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John Laughland speaks at Yalta conference

Date de publication: 05.02.2015

John Laughland addresses the Yalta conference, 5 February 2015. Seated on the right: Anatoly Karpov, former world chess champion, and Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the State Duma.


Ideology and geopolitics in two Cold Wars


John Laughland


Yalta, 5 February 2015


(A video of this lecture can be seen here.)


It is customary at conferences like this to connect historical events to contemporary ones.  Indeed, we are invited to do this by the title of our conference today.  But there are surely few places in the world which link history and the present as closely as Yalta does.  Yalta embodies what I propose to call the First and Second Cold Wars: the first which lasted from 1946 or 1948 until 1989, the second which started in 2014.

The Yalta conference of 1945 was not called "the Yalta conference".  It was called "the Crimea conference" and its conclusions were issued with this name as their title.  However, the term "Yalta" has since entered historical discourse and is used, especially by those very numerous people who regarded the 1945 conference as a disgrace, as a byword for the injustices of the Cold War - for the division of Europe into two halves, and for the sealing of the fate of Eastern Europe which entered the Soviet orbit and remained there until 1989.

President George W. Bush expressed this negative feeling very clearly ten years ago, in 2005, when he said in Riga:

The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.1]

"Yalta" is thus remembered as a great wrong committed by states against peoples.  I will not dwell on the grossly unhistorical nature of President Bush's remarks: he should have known that in February 1945, the main founding events of the Cold War lay at least a year in the future.  The Fulton speech was given in 1946; the Berlin blockade and the Prague coup took place in 1948; NATO was created in 1949.  Meanwhile, the so-called "percentages agreement" on the division of Europe into spheres of interest was not made at Yalta but had instead been reached in Moscow the previous October.  What interests me instead is the assumption contained in this negative judgement of Yalta that states are by definition self-interested and cynical.  Bush is arguing here, as others have done, that international relations should be governed by the universal ideology of liberalism instead.  In this primitive schema, geopolitics is bad while ideology is good.

George Bush often argued, indeed, that the preservation of American liberty actually requires the spread of liberty around the whole world.  In his second inaugural speech, he said, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."[2]  This is a statement of what is known as the Open Door school of US diplomatic history, associated especially with William Appleman Williams (1921-1990).  Williams calls this doctrine the belief that other people cannot solve their problems and improve their lives unless they go about it in the same way as the United States.[3]  This very view has recently been advanced, quite explicitly, by Joe Biden, the current US Vice President:  " Until you figure out how to live together like we do," he told his Kosovo Albanian driver last year, "you will never, never, never make it."[4]

It should be obvious that such an ideology is incompatible with the sort of statecraft which made the 1945 Yalta conference possible and successful.  At Yalta, the USSR and the Western allies in fact came together to decide on the structure of the post-war international system, specifically the United Nations.  But in the mindset of Joe Biden or George W. Bush, there is no space for negotiation based on interests between states whose political ideologies were so radically different as those of the Soviet Union and the United States or the United Kingdom.  The Open Door ideology is in effect a rejection of the very possibility of political pluralism in the international arena - America can be safe only if all other states become like America.  Notions such as spheres of influence or security zones become nonsensical and even repugnant in the light of the tantalising fantasy that all states might one day become ideologically identical.  The doctrine of the Open Door makes diplomacy redundant and its Messianism makes it impossible.  The attitude expressed by George Bush and Joe Biden reminds me of Lenin's remark in November 1918 when it was suggested to him that Trotsky's be appointed People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs: "What foreign affairs will we have now?"[5]

The Americans, of course, attributed the Cold War to Soviet ideology which, as George Kennan argued in the long telegram of 22 February 1946, made the USSR systemically expansionist.  In fact, American ideology, and especially the Open Door, played an equal and perhaps even more decisive role, pushing the Soviet Union into defensive and ever more intransigent foreign policy positions which it might not have adopted otherwise.  It is an irony that the negative memory of "Yalta" attributes the division of Europe to this conference, when in fact it was precisely a moment in which divisive ideologies were (temporarily) put aside in the name of the common geopolitical goal of defeating Nazi Germany and of ensuring peace in the future.

If we now look at the present, it is obvious that not Yalta but the Crimea as a whole has once again played a key role in what we must surely call the Second Cold War.  "Crimea" will be the byword for the new Cold War, just as "Yalta" was for the old one, or more precisely for the division of Europe into hostile blocs.  The incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation on 18 March 2014 has thrown East-West relations into a very profound downward spiral to which currently there is no end in sight.  And the reason why specifically Crimea has done this lies in the radically different ideological perspectives which reign in Europe and Russia today.  It is these radically different ideologies which explain the depth of the crisis: for the time being, they are making any meaningful dialogue between Russia and the West impossible.

The radical ideological difference lies in this: the West, and especially the countries of the European Union, strongly believe in a post-political world.  They believe that it is possible and desirable to leave what they see as the dirty realm of politics behind, and to ascend instead to the superior civilisational level of power-neutral "governance" - "governing without government," to use the title of an academic article quoted favourably on the web site of the European Commission.[6]  According to this view, European governance is not only post-modern, post-national, post-historical and obviously post-Christian - it is also power neutral.  EU decisions, for instance on association agreements with third states, are not about power or spheres of influence.  They are instead only about "values" - universal values which no reasonable state could possibly contest. This view bears more than a passing resemblance to the argument made in the East during the Cold War that the socialist bloc embodied a new and more advanced form of international relations.

So powerful is this progressivist ideology that any state or group which does contest these post-modern values is despised as a dangerous throwback to a darker era of naked power politics and state-based pursuit of self-interest - precisely the modern or even pre-modern values which Europe has left behind.  Such states are reactionary and guilty of what Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl used to call "old thinking".[7]  When he presented the Maastricht summit to the Bundestag in December 1991, Helmut Kohl said that the treaty had united Europe in such a way that any return to nation-state "thinking" (ein Ausbrechen oder ein Rückfall in nationalstaatliches Denken) would be impossible.[8]  The European project aims at nothing less than creating a new mindset to replace an old one.

It is this vision which the annexation of Crimea has destroyed.  A whole generation of European - and especially German - politicians has grown up believing that what Kohl said is true: that the European treaties literally represent a new way of thinking, and of acting.  They have, in my view, engaged in a massive act of collective self-deception but I am almost prepared to believe that the deception is genuine.  Such people literally have ceased to think in ways which I regard as rational.  They now take it for granted that no one else can, or should, think that way either.

Had the Autonomous Republic of Crimea proclaimed a bogus independence under Russian protection, rather as Kosovo did in 2008 when it proclaimed itself a NATO-EU protectorate, many might have been sceptical about the fiction.  But they might have found it easier to pretend to believe it.  I am certainly not advocating this outcome, on the contrary.  Instead, my purpose is to emphasise that Russia's decision actually to incorporate the territory reflects precisely the state-based ideology which Europe and America now abhor.  Crimea was incorporated for two supremely nation-state-based reasons - first, for reasons of national security, to prevent the Black Sea Fleet falling into NATO's hands, and secondly because Crimea has a very specific historical resonance in the memory of the Russian nation.  Both these sorts of calculations have disappeared from the European mindset, which thinks in terms only of post-historicism and collective security.  The old Marxist-Leninist concept of the withering away of the state has completed its long march through the institutions of Western Europe, and the minds of Western leaders and intellectuals are now totally in its grip.  Since at least the 1960s they have believed in John Lennon's "dream", "Imagine there's no countries / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too."  The end of the nation-state is now taken for granted throughout Western Europe.  What Crimea shows is that this concept is, in fact, alive and well in Russia, and that is the ideological and symbolical importance of the territory's recent return to its motherland.  Yalta is not a symbol of betrayal; it is, instead, a symbol of the decisive role which states do and should play as the cornerstone of the international system.



[1] President Discusses Freedom and Democracy in Latvia, The Small Guild Hall, Riga, Latvia, 7 May 2005,

[2] President George W. Bush second inaugural speech, 20 January 2005,

[3] William Appleman Willams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: WW Norton, 2009, first published 1959), p. 12

[4] Remarks by the Vice-President at the John F Kennedy Forum, 3 October 2014

[5] Trotsky, My Life, An Attempt at an Autobiography, (Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1930, reprinted by Dover, 2007) p. 341

[6] Roderick Rhodes, “The new governance: governing without government” (1996), in Political Studies, Vol. 44, page 652

[7] Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika, New Thinking for Our Country and the World (Harper Collins, 1987)

[8] Helmut Kohl speech to the Bundestag, 13 December 1991:  "Die Mitgliedstaaten der Europäischen Gemeinschaft sind jetzt für die Zukunft in einer Weise miteinander verbunden, die ein Ausbrechen oder einen Rückfall in früheres nationalstaatliches Denken mit all seinen schlimmen Konsequenzen unmöglich macht."


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