Opinion Patrick Lawrence Russia-Ukraine

Patrick Lawrence: The Strong, and the Merely Powerful

In the world order now emerging, it is genuinely strong nations that will prevail over those reliant on power alone, and force will have little to do with it.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin during visit to Moscow in 2019. (Kremlin)

By Patrick Lawrence / Consortium News

Vladimir Putin’s speech from the Kremlin last Friday, delivered to the nation and the world as four regions of Ukraine were reintegrated into Russia, was another stunner, in line with numerous others he’s made this year, demonstrating a fundamental turn in the Russian president’s thinking over the past eight months.

The implications of this new perspective warrant careful consideration. Putin has taken to looking forward and seeing something new, and in this he is hardly alone.

“The world has entered a period of a fundamental, revolutionary transformation,” Putin said while standing beside the leaders of the Luhansk and Donetsk republics and the Kherson and Zaporozhye regions. Phrases such as this bear the weight of history. By way of magnitude, presidential speeches do not get any larger. Here is how the Russian leader expanded on the thought:

“New centers of power are emerging. They represent the majority — the majority! — of the international community. They are ready not only to declare their interests but also to protect them. They see in multipolarity an opportunity to strengthen their sovereignty, which means gaining genuine freedom, historical prospects, and the right to their own independent, creative, and distinctive forms of development, to a harmonious process.”

Putin has been speaking in this register since Feb. 4, 20 days before Russia launched its intervention in Ukraine and on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. In the Joint Declaration on International Relations Entering a New Era and Global Sustainable Development, issued with Xi Jinping, Putin and the Chinese president declared, “Today the world is going through momentous changes,”

“and humanity is entering a new era of rapid development and profound transformation. There is increasing interrelation and interdependence between the States; a trend has emerged toward redistribution of power in the world.”

Putin’s rhetoric has grown markedly sharper from February to last Friday. He has attacked the European Union for its “selfishness” and cowardice, the U.S. for its hegemonic aggression, including the genocide of Native Americans, and the West altogether for the “neocolonial” character of its relations with the non–West. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used to refer to Western nations as “our partners.” As of last Friday, yesterday’s partners are Russia’s “enemies.”

‘Irreversible Changes’

All very grim. Putin has made this turn toward confrontation reluctantly and out of frustration with the West’s obstinate refusal to negotiate the new security order that Europe so obviously needs. He is angry at the spectacle of wasteful violence and prolonged disorder. This is my read. But there is a certain brightness to his outlook that we must not miss amid the bleak, evident animosity.

“Global politics and economy are about to undergo fundamental and irreversible changes,” Putin asserted again, this time at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, held in Samarkand last month, “not based on some rules forced on [us] by external forces and which nobody has seen, but on universally recognized principles of the rule of international law and the U.N. Charter, namely, equal and indivisible security and respect for each other’s sovereignty, national values, and interests.”

In his Moscow address, he said: “They do not wish us freedom, but they want to see us as a colony. They want not equal cooperation, but robbery. They want to see us not as a free society, but as a crowd of soulless slaves.”

“Western countries have been repeating for centuries that they bring freedom and democracy to other peoples. Everything is exactly the opposite: instead of democracy – suppression and exploitation; instead of freedom – enslavement and violence. The entire unipolar world order is inherently anti-democratic and not free, it is deceitful and hypocritical through and through.

Let me also remind you that the United States, together with the British, turned Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne and many other German cities into ruins without any military necessity during World War II. And this was done defiantly, without any, I repeat, military necessity. There was only one goal: just like in the case of the nuclear bombings in Japan, to intimidate both our country and the whole world. …

The US dictate is based on brute force, on fist law. Sometimes beautifully wrapped, sometimes without any wrapper, but the essence is the same – fist law. The collapse of Western hegemony that has begun is irreversible. And I repeat again: it will not be the same as before.”

This kind of talk is daring. It is a million miles from anything you will hear from any of America’s purported leaders, lacking all vision as they do. What is Putin talking about if not a new era in world history, the kind that gets its own chapters in the history texts of the future? What will distinguish this new era, we have to ask.

There are various ways to interpret what Putin, Xi, and their allies among non–Western nations are working toward. In my view, they draw a distinction none has put into words but which is nonetheless essential to their vision: There are strong nations and there are the merely powerful. In the world order as we have it the powerful dominate — ever more evidently by force alone. In the world order now emerging, it is genuinely strong nations that will at last prevail over those reliant on power alone, and force will have little to do with it.

I have distinguished between the strong and the powerful since my years serving as a correspondent in East Asia, long back. The Vietnamese, the South Koreans, the Chinese in their way, even the Japanese in theirs: In these nations I saw a durability and coherence that had nothing to do with the size of their armies and air forces.

What was it that made them strong? The answers, of which many, came to me only after years of considering the question. I do not consider the answers anything like complete.

Strong nations serve their people as their primary responsibility. This is where I begin as I characterize them. They have a purpose, a telos, as the ancient Greeks put it, and a shared belief in the worth of their ideal. They have a commitment to advancing the well-being of their citizens — to constructive action in the interest of the commonweal. They value their cultures, their histories, their memories.

These common characteristics confer on strong nations solid but flexible social fabrics and an assumed sense of shared community. They are a source of identity and at the same time expressions of identity.

Ironically, strength of the kind I describe tends to generate power. But it is power judiciously deployed. Genuinely strong nations have no need to dominate others. They are ungiven to subterfuge or subversion, seeing no purpose in it. They value mutual benefit in their relations with others simply because this is the surest way to stability and a peaceful order.

Let us not traffic in impossible ideals or in the thought of nations as pure as snow. There are none. A strong nation may have many things about it that are not to be admired — awful things, even. A strong nation may also be powerful. China is such a case. I am of the view — and I realize there are others — that China does not use its power to malign purpose. Remove the Sinophobia and anti–Chinese paranoia, and the record supports this.

Power Alone

In the same unscientific fashion, let us consider the merely powerful.

Nations dependent on power alone lack the coherence found among the strong. In them you find that all relations are power relations. The social fabric is in consequence frayed. There is an evident atomization among the citizens of these nations, leaving them with no social bonds or common purpose and nothing to believe in.

When a nation’s ethos tips toward the pursuit of power, the polity is hollowed out. All the familiar social ills proceed from this — inequality, corruption, greed, and the collapse of mediating institutions through which people are able to express their political will.

The rampant, perverse corporatization of every aspect of life in unduly powerful nations represents the institutionalization of these characteristics. When everything is measured according to its potential to turn profit, we have to say that Margaret Thatcher was horribly right when she asserted, “There is no society. There are only individuals.” This is a key feature of nations that are merely powerful.

They are gatherings of survivors in constant struggle against one another.

The merely powerful consume what remains of their strength in the course of exercising their power. An example of this is the censorship regime that descends upon America like a long, dark cloud.

As digital media corporations act at Washington’s behest to control what can be said in public, they do more, much more, than impose an information monoculture upon Americans. This is the use of power to intrude on the full range of our interpersonal relations.

They are telling me what I can and cannot say to you. In this way they are destroying public discourse, and, in nations where we find it— not all — a vibrant public discourse conducted in public space ranks among the important sources of strength. They are also destroying people’s abilities to discern, to think, and to judge for themselves — another source of a nation’s strength. In strong nations that curtail free speech — and there most certainly are some — culture and tradition nonetheless strengthen communities, and leadership often uses them for this purpose.

This is how the exercise of power leads to the disintegration of the nation wherein power alone counts.

The US: A Once Strong Nation

Maybe it is obvious by now that I count the United States the premier example of a nation that is powerful but lacking in strength. There is no anti–American sentiment in this. It is simply because the exercise of power at the expense of strength is more advanced in the U.S., with its excessive corporatization and its excessive dependence on technology as an instrument of power, than anywhere else on earth.

When Jefferson and the signers wrote, debated, and sent the Declaration of Independence to George III to advise of their intent, they were announcing a strong nation, bound together in purpose and faith in itself — strong but hardly powerful. It has been this nation’s long, persistent abandonment of its founding ideals, ever accelerated as its pursuit of power came to dominate, that has rendered it weak.

The paradox: As America determined to make itself a world power, beginning with the Spanish–American War in 1898, it has steadily lost its strength in the way I use the term.

Power, as exercised by the merely powerful, acts primarily in the cause of its own self-preservation. It is thus put to malign purpose, deployed to the detriment of others, and is almost invariably a destructive force. Among its objectives is the destruction of the strengths of others.

Vietnam is a clear case. As they waged war against the Vietnamese people, U.S. forces infamously set about “destroying the village to save it”—that is, to shred the fabric of Vietnamese society so as to defeat it. American forces have since done the same elsewhere — in Syria, for instance, in Libya, in Iraq. You don’t have to approve of any given feature of these societies to recognize that what has been fundamentally at issue was their coherence, those ineffable things that bound them together as one even if it was a fractious unity. This is why we can now speak of these nations as “broken.”

We should consider the Ukraine conflict from this perspective — the wanton, useless destruction, I mean. And we should think about what it is the U.S. most wants to destroy as it presses its campaign to destroy Russia.

Then we can think again about Putin’s speeches over these past months, and the sentiments in them that many other nations—“the majority!”—share. I have long found Putin’s speeches, all available on the Kremlin web site, worth reading: Whatever else one may think of him, he has an excellent grasp of history and the dynamics of international relations.

In my read, the change that has come over the Russian leader dates to last December, when the U.S. threw sand in his face in response to his effort, via those two draft treaties Moscow sent to Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels, to fashion a new security order in Europe. That is when his anger arose.

That is when he said in effect, To hell with them. We will have to build a new world order on our own. China, by that time, had already given up on the West, and it was then the Russians and Chinese took their great leap forward together.

I am sure they share large measures of bitterness and anger as they look back over their deteriorated relations with the West. It is what they see looking forward that interests me far more. They are not talking about power as the principal feature of the order they now appear fully committed to realizing. They are talking about a world built by strong nations with shared purposes.

These are all in the speeches: the freedom of nations one to the other, the right to choose “forms of development,” interdependence, the authority of international law.

What is the raw pursuit of power next to these?

Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

18 comments

  1. A brilliant essay, Mr. Lawrence. I could not agree more. I think more and more people outside of the “West”, and even some in it, are beginning to “get it”. Unfortunately, the truth needs to be exposed, rather than the outrageous lies being pumped out now.

  2. Beautifully crafted ; only hope is that elements within the US can muster the resolve and courage to counter the internal forces who are aligned against common sense and compassion;

    1. You have faith Roland. That’s good as it goes. I’m not sure where that resolve you speak of will come from. Those internal forces have bent and broken many good people who have tried. Two of Mr. Obama’s positive achievements during his presidency were an attempt to normalize relations with Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal. Both went south with the new administration. The U.S. has a flash- in-the- pan government; nothing good ever lasts because there is no consensus of what good is. The bad is twisted into goodness by some Orwellian artifice and dished out to the public with a smile.

    1. It was melodious, but some of it went over my head.
      How can a person deeply socialized and educated in American exceptionality reverse polarity amid his mind’s flight?
      Remember, some of the horrible things that threaten our existence do not change when we put ourselves in Chinese or Russian shoes.
      America doesn’t make its own shoes anymore, you’ll remind me, and they can and do. The contest is to see whether the powerful remain vicious and focused on prizes even as their culture and technology wither away.
      Will we see a few flea bitten generals in pop-up tents broadcasting about their conquests even as our population dies of disease and starvation?
      Maybe we’ll see that on Netflix.

  3. Vladimir Putin has been practicing Judo since he was quite young.

    I believe it was Oliver Stone whom he told that when you step onto the mat to compete in Judo, you don’t sock the other guy in the nose. You bow. There is a protocol. Respect. That is how Mr. Putin seems to me always to have approached relations with his “partners” in the West: a healthy competition, with rules, a protocol, respect.

    It saddens me enormously that Mr. Putin has finally realized that his “partners” in the U.S. are undisciplined thugs. The man is hardly the monster he is made out to be day after day, year after year in U.S. media. Now he realizes he is actually at war with vulgar criminals and confronted with the seriously difficult question of what he is to do about it.

    Americans and citizens of other Western countries are so full of the lies and distortions pounded into their heads for decades that there is no mass movement for peace in the U.S. demanding an end to U.S. aggression against Russia.

    This is a shame of historic proportions because it is not Mr. Putin’s responsibility to end U.S aggression. It is Americans’. And as a consequence of Americans’ apathy and ignorant complacency this problem has been dumped into Mr. Putin’s lap.

    Russia spends $68 billion a year on its military. Less than a tenth what the U.S. spends. The business of the U.S. is war. The only way to end American militarism is from within and there is no popular will within the U.S. to end it.

  4. By coincidence I was reading these words John Quincy Adams spoke as a U.S. Representative July 4, 1821. This short speech is worth reading in whole:

    AND NOW, FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?

    Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.

    She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.

    She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.

    She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.

    She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.

    Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her 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.

    She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

    She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

    The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force….

    She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….

    [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.

  5. Once again Patrick right on the mark. Putin definitely knows history and is actually a far greater diplomat and practitioner of statecraft than any western leader. He has exposed the utter moral bankruptcy of the west and its visionless leaders. Unfortunately, we in the west are going to pay dearly for our leader’s stupidity.

  6. U.S. Power and influence is born directly from the one thing the U.S. has successfully been able to deny to every other Nation on Earth, namely: it simply continues to print and issue, at will, as many U.S. Dollars as are needed to pay for all it’s illegitimate and unlawful plans and schemes, as are required.
    All other Nations are obligated to either “earn” money from productive endeavors or to borrow it from the World Bank or IMF, bearing the cost of interest, and “conditionalities” designed as hurdles and making repayment almost impossible. Yet, every Sovereign Nation could opt out and also simply print their own currencies; why don’t they?

  7. unfortunately no examination is attempted that distinguishes the vast differences between the american national character and that of others, especially Slavs and Asians

  8. The historian Alfred McCoy wrote a book last year called “To Govern the Globe”. In it he asserts that the empires of the world, beginning with the Portuguese in the 1500’s, next the Spanish, the Dutch, the English and now the USA all had one thing in common. They all were able to control the Eurasian land mass. With it’s 600 plus military bases around the world, we are living in what McCoy suggests are the latter stage of the American empire. He predicts that China will be the next great empire but only until around 2050 or so when climate chaos becomes to severe for the entire world.

    While the US spent trillions on wars in the middle east and leaving those countries in total chaos, China went to work building their Belt and Road Initiative, trying to bring together nations from Europe and Africa all the way across their country. The US sees the threat of a rising China as their inability to continue to have command over the Eurasian land mass. That is a fundamental part of what is going on in Ukraine imho. The fact that the US wants to sell Europe LNG and not have them buy Russian energy sources is another fundamental piece. Ukraine has vast ability to produce much food. I am sure the Bayer-Monsanto’s of the world with their industrialized and destructive form of agriculture have an eye on potential profit making in Ukraine as well.

    I like the way Patrick Lawrence has viewed this moment of history, differentiating between strong and powerful nations. I have not heard anything like this yet on the Ukraine war and I think his perspective is worthy of sharing.

    1. “I like the way Patrick Lawrence has viewed this moment of history, differentiating between strong and powerful nations”

      Maybe you ought to look into the concept of sophistry, since Patrick is an expert sophist.

    2. Lawrence gets it wrong, but it’s well written error, hence the nodding in unison in the audience here, where few have a useful word to offer.

      Nations and national structures of power across the board they have more in common than they do differences. Pat Lawrence seems to not want to embrace that “strong” or “powerful” nations are operated by the same species of flawed humans with the exact same biological & psychological drives, albeit in different wrappers. Power structures in governments and social control agents, hucksters, & cheats no matter the culture, given time any of them will screw some large portion of the society to the preference of some elite, if this is not a written law of history already, someone should look into writing it as such.

      The “strength, durability and coherence” Lawrence saw in S.E. Asia or perhaps Russia isn’t some advanced character of their societies, it’s an expression of the solidity you get via centuries of evolution of their groupthink in primary traits like religion and family. This “strength” is the strength of supernatural hocus-pocus and primacy of the male. It is backwardness, and it was expressed in Putin’s pronouncement of a new world order when he awkwardly invoked religion and macho bigotry with “Mama & Papa” vs “parent #1 & #2.” Backwardness is strength, you cannot get 25k American teens to repeatedly charge Gatling guns because magic deflects bullets, but you can 25K Zulu.

      I don’t disagree with Lawrence’s observations, I disagree with him offering them as a totality. Were the shoe on the other foot and Russia/China been gifted with the majority of the money (a word that does not appear in the essay) after WW1 they may have climbed to dominate the 21st Century and there is zero evidence they would have done better than the US. Our sins are real. So shall be those of new powers.

  9. Putin and Xi, the world’s most notorious conservative dictators, as Neo Progressive visionaries???

    How quaint!!!

    1. Not to mention:

      “The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner,ChVK Wagner,or CHVK Vagner, is a Russian paramilitary organization. It is variously described as a private military company (PMC), a network of mercenaries, or a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Officially the group does not exist. While the Wagner Group itself is not ideologically driven, various elements of Wagner have been linked to neo-Nazis and far-right extremists.”

  10. the anglo empire is near death—Russia and China where prosperity freedom and justice matter now bid the decayed immoral US empire goodbye….the fake Neo liberal anglo dictatorships have proven to be failures….in USA happiness is #1 violent crime, non-violent crime rape per capita all nations….consumption of 80+% legal psychotropics 66% anti-depressants on earth since 2010—this is followed by other anglophone nations then Denmark…apparently GDP and money do not create happiness

  11. An excellent and thoughtful perspective. What bears the most power is the unity of our working class if we can ever build that. We are the ones who suffer the results of capitalist exploration and big power conflicts. How do we unite to overcome the empty power of our global oppressors who are destroying the livable world?

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