Foreign Affairs magazine as a cartoon strip: the 28 February online issue

Regrettably, the latest, 28 February online issue of Foreign Affairs magazine shows that this iconic forum of America’s foreign policy establishment has descended into puerile, cartoon like depictions of the most serious international issues of the day, in this instance the unfolding developments in Ukraine. Read on..




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      Foreign Affairs magazine as a cartoon strip: the 28 February online issue


                                       by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Here in Belgium, we have traditional respect for the bande dessinée, the cartoon strip, of which the country was a pioneer.  And although some creators, beginning with Hergé and his Tintin books, strayed at times into politics, even geopolitics (Tintin in the land of the Soviets), more commonly the medium was and is merely an entertainment for children and…. adults with the minds of adolescents.

Regrettably, the latest, 28 February online issue of Foreign Affairs magazine shows that this iconic forum of America’s foreign policy establishment has descended into puerile, cartoon like depictions of the most serious international issues of the day, in this instance the unfolding developments in Ukraine.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the featured video link to the appearance of FA editor Gideon Rose on The Colbert Report, a televised satirical show from the suitably named production company, Comedy Central.  Though the online edition of FA is accessible only to the magazine’s subscribers, the interview may also be viewed on the Report’s public website:—gideon-rose

Gideon Rose’s comportment in this interview is shocking. Like the presenter, he is pitching jokes to the audience, playing the clown. And the subject of his mockery is Russia and how we, the West won the contest for the allegiance of Ukraine, which has just formed a government according to the script revealed in Victoria Nuland’s tape disclosures of two weeks ago, and the Russians have lost.  With all the malicious triumphalism on his face that first entered American consciousness following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Rose says that the task ahead is to get the Russians to accept their medal count at the Sochi Olympics as full consolation while the USA bags Ukraine and raises its country count. 

Rose is speaking as if we are back in 1999, when Russian troops landed at Pristina airport in a feeble and doomed effort to stop America and its allies from working their will on the ground in Kosovo over Russian objections. But such condescension is scarcely appropriate to the Russia that Vladimir Putin has resuscitated. As we have just seen this morning, the Russians are effectively sweeping Crimea off the chessboard and into their pocket as a bargaining chip over the future course of Ukraine.

The court jester at the helm of Foreign Affairs magazine has presented us in the 28 February issue with what  seems to be a broad set of essays from leading authorities dedicated to Ukraine. Closer inspection reveals that this is International Relations Lite. In particular I am thinking of the two ‘Letters from Kiev’ by journalist Annabelle Chapman each of which provides a superficial summary of events in Ukraine over the course of a week. Chapman offers fewer insights into causal factors and future trends than we find in daily reports on Bloomberg or The Washington Post, both of which have brought in to their Ukrainian reporting some fairly serious journalists, though they are not professional political scientists.

We have good reason to attach higher expectations to the contribution by Barnard College professor of political science Kimberly Marten, notwithstanding the coy title it has been assigned: “Crimean Punishment.”  Marten is a recognized expert in international security issues. Her biography on the site mentions her faculty membership of Columbia University’s Salzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Deputy Director status in the renowned Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies and life membership of the Council of Foreign Relations, the parent organization of Foreign Affairs magazine.

The subtitle of Marten’s essay “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine” is a conclusion that was trashed by events the same day it appeared on the internet.  And that is not in the least surprising given the weak grasp of realities in the Russian-Ukrainian relationship and the flimsy argumentation in the essay.

Marten cites two considerations that will stay the Russians’ hand:  not to jeopardize its gas pipelines crossing Ukrainian territory and carrying most of its exports to Europe and not to jeopardize the sanctity of the treaty over its lease on the Sevastopol base for its Black Sea fleet. Moreover, she claims that the Russians are still unprepared militarily to subjugate Ukraine, many of whose officers have now been trained in the U.S.

However, Russian actions so far demonstrated that a full-blown military invasion may not be necessary to work their will and take effective military control of the most strategically important part of Ukraine for Russian interests, the Crimean peninsula. This possibility somehow never entered into Marten’s strategic thinking. At the same time, following the unanimous vote today of the Federation Council (Russia’s upper house of parliament) approving the request of President Vladimir Putin for authorization to introduce Russian armed forces into Ukraine to safeguard citizens, safeguard human rights and maintain order, the possibility of armed conflict with Ukrainian troops can no longer be excluded. Presumably he knows better than Marten whether his men in uniform are ready for a fight.

Along the way to her conclusions, Marten informs or, better to say, misinforms the reader about a number of issues relevant to the present impasse over Ukraine. For example, her account of the past ‘gas wars,’ cut-offs of delivery in 2006 and 2009, are totally one-sided, failing to mention the provocations including nonpayment for past deliveries amounting to billions of dollars and siphoning off of gas from the underground storage facilities serving transmission to the West, which motivated and justified the Russian actions. 

The anti-Russian tendentiousness in Marten’s scholarly endeavors is nothing new.  For the past year or more, she has been more visible in matters relating to Pussy Riot and alleged Russian persecution of LGBTs than in security issues in what I see as pandering to the susceptibilities of American elites rather than serving scholarship in an area of her own expertise.  However, the greater issue has been and obviously remains what I shall call her corruption, i.e. her excluding from consideration those with differing views from her own, which are in fact identical with the American consensus. It is precisely that which leads her to produce such myopic, cartoon-like works as her latest essay in FA.

My reason for identifying this corruption goes back to my experience with her stewardship of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) world convention in April 2013 in her capacity at the time as Acting Director of the host institution, the Harriman Institute.  I attended several of the round tables on Russia, all of which shared the same glaring failure: that the panels consisted of intellectually homogeneous friends of friends.

Perhaps the most egregious case was a presentation entitled “Implications of the Pussy Riot Affair.” The 5-person panel was (wo)manned by 4 flaming radical feminists whose knowledge of Russia and its history seemed to be marginal at best, plus one rabidly anti-Russian male from Israel.. From attending several other presentations I saw that for the most part there was a complicity between panelists and the audience, it being assumed that we are all one happy family of Putin/Kremlin/Russia bashers, that we all believe that the ‘regime’ in Moscow is illegitimate and ripe for overthrow, and that any and all charges against it issued from the dais require no back-up because they are common knowledge.

As one of the key organizers, Professor Marten, must be held accountable for such impoverished uniformity of thinking at the 2013 ASN Convention’s Russian presentations.  The direct result of impoverished thinking which is not challenged in open debate comes out in writings like her latest essay in Foreign Affairs.

 I could dissect the remaining essay on Ukraine in the 28 February FA edition, “Ukraine in Context. What Happens when Authoritarians Fall” by Serhiy Kudelia, but I do not wish to try your patience, respected Reader. Suffice it to say that his cheap historical analogies and comparisons of Viktor Yanukovich with France’s 18th century absolutist monarchs including Louis XVI give us zero guidance on what is going on, not to mention what is coming.

The net result of this little examination of Foreign Affairs today is to illustrate why the United States foreign policy establishment and the government it pitches its observations and recommendations to is stumbling into an avoidable crisis with Russia over Ukraine.

For some time it has been fashionable among revisionist historians to reexamine the onset of the Cold War. In the meantime, when we visit our favorite online news sources each day we are now witnesses to the transition from an Information War between Russia and the West to a full-blown New Cold War. And the tit for tat, action and reaction are there for all to see.

The United States cynically promoted Maidan and stage-managed the installation of the present provisional government in Kiev.  Russia has cynically stage-managed the effective secession of Crimea from control by that government which it does not recognize. In this context, today’s formal vote of Russia’s political class in what amounts to a declaration of war on the Maidan is an inflection point in truthfulness and transparency.

Russia had called for a rollback to the status quo ante on 21 February, the compromise agreement between Yanukovich and the Opposition that was brokered by France, Germany and Poland with their implicit guarantees. Europe was silent, while the United States insisted that the Yatsenyuk team is the legitimate government and rejected any rollback. Hence the deadlock that has prompted Russia’s statement of readiness to use force to resolve what it sees as an existential threat.

 It will take great luck and the skills of diplomats and statesmen who are not apparent on the horizon today to avoid the kind of hot war between principals rather than proxies that our better informed and more realistic forebears managed in the 1960s and 70s.



              ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014





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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.