Over the past century, it seems that all books published in English on the topic of propaganda have condemned the practice as dishonest and dangerous for a democracy. All, that is, but one. Such near-unanimity makes sense. After all, responsible citizens with the power of the vote require from their media unvarnished truth that will help them and their representative government make informed decisions on the issues that concern everyone. No issue deserves truthful treatment by the media more urgently than the question of war and peace.
The one book in the past century that dared to celebrate propaganda was authored by the influential personality who came to be known and celebrated as the “father of public relations.” Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. Unlike his nephew, the Viennese doctor took no interest in commercial ventures other than self-promotion and marketing his own disturbing theories of the human psyche. Nor was Freud interested in the wrangle of politics, expressing himself only at the most abstract level of regretting that such wrangling often led to war. This insight appeared in his dialogue with Albert Einstein: Warum Krieg? (Why War?)
In a book that bears the title Propaganda, Bernays explicitly claims that the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Most public theoreticians of government reject this point of view as cynical. Politicians, on the other hand, and despite their public denial, appear to have assimilated Bernays’s wisdom.
Prominent pundit Ian Bremmer appears to have learned the same lesson. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he demonstrates a certain mastery of the art Bernays so patiently defined. Bremmer clearly evinces the talent and discipline that allow him to apply the subtle set of rules underpinning modern democracy that Bernays so helpfully describes.
That may explain why Elon Musk recently called Bremmer the man nobody “should trust,” though many commentators have said something similar about Musk himself. Musk’s disappointment stems from the fact that Bremmer falsely reported what he claimed to be a confidence of Musk’s about a private conversation between Tesla’s TechnoKing and Russian President Vladimir. Musk is adamant that the conversation never took place. Musk may be telling the truth. Bremmer has been known to “quote” other people by reporting his own interpretation of their words.
Commenting on the Bremmer-Musk tiff, The Spectator appended this subtitle to an article on these two public figures: “Both men have a history of, shall we say, embellishment.” Bremmer is famously a risk analyst and Musk, a risk taker. They were bound to meet as adversaries at some point, especially as Bremmer has his own aptitude for taking risks with the truth. The topic they were disputing is one on which Bremmer has no scruples about distorting the truth: the war in Ukraine.
Bremmer’s unprovoked desire to call an invasion unprovoked
The latest example of his truth-bending talents comes at an odd point in history, more than 15 months after the Russian invasion, a period during which propaganda has been both promoted and rather convincingly contested. This leaves the impression that Bremmer’s sense of timing is seriously off, something good propagandists are always careful to avoid. He’s literally so late to the party that all but the ones too sloshed to move have made their way home.
On May 31, 2023, in his publication GZERO, Bremmer posted an article with the title: “No, the US didn’t ‘provoke’ the war in Ukraine.” Though he briefly cites some authentic voices who much less briefly have explained the multiple ways in which the US provoked the invasion and even attempted to predict the date, Bremmer leaves their careful reasoning aside and develops an argument with one commentator to make his case, Jeffrey Sachs. In so doing he turns Sachs into a straw man. He simply contests Sachs’s conclusion but never engages with the meat of his argument.
For the past 16 months, any number of serious commentators cognizant of the facts of history over at least the past three decades have not taken the trouble to describe the different stages of what appears to be consistent provocation. Many of them have also taken the trouble to analyze the admirable efficacy of the US propaganda machine that, from day one, launched the “unprovoked invasion” epithet to counter Vladimir Putin’s chosen label for the invasion: “a special military operation.”
”The legacy media has dutifully aligned with Washington and NATO. Their commentators have eagerly parroted the phrase “unprovoked invasion” as if it was a tangible fact. Most of those journalists and media celebrities have avoided arguing the details of the case, probably because it only works so long as you maintain a resolute indifference to the facts of history.
Bremmer calls “morally challenged” the claim that the US provoked the invasion by, as some say, “poking the bear.” He then nevertheless takes the trouble to acknowledge that “political scientist John Mearsheimer, billionaire Elon Musk, conservative media star Tucker Carlson, and even Pope Francis have made similar assertions.” He could have cited numerous others, such as George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, but as a good propagandist he seems to have selected names that people might doubt. Mearsheimer is an “offensive realist” by his own admission, which for Bremmer probably means that he eschews morality as a factor in international relations. Musk is the hyperreal figure I have often written about: in other words, never to be taken seriously. Carlson is the hated anti-establishment former Fox News host whom the entire establishment has labeled a media fascist. And Pope Francis, an inveterate otherworldly pacifist—if not communist, according to Fox News and others on the right—an anomaly of a pope whom good Catholics need not listen to.
Having dismissed his four chosen irrelevant voices, Bremmer pulls no more punches, declaring himself a brazen proponent of establishment propaganda by attributing to all four of them a “strain of Putin apologia.” In reality—the one thing that never needs to be considered when formulating propaganda—not one of the four has ever demonstrated an inclination to follow Putin or apologize for his decisions. They simply have in common with Putting an awareness of some well-documented historical facts. Correlation does not imply causation… except in the rhetoric of propagandists, where the two are interchangeable.
As the self-proclaimed hero of those lucid thinkers who are not “morally challenged,” Bremmer explains why, as a moral truth-teller, he must act. He is single-handedly responding to an intellectual pandemic. He alerts us to the fact that the heretical idea that the US may have provoked Russia has now spread to “China, pockets of the US far left and far right, and much of the developing world.” Like Kevin McCarthy’s character in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), he must inform the world of his discovery. He promises to “debunk it once and for all.”
Now that the principal miscreants have been identified and the scope of the infestation assessed, Bremmer enters into some detail. He begins by calling the statement that the US had promised not to expand NATO eastward in 1990 a myth. To prove his point, Bremmer links to an article that claims Soviet President Mikael Gorbachev denied such a promise had ever been made. That article in turn provides a link to an interview in which Gorbachev strongly reaffirmed that US Secretary of State James Baker had made the statement, “NATO will not move one inch further east.” Since a myth is something that is not literally true, this would seem to be problematic.
To avoid being confronted with the problem, Bremmer doesn’t mention Gorbachev’s acknowledgment of Baker’s statement. Instead, he takes as more significant Gorbachev’s somewhat roundabout explanation that it wasn’t a formal promise. This kind of reasoning might remind some readers of Bill Clinton’s incisive comment concerning whether he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” In diplomacy, it isn’t always clear what constitutes a promise. But an actual statement that is not a promise cannot be called a myth.
Next, Bremmer argues that “NATO has no unilateral ability to ‘expand.’” This too is Clintonesque. Bremmer is legally correct, but NATO’s complex policy-making operations make it inevitable that obscure, hard-to-follow political forces make NATO’s historical decisions. Those policies then tend to be applied in generally devious ways. NATO has never been committed to transparency, as the entire Ukrainian psychodrama itself demonstrates.
Like most propagandists, Bremmer relies on the idea that people want to believe that “our side” will never be devious and the other side always will. Our side has pure intentions that respect laws and rules we scrupulously respect. Can anyone who hobnobs with power the way Bremmer does maintain such a pretense without appearing to be either devious themselves or exceptionally naïve? The sad fact, attested to by Edward Bernays, is that propagandists make these kinds of assertions as a matter of professional discipline, not as a moral choice.
Sticking to his uniformly context-free legalism, Bremmer then asserts that it “was the Ukrainian people—not officials in Washington and Brussels—that voted in 2019 to enshrine NATO and European Union membership as national goals.” At this point, he skips over the well-documented fact that officials in Washington were fully implicated in a coup in 2014 that made that vote in 2019 possible. With its financial and military means and soft power, the US has long practiced the art of redefining other people’s “national goals,” which it has deployed on countless occasions over the past 75 years, beginning with the Italian election in 1948.
Bremmer then asserts that from “1997 until Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO deployed no nuclear weapons and almost no combat forces on the territory of its new members.” Why does he exclude before the time 1997 and after 2014? He deliberately fails to mention the delicate question of Ukraine’s own history of possessing nuclear weapons during the Soviet years and the existential fear Russians feel about the prospect of Ukraine eventually being equipped, openly or covertly, by NATO weapons were it to become a member.
Bremmer is on more solid ground when he claims that “NATO membership was never a realistic prospect for Ukraine.” Plenty of formal obstacles exist that would prevent it from ever happening. But “never” applied to the past is never the same as “never” applied to the future. We find ourselves once again in Clintonesque territory.
Bremmer then does what all propagandists do. He uses his purported psychic skills to read the mind of the adversary, in this case the diabolical, imperialistic Putin, who “invaded because he doesn’t think Ukraine is a legitimate country with a right to exist separate from Russia. We know this because Putin himself has repeatedly told us that the war’s aim is to reverse Ukrainian independence and recreate the Russian empire.”
These are gratuitous inferences, not facts. There are no statements on the record to support Bremmer’s contention. To hide this fact, he links to an account of Putin’s informal and purely anecdotal historical musings in a Q&A session with young Russian entrepreneurs on one of the acts of Peter the Great. The Westernizing 18th-century Tsar is a transformative figure in Russian history. But Putin has never compared himself to Pyotr, despite provocative headlines in papers like The Washington Post telling us that “Putin likens himself to Peter the Great, links imperial expansion to Ukraine war.” This is literally disinformation.
Bremmer goes on to quibble about the role of the US State Department in the 2014 Euromaidan coup, on the grounds that the US didn’t start the protests. US non-involvement in the initial demonstration may or may not be true. But that is irrelevant. Documentation abounds—including a famous intercepted phone call between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt—on how the US managed the protests to its own ends. As the specialist of international affairs, George Friedman pointed out back in 2015, it is no secret that the US had already begun treating Ukraine as a de facto member of NATO, marked by the inauguration in 2015 of a long-term training program of 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers every year.
Now that it has been established that Putin is committed to doing evil, Bremmer demonstrates a rhetorical skill that only the most enlightened propagandists master: false humility. He goes on to admit that the US made some serious “mistakes” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of helping Russia to integrate the global economy—so efficiently organized around the power of the dollar and the global omnipresence of the US military— the Bush and then Clinton administrations were guilty of “passing on the chance to turn Russia into another post-war Germany or Japan.” Bremmer calls this a “huge missed opportunity.”
This remark tells us a lot about Bremmer’s worldview. He sees the US as a power destined to exercise the vocation of turning other powerful countries—such as Japan, Germany, and Russia—into its own vassal states. The failure to exploit that opportunity back in 1991 is a cardinal sin that ultimately produced the embarrassing situation of war in Ukraine, whose ultimate purpose, as Biden himself affirmed shortly after the invasion, is regime change in Russia.
Curiously, Bremmer even admits what earlier in the article he denied when he writes that “the West should have foreseen that this would feed Russia’s already acute sense of insecurity and humiliation.” This is precisely the point that Mearsheimer has made repeatedly, even back in 2015, maintaining that perceiving this sense of insecurity is crucial for understanding Putin’s options. The West may see its own actions as non-threatening, but the Russians think otherwise. The perception of an existential threat cannot be dismissed as an illusion. Politics is not just a game of perception. In its most cynical but utterly banal manifestation, it is the art of managing illusions to influence other people’s reality.
The logic of history differs from the logic of politics
The real problem in Bremmer’s thesis is the question of what constitutes provocation. Serious historians agree that, whereas numerous examples exist of wars whose opening gambits were unjustified and easily condemnable as irresponsible, almost all wars have at their origin a response to some kind of provocation that preceded their outbreak.
We still like to think that Pearl Harbor was the archetypal case of an unprovoked attack. Our school history texts don’t like to mention it, but most modern historians interested in going beyond mere jingoism know that Japan’s attack— not just on Pearl Harbor, but simultaneously on the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam as well as British Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong—was a response to both a short and a long-term history of Western and US provocation.
The real question is how, once the fever of propaganda fades, how will humanity in the future think of the war in Ukraine. One of the myriad experts with a contrary view that Bremmer fails to mention, American economic strategist and author David Goldman, frames it in these terms: “Future historians well may conclude that the Biden administration, with support from London, provoked the Ukraine war with the expectation that sanctions and various other Western military systems would easily crush Russia and get Putin overthrown, and get rid of this thorn in the side of the global democratic rules-based order, which the Utopians in Washington have wanted to get rid of for a long time.”
The Bernays legacy
What does it take to be an effective propagandist? Goldman has hit the nail on the head. One must first be a Utopian. This was clearly the case for both sides during the original Cold War. It was a fantasized intellectual and moral contest between two imaginary Utopias. Belief in Utopia made it real and ensured the appropriate level of commitment on both sides.
In the US, not only the government but most of the intellectual class believed what they considered to be the capitalism of Adam Smith, tempered by the reforms of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, represented a civilizational ideal, a kind of Utopia. The prosperity of the US appeared, to Americans and foreigners alike, to be a template that every nation could aspire to adopt and implement locally. An economy driven by competition, although it bred inequality, guaranteed prosperity. With the right dose of humanism, that prosperity would be broadly shared across the various social classes.
In contrast, the Soviet Marxist model promised a different kind of Utopia, one in which first equality would first be established and prosperity would naturally emerge as a kind of logical consequence, thanks to the solidarity of the classless society.
We quickly learned that American Utopia could not be automatically transposed to Russia. In the following decades, America’s own Utopia lost much of its shine, compromised by the mad foreign policy of President George W Bush followed by a financial meltdown that exposed the hyperreality of what had become literally a derivative economy.
The memory of the Cold War, a period of growth and middle-class prosperity, infected people’s minds. The idea of making American Utopia Great Again emerged as the triumphant theme of the 2016 presidential election in the US. Upset by Trump’s exploitation of nostalgia, the Democrats became convinced that the culture of the Cold War, a contest between East and West, was the key to prosperity. And what fuelled that extraordinary period of unmitigated prosperity? Propaganda.
After the confused disillusion that followed the Vietnam war, the US had lost some of its taste for propaganda. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that the binary system that regulated the force of propaganda was no longer intact.
Now, after the financial crisis of 2008, the fiasco of the Trump years, COVID, and a withering of US prestige around the globe, the association of prosperity and a cold war has been revived. Propaganda is once again in vogue. And Ian Bremmer is one of its glorious champions. Edward Bernays’ legacy lives on.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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