Monday, December 29, 2008

A Russian forecast for America

The long relationship between the United States and the Russian Republic has been at a low ebb for years. The last eight years of the Bush administration and its bellicose, hubristic attitude toward the so-called axis of evil (and anyone else the Bushies decided they didn’t or may not like) has led to a kind of hot cold war, with weapons of rhetoric rather than missiles being lobbed back and forth between Washington and Moscow.

In 2007 there was the Bush missile defense shield plan, under which an American-made deterrent to nuclear strikes on eastern Europe would be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic by 2012.

The plan aroused the ire of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The Bush plan surely helped to bolster Putin’s blatant appeal to the militaristic spirit of the Russian people (the Leader was seen in news reports presiding over teen education camps meant to cultivate animosities among young people — Putin Youth? — towards the United States).

American pop culture's even weighed in: In the most recent Indiana Jones movie, set in the 1950’s. Indy (too long in the tooth to go on bashing the Nazis that had by then decamped for South America) took on the Soviets of the Stalin era with his swashbuckling style.

But the war of words and images has escalated with the growing profile and audience of a little-known Russian military analyst and professor, a man who suggests, with unsettling preciseness, that the meter on the United States as a world power is about eighteen months from running out.

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In an interview in today’s Wall Street Journal, Prof. Igor Panarin, revisiting a forecast he’s been making for about ten years now, says that the United States will “disintegrate” in 2010, the victim of an economic and moral collapse that would trigger a civil war leaving the United States nothing so much as a pie whose slices would be devoured by other world powers.

“There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," he told WSJ’s Andrew Osborn.

Perhaps understandably, given the rise of a virulent anti-Americanism loose in Mother Russia, this Nostradamus-on-the-Volga is the darling of Russian state media, and the Kremlin. Panarin, a former KGB analyst, is the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats, has a doctorate in political science, and has been a student of U.S. economics, Osborn reports.

“Mr. Panarin's views also fit neatly with the Kremlin's narrative that Russia is returning to its rightful place on the world stage after the weakness of the 1990s, when many feared that the country would go economically and politically bankrupt and break into separate territories,” Osborn added.

What’s so alarming is the level of detail Panarin brings to this American twilight. Like the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” like George Orwell’s “1984,” Panarin’s vision names names, establishes boundaries and sets a rationale for events that is, disturbingly, deeply rooted in reality.

Osborn: “Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces -- with Alaska reverting to Russian control.”

“He predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including a civil war will follow. The U.S. will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.”

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In the Panarin cosmology, California forms the heart of the Californian Republic, and will be a part of China or under Chinese influence, like Hong Kong.

Hawaii would suffer more or less the same fate, yielding either to China or to Japan.

Texas would form the stronghold of the Texas Republic, a region whose nine states would encompass what’s now the Deep South, an area that would fall under Mexican control or influence.

Canada — Canada!? — would acquire control of a group of northern and central states dubbed the Central North American Republic.

Washington and New York would be part of Atlantic America, a group of states on the eastern seaboard that (Panarin says) could become part of the European Union. Oh, and Alaska will become a property of Russia.

"It would be reasonable for Russia to lay claim to Alaska,” Panarin said. “It was part of the Russian Empire for a long time." Well, by all means, we do want to be reasonable about this, now, don’t we?

For all the suggestions of dime-novel apocalypse Panarin summons for the United States in a year and a half, there’s something even more disquieting than the forecast itself. It’s not so much what he’s saying as who he is saying it — he’s speaking not as an academic or a scholar, but as a Russian, as a man who himself has witnessed in his own country the same disintegration he predicts for another. It’s unspoken but implicit in his scenario: “we didn’t think it would happen to us, either.”

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For all of Panarin’s chilling specificity, though, there’s a lot he’s overlooked. It’s one thing to be a student of American economics; it’s quite another to be a student of America.

Panarin’s doomsday vision assumes that any attempt at foreign colonization by any foreign power would result in surrender. Panarin doesn’t entertain the ways in which dogged American regional identities would coalesce in the cause of maintaining the central government necessary to remain a single nation.

The idea, for example, of Canada taking control of a portion of the United States as far south as Missouri, assumes Canada has a military strong enough, 18 months from now, to drive a thousand miles into the interior of this country without a serious fight. Canada has a standing armed forces of about 87,000 active and reserve personnel. There’s more than that many people in Fargo, N.D., alone.

Texas taken by Mexico? We’ve been there before, and we know how that turned out. This time, expect Predators patrolling the skies over what's left of the old mission in San Antonio, and Abrams tanks outside. Alamo II. As chaotic as the U.S. posture might be in 18 months, it’s hard to imagine the armed forces of Mexico prepared to exercise control over a region of nine states inhabited by people as fiercely proud of their independence as the Mexican people are proud of their own. People whose belief in the Second Amendment — the right to bear arms — is evidence of that independence.

California colonized by the Chinese? Not if Arnold Schwarzenegger is still in office.

Alaska re-taken by the Russians? Two words: Sarah Palin.

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Seriously, what Panarin overlooks most of all are two facts of history it would seem impossible to ignore:

First, he ignores the shift in global economic dynamics that make the United States and Russia partners in a dance neither can get out of. The ways in which a global economy intermingles not just currencies but also circumstances aren’t specific to the U.S. housing crisis, or the economic crisis that followed.

The Russian standard of living, steadily improving over the last decade, has done so largely using a benchmark of acquisitive, Western-style capitalism. An economic interdependence exists, one that suggests that if the United States dissolves, the potential is there for a shared fate. Panarin seems to sense this: “One could rejoice in that process," he said. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario —for Russia.”

Second, and maybe more important, Panarin apparently dismisses the same instincts for survival and self-definition that Napoleon and Hitler overlooked in their attempt to rule his country: the basic, innate, human resistance to domination by another.

Napoleon marched toward Russia with between 500,000 and 650,000 troops in June 1812; he wobbled back to France six months later with perhaps 20,000 left alive. Hitler carpet-bombed Leningrad for almost 900 days, and look what good it did him; a year and five months later the Russian Army was raising the Russian flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. For twenty years, the armies of North Vietnam fought a succession of armies, including the United States, in a drive to unify North and South Vietnam, ultimately defeating the greatest army in the world on the way to charting a destiny as one country, without foreign interference.

We’ll have to revisit the predictions of the Moscow Strangelove a year from this June; we’ll know for sure by then. Maybe before then, Panarin will introduce another variable to his scenario: the resistance factor: For all the internal strife that may characterize a country, for all the economic disasters that may come down, when survival and identity are at stake, never underestimate the ability of a nation’s people to be the people of a Nation.
Image credits: Putin: tk. Divided States graphic: The Wall Street Journal, from data by Igor Panarin. Russian economy graph: Krawndawg, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0, Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 licenses. "Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow" by Adolf Northern.


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