When US President Barack Obama opened his tour of Europe this week it had the unmistakable choreography of a scripted set piece: lights, camera, action etc. The storyline is a familiar trope. America, the shining beacon of democracy and human rights, comes to the rescue of European damsels in distress just before they are ravaged by bestial European recidivism for war.
European political figures of increasingly low caliber are indulging this American parody of reality by appearing to unite around Obama’s call for tougher sanctions against Russia. Britain’s David Cameron and his German and French counterparts, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, issued warnings of imposing economic penalties on Russian businesses and industries. Lots of bombast and melodrama were on cue, but there was a distinct lack of guts to follow.
For Obama’s European visit this week it seemed more than a coincidence that the president made his first public statement from an Amsterdam museum. The choice of such a rarefied venue to launch Obama’s shuttle diplomacy may at first seem odd.
As the Washington Post reported: «President Obama delved into a day of diplomacy Monday as he sought to rally the international community around efforts to isolate Russia following its incursion into Ukraine».
And yet the US president chooses a museum to begin this seemingly important diplomatic week? It was Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum where he pronounced on international law and the need for a unified response to sanction Russian «violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations».
The American leader’s utterances were made while standing in front of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch. Completed in 1642, the life-size portrait of Dutch soldiers is considered to be among the world’s finest art collection. The painting, by the way, had to be put into secret storage between 1939-45 to save it from damage during World War II.
Obama declared: «Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people; we're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far».
The subliminal message here is: Washington is coming to Europe as a rallying force for good, to defend democratic principles, civilized values and to defeat barbarity. Obama’s presumption has a deep resonance with American mythology of «exceptionalism» and benign power.
American actor-director George Clooney’s new World War Two film, Monuments Men, is an example of this syrupy American vanity and travesty of history. Clooney’s latest film –– about how a specially assigned American team led a mission to save European art collections from Nazi looting – tends to reinforce the American myth that it was they who rescued Europe from savage war and destruction during the 20th century. American intervention in the First and Second World Wars is, in the «exceptional» American national mythology, portrayed as a noble sacrifice that pulled Europe back from the brink of nihilism to the light of liberal democracy.
Echoing this contrived chorus line, the Western media are casting Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, as the biggest threat to European peace since the end of the Cold War more than 20 years ago. Never mind the inescapable fact that it was Soviet Russia that largely defeated German fascism in 1945.
But between the simplistic lines, there is plenty of evidence that the Washington-led allies are far from united or confident about their handling of Russia and the recent upheaval over Ukraine.
Firstly, there is a crisis of legitimacy for the so-called Western leaders. When the members of the Group of Seven were later photographed in The Hague huddled around a table with little flags indicating their nationalities, the gathering had all the gravitas of a school canteen. The G7 statement on the cancellation of the planned Group of Eight summit in Russia’s Sochi said: «We will suspend our participation in the G8 until Russia changes course and the environment comes back to where the G8 is able to have a meaningful discussion».
That doesn’t sound like a statement with conviction. «We will suspend our participation…», not «we ban Russia», betrays a lot of anxious horse-trading among the elitist club to come up with a «unified» statement.
The crisis in legitimacy for Washington and its coterie of allies stems from the fact that these countries are no longer the economic powers that they once were. The centre of global economic gravity is shifting to the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, among other emerging economies. Asia, Africa and Latin America are the future; North America and Europe are the past.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was not engaging in churlish politics of envy when he shrugged off the G8 forum as a redundant entity anyway. It is fact.
Thus, from this Western club, the threat of economic sanctions against Russia for alleged violations over Ukraine sounds decidedly hollow and impotent.
The Western crisis of political legitimacy is also manifest among its own public. This week saw a hammering for France’s ruling Socialist Party in local elections and the rise of the anti-establishment and deeply Euro-skeptic National Front. French President Francois Hollande’s personal poll rating has hit an all-time low, and this same chronic disaffection with the political class can be seen in other Western states too. Stagnant economies and record levels of poverty and unemployment are undermining the authority of incumbent Western leaders and governments.
So, despite attempts to muster gravitas and purpose over events in Ukraine and alleged wrongdoing by Russia, the Western public has no appetite to listen to sanctimonious political sermons. How can these politicians find the urgency and financial wherewithal to suddenly throw billions of dollars at Ukraine, when there is so much social need neglected closer to home?
Public disaffection with national governments is extended to the supranational European Union. This also explains the dramatic rise in the National Front in France and the growing popularity of similar anti-EU nationalistic parties elsewhere across Europe. A common theme is contempt for aloof European bureaucrats, who seem more interested in EU enlargement in tandem with ever-more economic austerity for citizens.
The notion that reviled European figures, such as Cameron and Hollande, are photographed with equally despised European bureaucrats Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso – and that this image is supposed to somehow represent a strong, united popular front for American-led sanctions against Russia is laughable and illusory.
This cabal of politicians may have the appearance of unity, but what does such elite «unity» mean when they are increasingly diminished in the eyes of their own populations and the rest of the world?
Even within this cabal, the apparent unity is unconvincing. The tougher sanctions that Washington has been pushing for have so far not been adopted by the European Union – despite the rhetoric.
Notably, German chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly refused to take the provocative line of «banning» Russia from the G8, which Washington, London and Paris would have preferred. Merkel contradicted the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was earlier insisting that Russia had been suspended from the forum.
Merkel’s less confrontational attitude was also reiterated by Italian Foreign Minister, Frederica Mogherini, who reminded everyone that Russia is «an important [trading] partner» and that a forum of dialogue should not be closed.
Away from the G7 clique, both the Finnish and Belgian governments also cautioned against diplomatic confrontation with Moscow. EU and NATO member Norway said that it was canceling bilateral military arrangements with Russia, but it reportedly added that other areas of relations with Russia were to remain normal. Swiss President Didier Burkhalter said that his country would not be implementing US or EU sanctions against Russian financiers.
Many of the 300 million or so European citizens – in spite of the official attitude of some leaders – are well aware of the importance of bilateral trade with Russia. EU trade with Russia is tenfold the volume that exists between the US and Russia.
Top of the EU-Russian trade is oil and gas, which accounts for some one-third of average EU supply. In the eastern part of the bloc, the Russian supply of gas constitutes 80-100 per cent of total consumption.
Germany’s commercial bond with Russia is of strategic importance, not just for Germany but for the rest of Europe too. German businesses sold $60 billion-worth of goods to Russia last year. Not surprisingly, the German business class is vociferously opposed to any further ratcheting up of sanctions against Russia. Germany’s export group, BGA, says any such move would be «catastrophic» for the more than 6,000 German companies that do business there.
Another German business figure, Eckhard Cordes, the head of the Eastern Committee, a powerful Russia-oriented business lobby, also expressed apprehension at the impact of sanctions. He told German media: «We have a strategic partnership . . . to bring our peoples together. And now we want to cover ourselves with sanctions? I find that difficult to imagine».
That liability for Europe’s largest economy is an onerous constraint on Merkel. Der Spiegel commented on Merkel’s dilemma: «Her election victory last autumn was partly the result of her promise to protect Germany from unpleasantness related to the euro [currency] crisis. That is what they are now expecting from Berlin's course on the Ukraine crisis: security and stability».
Across Europe, businessmen, industrialists, workers and general public understand that the bravado of economic sanctions against Russia – articulated by an increasingly unrepresentative and illegitimate political class – will hurt them the most – in their daily lives. The wider public knows that belligerent elites in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels have much less to lose from pursuing a confrontation with Russia.
Perhaps in decades past, nations could be rallied around a flag with jingoistic political speeches. In today’s globalized economy, that kind of patronizing influence has expired, and any attempt to revive it is viewed with even more contempt.
Paolo Scaroni, the head of Italian energy giant ENI, told the Financial Times in blunt terms: «We need Russian gas every day. They need our money every year or two years. If, in the middle of a tough winter, we don’t have Russian gas, we are in trouble. But Russia is not in trouble if they get our money the day after».
Scaroni also confirmed what other energy analysts have said recently, namely, that the South Stream natural gas project from Russia to Europe has been thrown into uncertainty over the Ukraine tensions between Moscow and Brussels.
That project promised to boost gas supplies to the EU, which would probably have lowered costs to consumers. Now, thanks to the saber rattling of Washington and its tiny club of EU «leaders», that project is in jeopardy.
What this points to is a huge disconnect between politicians in Washington and Europe and the wider population. That disconnect stems from deep economic and social issues related to the demise of capitalist society, but the latest debacle with Russia over Ukraine is bringing the public disaffection to the fore.
The Western public also knows that the Western news media are not telling the full story. The latter seem to be more committed to purveying a self-serving narrative for an elitist political agenda rather than revealing what is really at stake with regard to Ukraine.
Russian security measures on its border with Western-destabilized Ukraine and in the constitutionally reunited southern province of Crimea are distorted as monstrous acts of aggression. Russia’s legitimate cautionary national security measures are presented as an evil specter threatening to «splinter Europe» – in the words of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
This cartoon-like portrayal is bereft of salient facts, facts that are known to the public from its access to alternative news media. Such as the fact that Washington and its European allies are the ones who initiated the unrest over Ukraine by overseeing a coup d’état in Kiev on February 23 – after three months of orchestrated street violence. It is Western governments that have violated international law and sovereignty – and not for the first time. The new unelected Western-backed regime in Kiev is composed of neo-Nazis and other fascists who have unleashed chaos and violence across Ukraine – the latest examples being attacks on pro-Russian officials and property, armed robberies of Russia-bound trains and the harassment of neutral media services.
There have been calls for mass murder and terrorism against Russian people by the coup plotters, including the Western elites’ darling pro-democracy princess, Yulia Timoshenko, who was recently caught relishing the idea of «whacking» Russians and turning Russian territory into ash from a nuclear strike.
But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story, as the Western elites might say. And that story is that Europe is nearly at war again because of «old barbaric habits». What’s more, it is America – «the brave, democratic America» – that is once again bringing Europe back to civilized peace and harmony, this time from Russian despotism, as opposed to Nazi fascism of before.
The trouble for Washington and its elite European allies is that the wider public is not buying this hackneyed narrative. The wider public rightly see US-led NATO aggression and lebensraum in Europe as the problem, not alleged Russian expansionism…
On the same day that Obama was lecturing Europeans about international law and civilized norms, his National Security Advisor on Russia, Michael McFaul was writing in the New York Times opinion pages. McFaul, who was recently the ambassador to Russia, wrote an astounding falsification of history in which he declared that Vladimir Putin was «a revisionist autocratic leader [who] instigated this new confrontation… similar to the last century, the ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy has returned to Europe,» wrote McFaul. «We [the US] are ready to lead the free world in this new struggle».
This elite Western narrative espoused by Obama and his club of bankrupt European non-entity politicians has by now alienated a global audience at home and around the world. Certainly not in the Rembrandt class, but most people can now see elite Western posturing as a masterpiece of illusion.