Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Facebook conversation on language and diplomacy


[...] Allow me to share some autobiographical details, perhaps relevant to our discussion of language and diplomacy: I had the good fortune of growing up essentially bilingual; my father, an FSO [Foreign Service Officer], was posted in France and Belgium, and French is my "native" language. I attended local French-speaking schools in these two countries; for the fifth grade, my parents, deciding that, as an American, I should after all speak English, sent me a to an "international," English-speaking school in Brussels, where I acquired English (with which I still have problems with prepositions, among many others). But to my main point: I fully agree with you that "learning a language properly does take a lifetime" -- not a "language training" stint at (God bless the organization) at FSI [Foreign Service Institute, which "trains" USA diplomats, including in foreign languages]. 

My agreement with your wise statement on learning a language [it requires a lifetime] is based on the experience I had of speaking French as a child, and being thus very sensitive (even until now) to the negative impression made by Americans, after a "quickie" language course, that they are capable of "parler français." I should note -- although my struggle with Russian will never end [although I have studied it since high school] -- that official Americans who don't have full Russian fluency addressing Russian audiences on Facebook/Twitter messages with ungrammatical Russian are not automatically well received, especially if they extend their remarks beyond a few polite words in their "Russian." 

I witnessed how Russians cringed at Americans speaking Russian (including myself) all too often during my years in Moscow (98-01).
23 mins · Edited · Like · 1

Friday, February 27, 2015

Our Founding Fathers included Islam: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Thomas Jefferson didn't just own a Quran -- he engaged with Islam and fought to ensure the rights of Muslims

Image from article

From Denise Spellberg, Salon

Excerpted from "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an"
[He] sais “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”
 — Thomas Jefferson, quoting John Locke, 1776

At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation. His engagement with the faith began with the purchase of a Qur’an eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s Qur’an survives still in the Library of Congress, serving as a symbol of his and early America’s complex relationship with Islam and its adherents. That relationship remains of signal importance to this day.

That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims. Jefferson first read about Muslim “civil rights” in the work of one of his intellectual heroes: the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. Locke had advocated the toleration of Muslims—and Jews—following in the footsteps of a few others in Europe who had considered the matter for more than a century before him. Jefferson’s ideas about Muslim rights must be understood within this older context, a complex set of transatlantic ideas that would continue to evolve most markedly from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Amid the interdenominational Christian violence in Europe, some Christians, beginning in the sixteenth century, chose Muslims as the test case for the demarcation of the theoretical boundaries of their toleration for all believers. Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship. As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality—the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office—should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom: the issue of a “religious test” in the Constitution, like the ones that would exist at the state level into the nineteenth century; the question of “an establishment of religion,” potentially of Protestant Christianity; and the meaning and extent of a separation of religion from government.

Resistance to the idea of Muslim citizenship was predictable in the eighteenth century. Americans had inherited from Europe almost a millennium of negative distortions of the faith’s theological and political character. Given the dominance and popularity of these anti-Islamic representations, it was startling that a few notable Americans not only refused to exclude Muslims, but even imagined a day when they would be citizens of the United States, with full and equal rights. This surprising, uniquely American egalitarian defense of Muslim rights was the logical extension of European precedents already mentioned. Still, on both sides of the Atlantic, such ideas were marginal at best. How, then, did the idea of the Muslim as a citizen with rights survive despite powerful opposition from the outset? And what is the fate of that ideal in the twenty-first century?

This book provides a new history of the founding era, one that explains how and why Thomas Jefferson and a handful of others adopted and then moved beyond European ideas about the toleration of Muslims. It should be said at the outset that these exceptional men were not motivated by any inherent appreciation for Islam as a religion. Muslims, for most American Protestants, remained beyond the outer limit of those possessing acceptable beliefs, but they nevertheless became emblems of two competing conceptions of the nation’s identity: one essentially preserving the Protestant status quo, and the other fully realizing the pluralism implied in the Revolutionary rhetoric of inalienable and universal rights. Thus while some fought to exclude a group whose inclusion they feared would ultimately portend the undoing of the nation’s Protestant character, a pivotal minority, also Protestant, perceiving the ultimate benefit and justice of a religiously plural America, set about defending the rights of future Muslim citizens.

They did so, however, not for the sake of actual Muslims, because none were known at the time to live in America. Instead, Jefferson and others defended Muslim rights for the sake of “imagined Muslims,” the promotion of whose theoretical citizenship would prove the true universality of American rights. Indeed, this defense of imagined Muslims would also create political room to consider the rights of other despised minorities whose numbers in America, though small, were quite real, namely Jews and Catholics. Although it was Muslims who embodied the ideal of inclusion, Jews and Catholics were often linked to them in early American debates, as Jefferson and others fought for the rights of all non-Protestants.

In 1783, the year of the nation’s official independence from Great Britain, George Washington wrote to recent Irish Catholic immigrants in New York City. The American Catholic minority of roughly twenty-five thousand then had few legal protections in any state and, because of their faith, no right to hold political office in New York. Washington insisted that “the bosom of America” was “open to receive . . . the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” He would also write similar missives to Jewish communities, whose total population numbered only about two thousand at this time.

One year later, in 1784, Washington theoretically enfolded Muslims into his private world at Mount Vernon. In a letter to a friend seeking a carpenter and bricklayer to help at his Virginia home, he explained that the workers’ beliefs—or lack thereof—mattered not at all: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews or Christian of an[y] Sect, or they may be Atheists.” Clearly, Muslims were part of Washington’s understanding of religious pluralism—at least in theory. But he would not have actually expected any Muslim applicants.

Although we have since learned that there were in fact Muslims resident in eighteenth-century America, this book demonstrates that the Founders and their generational peers never knew it. Thus their Muslim constituency remained an imagined, future one. But the fact that both Washington and Jefferson attached to it such symbolic significance is not accidental. Both men were heir to the same pair of opposing European traditions.

The first, which predominated, depicted Islam as the antithesis of the “true faith” of Protestant Christianity, as well as the source of tyrannical governments abroad. To tolerate Muslims—to accept them as part of a majority Protestant Christian society—was to welcome people who professed a faith most eighteenth-century Europeans and Americans believed false, foreign, and threatening. Catholics would be similarly characterized in American Protestant founding discourse. Indeed, their faith, like Islam, would be deemed a source of tyranny and thus antithetical to American ideas of liberty.

In order to counter such fears, Jefferson and other supporters of non-Protestant citizenship drew upon a second, less popular but crucial stream of European thought, one that posited the toleration of Muslims as well as Jews and Catholics. Those few Europeans, both Catholic and Protestant, who first espoused such ideas in the sixteenth century often died for them. In the seventeenth century, those who advocated universal religious toleration frequently suffered death or imprisonment, banishment or exile, the elites and common folk alike. The ranks of these so-called heretics in Europe included Catholic and Protestant peasants, Protestant scholars of religion and political theory, and fervid Protestant dissenters, such as the first English Baptists—but no people of political power or prominence. Despite not being organized, this minority consistently opposed their coreligionists by defending theoretical Muslims from persecution in Christian-majority states.

As a member of the eighteenth-century Anglican establishment and a prominent political leader in Virginia, Jefferson represented a different sort of proponent for ideas that had long been the hallmark of dissident victims of persecution and exile. Because of his elite status, his own endorsement of Muslim citizenship demanded serious consideration in Virginia—and the new nation. Together with a handful of like-minded American Protestants, he advanced a new, previously unthinkable national blueprint. Thus did ideas long on the fringe of European thought flow into the mainstream of American political discourse at its inception.

Not that these ideas found universal welcome. Even a man of Jefferson’s national reputation would be attacked by his political opponents for his insistence that the rights of all believers should be protected from government interference and persecution. But he drew support from a broad range of constituencies, including Anglicans (or Episcopalians), as well as dissenting Presbyterians and Baptists, who suffered persecution perpetrated by fellow Protestants. No denomination had a unanimously positive view of non-Protestants as full American citizens, yet support for Muslim rights was expressed by some members of each.

What the supporters of Muslim rights were proposing was extraordinary even at a purely theoretical level in the eighteenth century. American citizenship—which had embraced only free, white, male Protestants—was in effect to be abstracted from religion. Race and gender would continue as barriers, but not so faith. Legislation in Virginia would be just the beginning, the First Amendment far from the end of the story; in fact, Jefferson, Washington, and James Madison would work toward this ideal of separation throughout their entire political lives, ultimately leaving it to others to carry on and finish the job. This book documents, for the first time, how Jefferson and others, despite their negative, often incorrect understandings of Islam, pursued that ideal by advocating the rights of Muslims and all non-Protestants.

A decade before George Washington signaled openness to Muslim laborers in 1784 he had listed two slave women from West Africa among his taxable property. “Fatimer” and “Little Fatimer” were a mother and daughter—both indubitably named after the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima (d. 632). Washington advocated Muslim rights, never realizing that as a slaveholder he was denying Muslims in his own midst any rights at all, including the right to practice their faith. This tragic irony may well have also recurred on the plantations of Jefferson and Madison, although proof of their slaves’ religion remains less than definitive. Nevertheless, having been seized and transported from West Africa, the first American Muslims may have numbered in the tens of thousands, a population certainly greater than the resident Jews and possibly even the Catholics. Although some have speculated that a few former Muslim slaves may have served in the Continental Army, there is little direct evidence any practiced Islam and none that these individuals were known to the Founders. In any case, they had no influence on later political debates about Muslim citizenship.

The insuperable facts of race and slavery rendered invisible the very believers whose freedoms men like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison defended, and whose ancestors had resided in America since the seventeenth century, as long as Protestants had. Indeed, when the Founders imagined future Muslim citizens, they presumably imagined them as white, because by the 1790s “full American citizenship could be claimed by any free, white immigrant, regardless of ethnicity or religious beliefs.”

The two actual Muslims Jefferson would wittingly meet during his lifetime were not black West African slaves but North African ambassadors of Turkish descent. They may have appeared to him to have more melanin than he did, but he never commented on their complexions or race. (Other observers either failed to mention it or simply affirmed that the ambassador in question was not black.) But then Jefferson was interested in neither diplomat for reasons of religion or race; he engaged them because of their political power. (They were, of course, also free.)

But even earlier in his political life—as an ambassador, secretary of state, and vice president—Jefferson had never perceived a predominantly religious dimension to the conflict with North African Muslim powers, whose pirates threatened American shipping in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. As this book demonstrates, Jefferson as president would insist to the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis that his nation harbored no anti-Islamic bias, even going so far as to express the extraordinary claim of believing in the same God as those men.

The equality of believers that Jefferson sought at home was the same one he professed abroad, in both contexts attempting to divorce religion from politics, or so it seemed. In fact, Jefferson’s limited but unique appreciation for Islam appears as a minor but active element in his presidential foreign policy with North Africa—and his most personal Deist and Unitarian beliefs. The two were quite possibly entwined, with their source Jefferson’s unsophisticated yet effective understanding of the Qur’an he owned.

Still, as a man of his time, Jefferson was not immune to negative feelings about Islam. He would even use some of the most popular anti-Islamic images inherited from Europe to drive his early political arguments about the separation of religion from government in Virginia. Yet ultimately Jefferson and others not as well known were still able to divorce the idea of Muslim citizenship from their dislike of Islam, as they forged an “imagined political community,” inclusive beyond all precedent.

The clash between principle and prejudice that Jefferson himself overcame in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remains a test for the nation in the twenty-first. Since the late nineteenth century, the United States has in fact become home to a diverse and dynamic American Muslim citizenry, but this population has never been fully welcomed. Whereas in Jefferson’s time organized prejudice against Muslims was exercised against an exclusively foreign and imaginary nonresident population, today political attacks target real, resident American Muslim citizens. Particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, a public discourse of anti-Muslim bigotry has arisen to justify depriving American Muslim citizens of the full and equal exercise of their civil rights.

For example, recent anti-Islamic slurs used to deny the legitimacy of a presidential candidacy contained eerie echoes of founding precedents. The legal possibility of a Muslim president was first discussed with vitriol during debates involving America’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson would be the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century. That a presidential candidate in the twenty-first century should have been subject to much the same false attack, still presumed as politically damning to any real American Muslim candidate’s potential for elected office, demonstrates the importance of examining how the multiple images of Islam and Muslims first entered American consciousness and how the rights of Muslims first came to be accepted as national ideals. Ultimately, the status of Muslim citizenship in America today cannot be properly appreciated without establishing the historical context of its eighteenth-century origins.

Muslim American rights became a theoretical reality early on, but as a practical one they have been much slower to evolve. In fact, they are being tested daily. Recently, John Esposito, a distinguished historian of Islam in contemporary America, observed, “Muslims are led to wonder: What are the limits of this Western pluralism?” Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an documents the origins of such pluralism in the United States in order to illuminate where, when, and how Muslims were first included in American ideals.

Until now, most historians have proposed that Muslims represented nothing more than the incarnated antithesis of American values. These same voices also insist that Protestant Americans always and uniformly defined both the religion of Islam and its practitioners as inherently un-American. Indeed, most historians posit that the emergence of the United States as an ideological and political phenomenon occurred in opposition to eighteenth-century concepts about Islam as a false religion and source of despotic government. There is certainly evidence for these assumptions in early American religious polemic, domestic politics, foreign policy, and literary sources. There are, however, also considerable observations about Islam and Muslims that cast both in a more affirmative light, including key references to Muslims as future American citizens in important founding debates about rights. These sources show that American Protestants did not monolithically view Islam as “a thoroughly foreign religion.”

This book documents the counterassertion that Muslims, far from being definitively un-American, were deeply embedded in the concept of citizenship in the United States since the country’s inception, even if these inclusive ideas were not then accepted by the majority of Americans. While focusing on Jefferson’s views of Islam, Muslims, and the Islamic world, it also analyzes the perspectives of John Adams and James Madison. Nor is it limited to these key Founders. The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.

The lives of two American Muslim slaves of West African origin, Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, also intersect this narrative. Both were literate in Arabic, the latter writing his autobiography in that language. They remind us of the presence of tens of thousands of Muslim slaves who had no rights, no voice, and no hope of American citizenship in the midst of these early discussions about religious and political equality for future, free practitioners of Islam.

Imagined Muslims, along with real Jews and Catholics, were the consummate outsiders in much of America’s political discourse at the founding. Jews and Catholics would struggle into the twentieth century to gain in practice the equal rights assured them in theory, although even this process would not entirely eradicate prejudice against either group. Nevertheless, from among the original triad of religious outsiders in the United States, only Muslims remain the objects of a substantial civic discourse of derision and marginalization, still being perceived in many quarters as not fully American. This book writes Muslims back into our founding narrative in the hope of clarifying the importance of critical historical precedents at a time when the idea of the Muslim as citizen is, once more, hotly contested.

Excerpted from “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” by Denise A. Spellberg. Copyright © 2013 by Denise A. Spellberg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Mobility Crisis: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

We Americans have always prided ourselves on the extraordinary degree of mobility this country has long made possible for its citizens—the idea that, with hard work and a little luck, an immigrant or a child of poor parents can start out with nothing and end up successful and rich. We still believe this about ourselves: International comparisons of public opinion find that Americans express far greater confidence than citizens of other developed nations that hard work is rewarded and that everyone has a real chance to rise out of poverty. But in fact, by many measures, the United States actually does not stand out among advanced economies in terms of economic mobility, and it has not for decades.
Many of us surely sense this even if we do not know all the facts and figures. There is a divergence between what many Americans want to believe about their country and what they know to be true about the way they and their friends and family live now. Americans at the bottom of the income scale do not have enough opportunities to move up, Americans in the middle feel stuck, younger Americans are having trouble getting started, and Americans in general seem less inclined to follow after opportunities. These various challenges are all distinct, but they stem from the same core problem: immobility.
The degradation of this central aspect of the so-called American dream is finally beginning to take shape as a potent political issue. The headline of a front-page story in the Washington Post in January put its finger on an increasingly evident shift in our economic debates: “Both parties agree: Economic mobility will be a defining theme of 2016 campaign.”
That the two parties would agree even on the subject of our economic arguments is quite a change from recent years, when they have mostly been talking past each other. And more remarkable still is that they seem to have turned to the right subject, too. Serious attention to the state of economic mobility could help us overcome the peculiar mix of acrimony and nostalgia that has enveloped our politics since this century began and could help us see far more clearly some of the most pressing challenges our country now confronts.
For the Democrats, the turn to mobility talk follows the political failure of their favored bugaboo, inequality. For most of the Obama era, they seemed to believe that by attributing all our economic troubles to a growing gap between the rich and the rest, they could use voter worries to advance the left’s longstanding agenda of redistribution through higher taxes and higher spending on a range of benefit programs. But the public hasn’t bought it; inequality has never ranked high among voter priorities. So by 2013, prominent Democrats had begun to tie inequality to mobility, which voters clearly do care about. “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe,” President Obama said in December of that year. So far, however, the goal of linking (if not confusing) inequality and mobility still appears to be the advancement of the same tired agenda. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats are really ready to think about what is keeping Americans back.
For Republicans, a similar turn has followed the recognition that their economic message failed to appeal to voters in 2012, particularly because it failed to articulate what Republican policies might offer those in the economic middle and bottom. Republicans have tended to talk about America’s economic dilemmas in terms of the need to improve growth. While there is no question that growth is an essential prerequisite for prosperity, it is only a prerequisite. Emphasizing it alone causes Republicans to speak too abstractly about economics, as Mitt Romney’s failed presidential campaign painfully demonstrated.
By 2013, some Republicans had begun to respond to this problem by talking up mobility, and in early 2014, two of the party’s most creative policy entrepreneurs (Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio) each proposed a package of significant anti-poverty reforms to improve it. But for most Republicans, as for most Democrats, the shift has been largely a rhetorical effort to recast their longstanding agenda. To get beyond talk, the two parties will need to treat the challenge of mobility not just as a means to their familiar ends but as the best lens through which to understand the role of economic policy in America more generally.
Economic mobility is ultimately about improved living standards over time. It is therefore a measure of material progress, and of whether our economy is allowing people to better their conditions, which must after all be its primary purpose. We can begin to understand the state of such mobility in America by breaking it down into two key components: relative mobility and absolute mobility.
Relative mobility refers to a person’s economic status in relation to the nation as a whole. Economists often describe it in terms of moving up the income quintiles—the five slices of the American pie that measure the economic division in the country from poorest to richest—while the rest of us tend to think of it in the form of rags-to-riches stories. Can someone born in poverty today rise into the middle class and beyond it? Does the child of a middle-class family stand a reasonable chance of ending up wealthy? Or are people destined to end up roughly where they start?
For most of American history, these questions would have been answered in a manner flattering to the country’s own sense of itself as the world’s beacon of opportunity. No longer. By some measures, in fact, in terms of relative mobility, we are now lagging behind Canada and much of northern Europe. Economist Markus Jäntti and his team have found that over the past generation about 25 percent of Danish men who were born in the bottom 20 percent remained in that lowest quintile as adults, compared with 42 percent of American men. Some economists have questioned the methodology behind Jäntti’s finding and suggest instead that mobility looks rather similar across the developed world. But no one argues that Americans are still uniquely mobile. At best, we are on par with Europeans and Canadians.
And this is not because relative mobility has declined in America in the 21st century. Although you would not know it from some of our political debates, the data suggest that our national level of relative mobility has been remarkably stable—and remarkably low—for at least the past five decades. A child born to parents living in poverty at any point since the 1960s has had only about a 30 percent chance of ever making it into the middle class, and about a 5 percent chance of ending up in the highest fifth of income earners. Rags-to-riches stories, even rags-to-comfort stories, are awfully rare. And this has not changed much in living memory.
This is the first piece of the mobility crisis: It is far too difficult to rise out of poverty in America, and it was so even throughout what we have thought of as America’s postwar economic golden age. This problem has not gotten markedly worse (or better) as inequality has grown, and it has not improved or worsened with rising or falling growth, or tax rates, or spending levels. Neither party’s economic prescriptions seem likely to change it much. It will require some new thinking.
Why, then, have our anxieties about mobility intensified only recently? The answer can be found in the state of absolute mobility, which tells a more complicated story. Absolute mobility involves changes in people’s living standards not relative to society as a whole but relative to their own past or to the prior generation. Are you better off than you were four years ago? Are you wealthier than your parents were at your age?
By this measure, America looks rather good over the long run but rather bad over a shorter run—and the difference is why mobility has now become a priority. Data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project show that the vast majority of Americans, about 84 percent, now have a higher income than their parents did at their age, adjusted for both inflation and family size. Such intergenerational absolute mobility is actually highest among the poor: Fully 93 percent of Americans in the lowest fifth of earners have higher incomes and greater purchasing power than their parents did at their age, compared with 70 percent of Americans in the top fifth. Overall American living standards have risen over time, and this has lifted essentially everyone’s living standards some, even if it has not done much to change people’s relative positions in society.
But the significance of this good news is limited in two ways that will help us to clarify the mobility challenge as policymakers must now confront it. First, strong absolute mobility amid weak relative mobility means that while people are more comfortable where they are in life, they are not moving ahead in skills or status. The mother working long days behind a restaurant counter in the expectation that her children should have better opportunities than she did would not be satisfied to hear that her children will be a little better paid for working behind that same counter all their lives.
Second, and perhaps most important, absolute mobility has declined significantly in the last two decades, so that while most Americans are doing better than their parents did at the same age, they are often not doing as well as similarly situated families (and maybe even their own families) were doing ten or even 20 years ago. This is the most pressing way in which many Americans are feeling the sting of immobility these days, with stagnant wages creating the sense that they’re running in place.
The simplest way to illustrate this trend is to consider the median family. Adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2013 dollars, the median American family income was $52,432 in 1989 and $51,939 in 2013, according to Census Bureau data. In other words, the purchasing power of the median family has actually declined a little over the course of the last quarter century.
Now, the average household is a little smaller than it was two decades ago, but even adjusted for family size, the median income today is essentially where it was in the mid-’90s. This is in part the effect of the severe 2008–09 recession, which reduced household incomes sharply for a time, but it is largely a result of the fact that incomes have simply not been growing quickly, even in good times, especially since the beginning of this century.
Although overall inflation has been low in this period, some key middle-class costs—most notably higher education and health care—have risen a lot, so that a family with the same real income it would have had 20 years ago is in some important ways getting less for its money. This is why such wage stagnation has come to be called the “middle-class squeeze,” and has had a lot to do with the general sense of unease and frustration among middle-income voters over the past decade. It is also why the term “mobility” captures the challenge we confront particularly well, even though by some technical definitions of the term we have actually done reasonably well over time. The problem as it presents itself to working families feels like immobility—like being stuck.
It expresses itself, too, in other symptoms that are well captured under the rubric of “mobility.” For instance, Americans aren’t picking up and moving around the country in search of opportunity as we once did. The dynamism and resilience of American economic life has frequently been driven by the willingness and the ability of Americans to move in search of well-paying work. But geographic mobility has been declining.
This trend, too, is not new, but it has been getting worse. Both the rate and (remarkably, given population growth) the number of Americans who change their residence each year has been declining since the mid-1980s, and has fallen especially low in this century. In 2011, the Census Bureau’s “mover’s rate” reached its lowest level since the agency began to measure geographic mobility in the 1940s, and it has basically remained there since.
Geographic mobility is not an unalloyed good. Rootedness in one’s community can be vitally important both to economic resilience and to a broader human flourishing. But particularly in challenging economic times, Americans have often been able to overcome hardship by moving to seek work, and the recession and weak recovery of the past few years have been very unevenly distributed across the country. Even putting aside some extreme examples (like the Dakotas, which have benefited uniquely from an oil and gas boom), job opportunities have been far more plentiful in some parts of the country than in others. In every single month of the past five years, for instance, California’s unemployment rate has been at least twice Nebraska’s unemployment rate. Absolute and relative mobility, too, have varied in different parts of the United States. But Americans have generally not been moving accordingly.
Geographic mobility has declined particularly sharply in the wake of the Great Recession and has been intertwined in the course of the nation’s slow recovery with the inability of younger Americans, just graduating high school or college, to find work and move out on their own. Last year, just over a third of Americans between ages 18 and 31 were living in their parents’ home—the highest share in at least four decades, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data. Some of this has to do with higher rates of college enrollment during the economic downturn (as some students living in dorms are counted by the Census as living at home), but it also clearly indicates a real decline in young Americans making their own way independently. This “failure to launch” may well ease some if economic conditions further improve, but by effectively decelerating the early adulthood of millions of millennials, it stands to set back the economic prospects of the rising generation in ways that will reverberate for decades to come.
Overall economic growth has improved in recent months, and there is room to hope that such improvements may continue. But while a stronger economy is certainly a more pleasant backdrop against which to consider these different pieces of the mobility puzzle, it is not an answer. These trends did not begin with the most recent recession (or presidency) and have not abated much during periods of stronger growth in recent decades. Growth is surely a necessary precondition for addressing them, but not a sufficient response.
What, then, might a response look like? Having sharpened our sense of the problem a little, it may be helpful to think in terms of five categories of steps that policymakers could take, at least for a start.
The first is the most general and the easiest for Republicans to embrace: growth. Because growth is a necessary if not sufficient condition for improved economic mobility, policymakers need to create and sustain the right environment for economic dynamism.
This means a growth-friendly tax code, which in our time particularly requires corporate tax reform that lowers rates and encourages investment—bringing our corporate code into line with those of other advanced nations. It means a health-care system geared to enable real competition and cost containment. It means spending and deficit restraint, and the kinds of reforms necessary to avoid the fiscal collapse of our entitlement programs—a danger that politicians tend to talk about in terms of protecting their grandchildren but that is in fact projected to become an unmanageable burden just when Americans now entering the workforce will be in their prime working years. It means that monetary stability and predictability, free and open trade, and a restrained approach to regulation are all vital.
It also requires policymakers to see a lower cost of living as a primary goal of economic policy, and in general to put the interest of the consumer—even more than that of employers or employees, large businesses or small ones, or the nation’s global competitiveness—at the heart of our economic thinking. This emphasis, which is akin to the emphasis on mobility itself, has been a core principle of capitalism since at least Adam Smith, and a secret to its success, but it is easy to overlook and too often forgotten.
Much of this has been central to the Republican approach to economic policy for a long time. But important and challenging as it is, it needs to be seen as only a first step. While a mobility agenda must begin with growth, it cannot end there.
The second category of needed reforms would seek to address persistently low mobility among poor and lower-middle-class Americans. It involves clearing up bottlenecks, often created by public policy, which hold people back from pursuing opportunity and prosperity. A bottleneck is a particular kind of obstacle: It is a function of a narrowing of options. The upward path into and through the middle class has clearly gotten narrower in America in recent decades.
One primary culprit is our higher-education system. A college degree has become an increasingly essential ticket into middle-class life even as higher education has grown more expensive and less edifying. Tuition costs have tripled over the past three decades, so that an average year of college now costs about half the annual income of the average American family. For many families, this means going deeply into debt. And although a college degree continues to provide an important economic advantage, the earnings of graduates have been sliding for over a decade, and many in recent years have failed to find work in their field. Higher costs, lower value, and growing debt make for an increasingly bad deal, and families know that, but they are short on other options for upward mobility. Rather than a path to prosperity, college itself is increasingly a bottleneck.
Liberals who think about this problem tend to emphasize ways of pushing more people through the system—especially by having government bear more of the ever-rising costs. But pushing more people through is no way to address a bottleneck. A solution would require widening the aperture, and opening up more paths to the same destination, to create competition and give families more choices.
Policymakers should, for instance, allow the states to experiment with new approaches to accreditation that look beyond the model of the standard campus and allow credit hours to be unbundled and pursued more flexibly (as Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have each proposed in recent years). They should also clear the way for more professional certificates, apprenticeship, and other ways of gaining the skills for well-paid employment that do not require a college degree. Many of the problems with our higher-education system are functions of misguided federal policies that protect entrenched incumbent universities. Reforms that both held down costs and opened up new avenues of opportunity would be a natural element of any mobility agenda—particularly for conservatives.
Higher education is the most obvious and problematic bottleneck slowing mobility, but it is not the only one. At the state and local levels, for instance, licensing and professional-certification requirements are often merely tools used by well-established interests to keep out new competitors. Lifting and loosening them would create new avenues for mobility for millions. In these and other instances, providing people with more options for advancement, rather than just more access to existing ones, stands to unleash some of the dynamism we now lack.
The third facet of a mobility agenda would involve lifting burdens imposed on the middle class and the poor by some perverse incentives and distortions in today’s welfare state. For instance, the structure of our entitlement and tax systems means that parents are overtaxed—paying for today’s entitlements while bearing the costs of sustaining tomorrow’s. A significant increase in the child tax credit that could reduce families’ payroll-tax burdens as well as their income-tax burdens would make an enormous difference to millions of middle-class families pressed by stagnating wages. And such tax relief for families would be a natural companion to the corporate tax reform necessary for stronger growth.
The unintentional marriage penalties in the tax code also burden many middle-class families, and similar penalties in most welfare programs (from the Earned Income Tax Credit to Medicaid, food stamps, and others) create disincentives to marriage that hurt the poor and counteract the very aims of these programs. No less perversely, many means-tested aid programs create disincentives to work, since working leads to benefit cuts that in many cases can outweigh the appeal of earned income. Correcting such disincentives would be no simple matter, but a number of conservatives have proposed promising ideas for doing so in recent years.
The same kinds of means-tested programs that create marriage and work disincentives for the poor also undermine geographic mobility. Because these programs tend to be place-based, eligibility often does not carry over from state to state (even though the funding is federal), so that people contemplating a move to find work stand to lose any assistance they receive. This could be readily addressed without undermining the important freedom states have to tailor welfare benefits to local needs. Policymakers could also actively aid those wanting to move in search of work without increasing public costs by allowing people to choose to receive unemployment benefits as a lump-sum mover’s benefit to help defray the costs of relocating.
The fourth element of a mobility agenda would go beyond lifting burdens and focus on the most difficult and important part of the mobility puzzle: the curse of entrenched poverty. This would involve the next stage of welfare reform, and it’s the arena where a conservative approach to problem solving can do the most good.
The overwhelming fact about our half century of intense and costly efforts to combat entrenched poverty is that they have not worked. Very little we have done has proven consistently effective in helping people in the worst circumstances to rise up and succeed, and a fair amount of what we have done has made things worse. That means we do not have an answer that can be put into effect using the resources and power of the government. Rather, those resources and that power can enable experimentation with different approaches by different public and private providers of services and aid throughout the country.
This was the essence of Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal last year. Ryan would let states choose to replace the full amount of money they now receive to administer means-tested federal welfare programs (such as food stamps, housing assistance, utilities subsidies, and others) with a single, consolidated “opportunity grant.” They could then develop their own approaches to spending the money to help their poor residents rise, provided that these approaches involve programs that require work, emphasize reaching self-sufficiency, and prove their effectiveness over time. And states would have to provide each service through at least two competing providers, only one of which can be a state agency.
Liberals tend to see proposals like this as embodiments of some kind of fetish to privatize. But in fact, they are expressions of humility. Experimentation is what you do when you do not know the answer. The challenge facing welfare reformers is daunting: They have to find ways to help people who lack not only money but often also stable families, functional communities, and decent schools. They have to encourage work and responsibility while offering aid, and they often have to help people break bad habits or confront addiction or abuse while also respecting their dignity and independence. This can’t be done by a government check. Welfare often works best when it is accompanied by advice, by obligations, and by evident compassion at a personal level. Using public resources to let different institutions—from state social agencies to local civic groups to churches and nonprofits—try different ways of meeting this daunting challenge in different circumstances is not market idolatry; it is what you do when you haven’t found the right solution and when it isn’t clear that any one solution will suffice.
A conservative mobility agenda will therefore need to transform the federal welfare apparatus into a means for enabling robust experimentation with different local approaches to helping the poor rise. The same spirit should also inform an education policy geared to the nation’s poorest children—they and their families should have options to choose from and the resources to make their choices matter, since education is a crucial tool for rising from the bottom.
Finally, the fifth element of a conservative mobility agenda should involve drawing a clear distinction between welfare assistance and disability benefits. In particular, the Social Security Disability Insurance program has come to function as a kind of welfare system of last resort, but it is very badly suited to that purpose. The share of working-age adults on SSDI has more than doubled since 1980, from 2.3 percent to 5 percent of the workforce, or about 9 million Americans. The increase is quickly bankrupting the program (its trust fund will be depleted next year) while contributing to the decline in workforce participation in America.
Part of the increase is driven by the aging of the population, as many baby boomers are now in the age range most prone to disabling injuries and health problems. But the actual prevalence of disability in the working-age population has grown at nowhere near the rate of SSDI claims. Those growing claims have had more to do with liberalized eligibility criteria and with the weak economy of the last decade—as more Americans have seen SSDI as a means of opting out of the workforce even when they might not have to. The program offers people a cash benefit and free health insurance if they are willing to give up trying to work. For many, it is an obstacle to mobility. Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program, or SSI, has witnessed similar trends and problems.
A mobility agenda should therefore reform these programs by tightening medical-eligibility criteria (to help ensure that disability support really serves its purpose), placing time limits on some benefits, and requiring more ongoing reviews of eligibility. It could also better encourage employers to enable workers with modest disabilities to keep working—for instance by requiring firms whose workers enroll in SSDI at substantially above-average rates to pay a higher rate of Social Security taxes (as some states now do with their workers’ compensation funds). Combined with a greater emphasis on work in the welfare system, as suggested above, this could help us begin to separate policies (like welfare) aimed to help people get back to work from those (like disability insurance) aimed to help those who are unable to work.
These are, of course, only the barest outlines of an agenda. But these five categories of steps—sustaining an environment for growth, clearing up bottlenecks, removing policy burdens, enabling vigorous experimentation in welfare and education, and separating welfare from disability support—offer the beginning of a conservative answer to the riddle of mobility.
Conservatives are far better positioned than liberals to take up the challenge of mobility. The left is wedded to the structure of our welfare state and persuaded that moving money around will address the problems we confront. But when we consider the particulars of the mobility puzzle, we can see that what is missing—as the very term mobility suggests—is not so much money as dynamism and energy. Injecting our economy with such energy requires us to allow more Americans to benefit from our free-market system, rather than shielding people from it, and would therefore require us to move beyond the liberal welfare state rather than expand it.
Reformers seeking such improvements need to understand that upward mobility requires not only a strong economy but also strong families and communities and a supportive culture. At the end of the day, these matter most, and it is vital that the steps we take to strengthen our economy reinforce rather than undermine these most essential means to achieving prosperous and happy lives.
Enabling that kind of flourishing should be the goal of our politics, to which various policy mechanisms are only means. That is why putting mobility at the center of our economic thinking can help us get our priorities straight. Upward mobility is not the highest virtue a nation can advance, but it can make the others shine more brightly. And Americans have often understood our national government in particular to be rightly devoted to that cause.
In a message to Congress on the Fourth of July, 1861, amid the painful early setbacks of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln sought to articulate what made the struggle worthwhile. When it came to describing what we valued in our government, Lincoln said this:
On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.
 America has often been gloriously successful in advancing that cause, but it has been notably less so in recent decades. We have ignored that fact for too long and must now work to ensure that the rhetorical turn toward mobility in our national politics is followed up with substance and action.

About the Author

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lungs and Reefer

Or, a Message from the Valpolicella Lobby ... 

At the very same time that liberally minded, anti-establishment persons condemn cigarette smoking -- which injects, mostly thanks to the courtesy of large money-making corporations -- harmful substances into the USA people's fragile lungs -- there are, among such liberally minded persons, some who advocate the legalization of marijuana, a substance (Allah/God/Jehovah -- in alphabetical order -- may know what its effects really are) being also injected (for the most part) into American bodies via our very same USA fragile lungs.

Of course sending a teenager to jail for smoking reefer is idiotic. Still, taxpayers should be getting far more objective information from our federal/state governments about the potential medical dangers of injecting marijuana into our bodies (granted, in a far more "gentle" way than via a heroin needle into our fragile veins that produce, arguably, greater false dreams).

And there should be careful regulations about marijuana's non-medical use/distribution before large corporations go big-time selling yet another, bingo-money-making drug at their tremendous profits -- with dangers (not sufficiently researched) to the health of ordinary Americans (especially the young).

Please -- I am no medical doctor. Just a USA ordinary citizen concerned about cancer, the son of an exceptional mother, who died from cancer (not quite clear what the cause was), but she was an incessant smoker for decades, until she courageously quit and never smoked again. But I fear that discipline did not prevent her death (which may not have been, strictly speaking, a form of lung cancer).

I much worry about the fragile lungs of our Republic, lungs without which no human being can live on earth, where "oxygen" may have been a historical exception in the history of our small planet, as some studies suggest.

Are not our fragile lungs being assaulted by toxic substances (name your favorite pollutants) enough as it is?

P.S. Mind you, I am a wine (whine) drinker, per family tradition. So take the above with a grain-of-Valpolicella (essentially a cheap, generic Italian peasant wine -- much better, some say, than clorinated water -- as you enjoy a good cheap pasta in a restaurant you can't afford):).

So I am in no position to preach, except about our fragile lungs, as a person who lost his mother.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Medicare is Desperately Needed

via DH on Facebook; "Desperately" video/song at 

Old Couple Sex

A couple, both age 78, went to a sex therapist's office. The doctor asked, "What can I do for you?"

The man said, "Will you watch us have sex?"

The doctor looked puzzled, but agreed.

When the couple finished, the doctor said, "There's nothing wrong with the way you have sex," and charged them $50.

This happened several weeks in a row. The couple would make an appointment, have sex with no problems, pay the doctor, then leave.

Finally, the doctor asked, "Just exactly what are you trying to find out?"

"We're not trying to find out anything," the husband replied.

"She's married and we can't go to her house. I'm married and we can't go to my house. The Holiday Inn charges $90. The Hilton charges $108. We do it here for $50...and I get $43 back from Medicare!"


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ruminations on separatism and war, pertaining to the Russian-Ukrainian Crisis

Does/should/why geographical "separatism" necessarily lead to regional/international war?

I speak as a grateful, patriotic (in my own American way) citizen of a country that, after all, initiated perhaps the most historically important example of separatism -- which led to America's splendid birth, namely the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) -- and that, sadly, created a war between colony and empire. (BTW, Catherine the Great refused to send Russian troops to America at George III's request to quell the rebels). See

On a personal, perhaps less relevant to a "geopolitical" note, I was present (95-97), working (as best as I could) as an American "public diplomacy" government employee (I will leave it up to the reader if I was a "propagandist") at American Embassy Belgrade, witnessing part of the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, including seeing Croatian Serbs and their suffering families streaming into Serbia.

I'll never forget the blank, lifeless face of the children. And the silent suffering of their mothers. What can I do, I wondered, as a moral justification for doing nothing essentially as a so-called working, in-the-field  "diplomat," whose job was not to "formulate" but "implement" policy.

I felt -- to put a "rational" hat on  -- that the dismantling of this post-WWI construction -- Yugoslavia -- could have been dealt by major powers in more intelligent ways than major powers are now dealing with another entity essentially created in the 20th-century -- the former Ukrainian SSR.

I say this with the utmost respect/admiration for the talented, cultivated persons living in the "Ukrainian" space, persons living in that European borderland (if there if a better way to characterize it, please tell me) who have suffered, been exploited for centuries from empires/vampires of various "nationalities" from east/west/north/south.

Let me be provocative, to amuse the supposedly-tough-talking-realpolitik types  -- who "never have a moment" except what's on their own minds -- on both sides of a "tragic," but so-called Cold-War, "East-West," Russian/Ukrainian idiocy that could, perhaps have been prevented, with some diplomatic foresight; foresight maybe misguided, but at least considering options "outside the box" -- what "tunktakers" are, after all, paid to do.

Meanwhile, to give some "practical" advice from a "culture-vulture" diplomat: No one can fully understand the current Ukraine-Russian situation without reading one essential author (as a palliative to yet another DC-think-tank-tough-talking-get-to-point-bring-'em-arms report on the Ukraine situation).

The author is Ukrainian-born Gogol, whose literary career, arguably, flourished in Russia/St. Petersburg. Let the slick-bright-teeth Pentagon analysts ready to arm the "Ukrainian" army read his novels, especially The Inspector General.

To our brilliantly hard-thinkers: Read Gogol.

Gogol's point (if his great novels can be reduced to one "point"): Never overlook the absurdity in life -- this "lesson," worthy or not, perhaps based on his very own life, most of we Americans know nothing about -- or, better put, refuse, in all our praiseworthy optimism, to consider.

And of course don't forget Aksyov's Bulgakov-like book on Crimea, written prophetically decades ago. All "policy makers" should at least look at the summary of that book.

Having said that, and here I am -- not quite oddly enough -- supporting good-old-reactionaries, "if 'em Slavs tribes want to kill each other off, let 'em. None of our goddamn business. We have our jobs, taxes, and mortgages to worry about."

Who in the hell are they (the Slobs)? Let 'em get real jobs and stop bitching.

After all, from an America-first perspective, Detroit -- a dying industrial American city -- is far more important to us Americans (at least in Detroit) than Donetsk -- a dying "Russian" city in "Ukraine"nobody in our dying industrial heartland knows nothing about.

Charity begins at home.

Why Putin should ever want to "take over" Donetsk is like Canada wanting to take over Detroit.

Send Gogol to the rescue.


The Resistible Rise of Vladimir Putin

Russia’s Nightmare Dressed Like a Daydream

JB Note: I wish we could say "Risible Rise" of Vladimir Putin.

By Stephen Kotkin FROM OUR MARCH/APRIL 2015 ISSUE Foreign Affairs via AH on Facebook

How did twenty-first-century Russia end up, yet again, in personal rule? An advanced industrial country of 142 million people, it has no enduring political parties that organize and respond to voter preferences. The military is sprawling yet tame; the immense secret police are effectively in one man’s pocket. The hydrocarbon sector is a personal bank, and indeed much of the economy is increasingly treated as an individual fiefdom. Mass media move more or less in lockstep with the commands of the presidential administration. Competing interest groups abound, but there is no rival center of power. In late October 2014, after a top aide to Russia’s president told the annual forum of the Valdai Discussion Club, which brings together Russian and foreign experts, that Russians understand “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia,” the pundit Stanislav Belkovsky observed that “the search for Russia’s national idea, which began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is finally over. Now, it is evident that Russia’s national idea is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

Russia is classified as a high-income economy by the World Bank (having a per capita GDP exceeding $14,000). Its unemployment remains low (around five percent); until recently, consumer spending had been expanding at more than five percent annually; life expectancy has been rising; and Internet penetration exceeds that of some countries in the European Union. But Russia is now beset by economic stagnation alongside high inflation, its labor productivity remains dismally low, and its once-vaunted school system has deteriorated alarmingly. And it is astonishingly corrupt. Not only the bullying central authorities in Moscow but regional state bodies, too, have been systematically criminalizing revenue streams, while giant swaths of territory lack basic public services and local vigilante groups proliferate. Across the country, officials who have purchased their positions for hefty sums team up with organized crime syndicates and use friendly prosecutors and judges to extort and expropriate rivals. President Vladimir Putin’s vaunted “stability,” in short, has turned into spoliation. But Putin has been in power for 15 years, and there is no end in sight. Stalin ruled for some three decades; Brezhnev for almost two. Putin, still relatively young and healthy, looks set to top the latter and might even outdo the former.

In some ways, observers are still trying to fathom how the revolt against tsarist autocracy in 1917—the widest mass revolution in history up to that point—culminated in a regime unaccountable to itself, let alone to the masses. Now, after the mass mobilizations for democracy that accompanied and followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, a new authoritarianism has taken shape. Of course, Putin’s dictatorship differs substantially from the Soviet communist version. Today’s Russia has no single ideology and no disciplined ruling party, and although it lacks the rule of law, it does allow private property and free movement across borders. Still, the country is back in a familiar place, a one-man regime.

The methods Putin used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state. Putin himself complains publicly that only about 20 percent of his decisions get implemented, with the rest being ignored or circumvented unless he intervenes forcefully with the interest groups and functionaries concerned. But he cannot intervene directly with every boss, governor, and official in the country on every issue. Many underlings invoke Putin’s name and do what they want. Personal systems of rule convey immense power on the ruler in select strategic areas—the secret police, control of cash flow—but they are ultimately ineffective and self-defeating.

Russia just might be able to get out of this trap, in part because of the severity of the various crises currently besetting Putin’s regime. But perversely, even that hopeful scenario would require yet another act of personal rule.


Putin was born in Soviet Leningrad in 1952, the only surviving child of parents who had lived through the Nazi siege of the city a decade earlier. He grew up in a rough section of Peter the Great’s showcase, took up martial arts, graduated with a degree in law from Leningrad State University, and begged his way into the KGB, eventually being posted to Dresden, East Germany, in 1985. 

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the KGB recalled him to Leningrad and assigned him to his alma mater, where his former law professor Anatoly Sobchak still taught part time. Sobchak eventually became chair of the city council and then mayor, and Putin served as his top deputy, responsible for difficult assignments, including feeding the city’s large population during the years of post-Soviet economic depression. He discovered that Leningrad’s self-styled democrats could get almost nothing done and that he could embezzle money both to help address the city’s challenges and to enrich himself and his cronies. When Sobchak lost a bid for reelection in 1996, Putin found himself unemployed at 43. But a year later, through connections (notably Alexei Kudrin, another official in the Sobchak mayoralty who had become deputy chief of staff to Russian President Boris Yeltsin), Putin moved to Moscow and obtained a series of positions in the presidential administration, the successor to the old Soviet central-party apparatus.

There are indications that Putin might have coveted the lucrative, powerful CEO job at Gazprom, Russia’s monopoly gas behemoth, but if so, it eluded him. Then, in July 1998, lightning struck: Yeltsin appointed the former lieutenant colonel above hundreds of higher-ranking secret police officers to head the FSB, the successor to the KGB—and the following year appointed him first acting prime minister of the Russian Federation and then acting president. So the simplest answer to the question of how Putin came to power is that he was selected.

Yeltsin’s inner circle, known as “
the Family”—in particular, Valentin Yumashev (the ghostwriter of Yeltsin’s autobiographies) and Yumashev’s future wife, Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana—picked Putin over others who failed their auditions. He had shown a basic competence in administration and had demonstrated loyalty (having arranged in 1997 for Sobchak, then under threat of arrest, to escape to France without submitting to Russian passport control). It was hoped that he would protect the Family’s interests, and maybe those of Russia as well. Putin secured victory in the March 2000 presidential election through control of the country’s main television station, Channel One (thanks to Boris Berezovsky, a secondary member of the Family); ruthless manipulation of the Chechen terrorist threat; and access to all the perks of incumbency. Some fraud, too, cannot be excluded. In the reported results, Putin received nearly 40 million votes, 53 percent of those cast, a majority that enabled him to avoid a runoff. Second place (29 percent) went to the Communist Party candidate-bogeyman. Nine other candidates split the rest of the votes.

Interestingly, when Putin took office, he had little effective power. His chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, was a core member of the Family and would remain in his commanding position for two more years. Berezovsky continued to control Channel One, and the second most important station, privately owned NTV, belonged to the independent actor Vladimir Gusinsky. The mammoth cash flow generated by the state gas monopoly had been largely privatized into the hands of a cabal led by Rem Vyakhirev (a protégé of the former Soviet gas minister, later the Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin), and much of the oil industry had been formally privatized, a lot of it into a huge new company, Yukos, controlled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russia’s then 89 regions were in the hands of governors who answered to no one. Chechnya had de facto independence. The Russian state was floundering. 

Bit by bit, however, using stealth and dirty tricks, Putin reasserted central control over the levers of power within the country—the TV stations, the gas industry, the oil industry, the regions. It was a cunning feat of state rebuilding, aided by Putin’s healthy contrast to the infirm Yeltsin, hyped fears of a Russian state dissolution, well-crafted appeals to patriotism, and the humbling of some oligarchs. Some fear of authority was necessary to tame the utter lawlessness into which the country had sunk. Putin instilled that fear, thanks to his own history and persona and some highhanded political theater, such as the arrest of Khodorkovsky, who was taken right off his private jet, which was shown again and again on Russian TV. But Putin’s transformation into a dominant political figure required more than a widely shared appreciation that he was saving the Russian state. It also took a surprise economic boom.

From 1999 through 2008, Russia’s economy grew at a brisk seven percent annually, thereby doubling its GDP in ruble terms. Real individual income growth was even brisker, increasing by two and a half times. In dollar terms, because of the ruble’s appreciation over time, the increase in GDP was exceptionally vivid: from a nadir of around $196 billion in 1999 to around $2.1 trillion in 2013. A new, grateful Russian middle class was born, some 30 million strong, able to travel and shop abroad easily. More broadly, Russian society was transformed: cell-phone penetration went from zero to 100 percent, unemployment dropped from 12.9 percent to 6.3 percent, and the poverty rate fell from 29 percent to 13 percent. Wages rose, pensions were doled out, and the immense national debt that had been accumulated by previous leaders was paid off early. Foreign investors reaped rich rewards, too, as Russia’s stock market skyrocketed, increasing 20-fold.

Many analysts have attributed the Russian boom to luck, in the form of plentiful fossil fuels. Yet although oil and gas have generally brought in approximately 50 percent of the Russian state’s revenues, they have accounted for no more than 30 percent of the economy at large—a high number, but significantly lower than Middle East petrostate proportions. Even adding in all the knock-on effects around hydrocarbons, the most sophisticated analyses of Russian economic growth credit oil and gas with at most 40 to 50 percent of GDP during the boom. An immense amount of other value was created during these years as well, and Putin was partly responsible. 

As president, Putin delegated handling of the economy to Mikhail Kasyanov, his prime minister; German Gref, the minister of economic development and trade; and Kudrin, then the finance minister, who introduced a raft of anti-inflationary and liberalizing measures (Gazprom excepted). Tax cuts increased incentives to work and reduced incentives to hide income. Simplification of business licensing and reduced inspections led to a burst of entrepreneurialism. Financial reforms and sensible macroeconomic policy facilitated investment. And land became a marketable commodity. 

The impact of these pro-market reforms, which Putin supported and signed, was magnified by favorable trade winds. Russia had undergone a searing debt default and currency devaluation in 1998, and most commentators thought the country would be devastated. But in fact, the devaluation unintentionally made Russian exports cheaper and thus more competitive. At the same time, China’s ongoing rise lifted global prices for Russian products, from fertilizer and chemicals to metals and cement. Insatiable Chinese demand brought Soviet legacy industries back from the dead. Brand-new sectors surged as well, such as retail, food processing, biotechnology, and software, driven by increased domestic demand and global outsourcing. Many of the Soviet legacy industries, such as coal and steel, underwent significant rationalization, as unprofitable mines or plants were phased out. (Agriculture, however, was never really revived, let alone rationalized, and Russia became dependent on food imports.)

Skeptics take note: oil prices during Putin’s first presidential term, when growth was robust, averaged only around $35 a barrel; during Putin’s second term, the average grew to around $65 a barrel. In recent years, with oil prices consistently at or above $100 a barrel, Russia’s economy has stagnated.

China’s rise, the ruble’s devaluation, and a pent-up wave of structural reforms were critical to the Russian boom, but as the man in charge, Putin took the lion’s share of the credit. His critics refuse to acknowledge his contribution, and some have improbably made him out to be a nonentity. In her 2012 biography, The Man Without a Face, for example, the Russian American journalist Masha Gessen offers the ultimate portrait of Putin as an accident. A well-written, impassioned compendium of facts, hearsay, and psychologizing about Putin’s life and career, Gessen’s book makes Putin out to be a mere thug and self-dealer, a murderer but ultimately a small man. Yet accidents and nonentities do not stay in power this long.

Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, two Russia hands at the Brookings Institution, offers less drama but more balance. It characterizes Putin as moving back and forth among six different personas: the Statist, the History Man (celebrating tsarist Russian statesmen), the Survivalist, the Outsider (not a Muscovite, not an apparatchik, not even a typical KGB officer), the Free Marketeer (actually, crony capitalist), and the Case Officer (who wins people’s confidence through manipulation, bribery, and blackmail). It is a nicely rounded portrait. It is not, however, an intimate one.

Refreshingly, Hill and Gaddy refrain from imputing motives to Putin. They have met with him briefly in a large group but rely mostly on many of the same few voices that are quoted in Gessen’s book, as well as in foundational biographies by Oleg Blotsky and Alexander Rahr, and on a published interview with the former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky. In their best chapters, Hill and Gaddy delineate the self-defeating cross-purposes among the six Putin personas, along with Putin’s limitations when it comes to public politics. They rebut the prevalent American narrative about a tragic Putin betrayal of a Yeltsin-era trajectory toward democracy, bending over backward to make understandable the alternative Russian narrative of a Putin-led rescue from a 1990s “time of troubles.” But they do not advance their own explicit, systematic explanation for how it was possible, in such a vast country, to establish what they dub a “one-boy network” political system.


Western sanctions levied against Russia over its actions in Ukraine have targeted not economic sectors but individuals. Putin’s Kleptocracy, by Karen Dawisha, shows why such an approach makes sense. It offers a comprehensive catalog of Putin’s cronies: Arkady and Boris Rotenberg of gas pipeline construction fame, Gennady Timchenko of the Gunvor Group, Igor Sechin of Rosneft, Alexey Miller of Gazprom, Sergey Chemezov of Rosoboronexport, Yuri Kovalchuk of Bank Rossiya, Matthias Warnig of Nord Stream pipeline, and many more. Although a few of these individuals rose to power during the last decade and a half, most got to know Putin early, during his St. Petersburg years. (Warnig’s relationship with Putin dates back to Dresden.) Dawisha details how they all got filthy rich thanks to the noncompetitive privatization of state assets, no-bid government contracts, dubious loans, fake bankruptcies, phantom middleman firms, tax “refunds,” patriotic megaprojects (such as the Olympics), and other favors. She maintains that Putin, too, is a thief, and, calling attention to the $700,000 worth of watches publicly spotted on his wrist, she repeats guesstimates that put his personal wealth at $40 billion.

A political scientist at Miami University in Ohio, Dawisha has, for the most part, not uncovered new information but assembled in one place nuggets from the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, investigative reportage, old Stasi files, comments made by an important Russian defector, and other sources, all of which she has posted online. Her prose is workmanlike, and not all the disparate materials fit easily into her simple storyline.

Particularly striking is the fact that most of the book is devoted to the period before Putin first became president. Dawisha reminds us that the KGB’s role in private business began even before the Soviet collapse, and she argues that these are the roots of Putin’s kleptocracy—challenging the conventional wisdom in which the 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky and the confiscation of his private oil giant, Yukos, marked a key turning point. “Like other scholars of Russia, I have spent a significant portion of my career thinking and writing about how the post-Communist states might make 
a transition toward democracy,” she confesses, but says that eventually she got wise, concluding that Russia was not “an inchoate democratic system being pulled down by history, accidental autocrats, popular inertia, bureaucratic incompetence, or poor Western advice.” Rather, “from the beginning Putin and his circle sought to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded interests, plans, and capabilities, who used democracy for decoration rather than direction.” Putin’s nasty tendencies, in other words, cannot be blamed on external factors, such as NATO expansion.

Questions about her analysis can be raised. Dawisha never really clarifies, for example, the extent to which sincerely held beliefs bind the Putin kleptocrats (as they did, say, the old Brezhnev clique, who also were said to be a bunch of cynics). She quotes Nikolay Leonov, the former head of analysis for the KGB, as saying of Putin and his KGB associates back in 2001, “They are patriots and proponents of a strong state grounded in centuries-old tradition. History recruited them to carry out a special operation for the resurrection of our great power, because there has to be balance in the world, and without a strong Russia the geopolitical turbulence will begin.” So is the enrichment an end in itself or a means to an end?

Most fundamentally, Dawisha’s assertions about near-total intentionality—kleptocracy by “intelligent design”—strain credulity. Russia has known lots of designs, including those of Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and what happened to them? She concedes that under Putin, “not everything went as planned,” but her telling of the story makes it seem otherwise. This misses the fact that Putin and his cronies, as well as his mass base, were largely losers under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Notwithstanding its private-sector and offshore machinations, the former KGB was initially cut out of the really big money in oil, gas, metals, diamonds, and gold. A strong continuity argument obscures the shifts and contingencies that have occurred, as well as the progressive radicalization in the kleptocracy that has taken place over time—not only after 2003 but even over the last two years. Dawisha also overlooks any dynamic beyond Putin. Property is continually being expropriated by regime loyalists because that is a major way they mark their relative status in the pecking order—and how they survive, warding off attacks from others by going on offensive raids themselves.

Dawisha’s portrait of Putin’s supposed primordial will to enrichment leads her to dismiss not just his first-term structural reforms and the vision behind them but also the four-year presidential term of his junior crony, Dmitry Medvedev—an episode that followed Putin’s decision to respect, at least formally, the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms. The dismissal may be understandable: Medvedev was (and is) derisively known as “the Teddy Bear” (Medvezhonok). He was picked for a reason. And yet throughout his tenure, Medvedev was urged by his own entourage and various powerful interest groups to dismiss Putin from the prime ministership.

One can debate the seriousness of the Medvedev-approved investigation of the Kremlin’s own Khodorkovsky prosecution, the pressure campaign against Sechin and other Putin cronies serving on the boards of private companies, the timid moves toward economic diversification and redemocratization, and the improved relations with the United States. One could even implausibly assume that all of that was brilliant manipulation by remarkably clever and effective puppet masters in order to fool the Russian people and the West. But the fact remains that Medvedev had full authority to dismiss Putin, to deny him access to state resources in a campaign, and to declare his own intention to run for reelection. That the Teddy Bear did not make a move does not mean he couldn’t have.


In Fragile Empire, the journalist Ben Judah sees Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term as a severe blow to the regime. His punchy book can be flip, but he talked to so many people, and lets their voices be heard, that his own snark and contempt are somewhat offset. “You see this man had good qualities, too,” Alexander Belyaev, the former head of the St. Petersburg city assembly, tells him of Putin. “He was an expert at making friends, of being loyal to those friends. He is a brilliant observer of human nature, and he is very good at tactics.” Similarly, Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of Putin’s St. Petersburg clique who had been helping finance a palace for Putin in the south before choosing to expose his corruption and then going into exile in Estonia, tells Judah, “I was surprised when Putin became president. Of course I was surprised, everyone was surprised. At first I really wanted to support him and help him in any way I could. The 1990s had been a criminal, dangerous time. I hoped for something different.” The something different turned out to be a personal dictatorship.

Judah has actually written two books. One is about what he calls Putin’s “telepopulism,” in which he discusses the Kremlin’s spin doctors and puppeteers, such as Vladislav Surkov, and how the George W. Bush administration’s aggressions and transgressions proved to be a gift to their manipulations. But the concept of the Putin regime as a “videocracy” dead ends, because, as Judah himself demonstrates, the propaganda is not always so effective and Putinism is more than mere show; it is a society. Judah details how Russian state spending on security, law, and order went from $2.8 billion in 2000 to $36.5 billion by 2010. More than 40 percent of the new middle class works for the state, and therefore they are not independent people. The regime’s social base, in other words, is itself.

The other book is a vivid portrait of Moscow as an oppressive colonial power in its own lands. Judah travels out to remote locales and finds the little Putins, the feudal lords presiding over near statelessness and profound despair. He makes it to desolate Tuva, once part of Mongolia, in southern Siberia, where Putin is said to have posed topless for the cameras on a faux hunting expedition. “Putin?” a villager from Erjei says to the author. “He never did anything good for the country. He just took all the money from oil and gas production and took it for himself and his mates. . . . Why the hell would we support Putin?” Judah also travels to Birobidzhan, the improbable Soviet Jewish homeland on the border with China, and finds no sign of a feared Chinese demographic invasion. “Are you worried that in the future the land will not be Russian and will be controlled by China? That there will be no more motherland here?” he asks mushroom sellers in a Russian area leased to Chinese farmers who grow soybeans. “Who gives a fuck about the motherland,” the mushroom sellers answer. “There is no fucking motherland.”

How representative such interviews are remains unclear. Judah apparently spent little time in Russia’s many bustling provincial cities, such as Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, or Lipetsk, which are clearly better off today than they were even just a few years ago. His reporting is designed not to offer a full picture of Russia but to show how the lawlessness Putin sought to fix is worse than ever. He finds the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, a place where Putin pays colossal tribute for a sheen of loyalty, nearly fully de-Russified. Whereas previously it was the Chechens who wanted out of Russia, Judah writes, now many Russians would not mind seeing Chechnya go, since they detest the massive budget transfers to the region ($30 billion for nine million inhabitants between 2000 and 2010).

Judah has some smart things to say about the Russian Internet, pointing out that “unlike in other Eastern European countries, the platforms that hosted it were largely indigenous because of the Cyrillic script, allowing it to become a ‘pole’ in the emerging online world, like China, which also uses home-grown platforms.” Russian equivalents for Google and Facebook, moreover, have operated largely beyond the suffocating regime. “The Internet grew in Russia in a kind of utopia—where there was no state,” one interviewee tells Judah. “This was the only part of the economy where to be a player and to be a winner you needed no political connections, no United Russia membership card, and no visits to the Kremlin.” All that has been changing, however, since the book was written.

Judah rips into the Internet-savvy opposition to Putin for being out of touch with the common people. He describes Alexei Navalny, the blogger who rose to fame as a critic of corruption, as a xenophobe and a “pure product of Putinism.” Judah heaps disdain on the tens of thousands of Muscovites who risked going out into the streets in 2011–12 to protest the regime, calling them “the demographic in Russia . . . most accustomed to skiing in France” and asserting that “the protests failed because Moscow is not Russia.” (Protests occurred in many cities.) His condescension descends into incoherence when he writes of Pussy Riot, the punk band that carried out an ill-fated performance act in an Orthodox church, that they “captured the vanity and, ironically, the unpolitical nature of the radical art scene. They were interested in protest, not politics.” Readers are likely to find this an often engaging book marred by an excess of attitude.

Still, Judah offers one of the best accounts of how Putin built his personal regime out of the mundane process of addressing the pathologies of the Russian state he inherited. To clean things up, an undertaking for which Putin had wide support, he had to acquire ever more power. All the while, a bogeyman served him well—not a return to communism, Yeltsin’s scarecrow, but the chaos of Yeltsinism. “The power to control the Russian nightmare of total collapse brought [Putin] to power 
and has kept him in power,” Judah succinctly summarizes. 

But none of this unfolded automatically; the construction of such a regime required certain skills and real work. Putin seized an opportunity provided by historical contingencies, and he proved up to the task. He made himself indispensable to all factions and interests, their guarantor—or not—in a system in which uncertainty besets even the richest and most powerful. He shamelessly monetized his political position, but he also turned out to be dedicated to the cause of Russian statehood, in his own KGB way. Certain kinds of leaders do seem to fit certain moments in a country’s history. Putin only looks like an accident. And it is precisely because he is not a nonentity that he has been a calamity. 


Remarkably, this pattern keeps repeating itself in Russia. About a decade ago, Stefan Hedlund, an expert on Russia at Uppsala University, in Sweden, wrote an impressive overview of 12 centuries of Eastern Slavic history in an attempt to explain Putin’s authoritarianism. He pointed out that Russia had essentially collapsed three times—in 1610–13, 1917–18, and 1991—and that each time, the country was revived fundamentally unchanged. Despite the depth of the crises and the stated intentions of would-be transformative leaders, Russia reemerged with an unaccountable government, repression, and resistance to the imposition of the rule of law. Hedlund’s impressive tome was titled Russian Path Dependence, but rather than complete determinism, he perceived choices—albeit choices heavily conditioned by culture. He noted that efforts at institutional change in Russia had always failed because they had not altered the country’s underlying system of norms, which rested on a deeply ingrained preference for informal rules. “Modernization reinforced archaism,” Hedlund grimly concluded, quoting the historian Geoffrey Hosking; “increasing state control meant entrenching personal caprice.”

Hedlund’s attention to values yielded exceptional insight, but he overemphasized the institutional continuities supposedly at work from ancient Muscovy onward and underplayed the power of Russia’s relations with the outside world. Not just a preference for informal rules but also Russia’s quest for great-power status, and especially its perennial difficulties competing with stronger powers, has produced both the collapses and the trying aftermaths, during which an imperative to revive national greatness comes to the fore. “Russia was and will remain a great power,” announced Putin’s original presidential manifesto, posted online in late 1999. “Russia is in the middle of one of the most difficult periods in its history. For the first time in the past 200–300 years, it is facing a real threat of sliding into the second, possibly even the third, echelon of states.” In response, he offered an abiding vision of Russia as a providential power, with a special mission and distinct identity. Exceptionalism has been the handmaiden of personalism.

Putin resembles a villain out of central casting. He has repeatedly revealed him­self as cocksure, patronizing, aggrieved, vindictive, and quick with a retort for Western critics. But he is hardly the first Russian leader to make demonization of the West a foundation of Russia’s core identity and its government’s claim to legitimacy. Moreover, today’s Russia is significantly more ethnically homogeneous and nationalist than was the old Soviet Union, and Putin has perfected the art of moistening the eyes of Russian elites assembled in opulent tsarist settings, plucking the strings of mystical pride in all things Russian and of ressentiment at all things Western. They see reason where critics see madness. From the Kremlin’s perspective, as Washington engages in stupid, hypocritical, and destabilizing global behavior, Moscow shoulders the burden of serving as a counterweight, thereby bringing sanity and balance to the international system. Russian lying, cheating, and hypocrisy thus serve a higher purpose. Cybercrime is patriotism; rigging elections and demobilizing opposition are sacred duties. Putin’s machismo posturing, additionally, is undergirded by a view of Russia as a country of real men opposing a pampered, gutless, and decadent West. Resentment toward U.S. power resonates far beyond Russia, and with his ramped-up social conservatism, Putin has expanded a perennial sense of Russian exceptionalism to include an alternative social model as well.

Paradoxically, however, all of this has only helped render Russia what the analyst Lilia Shevtsova has aptly called a “lonely power.” Putin’s predatory politics at home and abroad, his cozying up to right-wing extremists in Europe, and his attempted engagement of a powerful China hardly add up to an effective Russian grand strategy. Russia has no actual allies and has damaged its most important relationship, that with Germany. Winning domestic plaudits at Western powers’ expense is politically useful, but those countries, as always, continue to possess the advanced technology Russia needs, especially in energy exploration and drilling. Over the long term, realizing the ambitions Putin and his supporters have articulated would require new and deeper structural reforms, a dramatic cutback in bureaucracy and state procurement shenanigans, and the creation of an environment supportive of entrepreneurialism and investment. Medvedev made gestures in such a direction, but Putin has ridiculed those, choosing the path of least resistance in the short term and thus risking possible long-term stagnation or worse. A revival of Russia’s latent Soviet-era industrial capacity was a trick that could happen only once.

Emotive nationalism and social conservatism have long been present in post-Soviet Russia, but they have intensified in state propaganda since 2012. This was due partly to the outbreak of street protests in the winter of 2011–12 challenging Putin’s announcement that he would return to the presidency. But more fundamentally, it was also because the other possible way forward—a second round of structural reform—would have been incredibly hard to carry out, not least because it might have threatened to undermine the current elite’s suffocating grasp on power. As it happened, the mass Ukrainian uprising against misrule that began in late 2013 and culminated in President Viktor Yanukovych’s cowardly abandonment of Kiev in February 2014 reconfirmed the long-standing Kremlin line of a scheming West committed to encircling and overthrowing the regime in Russia. Putin’s seizure of the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, in turn, strongly reinforced the trend in the Kremlin away from facing the tough policy choices that would actually bolster Russia’s great-power status.

Given the West’s imposition of sanctions and dropping world oil prices, it might be tempting to write Putin off. Authoritarian regimes often prove to be at once all-powerful and strikingly brittle, and Judah, for one, sees Putin’s rule as almost on its last legs. And yet, despite the Russian population’s seething anger over its predatory state and educated urbanites’ despondency over the absence of a modernizing vision for the future, much of the elite retains a strong sense of mission and resolve. Dawisha concludes that “Putin will not go gentle into the night,” and she is probably correct. Judah underestimates the ways this new kind of flexible authoritarianism has found to adapt to often self-created challenges, and his book is bereft of any discussion of foreign policy, a vital instrument in the tool kit of authoritarianism. 

Putin’s Russia possesses powerful resources as a potential international spoiler, including the ability to apply economic pressure, buy off or co-opt powerful foreign interests, engage in covert operations, wage cyberattacks, and deploy a modernizing military force that is by far the strongest in the region. Ironically, Russia’s greatest source of leverage might be the fact that the West, especially Europe, needs its neighbor’s integration into the international order. Managing such integration would be a lot less difficult if Putin were just a thief, à la Dawisha, or a cynic, à la Judah. But he is actually a composite, à la Hill and Gaddy—a thief and a cynic with deeply held convictions about the special qualities and mission of the Russian state, views that enjoy wide resonance among the population. So what happens now, especially given that the Russian leader has managed to trap himself in the latest and largest of his so-called frozen conflicts, enraging the West and setting himself on a path toward isolation and creeping autarky?


Neither Putin nor his Western counterparts planned to get embroiled in a prolonged standoff over Ukraine. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine violated international law and, following the downing of a civilian airliner (almost certainly by Russian-assisted rebels), provoked the imposition of significant Western sanctions. But the crisis is not simply about Russian aggression, nor can it be solved simply by trying to force Moscow to retreat to the status quo ante. Even an unlikely retreat, moreover, would not necessarily last.

Ukraine is a debilitated state, created under Soviet auspices, hampered by a difficult Soviet inheritance, and hollowed out by its own predatory elites during two decades of misrule. But it is also a nation that is too big and independent for Russia to swallow up. Russia, meanwhile, is a damaged yet still formidable great power whose rulers cannot be intimidated into allowing Ukraine to enter the Western orbit. Hence the standoff. No external power or aid package can solve Ukraine’s problems or compensate for its inherent vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Russia. Nor would sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s brave but ragtag volunteer fighters and corrupt state structures improve the situation; in fact, it would send it spiraling further downward, by failing to balance Russian predominance while giving Moscow a pretext to escalate the conflict even more. Rather, the way forward must begin with a recognition of some banal facts and some difficult bargaining.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine do not challenge the entire post-1945 international order. The forward positions the Soviet Union occupied in the heart of Europe as a result of defeating Nazi Germany were voluntarily relinquished in the early 1990s, and they are not going to be reoccupied. But nor should every detail of the post–Cold War settlement worked out in 1989–91 be considered eternal and inviolate. That settlement emerged during an anomalous time. Russia was flat on its back but would not remain prostrate forever, and when it recovered, some sort of pushback was to be expected.

Something similar happened following the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, many of the provisions of which were not enforced. Even if France, the United Kingdom, and the United States had been willing and able to enforce the peace, their efforts would not have worked, because the treaty had been imposed during a temporary anomaly, the simultaneous collapse of German and Russian power, and would inevitably have been challenged when that power returned.

Territorial revisionism ensued after World War II as well, of course, and continued sporadically for decades. Since 1991, there have been some negotiated revisions: Hong Kong and Macao underwent peaceful reabsorption into China. Yugoslavia was broken up in violence and war, leading to the independence of its six federal units and eventually Kosovo, as well. Unrecognized statelets such as Nagorno-Karabakh, part of Azerbaijan; Transnistria, a sliver of Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia, disputed units of Georgia; and now Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of Ukraine—each entails a story of Stalinist border-making.

The European Union cannot resolve this latest standoff, nor can the United Nations. The United States has indeed put together “coalitions of the willing” to legitimize some of its recent interventions, but it is not going to go to war over Ukraine or start bombing Russia, and the wherewithal and will for indefinite sanctions against Russia are lacking. Distasteful as it might sound, Washington faces the prospect of trying 
to work out some negotiated larger territorial settlement.

Such negotiations would have to acknowledge that Russia is a great power with leverage, but they would not need to involve the formal acceptance of some special Russian sphere of interest in its so-called near abroad. The chief goals would be, first, to exchange international recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea for an end to all the frozen conflicts in which Russia is an accomplice and, second, to disincentivize such behavior in the future. Russia should have to pay monetary compensation for Crimea. There could be some federal solutions, referendums, even land swaps and population transfers (which in many cases have already taken place). Sanctions on Russia would remain in place until a settlement was mutually agreed on, and new sanctions could be levied if Russia were to reject negotiations or were deemed to be conducting them in bad faith. Recognition of the new status of Crimea would occur in stages, over an extended period.

It would be a huge challenge to devise incentives that were politically plausible in the West while at the same time powerful enough for Russia to agree to a just settlement—and for Ukraine to be willing to take part. But the search for a settlement would be an opportunity as well as a headache.

NATO expansion can be judged to have been a strategic error—not because it angered Russia but because it weakened NATO as a military alliance. Russia’s elites would likely have become revanchist even without NATO’s advance, because they believe, nearly universally, that the United States took advantage of Russia in 1991 and has denied the country its rightful place as an equal in international diplomacy ever since. But NATO expansion’s critics have not offered much in the way of practicable alternatives. Would it really have been appropriate, for example, to deny the requests of all the countries east of Germany to join the alliance? 

Then as now, the only real alternative was the creation of an entirely new trans-European security architecture, one that fully transcended its Cold War counterpart. This was an oft-expressed Russian wish, but in the early 1990s, there was neither the imagination nor the incentives in Washington for such a heavy lift. Whether there is such capacity in Washington today remains to be seen. But even if comprehensive new security arrangements are unlikely anytime soon, Washington could still undertake much useful groundwork.

Critics might object on the grounds that the sanctions are actually biting, reinforced by the oil price free fall—so why offer even minimal concessions to Putin now? The answer is because neither the sanctions, nor the oil price collapse, nor the two in conjunction have altered Russia’s behavior, diminished its potential as a spoiler, or afforded Ukraine a chance to recover. 

Whether they acknowledge it or not, Western opponents of a negotiated settlement are really opting for another long-term, open-ended attempt to contain Russia and hope for regime change—a policy likely to last until the end of Putin’s life and possibly well beyond. The costs of such an approach are likely to be quite high, and other global issues will continue to demand attention and resources. And all the while, Ukraine would effectively remain crippled, Europe’s economy would suffer, and Russia would grow ever more embittered and difficult to handle. All of that might occur no matter what. But if negotiations hold out a chance of somehow averting such an outcome, they are worth a try. And the attempt would hold few costs, because failed negotiations would only solidify the case for containment in Europe and in the United States.

It is ultimately up to Russia’s leaders to take meaningful steps to integrate their country into the existing world order, one that they can vex but not fully overturn. To the extent that the Ukraine debacle has brought this reality into sharper focus, it might actually have been useful in helping Putin to see some light, and the same goes for the collapse of oil prices and the accompanying unavoidable devaluation of the ruble. After the nadir of 1998, smart policy choices in Moscow, together with some lucky outside breaks, helped Russia transform a crisis into a breakthrough, with real and impressive steps forward. That history could replay itself—but whether it will remains the prerogative of one person alone.