Ultimately, Putin's appeal to history makes sense in two strands of his political thought: the memories of a Russian empire that drive his plans for a Eurasian Union and his argument that the West's international dominance is decadent and undeserved.
Where he trips up, however, is in his belief that history can act for a justification in Crimea. History is often complicated and incoherent: Europe’s ever changing borders don’t necessarily justify yet another change. (By Adam Taylor, "What history can tell us about Russia, Crimea and Vladimir Putin," Washington Post, March 18, 2014)
Whether Putin's pointing to Kosovo, or the more current referenda in Scotland and Catalonia for independence, as justification for his recent actions in Crimea, and potentially in the rest of Ukraine, make sense to any individual or body participating in the unfolding history of Europe, or not, Taylor's phrase "the West's international dominance is decadent and undeserved" needs much more attention from the world community.
There is a tidal wave of data washing over the public consciousness every moment of every day. No one, not even those charged with briefing national leaders in all countries, can or will keep completely abreast of all the fine print in those waves of information. However, there are reasons to be sceptical of the degree to which the United States especially is engaging in a sanctimonious and self-righteous campaign of both overt and covert dismissal and denial of its own many engagements in the affairs of "foreign" nations, to which Putin and his allies can and will point, when taking analogous, if not identical moves in their own "national interests."
It is not usual to use data obtained through research into the relative achievements of school children to help explain national and international geopolitical entanglements. However, given the U.S. evidence that points to the need to restrain the efforts by educators in that country to pump up the self-esteem of students in American classrooms, because it has been resulting in too many students believing they were more capable than they really are, and leading to a kind of complacency among American youth, especially when their test results are compared with the achievements on standard tests of other less "inflated" ego's of youth in other countries. For many Americans, George W. Bush's intervention in Iraq is still regarded as a successful foreign policy achievement in ridding that country of a dictator and significantly changing the face of Middle East politics and history.
Unfortunately, those Americans are on the wrong side of history, regarding the Iraq debacle. It was the American government of Ronald Reagan, specifically then envoy Donald Rumsfeld, who met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, as part of a campaign against then then shared enemy, Iran, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and proferred those later detested and still unfound "weapons of mass destruction" to Hussein. That conflict unleashed one of the more protracted and seemingly untameable crimes against humanity, both inside Iraq and in the region more generally, that will scar the people of Iraq for generations, not to mention the people of Syria and Libya and even Egypt for decades, if not this century. Many around the world still hold the conviction that George W. Bush and his Vice-president should be charged with crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Court for their invasion of Iraq. Let's leave it to more schooled and experienced international legal arguments to settle that debate, while not failing to once again point to the serious flaw in U.S. foreign policy in not becoming a signatory to the I.C.C. It is not particularly profound insight to note that Bush's intemperate and impulsive reaction to the 9/11 attack has clearly generated more combatants who target the United States specifically and the "west" generally. The lines, in that conflict, are blurred as to whether the terrorists are motivated by religious and or political redress or both.
Assuming the role of international "cop" for many decades has earned the United States the contempt of many who still see U.S. participation on the world stage as stereotypically that of the "bully" in spite of the deep and profound attempt by the Obama administration to curb and deflate that blow-up caricature of the United States. That perception is noted here not to help justify Putin's current pre-occupation with Russian hegemony but to place Putin's actions in some other context than that of the hollow and vacuous rhetoric of Secretary of State Kerry in denouncing Putin's take-over of Crimea.
National interests, as perceived and pursued by those "who can" perceive and pursue their own vision of an aggrandized future for their own narcissistic personal ambitions and the perceived or envisioned links between the personal and the national interests, as Taylor notes, have been and will continue to be messy, untidy, unable to be fitted neatly into some legal framework (the laws often follow events in order to make justification for those events seem pre-existent and provide a revisionist history of those events).
That view of "nation building" relies to a significant extent on the power brokers' conviction that the "people" have a very short memory, linked to busy lives making a living and shovelling snow from their driveways and mowing their lawns. Putin himself, following in the path of too many previous leaders in too many countries, is currently re-writing Russian history texts used in Russian schools and colleges, to air-brush his accomplishments and provide testament to a glowing and indisputable legacy of success, on behalf of his comrades and country.
Similarly, while perhaps slightly less blatant and directly publicly funded (not actually commanded by the state), there are likely doctoral theses being prepared today in many of the best United States colleges and universities, that paint George W. Bush as a visionary in U.S. foreign policy history.
The fact that public money, along with private money, is also available for an opposite and competing view of the Bush presidency, while not garnering headlines in the media, nevertheless, provides a modicum of hope that students over the next several decades might acquire a balanced view of the first decade of the twenty-first century in U.S. foreign policy, as compared with the view of their country that will be taught and acquired in St. Petersburg.
Nevertheless, the kind of conversations that are needed today, over Crimea, Iran, Syria and even North Korea, along with the many hot-spots of erupting Islamic terrorism, in any authentic effort to resolve the tangled and gnarled and perplexing and very dangerous and conflicting visions and goals of the participants, have to begin with acknowledgements from all, that the collective and individual pictures painted by the previous actors on the world stage have consistently been misguided, misconstrued, mis-apprehended, and certainly mis-interpreted. And there will never be a unified theory, in any single nation, or encompassing world history, to embrace the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me God) on which the legal systems in the west depend.
And so, linking a partial memory, an even more partial grasp of the whole truth of any situation, and the unfettered ambitions of elected, appointed and militarily-backed leaders, sometimes riding waves of public adulation as Putin is in Moscow this week, or facing storms of protest, as Yanukovich did in Kiev a few weeks ago, history has a way of unfolding and being assessed in immediate journalistic versions, in more reflective pieces in the medium term, and in substantive and profoundly insightful theses of scholars decades and even centuries hence.
Playing for the applause of the immediate "rock-star" fame, as Putin is currently doing, is not, however, much as he might like it to be, the final verdict of history. Obama and Merkel and Cameron, on the other hand, while more detached and more objective about the current unfolding drama, while having an eye on their own historic footprint, nevertheless, also have to put some imprints of that footprint in the sands of today's newspapers, television interviews and Security Council Resolutions, and earn and secure the confidence of both their own electors and the wider global community. We may have short memories, but today, more than ever before we have access to public records while sitting at our own keypads, linked to the best scholarship in all the best libraries in the world. And while we are still learning how to best access that scholarship, it is rapidly becoming part of the current discussion in pubs and classrooms across the globe.
So a Canadian view, now, cannot be balanced and relevant without more detailed reference to the insights of those around the world whose views would previously remained under dust in the archives of national libraries and university stacks. And our grandchildren, too, will be reflecting on the relative merits of both George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, in their turn at combing through the record, on their way to their own scholarship.
Depending on the social media's assessment of legacy, however, is like indulging in a diet of "fast food"....neither nourishing nor healthy but debased in both content and in lasting healthy achievement. We have, in the west, produced at least one, if not two or more, generations of people stuffed with fast food, a dream of wild and untamed access to money and fame, and governments that support both failed national fantasies. So wishing that organics and fruits and vegetables will still be available and accessible to all people regardless of their income or social and political status, and that fast food will quickly fade into the pop culture museums, we continue to hold out hope for more healthy grandchildren than the current crop of young people. Similarly, on the diplomatic front,
we can only hope for a more reflective and more balanced and less "narcissistic" chapter in the history of world diplomacy to be written by leaders whose raison d'etre is based more on international common needs, purposes and goals, than on personal and national hubris and fame. The twenty-first century is not off to a good start in that direction, and those are the footprints that this generation of leaders will leave behind in those archives and in those museums.