Anne Applebaum wants to school American and European diplomats in Russian thinking. Her short op-ed gets a number of things wrong and provides an opportunity to point out how gendered thinking about diplomacy and war can undermine analysis.
The headline and subhead are probably not Applebaum’s, but they are of a piece with the text. “Why the West’s Diplomacy With Russia Keeps Failing: A profound failure of the Western imagination has brought Europe to the brink of war.”
In fact, what has brought Europe to the brink of war are Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine and their demands for, among other things, a radical restructuring of NATO. None of this has to do with the “Western imagination.” The headline places the blame squarely upon the failures of failing diplomacy.
War and diplomacy have long been gendered masculine and feminine, respectively. War is physically active, destructive, a display of strength in which one side will dominate the other. Diplomacy has to do with words and has little public display of its actions, which are physical primarily in body language. Masculinity is valued over femininity and thus war over diplomacy. It’s easy, then, to say that diplomacy is a loser and at fault.
What are diplomacy and the Western imagination (feminized by association with diplomacy) failing at?
Applebaum laments that Sergey Lavrov is disrespectful and disagreeable publicly to diplomats from other countries, while acknowledging that we know this is his mode of operation. She would have those diplomats respond in kind and provides a short script. Lavrov, Putin, and other autocrats, she informs us, are people “who aren’t interested in treaties and documents, people who only respect hard power.” More masculinizing of her discourse in those last two words.
None of this says what the failures are, nor what successes might look like. Liz Truss insults Lavrov in their press conference, and then Putin withdraws those troops from around Ukraine? I think not.
Applebaum focuses on the personal, and diplomacy concerns the institutional. Lavrov’s rudeness is a statement that Russia wants to play by its own rules. The more judicious behavior of other diplomats is a statement that they work through the rule of law. For them to take up Lavrov’s manner would allow him to set the rules of engagement.
Applebaum lists a number of actions that “nobody has thought of” but might be taken against Russia. President Joe Biden has said that a devastating package of sanctions is possible if Russia attacks Ukraine, but has not been specific. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has been mentioned publicly by several leaders, but what would happen with it is not clear. So it’s not possible to say what Western leaders have thought of or not. It’s not clear whether Applebaum agrees with those who would impose sanctions on Russia now, before an attack. This would be a mistake, because it would foreclose further diplomacy and reduce any motivation Russia has not to attack.
What American, European, and NATO diplomats have thought of is sending defensive armaments to Ukraine, troops to NATO countries, and presenting a united front. The messages coming out of the various capitols have been unified, and France, the UK, and Germany have sent high-level officials to Moscow.
Applebaum singles out an information war as something “No one has suggested.” It’s true that nobody in the US government has said “And now we will launch an information war on Russia,” but the intelligence revelations are coming thick and fast. Over the weekend, the UK said that the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB, has been tasked with engineering coups in cities across Ukraine. Before that, the US government released nine possible routes for a Russian invasion.
Earlier reports have been that Russian military officers are questioning the wisdom of an attack on Ukraine, that the objective is regime change, and that Russia will stage a false-flag operation to justify an attack. The purpose of releasing these reports is to get ahead of the public story on what is happening and to introduce uncertainty into Russian planning. Most likely all the reports are based on solid intelligence, but whether they are fully accurate is not clear and introduces further uncertainty into Russian calculations.
Even the New York Times has taken notice of this intelligence barrage.
What, then, is Applebaum proposing? Her subtext seems to be a visceral uneasiness with Lavrov’s attempts to humiliate Western diplomats. Humiliation is anathema to a certain masculine perception of war. It’s also surfaced in the question of whether Putin would be humiliated by not attacking, now that he has made a show of preparing for war. Real men don’t back down.
But there are many ways to avoid humiliation, starting with refusing to act as if one is humiliated. Attempting to inflict it is one of the weakest of masculine-oriented moves. There might be satisfaction for some in returning Lavrov’s rudeness. The West is doing a great deal more than being rude.