Away from England's shores, I have watched Labour's leadership contest at a distance and, so far, in silence. But I will be home imminently, and the prospect has given me words. They came to me as I read Robin Corbyn's recent remarks concerning the situation on Ukraine's borders, reported by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. In these remarks, Corbyn set out to clarify exactly what he does and does not believe.
First, what Corbyn does not believe. He does not believe (or at least, he rejected the suggestion that he believes) that NATO is to blame for Russia's aggression against Ukraine. When asked, he replied:
I didn't say that, come on I've never said that.
Second, what Corbyn does believe. He believes that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a tit-for-tat response in a game in which NATO was first mover. He went on:
So please, the point I am making is that if Nato sets itself an open target of expansion, the Russian military then say to their leaders 'we've have (sic) to expand to counteract Nato'.
If you take this sentence as it was intended, as the essence of Corbyn's thinking about Ukraine, it crystallizes a particular model of international relations. To show you how the model works, I'll have to put some words in Corbyn's mouth, so he might perfectly well turn around and say "I didn't say that." And that would be true. However, in order for him to say what he did say, and believe in what he said, there are certain things he must also believe because, if he did not believe them, what he said would make no sense. These things are what I mean by the Corbyn model of international relations. I'll write them down as four propositions.
Proposition no. 1. International relations is a game. That is, all the players are engaged in an interactive relationship that requires each of them to calculate their best move based on what they expect others to do, so the first problem of each is to understand the others. This is clear from Corbyn's clearly expressed desire that we (or specifically NATO) should first understand Russia. I want to say that this is an excellent start. A multi-player game is exactly the right way to conceptualize the problem of international relations. Of course this is the only a start. The next thing is to identify the players correctly.
Proposition no. 2. Only great powers are players. In the game of international relations as Robin Corbyn sees it, there are only great powers or great-power alliances. Small countries exist, but they do as they are told. I base this on Corbyn's view of the Ukraine crisis, which he describes as arising from the interaction of Russia and NATO, and no one else. On his interpretation, NATO expansion is a process in which the smaller countries that have joined or might wish to join NATO have no agency. Ukraine itself is only a place where the game is being played. He implies, by not saying anythhing else, that Ukraine's politicians and people are just doing the will of NATO, on one hand, or Russia, on the other.
A particular view of NATO's past enlargement is also implied. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia's western neighbours, were suddenly freed from the constraints of Soviet rule and obligations to the Warsaw Pact. Until that time, they could not make sovereign decisions over their own security. When they could, they chose NATO and begged to be admitted to NATO membership as soon as possible. In the short run, at least, the applicants confronted NATO with increased defensive obligations out of proportion to the assets they placed on the table, so NATO responded with understandable reluctance. In the end, however, it was politically impossible to refuse them. In the Corbyn model, this is described as "NATO expansion," a process driven by NATO, and aimed at Russia, one in which the security aspirations and sovereign decisions of the small countries on Russia's borders had no weight.
Although the Corbyn model correctly presents international relations as a game, the game it imagines is far too simple; it is not just NATO against Russia. The model does not try to understand the smaller countries that are in Russia's neighbourhood.
Proposition no. 3. Understanding ourselves. According to Robin Corbyn, NATO has an "open target of expansion." Again, this oversimplifies. Under Article 10, NATO has an "open door." The door is open, but not all may pass. Two conditions are required. Applicants must be willing. And all the existing NATO member states must also be willing, because the treaty explicitly requires their "unanimous agreement." Thus, it is not just NATO that must have the "target of expansion" but enlargement must be based on the sovereign will of every one of the NATO member states and each one of the applicant members.
On this score, too, the Corbyn model is too simple; it does not try to understand the relationship between NATO and its sovereign members. The small countries of Europe do not do what NATO tells them; it is the other way around.
Proposition no. 4. Understanding others. Robin Corbyn suggests that Russia has agency, but not initiative; its leaders act only in response to NATO moves. This is clearly wrong; it is the common desire of the many small countries bordering Russia to move out of alignment with Russia to which Russian leaders are now responding. Indeed they are trying to reverse it. But even this is not the root of the problem. The root cause is Russia's past treatment of its neighbours, a historic pattern to which Russian leaders are now reverting.
Proposition no. 5. Understanding others (again). Robin Corbyn imagines that Russia's leaders listen to (and take) the instruction of their military. I have no idea if they do that or not. The reason I have no idea is because decision-making at the heart of Russia politics is secret. However, there is no evidence in support of Corbyn's assumption from the accounts of Russian decision making that we have. Take the Russian invasion of Crimea as an example. On 15 March 2015, Reuters reportedthe words of Russian President Vladimir Putin:
Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders.
Putin was asked if he had been prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. He said:
We were ready to do it.
This does not sound as if Russian leaders were taking military instruction, but again, I repeat, we do not know, and Robin Corbyn cannot know, because these matters are secret. Here the Corbyn model claims to know more than it can know.
It might seem that the Corbyn model of international relations is not fit for purpose. But this depends on what that purpose is. If its purpose was to predict and thereby to guide action, then it would fail because it does not recognize the limits of its understanding of the world we live in and in which we must make our way.
More probably, the purpose of the Corbyn model is not predictive, but moralistic, that is, to justify a preconceived moral stance. For this it works very well. That moral stance holds that NATO is an aggressive, militaristic alliance, and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is, at worst, on the same level as NATO's aggression against Russia. It is aggression against Ukraine when Russia sponsors separatism, invades, confiscates territory,and kidnaps and imprisons or kills Ukrainian citizens. In the Corbyn model, it is aggression against Russia when small countries with close experience of domination by Moscow seek to join an alliance that might protect them.
In this equation an invited guest and a thief in the night are considered to be one and the same. NATO is the invited guest. For most Central and East Europeans the Soviet Union after 1945 was an uninvited guest. The Red Army arrived and never left. With it came closed borders, a political monopoly, forced ideological conformity, and a secret police. In Ukraine today, Russia is again an uninvited guest. In the moral equation of Robin Corbyn, the open and voluntary invitation that leads to NATO enlargement is treated as the same.
We have just marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After the event, Warsaw Pact leaders claimed that their troops entered the sovereign territory of a member state in response to the Czechoslovak party leaders' plea for help to restore order. In reality, the Czechoslovak leaders had issued no such invitation. On the contrary, the occupation forces immediately detained the leaders and abducted them to Moscow. But the story gave rise to a joke.
What are 600,000 Soviet soldiers doing in Czechoslovakia?
They're looking for the man who invited them in.