My unfulfilled ambition was to put a new word into the English vocabulary. May I make a last attempt with an ugly word for an ugly thing? It is ‘neo-victimism’. It defines the dominant element into today’s great power relations.
Trump and Putin are the leading practitioners of neo-victimism in the 21st Century. Not since the 1930s has the notion of great powers as victims had such currency and baleful force. Hitler used it to rise to power and justify his crimes. Has there ever been a more chilling, a more implausible yet more devastating lie than Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag in January 1939? He said:
If international Jewry succeeds in plunging the world into war again … it will mean the annihilation of the Jews of Europe.
This was the Annunciation of the Holocaust. Hitler repeated what he called his ‘prophecy’ again and again until his squalid end. The notion that Germany was the victim of Jews and socialists was fuelled by the ‘stab in the back’ theory – that Germany had never been defeated but was betrayed from within by Jews and socialists in 1918 – ‘the November criminals’.
When Trump and Putin meet for their summit at Helsinki on July 16 we shall see the dynamics of neo-victimism in action. They will feed on each other. Not since Hitler and Mussolini met in Rome in 1938 to proclaim the axis have two world leaders been so bonded by the sense of grievance and hatred of others which they have manufactured to cement their hold on their respective peoples.
No doubt, Trump and Putin will get on like a house on fire. Unfortunately, it is our house too.
Putin, at least, has this much of a case: the eastward expansion of NATO is a genuine grievance, arising from the undertaking given to Gorbachev in 1990 by President George H. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, that NATO would not ‘move one inch to the East’ if Germany were re-unified. Without this understanding, the Cold War would not have ended almost without bloodshed. Putin, who was in charge of the KGB in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe at first hand, so his sense of grievance is close up and personal.
In her masterly book ‘1989 – Post Cold War Europe’ Marie Sarotte writes (p.208) about ‘Russian resentment’ and ‘how hard it was in the wake of Putin’s decision to suspend compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and the Russian invasion of Georgia’. Ironically, Sarotte quotes, of all people, the former Head of NATO, General Scheffer, in 2008:
It is not easy to know how to approach someone, in daily life or in foreign policy, who feels themselves victimised.
This sense of victimisation is a large component of the legacy of 1989-90.
Putin exploits this resentment for all that it is worth.
By contrast, Trump exploits an entirely imaginary sense of being hard done by, and bases his appeal to his constituency, and well beyond, on the notion that the rest of the world has taken advantage of American generosity and naivete. It is his version of ‘the stab in the back’.
In so doing Trump is playing on a traditional theme in American attitudes. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence itself after its noble preamble, is a long catalogue of complaints of victimisation at the hands of King George III and the British Parliament.
Lincoln himself was not immune. He allowed his Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, to exploit anti British and anti French feeling in the first 18 months of the Civil War. American conduct between the two world wars was poisoned by the idea that America had been duped by Britain and France in going to war in 1917.
American inter-war isolationism was really a form of neo-victimism. It allowed Hitler to become master of Europe. It ended only when the United States became the target of what Americans still believe was the supreme act of victimisation in all of history – Japan’s misconceived attack on Pearl Harbor.
I do not demean in any way America’s participation in the two world wars. But the fact is that it was this participation that made the US the richest and most powerful nation in human history. By contrast, the people of the Soviet Union paid a terrible price, deepened by the stupidity of their Communist regime, from Stalin to Brezhnev in committing to the nuclear arms race which the United States was bound to win. Neither side was forced into the Cold War. There was nothing inevitable about it. The Cold War was the product of a series of calculations and miscalculations, as much as the seminal catastrophe of the First World War itself. But it ill becomes the United States to complain about being hard done by or ill-requited for its ‘sacrifices’ during the Cold War.
The Cold War was the framework of the architecture of the world order after 1945. Overwhelmingly, the United States was its architect and beneficiary of the structures it created – not least the United Nations, the recovery of Europe and Japan, freer trade, the new form of globalisation and the promotion of human rights.
Trump is in fact dismantling America’s own handiwork, the very basis of its claims to world leadership. When Trump says that the tariff war is a war America can win, he is in fact declaring war on 80 years of American endeavour and achievement.
The nauseating aspect of great power victimism is its use to absolve themselves from responsibility for the havoc they have wrought over the past century, most notably in the Middle East. When the Vice President of the United States chooses Brazil to lecture the people of central America about illegal immigration into the United States, he washes his hands, Pilate-like, of the consequences of two centuries of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
Neo-victimism is the new nationalism. Great power victimism can be replicated in any nation, large or small. It motivated Brexit. It pervades Australian attitudes towards refugees.
Neo-victimism, of course, needs an enemy. The common enemy for Trump and Putin is Europe and potentially, China. Trump’s assault on the leadership of the EU at the recent G7 (as a prelude to the phony summit with North Korea, already unravelling) was a sign of things to come. The Helsinki outcome will undoubtedly be an increase in tensions between America and Russia on one hand and, Europe, specifically Germany and France, on the other.
At Helsinki we can expect a return to the kind of turmoil and tensions which led to the First World War, when most of the participants felt themselves to be actual or potential victims. The First World War began as preventive victimism.
Such, I predict, will be the incalculable consequences of the neo-victimism by which Trump and Putin run their respective countries and which may well ruin the rest of us – the work of these two strange characters with massive chips on their shoulders and 5,000 N-bombs at their fingertips.