Wednesday, December 7, 2016


"No Need to Fear Russia. The Bear is Broke.” That’s the title of Tim Congdon’s article in the last number of Standpoint. His argument is simple—Russia isn’t rich enough to pose a challenge to the dominance of Western Europe and America—and entirely unpersuasive. The notion that economic factors drive human events would be charmingly naïve, were it not so widespread and dangerous.
As Congdon reports, Russia is a middling economic power. Its 2015 gross domestic product, as measured by the World Bank, was $1.3 trillion, making it the thirteenth-largest economy in the world. This is small beer compared to the 2015 GDPs of America (nearly $18 trillion) and China ($11 trillion).
Russia looks better when one revises to account for domestic purchasing power, which is important since Russia isn’t paying other countries to build its tanks and fighter jets. By that measure, Russia is the sixth-richest country in the world. Again, the Kremlin’s financial resources are far behind those of the United States and China—but only slightly behind those of Germany, and somewhat greater than those of France and Great Britain. But we should have no worries, Congdon advises: “Russian in the early 21st century is no more than a medium weight power in economic terms.”
If that assessment reassures someone in Poland—or, for that matter, Germany—some historical perspective might cause him to think otherwise. In 1938, the GDP of the United States was the largest in the world, coming in at nearly $85 billion. Japan, by comparison, had a paltry $7.5 billion.
By Congdon’s way of reasoning, the Roosevelt administration had nothing to worry about. The island nation was at best a middling economic power. True, Japan had invaded China in the early 1930s, mounting a direct challenge to the American and European colonial domination of Asia. But not to worry. Economics is the essence of social reality, and Japan just wasn’t rich enough to extend power very far.
That, of course, was a foolish way of thinking in the late 1930s. It remains so today. I’m not suggesting that Russia is about to bomb Pearl Harbor, or, for that matter, invade Estonia. My point is that the drama of human history cannot be reduced to considerations of material wealth. The threats—or opportunities—posed by Putin’s Russia are a function of the countless free decisions made by leaders there and elsewhere, and those of their followers.
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