Why They Act That Way

Nations, like individuals, have psyches and personalities that drive them to act in particular (and sometimes peculiar) ways. Today, we will examine a key cluster of nations in an attempt to answer the question, “Why do they act

Let us start with the place that has long puzzled (and aggravated) the west: Russia.

Winston Churchill spoke words in 1939 that would have been equally true in 1839 or even 1739: “ I cannot forecast for you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But perhaps there is a clue, and that clue is Russian self-interest.”

I hesitate to amend anything Sir Winston said, but there is another clue, and it is found on a map – not a political map like this one that shows in solid yellow what is still the world’s largest country but this one, a geophysical map of the Russian landmass.

Aside from the Ural Mountains, Russian real estate is flat – making it inviting terrain for invaders from both west and east. Several times in its long history Russia has been attacked from both directions.

But before we talk of invasions, let us journey to the city of Kiev, “the mother of Russian cities”.

Over 1000 years ago, Kiev was an integral part of Europe. Though not as grand as Constantinople, it was larger and richer than Paris and London, which then were mere towns. When Kiev was ruled by a Prince Vladimir, there was no death penalty, no torture, and no mutilations. In the year 988, he decreed that the Orthodox Christianity of Byzantium would be the state religion.

Already a peaceable people, those who dwelt in the land known as Kievan Rus took to the new faith with full hearts. As Suzanne Massie wrote in her classic book on Russian culture, Land of the Firebird: “Meekness and acceptance of fate, in imitation of the deeds of Christ, is an essential Russian ideal that runs like a golden thread through Russian life.”

Then, in the year 1240, disaster struck. The Mongol horde of Genghis Khan swept in from the east on their sturdy, tireless ponies and crushed Kiev, destroying everything. The Mongols – also known as Tartars – would rule Kievan Rus for 240 years.

The impact that this occupation had on the Russian soul is deep and abiding. Said Massie: “Russian principalities and city republics survived only by total, humiliating subservience to their Asiatic rulers…. The Russians retained an abiding fear of the East and a resentment of the West, which had deserted them in their hour of dire need… When the Tartar yoke was finally shaken off, the Russians had taken on some of the characteristics of their conquerors. [And] it was through these eyes that Russia began once again to look at the world.”

The resulting Russian gaze was merciless, pitiless, and aggressive. The state constantly pushed out its borders to provide ever-greater protection against potential invaders.

In addition to the Tartars, those invaders have come from the west, starting with the Teutonic Knights, who attacked from Kievan Rus from what is now Germany in the 13th century. (This image of the helmets of the Teutonic Knights is from Sergei Eisenstein’s spectacular 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, the score written by Prokofiev. It is a not-very-subtle evocation of the headgear worn by 20th century German armies.)

Also from the west came Napoleon’s Grande Armée, getting as far as Moscow. Half a century later, the British and French invaded the Crimea. Imperial German armies invaded Russia during the First World War; so did the Poles shortly after the war. Then, in 1941, came Hitler’s Wehrmacht, the last invaders of Russia from the west, reaching the outskirts of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad.

Josef Stalin’s aim in occupying and making vassal states of Eastern European nations like Poland and Hungary after victory in the Second World War was to provide a security buffer to the west. This was solidified and formalized in the military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact.

When these nations freed themselves after 1989, and especially when they joined NATO, a former KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin reacted violently. To him, it was just a new advance by the West on Holy Mother Russia.  It is why he wants to piece back together the USSR, starting with old Kievan Rus, or Ukraine.

The war he commenced there in February 2022 can thus be seen in a historical context:

  • Putin believes Ukraine is part of Russia.
  • He is therefore outraged that Ukrainians want to be independent.
  • He sees NATO’s active support of  the Ukrainians as proof his real enemy is the West.
  • He has allied himself with the Orthodox Church of his namesake, Vladimir of Kiev.
  • Despite what Kiev has always meant historically and emotionally to Russia, Putin has not hesitated to attack it, as if brutally punishing an errant child. And
  • If he succeeds, there are other errant children to chide, probably starting with the Baltic  states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.

As Henry Kissinger once observed, “Often the way to obtain one’s own security is to make everyone else insecure.” This yearning for security is what has made Russia aggressive, acting not unlike the New England farmer who said he didn’t want much: Just his land and everything surrounding it.

Seventy-five years ago, the American diplomat George F. Kennan sent his famous “long telegram” from Moscow explaining what he called “the sources of Soviet conduct”. In it he said several things about the old USSR that still are valid today about Putin’s Russia. In fact, every time Kennan uses the word “Soviet”, simply substitute “Russian”, which was always pretty much the same thing.

Wrote Kennan in 1947:

“Today Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. The antagonism [with the west] remains. It is postulated.

“These precepts are fortified by the lessons of Russian history: Of centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast unfortified plain.

“These phenomena are here to stay, for the foreseeable future. This means that we are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.”

Let us now move on to what many people view as the 21st century successor to the old Soviet Union as America’s great rival: China.

With their magnificent culture going back 5000 years, the Chinese have long seen themselves as the central power on earth, or at least in Asia, receiving tribute from its neighbors. The name in Mandarin for the Chinese nation is Zhongguo, or the “Middle Kingdom”.

Chinese history may stretch over several millennia, but modern China is stirred by one relatively brief part of it. It is a fiery sore within the Chinese soul they call their “Century of Humiliations”. This was the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, when a weak Middle Kingdom was invaded by foreigners – chiefly the British and French, but also Germans and Americans.  – who ransacked great treasure houses like the Summer Palace, seized colonies, sent gunboats far up Chinese rivers, and imposed “unequal treaties” that robbed China of its sovereignty.

The British fought two wars against China in order to flood the country with Indian opium. In the first war they obtained Hong Kong, and in the second they got Shanghai. The opium trade was so lucrative, making immense fortunes for families like the Jardines, Sassoons, and Kedouries, that others wanted in on the bonanza. They included this young man, Warren Delano of New York, who worked in what was then called Canton (Guangzhou) in the 1830s and ‘40s. He made one fortune there, lost it back in America, and then returned in the 1850s to make another, which he kept. On his second sojourn in China, Delano brought his wife and children, including his daughter Sara – later the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Japanese warred on China in 1895 and obtained the island of Taiwan. Then came 14 years invasion and occupation in the 1930s and ‘40s that ended only with Tokyo’s surrender in the Second World War. Meanwhile, China was rent with warlord rebellions and civil war, causing that great horror to any civilized nation but especially to China, disorder.

Then came Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Shek in 1949. Standing atop the gate on Tiananmen Square, he famously declared that “China has stood up!”

China has become an entirely different nation since then, a superpower with the world’s second-largest economy in the world and a military of ever-increasing global reach. Yet the Chinese leadership at every level, right down to the classroom, never ceases to speak of “the Century of Humiliations”. This informs much of current Chinese foreign policy. China never again wants to be — or be seen as — weak, fractious, and subject to foreign diktat. It reacts explosively to the slightest criticism. It regularly stokes anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic political purposes.  National unity is of the highest importance to China, which explains why it crushes any outbreak of dissent in Tibet, Sinkiang and Hong Kong; and why it has never forsworn the use of force against Taiwan.

For much of the long and storied history of China, Taiwan was a fairly inconsequential place, chiefly inhabited by indigenous tribes, the few local Chinese being fishermen and traders. The island came into imperial consciousness only at the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 1660s. That means a Chinese Taiwan is only about as old as the British colony of New York.

By every standard measure, Taiwan is an independent state. But – a crucial point – no government in Taipei has ever declared the island to be independent, which would prompt an invasion from the mainland. Yet the island’s de facto independence is a nagging reminder to China that it is not yet truly whole and that its era of humiliations is not over.

In his determination to replace the United States as the world’s hegemon, President Xi Jinping has embarked on an ambitious program of financing large-scale infrastructure projects like railroads and ports all around the Indian Ocean basin. Beijing calls this its “Belt and Road Initiative”. Seen on the map, it looks once again very much like a Middle Kingdom.

Similar to China in having an imperial mindset and an abiding fury at western intervention is Iran.

On Mount Behistun in western Iran there is an inscription carved during the 5th century BC at the command of Darius the Great:

“I [am] Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king in Persia, the king of countries … in all, 23 countries.”

The Persian Empire encompassed a large part of the known world at its height. Modern Iran is less concerned with territory than with being seen as a major regional power, superior specifically to the Arabs. Many observers see this as an assertion of Shia over Sunni Islam, and there is no doubt Sunnis are concerned about a so-called “Shia crescent” that arises out of Iran, sweeps through southern Iraq, and extends to Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and down to Yemen.

But the Persian attitude is not so much one of religion as one of a keen self-regard. In the same century as Darius the Great, Herodotus wrote of the Persians: “They deem themselves to be in all regards by far the best of all men [and] those who dwell farthest away have least merit of all.”

All Iranians – from a grand ayatollah in Isfahan to an expatriate in “Teherangeles” or Houston — are immensely proud of being Persian. They have good cause to believe they are simply the best – the best-looking, the best craftsmen, the best cooks, the best speakers and poets, and by far the best bargainers. The rest of humanity can only stand in admiration of their five thousand years as a state and as a center of some of the world’s most exquisite art, architecture, and literature.

Iran’s antipathy to the west began in the early 20th century, when Britain and Russia divided the nation into zones of control. And there was conflict over oil. As first lord of the Admiralty on the eve of World War I, Winston Churchill pushed the Royal Navy to convert ships from using coal to oil. This crucial resource was just being developed in the so-called “neutral zone” of Persia, and Britain exacted concessions from this weakened rump state that were greatly to its advantage.

These unfair terms caused smoldering resentment from Iran that culminated in 1951, when prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP). The resulting crisis was entirely between Britain and Iran, but the United States intervened on behalf of its ally. With the CIA playing a backstage role, the US encouraged and financed the ouster of Mossadegh and the reinstatement of the Shah with full powers. The actual job of overthrowing Mossadegh was done by the Iranian armed forces.

A grateful shah proved a loyal American client until his own ouster by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The new Islamic Republic declared America “the Great Satan”, blamed it for  overthrowing Mossadegh, and seized US embassy personnel. Seething hostility between the two countries has reigned ever since.

I contend – though of course cannot prove – that even if Iran were freed from its clerical overlords and were a fully democratic, pro-western state, it would still want nuclear weapons. All great nations have such weapons and so do some lesser ones like North Korea. Iran wants to stand proudly and equally among the great nations of the world — simply and purely because in its mind that is where it deserves to be.

In the meantime, Iranian influence and direct political control extends westward into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and southward toward Yemen. It may not be a return to the Persian Empire, but it could be said to resemble a Shia Crescent.

And what of the people on the other side of what we call the Persian Gulf? The people of the Arab Middle East, no less so than the other nations we’ve discussed, live with a strong historical memory.

In particular, they remember the Crusades. Now, most Americans have only a foggy notion of what and when the Crusades were. What we know may come entirely from having seen a movie – something about knights fighting in the Holy Land about a thousand years ago. We may have crammed some facts for a class in world history in high school – that was the class taught by the football coach – but then promptly forgotten them.

In case you’ve forgotten, there were four principal crusades mounted by various popes and kings of Medieval Europe to retake the Holy Land – the eastern shore of the Mediterranean – from the Muslims. The First Crusade succeeded, and there was created a Kingdom of Jerusalem and some other realms that lasted roughly 100 years until the Muslims’ great warrior, Saladin, defeated the Crusaders.

The Arabs haven’t forgotten this history. To them, the Crusades took place last week. Despite Saladin’s victory, they still burn with fury about western occupation of the land of Islam. When Britain left Palestine in 1948, the newly-proclaimed State of Israel was viewed as “a crusader kingdom”, a new edition of the 12th-century Kingdom of Jerusalem. The fact that Israel was run by Jews from Poland was unimportant; it was the descendants of the crusaders who had given birth to it.

A few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush warned the American public that “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” He meant the word “crusade” in the American sense of a fight for a worthy cause, like a crusade against cancer or drunk driving. Almost as soon as he said it, the President was advised of the incendiary effect this word had on the Muslim world, so he never used it again.

But Bush’s one-time use of the word “crusade” was seized by Osama bin Laden as proof of everything he had long said about America, namely that it wanted to wage war on Islam. Said he: “The world today is split into two parts, as Bush said: Either you are with the Crusade or you are with Islam. The battle is between us and the enemies of Islam, and it will go on until The Hour.”

In this talk I have left out entire continents – Africa, South America, and Australia – and I have left out one other important place, to which I at last turn: The United States of America.

We Americans have been blessed with short historical memories. It is a blessing because our country has always focused more on the present and the future than on the past. And yet American foreign policy has been shaped by historical attitudes just as much as the other nations we have examined, if for a shorter period of time.

Much is made of the phrase “American exceptionalism”. It is usually spoken derisively, to describe a United States convinced of its own goodness and possessed of a mission to spread its system of government and economy to all parts of the world. I reject this narrow view while maintaining that what is exceptional about the United States is its origin story: It is a nation established on the basis of ideas and not mere geography, ethnicity, religion, or dynasty. Those ideas relate to liberty and the freedom of ordinary citizens to strive for new and better lives for themselves.

It was the idea of living a virtuous and godly life that motivated the man called  “the first great American”: John Winthrop, founder and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even before he and his fellow colonists landed in New England in 1630, Winthrop gave a sermon aboard ship in which he spoke the famous words, “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. They eyes of all people are upon us.”

Those hearing Winthrop’s sermon instantly recognized these words as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Christ said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” When the ship’s company landed, they proceeded to build the city of Boston on a hill, not as an example that others might admire but because there was a source of fresh water on the hill and a swamp at its foot.

The nation that ultimately sprang from Winthrop’s and others’ colonies believed from the outset that it was different from and better than the lands of Europe, with their kingdoms, quarrels, and lack of freedom. Its people gave thanks that both a real and a metaphorical ocean separated them from such places. In his farewell address as president in 1797, George Washington gave a warning that shaped US foreign policy for a century:

“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens, the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake. The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is to have with them as little political connection as possible. So  far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. [But] here let us stop.”

Washington’s words were clear enough, but over the years they were given additional expression. In 1821, with Latin American nations rising against Spain, then-Secretary of State  John Quincy Adams said:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

So, what changed America from being a nation that held itself aloof to one that has gone abroad many times since John Quincy’s day to fight monsters, real or imagined? Two things, I would say.

The first came a little later in the 19th century as American missionaries went to China and India to spread the Gospel but also to establish schools and hospitals. When after many years they returned to places like Indiana and Iowa to tell of their good deeds to the churches that sponsored them, parishioners in the pews acquired the notion that there was much good that Americans could in fact do abroad to combat evil.

The second was this man, Theodore Roosevelt, who believed the United States had a vital role to place on the world stage. When neighboring nations in our hemisphere become roiled in internal violence, Roosevelt spoke words that resound in our own time and in places much farther away:

“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may force the United States, however reluctantly, to the exercise of an international police power.” He quickly added: “But only in the last resort.”

Roosevelt’s great political rival, Woodrow Wilson, also saw America as a reluctant righter of foreign wrongs, acting in a spirit of justice for others and not crass gain for itself. When Germany embarked on a policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare during the First World War, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war using these fateful words:

“The right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

George W. Bush could have used Wilson’s words 86 years later as he sent American troops into Iraq.

In fact, the history of American foreign policy has been a pendulum, swinging back and forth between the poles of isolationism and interventionism – from Washington to Theodore Roosevelt and from Wilson to Donald Trump, with other swings in between. Without trying to equate the two men, one can hear in Trump’s fulminations against NATO allies an echo of Washington’s warning against some of those very nations.

Yet both isolationism and interventionism are based on principles, not power. This is an attitude quite unlike that of other nations, especially in the long sweep of history.  It is an attitude that may not be better or purer than that of other nations – just different, or, one might say, exceptional.

Asked on the occasion of his 100th birthday to characterize American foreign policy, Henry Kissinger said with the perspective of an American born in Europe who has long studied world power structures:

“The American view of itself is righteousness. We believe we are unselfish, that we have no purely national objectives…. We expect that our views will carry the day, not because we think we are intellectually superior but because we think the views in themselves should be dominant. It’s an expression of strong moral feelings coupled with great power.”

This concludes our very quick and selective stroll through history. I hope it has helped make sense of a fast-moving world. As President Harry Truman liked to say, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

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