neither madman nor realist

“But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war is worse.” Ukrainians’ moral and patriotic feeling has steeled them beyond all expectation against Russia’s invasion, indiscriminate bombings, torture of captured soldiers and civilians, attempted annexation of territory, and wanton destruction in retreat. Their patriotism and courage would have ended in horrifying martyrdom had it not been for the steady supply of weapons, military intelligence, and displays of public support from the United States, NATO, and the European Union. At this writing, the conflict continues, its ebbs and flows bringing ever more suffering for Ukrainians and recurrent setback and failure for Russia. The outcome is undecided, and so long as Russian forces are not completely stalled and in retreat there will be some form of protracted conflict and misery.

Vladimir Putin’s intent was to put Ukraine in permanent thrall to Russia. The quotation above comes John Stuart Mill’s 1862 essay on the American Civil War. Forcefully justifying the North’s cause, he warned fellow Britons against giving any kind of succor to the South. His aim was to contest anti-Union opinion in the wake of the American interception of a British ship carrying two Confederate envoys to Europe. Mill insisted that the war was a struggle over slavery and appealed to his own country’s commitment to its abolition. Writing at a moment when the war’s outcome was utterly uncertain, he painted in the grimmest terms the prospect of the secessionist revolt succeeding and establishing a vast and expanding slave-holding empire in the Americas. Though not a direct parallel, Mill’s precept that thinking nothing worth a war can be worse than a war has relevance to disputes over the West’s support of Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an event in the strong sense of the term. An irruption in the fabric of reality, it upended an apparent stability among nations and interrupted the causal chains of contemporary history. Such an event requires innovative thinking and a cold-eyed questioning of established perspectives, concepts, and doctrines. The resistance to such thinking and questioning has been on display on the left and in mainstream opinion and foreign policy debates. Many voices on the left opposed military aid to Ukraine because unable to see beyond the twofold dogma that NATO equals American imperialism and the EU hegemonic Capital. Expressions of sympathy for Ukrainians, even “solidarity” with them, ring hollow when accompanied by opposition to furnishing them the means to defend themselves and advocating peace in the form of a negotiated capitulation to Russia’s aim of annexing substantial territory and keeping Ukraine from pursuing NATO or EU membership. Whether one calls oneself left-liberal, progressive, democratic socialist, social democrat, or socialist, it’s time to break through the dogmatic assumptions when it comes to foreign policy. A dual perspective is required: recognition of the legitimacy of the U.S.’s global power and at the same time vigilance regarding its international responsibilities. Power and responsibility are difficult to square, and Russia’s assault on Ukraine tests both decision makers and their critics.

Meanwhile, two ideas about Russia’s president have been prominent in foreign policy debates and the broader public discussion. He has been called unhinged and paranoid, and contrariwise his decision to invade Ukraine has been cast as a great power’s rational response to a tangible threat. Putin is neither a madman nor a great-power realist.

The latter idea is based on the argument that the invasion of Ukraine responded to the expansion of NATO. Interviewed at the outset of the invasion, John J. Mearsheimer did not mince words: “My argument is that the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster.” Mearsheimer is a leading proponent of so-called realism, the doctrine that interprets international relations in terms of great powers and their motivation to maintain their security vis-à-vis other great powers, to control a sphere of influence, and to advance their national interests in the international arena.

The realist doctrine excites because it is forthrightly amoral and analyzes nations’ actions according to how they follow, or fail to heed, objective laws of power and interest. The realist theorist peppers his discourse with unassailable truths and flat certitudes: “This is the way great powers behave.” “That’s not the way the world works.” “In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukranians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy. But in the real world that is not possible.” And from a 2014 essay in Foreign Affairs regarding the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea after the Maidan protests against Ukraine’s Russian-backed president when he broke off negotiations with the European Union: “This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” In invading Ukraine, Putin is acting rationally in Mearsheimer’s eyes in accordance with Russia’s great-power interests and sphere of influence. “NATO expansion is the heart of the [West’s] strategy, but it also includes EU expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat.”

It’s worth examining all the key terms here: existential threat, sphere, influence, and interest. Would a Western-oriented Ukrainian liberal democracy ultimately integrated into the EU and NATO be an existential threat to Russia? Certainly not to its territory, economy, or culture. It is not a threat to the Russian nation or the Russian people so much as to Putin’s regime and the political system he has honed over the past two decades. The emergence of a liberal society and democratic polity in a neighboring former Soviet republic with intricate historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to Russia might well become an inspiration to many Russians and unsettle the increasingly repressive autocracy that rules them. It is important to recall that Putin intensified his belligerence toward the West and tightened control over his own citizens in the wake of protests over the Russian parliamentary elections of 2011 and in anticipation of his overtly engineered return to the presidency in 2012. The interest that the invasion of Ukraine, in 2014 and again in 2022, was meant to serve was not Russia’s but Putin’s.

Sphere of influence is an axiom in great-power discussions that is seldom questioned; after all, it is obvious that most nations want to influence others and those with the greatest natural, economic, and military resources can aspire to the most influence. But the shape of the sphere and the nature of the influence matter. Putin’s oft-cited despair at the breakup of the Soviet Union, whose footprint resembled czarist Russia’s empire, leads him to want a sphere of geographically contiguous “republics” whose political systems and leaders Russia can influence in the mode of suzerain over nominally independent tributaries. Great-power theorists frequently exemplify a sphere of influence on the precedent of the Monroe Doctrine, namely, a more or less vast geographical area—hemispheric in this case—cordoned off from rivals’ presence and influence. Historically, the more pertinence President James Monroe’s off-handedly expressed “doctrine” of 1823 acquired the more pernicious American influence became. The 1898 victory in the Spanish-American War thrust the United States into the role of imperialist overlord of territories from Cuba and Puerto Rico to the Philippines whose Spanish-speaking Catholic populations it could not imagine integrating into the American polity and citizenship. The Monroe doctrine was evoked again throughout the twentieth century, especially during the Cold War, to justify brutalities, atrocities, and blunders throughout Latin America. Democracy promotion was rendered a tragic joke as the U.S. sponsored autocrats, dictators, coups d’état, assassinations, and death squads in the name of anti-communism and on behalf of highly exploitative American corporations. A true danger to national security, like nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba in 1962, hardly needed the Monroe Doctrine to justify a confrontation with the Soviet Union. As for today’s Russian sphere of influence, Putin has reined in the independence of struggling post-Soviet republics through the sacking of Grozny to defeat Chechen rebels (1999–2000), military provocation and land grab in Georgia (2008), and the rescue of Belarus’s autocratic leader, Alexandr Lukashenko, by helping in the suppression of widespread protests over his fraudulent re-election (2020).

The unexamined axiom of spheres of influence recalls the flaws in the well-worn metaphor of a game of chess to describe great-power politics, with its bizarre nostalgia for the competition among Europe’s colonial powers before the senseless carnage of the Great War. For unlike chess, there are seldom, if ever, just two competitors in international relations, and the various competitors do not understand the rules of the game in the same way or even play by the rules as they do understand them. All the more misleading is the metaphor of the chessboard, as though every territorial square were a neutral landing zone for the competitors’ pieces and not a population teeming with customs, institutions, interests, aspirations, and movements of its own. In the real world, Ukranians demand the freedom to determine their own political system and their own foreign policy.

Mearsheimer and others trace the cause of the present war back to George W. Bush’s support for admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO. But that effort was fourteen years ago and unsuccessful on account of opposition from France and Germany. As Russian troops amassed on the Ukranian border in February 2022, Thomas Friedman unearthed a 1998 conversation he had with George Kennan, then in his 90s, who thought NATO expansion would squander a new post–Cold War relation between Russia and the West. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war.… It is a tragic mistake.… And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia.” In 1997 Friedman shared such optimism about Russia’s democratic direction and believed that the West’s action would be decisive in derailing it. So, how far back must we go to find the West’s provocation of the 2022 invasion? And how many countries’ aspirations for security and self-determination would have had to be scuttled in order not to have disturbed Russia? For in 2004, well before Bush’s overture to Ukraine and Georgia, the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the so-called “near abroad” countries) had joined NATO, along with four countries formerly locked behind the Iron Curtain: Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, and Slovenia. Already in 1999 Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, which had experienced revolts crushed by the Soviet Union in 1956, 1968, and 1980 respectively, found their way into NATO. And let’s go all the way back, why not, to 1990 when German reunification swept away the GDR, the Soviet bloc country that had been most enthralled by communism and where the young KGB agent Vladimir Putin cut his teeth.

For all the travails these several countries have undergone, and continue to undergo, in the ordeal of establishing a liberal society and creating a flourishing democracy, they have, it has turned out, advanced much farther than Russia. To attribute its authoritarianism, autocracy, and aggression to their adherence to NATO is at once empirically inaccurate and normatively shameful.

*****              *****              *****              *****

Putin’s antagonism toward Ukraine first crystallized when the Orange Revolution protests against Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych’s fraudulent 2004 election to the presidency led to a court-ordered revote, which he lost. The antagonism escalated during the Maidan protest movement of 2014 when Yanukovych, who won the 2010 presidential election, was now ousted for bending to Russian pressure and backing out of a cooperation agreement with the EU. Putin responded by annexing Crimea.

Perhaps too little attention, at least in the public discussions and debates, has been paid to Putin’s perception of Russian interests in Crimea as well as Syria and Libya, namely, to secure warm-water ports and sea lanes from the Black Sea through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean and hence to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and to the Atlantic. However excessive, brutal, or resentful Putin’s responses have been, this national interest does transcend his own regime and the current political system. The annexation of Crimea (preempting a potential NATO naval base on the Black Sea), the support for Syria’s Assad (maintaining the Russian naval facility in the port of Tartus), and outrage at NATO’s overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (fearing the loss of a hoped-for Benghazi port) are part and parcel of a national interest. Whether the actions undertaken were the most effective means of achieving the ends is an altogether different question, just the sort of means-end question that the realist paradigm of rationality is supposed to answer. Chessboard realists fail to answer it because in attributing Putin’s bellicosity to NATO expansion they fail to take account of his steadily intensifying authoritarian and autocratic rule and the crises it suffered or attempted to forestall.

For what happened in Russia between Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and Maidan protest movement of 2014?

For a refresher, I reread Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. The 2014 Postscript brings the story of Putin’s career up to the watershed moment where the fate of Ukraine became inextricably entangled with the fate of Putin’s own power within Russia. Well before the Maidan movement in Ukraine, Putin was rocked by popular opposition after years of successfully suppressing opponents, monopolizing control of the media, creating ersatz “oppositional” parties, and falsifying the vote in carefully staged elections. Putin had gone from president to prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency (2008–2012), a charade to cover his continued rule; constitutional changes were then made to permit him to run for president again in 2012, for potentially two six-year terms. Even the pretence of democracy was falling away. When Mikhail Prokhorov, whom the Kremlin had chosen to lead the “oppositional” center-right party, showed signs of actually mounting an independent campaign, he was sacked and a new opposition figurehead was installed. Meanwhile, the expectation of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections unexpectedly led to a movement to vote in the election, casting votes for ersatz opponents of Putin’s United Russia, and to send activists into polling places to monitor the voting, especially in Moscow. The result of these efforts produced ample evidence that the election results were falsified. Unprecedented demonstrations occurred in several cities. The motivation crisis hitherto exemplified by citizens’ not bothering to vote was transformed, via their protest votes, into a legitimation crisis. On December 7, 2011, former president Mikhail Gorbachev called for a revote. That surely gave new resonance to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution for Putin. No revote took place. But leading up to his “landslide” election to the presidency in March 2012, he “was faced with mass protests” and “briefly panicked and shuffled his staff, firing his chief ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, and replaced him with one Vyacheslav Volodin.” As Gessen reports, it was during this presidential campaign, against the backdrop of the protests putting in question the legitimacy of his regime, that Putin metamorphosed “from the quintessential post-ideological politician into a man with a mission, an aspiring general in a new worldwide culture war.” For years he succeeded in mimicking democratization and liberalization—an imitation that Western governments largely mistook for the real thing (see Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed: A Reckoning [2019]). The crisis of 2011–2012 required a new domestic legitimation. Putin’s moment of genius was to justify his rule by flipping fake Westernization into an anti-Western ideology. Democratic legitimacy, which was no longer possible, was quickly rendered no longer necessary.

The first piece of the incipient ideology was, Gessen reported, an attack on homosexuality and claims that the electoral protests were the work of gays and lesbians. TV commentators denounced gays and lesbians as the anti-Christ. A call for a ban on their donations to sperm or blood banks evoked the most archaic symbolism of evil—impurity and pollution.  The Russian Orthodox Patriarch saw “a sign of the coming apocalypse” in same-sex marriage. Anti-gay became anti-West. In a speech Gessen cites, Putin asserted that global leadership “is absolutely objective and understandable for a state like Russia, with its great history and culture, with many centuries not of so-called tolerance, genderless and childless, but of real organic life of different peoples existing together within the framework of a single state.” By the summer of 2013 “the Duma passed a ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ and another on adoptions by same-sex couples.” All the pieces of the new ideology fell into place to give Putin’s rule the legitimacy it was otherwise lacking; public opinion was mobilized by combining homophobia, nationalism, xenophobia, and imperial self-aggrandizement, sealed with the stamp of theological authority. This ideological configuration and mobilization preceded by many months the Maidan protests and the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The decisive flaw in the NATO-is-to-blame thesis lies just there. It was Putin’s response to his own political predicament within Russia that prompted his first aggression against Ukraine, and the apparent popular approval of the ensuing annexation of Crimea created a fund of legitimation that Putin clearly thought he could draw on in 2022, when, let’s not forget, Ukraine did nothing to provoke the invasion intended to overthrow its government.

*****              *****              *****              *****

Putin’s demeanor and actions led to glib pronouncements, in op-eds and diplomats’ recollections as well as everyday conversation, that he is crazy. He’s not cold-blooded and calculating but irrational, paranoid, and narcissistic. The evidence cited included his isolation, his public humiliation of his spy chief, his mistrust of allies and opponents alike, the conference table that places him twenty feet from his interlocutor, his flights of historical fabulation and nationalistic aggrandizement, his accusations of Ukrainian Nazism, his military miscalculations, and even…how he smells!

To understand the psychopolitical dimension of Putin’s rule, should priority be given to psyche or politics? Sensing that the political ought to be foregrounded, and feeling that so much certainty in applying psychological labels might mask the West’s deficient understanding of the two-decade arc of Putin’s grip on power, I took a step back and looked for guidance in the twofold wisdom of ancient thought and the contemporary novel, in this instance Xenophon’s Hiero the Tyrant and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Harsh Times.

Xenophon creates a dialogue between the poet Simonides and the tyrant Hiero. The topic is rulership, not as in Athenian democracy where citizens were, in Hannah Arendt’s formulation, equals in ruling and being ruled. Rather, Simonides poses the question of the difference in the experiences of the tyrant and those over whom he rules. By tyranny is meant one-man rule that is neither authorized nor constrained by a constitution or laws. The tyrant’s character, personality, or pathologies are not at issue. Tyranny is treated purely as a particular form of rule. The premise is that Hiero, having been “born an ordinary citizen” and now being a tyrant, knows both states. “Since you have experience of both walks of life,” says Simonides to initiate the discussion, “you’re sure to know better than I how the life of a tyrant differs from that of an ordinary citizen with respect to the pleasures and pains of human life.” Xenophon’s canny procedure is to have the tyrant himself articulate the essence and weakness of tyranny as he disputes the supposed pleasures and details the actual pains of his life. “I think the only person who might profit from hanging himself is a tyrant,” Hiero ultimately concludes, “because he is the only person in the world whose interest is as little served by getting rid of his misfortunes as it is by keeping them.”

For every pleasure in life that Simonides presents, Hiero explains how it is lacking for the tyrant. He cannot enjoy travels, for “it isn’t safe for him to go places where he would be no stronger than anyone else, and his status at home is not so secure that he can leave things in others’ hands while he travels abroad.” But what of the constant praise and absence of criticism? “Do you really think,” Hiero retorts, “that the fact that people refrain from speaking ill of a tyrant can give him the slightest pleasure, when he knows for sure that for all their silence every single one of them is thinking ill of him?” And there is no pleasure in the praise he receives since “its purpose is flattery.” The very fact that the tyrant’s table is always plentiful with food and drink deprives him of the “anticipatory pleasure” that “ordinary citizens” enjoy in looking forward to feast days. “Besides, as I’m sure you know perfectly well from your own experience, the more superfluous food a person is served, the more quickly he gets sated.” The ordinary citizen’s “duration of pleasure” is greater than the tyrant’s. When it comes to sexual pleasure, as with friendship, one wants “a willing and affectionate partner.” But “a tyrant can never be sure he is actually liked. I mean, we all know that when people submit out of fear they simulate as accurately as possible compliance born out of genuine affection. In fact, plots against tyrants are hatched, as often as not, by those who claim the greatest friendship towards them.”

The ancient analysis attributes the tyrant’s paranoid position to the form of power itself. Xenophon’s Hiero provides a self-portrait of the tyrant’s isolation and fears: “wherever tyrants go… they always treat it as enemy territory…but back home is where the tyrant knows there is the highest concentration of his enemies…[and] is not out of danger even when he enters his residence; in fact, he thinks he has to protect himself there more than anywhere else.” The isolation is absolute: “there’s no peace between a tyrant and his subjects,” and even worse “friendship is something else which a tyrant above all is denied.” The tyrant “lives in constant mistrust,” fully aware that “the less a person knows of trust, the more he is deprived of something of value.” The power of Hiero’s self-portrait lies in his lucidity regarding how tyranny negates and inverts the highest values, values which the tyrant himself shares with ordinary citizens even as he lives their negation and inversion:

“Here’s another hardship a tyrant experiences, Simonides. He is just as capable as any citizen of recognizing bravery, cleverness and moral rectitude in people, but instead of admiring such qualities, he is afraid of them. He worries about brave people using their courage in the service of freedom, about clever people intriguing against him and about morally good people being chosen by the general populace as their champions.”

Simonides asks Hiero why then don’t he and other tyrants, if their existence is so bad, simply give up “this terrible burden.” Indeed, Hiero replies, “this is exactly the most pitiful aspect of tyranny. It is impossible to let go of it.” The tyrant cannot outlive his rule because there is no way to answer for the harm he has caused. “How could a tyrant ever raise enough money to pay back the people he stole from, or serve all the prison sentences to compensate those he imprisoned? How could he recompense all the people he put to death by coming up with an adequate number of deaths to die?”

Hiero’s self-portrait sketches Putin’s portrait accurately enough. The immense ill-gained wealth and the imprisoned, poisoned, and assassinated opponents amount to unpayable debts. Putin’s need to hold onto power has perhaps become, like Hiero’s, a mere imperative of survival. Whether Hiero’s lucid lament is considered an ironic fiction concocted by Xenophon or a testimony to the ancients’ capacity of rational reflection on the nature of the good life, it helps us understand that tyranny does not sprout from the personality of the tyrant but from the form of power to which he adapts himself. My earlier comment regarding the political system that Putin has honed needs in this light to be inverted, for it is just as much a question of the political system that has honed Putin. It is in this sense that the Putin-is-crazy thesis and the more general psychologizing and personalizing of the war against Ukraine is not only misguided but helps disguise the fact that Western governments long failed to take stock of the inner dynamic of the form of rule which transformed Putin from hollow imitation democrat to embattled autocrat to theo-ideologically amped despot.

Germany’s Wandel durch Handel policy (change through trade) has been heavily criticized in retrospect for naïvely believing that commerce with Europe would have a liberalizing and moderating effect on Russia. Commerce can have such effects, especially within a variegated domestic economy or common market, but Russia’s political evolution to autocracy was accelerated not impeded by trade with the West because of the source of Russia’s national wealth. Extracting and exporting natural resources, like oil and gas, does not provide an economic incentive to liberalize and democratize; on the contrary, it fuels monopoly, oligarchy, autocracy, and worse. The effects of a nation and state dependent on an extraction economy were as striking in Russia as in Venezuela or Saudi Arabia during what Angela Merkel still defends as a policy of “finding a modus vivendi with Russia, in which we’re not at war but can try to somehow coexist, despite all our differences.”

There is one element of anachronism in the Hiero-Putin parallel to emphasize. Ancient Greek political thought, as in the premise of Xenophon’s dialogue, centered on the question of the good life; just as Athenian democracy posited the citizen’s political participation on a par with others as the most gratifying form of life, Simonides and Hiero debate the nature of rulership and tyranny in relation to what constitutes the good life, that of the ruler or the ruled. By contrast, the political forms of modern society, to borrow Claude Lefort’s phrase, marginalize reflections on the good life and instead require an appeal to popular legitimation. And since such legitimacy depends upon the variably manifested symbol of the “people,” it is fragile and volatile, especially in the process of founding and at moments of crisis. Post–Cold War Russia initially flirted with democratic legitimation, but failed to instantiate adequate electoral and judicial institutions and practices to meet the democratic demand that the regime in power be but a temporary placeholder of legitimate authority. Putin is at once a consequence and architect of that failure. Unlike Hiero, he cannot sustain power in lieu of democratic legitimacy except through an ideology that refounds legitimacy by redesignating the “people,” in this case as an aggrieved ethnonationalist and religious entity.

*****              *****              *****              *****

One of Xenophon’s themes is taken up by political theorists more than two millennia later, principally by Montesquieu in the 18th century and Arendt in the 20th. Namely, that tyranny is characterized by the mutual fear of ruler and ruled. Commenting on despotism as viewed by Montesquieu, Arendt describes it as the form of rule pervaded by “the subjects’ fear of the tyrant and one another, as well as the tyrant’s fear of his subjects.” It was with this theme in mind that I decided to read Vargas Llosa’s most recent novel, Harsh Times, expecting it to expand the exploration of despotic fears, appetites, and cruelties which he undertook in The Feast of the Goat, the engrossing novel based on the dictatorship and ultimate downfall of the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo. I was in for a surprise, for while El Jefe figures at a central moment in the intrigues and machinations recounted in Harsh Times, the novel’s actual purpose is to lay bare the odious role the United States played in Latin America in the name of anti-communism, beginning with its meddlings and manipulations in Guatemala.

An uprising in 1944, referred to as the October Revolution, drove dictator Jorge Ubico Casteñeda and then his handpicked successor from office. A military junta organized democratic elections in 1945, and the presidency was won by Juan José Arévalo, a philosophy professor. The second democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, succeeded Arévalo in 1951. Árbenz had played a leading role in the overthrow of the dictatorship as a young army officer and then served as Arévalo’s minister of defense. He had rivals and antagonists in the military, and even more importantly his plans for land reform, taxes on the United Fruit Company and latifundia, and granting workers and peasants the right to organize, prompted the Eisenhower administration and the CIA to prepare the overthrow of his government. He was forced to resign in 1954, ending Guatemala’s brief experiment in democracy. The United Fruit Company’s Edward L. Bernays, the self-proclaimed father of public relations (and Freud’s nephew!), had relentlessly fed the American press and politicians falsehoods to persuade them that Guatemala under Arévalo and especially Árbenz was infiltrated by communists and in thrall to the Soviet Union. There was no evidence of any of this. In fact, Árbenz was dedicated to making Guatemala a modern liberal democracy, capitalist and anti-oligarchical, with an array of rights long denied by dictatorship. John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Allen Dulles, his brother, head of the CIA. Both had done legal work for United Fruit.

Harsh Times is a didactic novel. Not dogmatic, but didactic in the best sense of a thesis-driven fiction linking actual events and historical personages via imaginative conjectures of those characters’ desires, passions, encounters, and betrayals. The thesis: “the United States erred terribly in preparing the coup against Árbenz with Colonel Castillo Armas at the head of the conspiracy. The victory was fleeting, pointless, and counterproductive. It helped foment anti-Americanism in Latin America all over again, and invigorated the Marxists, the Trotskyites, and the Fidelists. It radicalized Fidel’s 26th of July Movement and pushed it toward communism. Fidel learned the most obvious lessons from what happened in Guatemala.” This passage comes from the novel’s coda, where Vargas Llosa visits the woman, now in her 80s, who is the historical model for one of his main characters. In the novel she is given the name Marta Borrero Parra. (The parallel personage in historical accounts is Gloria Bolaños.) “I confess I’m somewhat nervous. I’ve spent two years imagining this woman, inventing her, attributing to her adventures of all kinds, distorting her so that no one—not even she—will recognize her in the story I’ve dreamed up.” As a novelistic technique, it’s an inverted cherchez la femme. Vargas Llosa starts with a woman and makes her the hinge in each of the historical moments he wants to connect. Marta’s surest overlap with her historical model is that at barely twenty years old she becomes the mistress of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas shortly after the coup against Árbenz elevates him to the presidency. The CIA soon sours on its man, and he is assassinated three years later inside the presidential palace. Marta is spirited away thanks to a CIA operative and Johnny Abbes García, a Dominican henchman, both of whom helped engineer the assassination. Marta becomes Johnny’s mistress in the Dominican Republic, enjoys the protection of Trujillo (who had long wanted Castillo Armas dead), and becomes a radio personality inveighing against communism and the supposed leftist killers of Castillo Armas. She also becomes a paid asset of the CIA, as she was in Guatemala. A confrontation with Trujillo’s brother causes her to flee the Dominican Republic, with CIA help, leading to the mysterious decades-long life that Vargas Llosa glimpses in meeting her historical model at her home a stone’s throw from Langley. The real “Marta” denies she was ever Johnny’s lover, is evasive about what she knew before or after about her lover Castillo Armas’s assassination. She claims Johnny was not killed along with his family in Haiti, as is widely believed and graphically recounted in the novel; that was a CIA subterfuge to rescue him and give him a new identity in the United States. She thus disputes Vargas Llosa’s conjectural fictions. And she remains, he learns, a staunch anti-communist who idolizes an array of Latin American dictators.

As a storyteller, Vargas Llosa offers dollops of telenovela in Marta’s adventures, but his novel’s form exemplifies Jean-Luc Godard’s quip that there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Shifts in time, juxtapositions of moments months apart, and backstories may make it difficult to follow Harsh Times at first but they create an effective narrative of implication and imbrication. The short-lived presidency of Jacobo Árbenz is slowly revealed from those shifting angles to be the defining moment of an entire era, an era whose traumas and injustices resonate still, whether in the long arc in Nicaragua from Anastasio Somosa’s U.S.-backed dictatorship to Daniel Ortega’s faux-Marxist dictatorship or in the desperation of the innumerable undocumented Central Americans seeking refuge in the United States. CIA-orchestrated coups d’état began the year before the Guatemala coup with the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. An entire generation of Americans were awakened to these kinds of unjust—and counterproductive—acts by the 1963 killing of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and Pinochet’s deadly overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973. In Guatemala the next strongman installed by the U.S. and CIA after Castillo Armas’s assassination was Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, who was in turn deposed five years later. And on and on. In that decisive year of 1954, the U.S. failed to grasp that Árbenz was averse to communism and bent on developing a liberal and democratic Guatemala. His land reform, which granted peasants use of a parcel of fallow land to cultivate in order to achieve independence and self-sufficiency, was downright Jeffersonian.

While Harsh Times turned out not to have an immediate bearing on understanding Russian autocracy or American support of Ukraine, reading it did provoke an urgent question: Is it possible to cast a lucid and enraged eye on the damage the U.S. has inflicted, in this case on Latin America, and decry how the consequences of its misdeeds and crimes continue to haunt the Monroe Doctrine’s sphere of influence and, at the same time, to grasp what’s right and justified in American foreign policy even as one is also vigilant in criticizing its excesses, faults, and errors?

Such a multiplicity of perspective is something the left, however it identifies itself, is uniquely capable of. Or should be. It requires, though, affirmatively embracing the fact that the U.S. is a global power and then proceeding to evaluate its international role and responsibilities in light of the emergence of geocivil war in the Muslim world, China’s bid for global supremacy, and Russia’s reactive attacks on the West. The left’s prevailing view of NATO and the EU is a Cold War legacy that hampers insight into contemporary international tensions and conflicts. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its oppression of Central and Eastern Europe provided various strands of the Western left with either an alibi or an illusion—the alibi of justifying democratic socialism and Western Marxism in contrast to state-socialism and Stalinism or, on the other hand, the illusion that Soviet socialism was the true foundation for a democracy to come, despite such disagreeable features as forced labor, one-party rule, political prisoners, the absence of a free press and independent judiciary, closed borders, the suppression of freedoms of speech, assembly, and travel, and the repression of labor organizing. Democracy needed to be completed with socialism in the one case; socialism was the precondition of democracy in the other. Neither the alibi nor the illusion has much purchase today, but the attitudes formed during the Cold War persist and have inhibited grasping the nature and stakes of the Ukraine crisis.

At issue is how to understand the way in which Ukraine’s domestic political turmoil is entwined with geopolitical strife. In the three decades between the breakup of the Soviet Union and the current war, Ukraine’s political institutions and internal struggles have been inextricably bound up with its external relations to post–Cold War Europe and Russia. It has had to grope its way toward self-determination in the midst of determining what it itself is. The “it itself” has been riven, inevitably, by differences and antagonisms of class, language, ethnicity, ideology, region, and attitudes toward Russia ranging from loyalty to antipathy. The arduous task of forging a democratic polity governed by the rule of law out of such differences and antagonisms has, paradoxically, been at once upended and facilitated by the Russian invasion. In 2021, Volodymyr Zelensky saw his popularity in dramatic decline and had begun to yield to the temptation of using the judiciary to suppress political opponents; a new crisis of legitimacy and paralyzing domestic conflict were in the offing. The February invasion provided the crucible in which Zelensky was transformed into a formidable leader and the country, wracked by common suffering, discovered national unity in the form of a patriotic common cause. Patriotism and courage are on the side of the Ukrainians. Their resolve to preserve their nation’s political and territorial integrity has overridden the divisions of Ukrainian society in the midst of battle and nourishes the possibility of a richer postwar civic life, a possibility that will nevertheless be realized only by renewing the task of building a liberal and democratic polity on Russia’s doorstep.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *