Friday, July 25, 2014

The World isn't Like Us (or U.S.)

Putin, at 85 percent approval (or higher, depending on source), is the most popular leader in Europe among his voters. Though we know he controls the media and crushes opposition, he really doesn't care what the West does or doesn't do. He's even used the sanctions as proof that the West is out to destroy Russia.

It wouldn't matter who sat in the Oval Office. Putin's Russia is, as he says, "Trying to right a horrible wrong." Pride and honor are at stake, not international norms. And, in the end, Russian oil and gas are needed by many nations in the region -- at least for now -- and that gives Russia leverage.

The sad reality... there is not much Pres. Obama or anyone can do to change Putin's worldview. Sanctions, harsh words, none of those things will matter to Moscow. And China will be more than happy to support Putin's Russia.

When we try to understand the world through "American" or "Western" eyes, we miss that other economies, social structures, political traditions, and a myriad of other factors make comparing Country A to Country B a near-impossible task. That's true in economics because so many variables mask what seem to be easy comparisons.

Why can't the U.S. be more like... Finland? Norway? Germany? France? Answer: We are not Finland, Norway, Germany, or France. We have different traditions, values, experiences. Nations have personalities, a form of organizational psychology. As sociologists have discovered, if you raise a child in the Southern U.S., that child develops "Southern Chivalry" and the traditional honor code. If that happens within the U.S., of course it happens on an international scale.

Russia is not the United States. It is, for better or worse, a reflection of its czarist and Leninist past. Russia will evolve in its own way, on its own path. For now, it can seem like a nation stuck in the last century (or even the nineteenth century) and disconnected from the world. Russia (and China) straddle their pasts and the current Western-dominated global economic model, while trying to resist and influence global narratives into a story they can understand and control.

When I read economic or political science papers that assume we can simply apply "logic" (our view of what is "correct") to other nations, or the outcomes in other places to the United States, I find myself wanting to ask the authors a great many questions. Did they consider the historical reasons for X or Y? Did they look at the population's demographics? Did they study the traditions and norms of the culture?

Unlike many libertarians or conservatives, I do not blame Pres. Obama for the messes in the Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Georgia, Nigeria... and on and on and on. I also resist the easy excuse of blaming Western colonialism, Western market economics, or anything else. People in various places and regions hate each other. They have long-standing, centuries-old differences. We cannot apply "rational consumer" models and "neo-liberal" values to every group of people. It simply does not work.

I can only hope that the United States is wise enough to realize there are no good options in most of the world's conflicts. There are bad people and worse people and self-justifications aplenty. Everyone is claiming to be a victim of someone else, and everyone is certain that "justice" means striking back harder and harder. Escalation is the norm, not the exception, to international relations.

In too many of the world's conflicts and disagreements, the only real solution is time. We must hope that over time nations and groups within nations come to see the value of coexisting and sharing markets of ideas, services, and products peacefully. But, time passes slowly.

For now, I fear Russia continues to expand its power and its territorial influence. Pride and honor, as represented by Putin, matter more to Russian voters than what the West believes should matter.

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