clinton herself identified the need for a new strategy to guide NATO in the 21st century and take it beyond its Cold War mission and structure, it would appear both timely and appropriate to revisit the logic of Russia’s exclusion from NATO and to consider the benefits both for the West and for Russia from cooptation.


The most obvious objection is that the Atlantic alliance is an association of democratic countries sharing common values, whereas Russia is authoritarian and has pleaded the case for its own political uniqueness. However, the so-called ‘sovereign democracy’ which then President Vladimir Putin advanced several years ago was patently nothing more than a defensive slogan to ward off any US-financed ‘color revolution’ at home. And it can be argued that since the emergence of the Russian Federation from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the country has been moving towards the rule of law and the practices of parliamentarianism with at least as much commitment and possibly greater success than we see in the euphemistically termed ‘young democracies’ of Ukraine and Georgia whose NATO membership the United States has been enthusiastically supporting. Indeed, Russia may have a more representative state structure than existing NATO members among the Baltic States, like Latvia. And if we take the correlative charge of corruption brought against Russia to tarnish its democratic credentials, then most of Eastern Europe, including not merely the Balkan states of Bulgaria and Romania, but even fair Poland, suffer from the same malaise and have in no way been disqualified from NATO.


The point is not to overlook the grave structural and political flaws in Russian democracy. On the contrary, it is to apply to Russia the same logic as has been used to justify bringing on board all the new member states: namely that the process of applying for membership is a lever for accelerating democratic reform. Moreover, in the case of Russia, reversal of an exclusionary policy and open acceptance into a common security structure would be the strongest possible relief from its fear of encirclement and concerns over the threats to its defense infrastructure from irresponsible neighbors receiving arms and blank check commitments of political support from Washington. The release from these immediate external threats would make it both possible and reasonable to relax the controls within the country, which is precisely what the overseas critics of Russian nationalism and exceptionalism say they are seeking, after all.


In the context of prospective NATO membership and a NATO defense umbrella over its own territory, we could reasonably expect much more accommodating Russian behavior with respect to nuclear arms reduction, common action on non-proliferation and other high priority issues of both the American and European governments. Moreover, with its ongoing military reform aimed at training and equipping highly mobile battalions for rapid reaction, Moscow could be a major contributor to international peace missions of NATO.


This does not mean that Russia would cease to have national interests or would see eye to eye with Washington over the advisability of military intervention to solve all the world’s problems which today’s overly militarized US foreign policy calls for. But then again, the presence of Russia within NATO would breathe into the institution a democratic reality for decision making which was never more than a fiction in the past.


The excesses of US unilateralism and disregard for the opinion of its allies under George W. Bush has de facto resulted in application of a joint French – German veto over Washington’s more doubtful initiatives including further NATO expansion along Russian borders and increased manpower for the mission in Afghanistan. Russian presence would raise the level of internal debate considerably further and would be entirely salutary.


Looking back at the results of America’s exercise of power as sole superpower, its multiple armed interventions abroad under Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr, we can only hail all changes within NATO which compel greater and fairer deliberation of the big issues of war and peace and which ensure that the legitimacy of United Nations approval is sought and obtained in every case before war is unleashed.


© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.