One of my favorite pastimes when it comes to the “news” is reading between the lines. Any story – especially when it comes to foreign affairs – has a top layer, i.e. the story they are hoping the gullible public will take away and not ask any embarrassing questions. But they can't totally suppress the full significance of the story; in other words, if they just killed it outright it would leak out anyway (thanks to the Internet, “talk radio”, etc.) and thus arouse suspicions. So they present a harmless and non-threatening bit of pap, hoping that will satisfy – and they're right, by and large. It's the old familiar news cycle – you announce a “crisis” but before people start to panic you proceed to announce that everything is under control, more or less – that our betters in Washington, or wherever, are discussing the matter, and are working hard, and that there's no need for alarm. “Concern”, yes – alarm no, and panic, certainly not... just enough uncertainty to cause us to run, once again, and hide behind the flowing, copious skirts of the government.
One thing we tend to forget is that “freedom of the press” also includes the freedom to edit and manipulate, and process actual events through a conceptual sieve so that only the stuff the Regime deems “fit to print” is openly revealed. It's a much more subtle process than outright censorship – and to give credit where credit is due, the “public” has become a bit more sophisticated over time, and not quite so willing as it was in the old days (say, the 1950s) to take what the media put out as the whole truth and nothing but. This is what makes the game fun – you read (or hear, or see) what they want you to read, but if you dig down a layer or two you're much more likely to figure out what is really going on. This is especially true if we're willing to question the assumptions that always lie behind any news story – which is to say, the unstated premises that we are expected to accept without question, and without even knowing that we're accepting them.
Of course, each of us has to choose his level of focus, and hard-core “conspiracy theorists” assume that there is no truth whatsoever in anything the media (or their political masters) have to say – that it's all propaganda, in other words. And they may be right! We may all be living within the Matrix, and may all be totally deceived at all times. The top few layers of any story may be entirely lies and fabrications, and the truth may be in the trembling hands of a few lonely fanatics. (I think this is actually the case, for example, when it comes to JFK, and 9-11, and pretty much anything that happened during the Clinton administration.) The problem for the media is that, beyond a certain point, the party line defies all credibility, so they feel they have to provide a watered-down version that might accidentally contain some nuggets of truth, as a kind of anchor to reality. Otherwise, it starts to sound like total fiction and is perceived as such by an uncomfortably large minority – as, once again, happened with 9-11, but also with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When government actions have “scam” and “hoax” written all over them, it's hard for even the most sincere-looking and -sounding news anchor to make them seem well-intended. It's a delicate balance – way more delicate than the one the Soviet media had to maintain, where dissenting voices were pretty much blacked out. The illusion of a “free press” depends on a meticulous sampling process, where a few things that we know (or believe) to be the case are mixed in, in order to lend credibility to the whole.
And so it is with the latest news out of NATO. You remember NATO, right? Also known as “the U.S. and a bunch of other guys”. This otherwise-boring organization was supposedly the bulwark between the West (read: freedom, democracy, prosperity, etc.) and the Evil Empire (read: slavery, dictatorship, poverty, etc.) -- and when the Evil Empire collapsed of its own weight... well, NATO should have voluntarily disbanded, right? But of course that's not how things work, because international bureaucracies, just like domestic ones, acquire a life of their own, and like the most aggressive parasite or tumor exert every effort to expand without limit and insure their survival – and one of the most favored means of doing so is what is called “mission creep”. NATO quickly acquired a new mission, which was to absorb as many as possible of the Soviet subject states – the Warsaw Pact first, and then the former Soviet republics... right up to the gates of Moscow, if possible. Thus, we had the “color revolutions”, and there were so many that we started running out of colors. (I understand that the next one in line was going to be plaid.) The premise, of course, was that, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was going to be left a rusted hulk, dead in the water and totally helpless. Never mind all this talk of “hegemony” and “spheres of influence” -- we won, dammit, and to the victor go the spoils, etc.
Well, this was to, as usual, underestimate the stamina and rootedness of the Russians, and of their post-Soviet administration, all of whom were trained under the Soviet system. Please remember that the Soviet Republic did not undergo a revolution – of any color. They simply saw the handwriting on the wall, decided to cut their losses, and voluntarily retreated back into homeland mode. They did not give up on the idea of spheres of influence, and they certainly didn't write off all of the ethnic Russians spread far and wide (as a matter of policy) throughout the former empire. The dream was to get them back one way or another, the same way that Hitler's dream was to unite all Germans, no matter how dispersed, into a mighty empire.
Thus, the background – in the broadest terms – for much that has happened since, in 20-plus years. Russia did not disappear, and it would have been foolish to expect it to. But they became, let's say, a bit more realistic than they might have been at the height of the Soviet era, when it came to questions of their military strength, economic power, political influence, etc. They became more subtle... more nuanced... less ham-handed. We, on the other hand, were determined to finish the job, and with nostrils flaring proceeded to bring the former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet republics into our own sphere of influence – primarily through economic incentives. And the source of those incentives was, of course, the European Union, which had already turned Western Europe into a kind of gray, murky stew run by bureaucrats in Brussels – an empire in its own right, where old-fashioned notions of religion, ethnicity, tradition, and economic (including fiscal and monetary) independence were unwelcome. And most of Europe bowed its collective head and shuffled into the deracinating machine, which pleased the nerds in Brussels immensely. Even the various economic meltdowns of the less-disciplined countries (the “PIIGS”) were welcome, since that rendered them debtors and second-class citizens who had no choice but to submit to Germany.
And thus a new German – oops, I mean European – empire was born. Finally, Europeans were brought to heel and protected from their own follies. And we in the U.S. were all for it. But then a funny thing started to emerge – the reality that, even though we had at one time rescued Western Europe from Hitler and turned Eastern Europe over to Stalin, the Europeans were now running the show. The international financial cartel and the banks were either headquartered in Europe or taking orders from Europe – and that included our own hallowed Wall Street as well as our government. So rather than being the most ripped dude on Muscle Beach, we found ourselves more in the role of a slightly retarded servant, with the shots being called in Brussels, Zürich, and other power enclaves in the Old Country.
Are they smart, or are we stupid? I think it's a bit of both. For all of its follies of the past, Europe is, nonetheless, the seat of economic, political, and social wisdom (by current standards) – compared to which we are still acting like newbies – naive, impulsive, prey to delusion and folly. They know they can pull our chain any time they want to – and they do, with great relish but also with the subtlety and elegance which we lack. Think of it in historical terms. In the long run, the small and smart always wind up dominating the big and stupid; this is the way of the world. It's downright Darwinian in its significance and its implications. And in our time, when information (in the broadest sense) is more important than ever, the people who are masters at manipulating information will inevitably dominate – and the people who prefer to use their fists will inevitably become servants.
But as I already tried to imply, as smart as the E.U./NATO types are, they might have gotten a bit too excited when it comes to bringing all of Europe up to the Urals under their spell. And what they are running into with Russia is all of the old bogeymen – those atavistic, terrible habits that were supposed to have long since wound up on the ash heap of history – namely race, ethnicity, religion, language, and tradition. Call it by any number of parallels – rootless cosmopolitanism vs. loyalty to place... sterility vs. vigor... anemia vs. full-bloodedness... and so on. Russia is a blast from the past, and it's parked right on the eastern end of a Europe that was supposed to be run by faceless bureaucrats and be perfectly happy about it.
Now where do we (the U.S.) come in? As I said, the tables have been turned, in a very subtle way when no one was looking. We were in charge of NATO... we were the saviors of Western Europe... and the E.U. was supposed to follow our orders, um, “suggestions” when it came to any major issues of politics or economics or social policy. But all of a sudden it seems more like we're taking orders from them. And one consequence of all of this is the (to us) jaded, cynical, decadent European way of doing things has crept into outfits like NATO. To put it in a nutshell, Sarah Palin was ready to go to war with Russia over Georgia (in order to “keep America free” -- how that was supposed to work is anybody's guess)... and now NATO has announced that they are no longer interested in “expansion”, at least until further notice. Which means... what? No more color (or plaid) revolutions? Hands off Georgia. And they're hesitating about the Balkans as well. So it looks as if the “sphere of influence” idea is alive and well... and let's admit, the term has no meaning if there's only one sphere.
I'd like to think this wasn't just about Putin scowling at them from his office high atop the Kremlin. I'd like to think it was the realization that the E.U. has become unwieldy as it is, and that the pushback from some of its less cooperative members has confirmed that impression. And I'd also like to think that the E.U. has been less enthusiastic than we are when it comes to applying the spoils system to Eastern Europe. Does this mean they're more realistic than we are? Let's just say that provoking a major conflict is a lot easier when you're an ocean away from said major conflict. European wars have a funny way of happening in Europe – which is why we prefer them to, say, a war on our own soil. We're perfectly happy being provocateurs, cheerleaders, and arms merchants when citizens of other countries are getting killed or otherwise inconvenienced... and so we tend to get indignant when they start having second thoughts. Plus, as I've said, they are, in many ways, much more in charge now than we are. So they will, more and more often, leave us sputtering and fuming over here while they get on with the daily tasks of keeping themselves in one piece... or in many pieces, but with (relative) peace.