The Geneva Talks: The cognitive dissonance of ‘Mass Formation Disorder’
The outbreak of Putin ‘derangement symptom’ occurring precisely in the lead-up to crucial talks in Geneva this week bodes a graver risk.
Something strange seems to be overtaking Washington. First, on the 6 January anniversary of the public intrusion into the Capitol building, we have had Joe Biden’s speech excoriating Trump as a coupist. The latter followed on from a piece in the Financial Times (increasingly a messaging site for Washington to set down its narratives for European élites) by its leading US political commentator, Edward Luce, headlining that the ‘US system is no match for Trump’. US democracy in extreme peril (from any prospective Trump return) was the theme. In brief, it urged the Biden Administration to prosecute Trump over his claimed, but undefined, anti-democratic actions whilst noting that other states had removed and jailed leaders who had threatened democracy.
Perhaps the return of what is called ‘Trump derangement symptom’ is only to be expected as the GOP look set to take control of Congress in this November's mid-term elections. But the outbreak of Putin ‘derangement symptom’ occurring precisely in the lead-up to crucial talks in Geneva this week bodes a graver risk.
A Washington Post Board Editorial (representing the views of the Washington Post as an institution) starts thus:
"A brutal dictator, having staked a claim to power based on conspiracy theories and promises of imperial restoration, rebuilds his military. He begins threatening to seize his neighbours’ territory, blames democracies for the crisis and demands that, to solve it, they must rewrite the rules of international politics — and redraw the map — to suit him. The democracies agree to peace talks, hoping, as they must, to avoid war without unduly rewarding aggression.
[This Munich analogy] can be, and has been, overused and overstated. But given how closely the first paragraph of this editorial describes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current bellicosity toward Ukraine, and given that the US … enters negotiations with Mr. Putin in the coming week, it’s [an analogy] worth reflecting on … What the United States cannot do is allow Mr. Putin to win concessions at the point of a gun. In the — all-too-likely — event that he is not bargaining in good faith, and does invade Ukraine, President Biden will have to help that country defend itself, rally NATO and ensure that Russia pays a heavy price."
That analogy clearly is deranged.
And on the eve of a briefing ahead of the talks, Blinken seemed to reflect this psychic mode:
“The idea that Ukraine is the aggressor in this situation is absurd.
“It’s Russia that invaded Ukraine nearly eight years ago.
“It’s Russia that is the military occupier of part of Ukraine, in Crimea.
“It’s Russia that, to this day, is fuelling a war in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s Russia that has failed to implement any of its Minsk commitments, indeed is actively violating many of them, and refuses to acknowledge it’s a party to the conflict.
“It’s Russia that’s taken aim repeatedly at Ukraine’s democracy.
“And it’s Russia that’s sending troops to Ukraine’s border, once again.
“NATO never promised not to admit new members.
“There was no promise that NATO wouldn’t expand.
“I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.
In a later interview with CNN on Sunday, Blinken was asked if he agreed that Putin was driven by a desire to restore the old USSR: “I think that’s right, I think that’s one of President Putin’s objectives, and it is to re-exert a sphere of influence over countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union”. He went on to say that the US considered such an objective “unacceptable” as a world of spheres of influence was a “recipe for instability, a recipe for conflict, a recipe that led to world wars”.
In an earlier briefing on 8 January, a senior (unnamed) official – probably Jake Sullivan – outlined what the US might discuss with Russia: First, the future of certain missile systems in Europe along the lines of the INF Treaty; and second, Russia’s conduct of a series of ever larger and more coercive military exercises along its border with NATO Allies. Russia says its security is threatened by US and NATO exercises as well. “So, we are willing to explore the possibility of reciprocal restrictions on the size and scope of such exercises, including both strategic bombers close to each other’s territory and ground-based exercises as well”.
“However there are things in Russia’s drafts on which we are never going to agree. It is not up to Russia, for example, to decide for other countries who they can be allies with. Those are decisions only for those countries and for the alliance [i.e. NATO] itself”.
The gaps between the sides plainly are huge: Compare the above briefings with Deputy FM Ryabkov stating flatly: “NATO has to pack up its things, and move back to the borders of 1997”.
None of this heated language bodes well. But what is it that is driving these ‘mass formation psychoses’? US academic Michael Brenner has suggested that they lie with the “evident truth that Americans have become an insecure people. They grow increasingly anxious about who they are, what they are worth, and what life will be like down the road. This is an individual and collective phenomenon. They are related insofar as self-identity and self-esteem are bound up with the civic religion of Americanism".
Or, in other words, the insistence on one ‘Truth’, whether it is about Trump and his responsibility for the 6 January events; the prescription for dealing with Covid; or President Putin’s ‘Munich ultimatum’ -- all reflect the obverse facet to profound US insecurity.