Truth and Power: on which side is the Fourth Estate?"
Gilbert Doctorow (May 23, 2023)
The question I pose in the title to this essay is purely rhetorical. We all can imagine on which side mainstream media stands. And for those who have doubts, a convincing demonstration that the Press speaks for Power was given last night at a speech in the Geopolitics Group of a prestigious private club in downtown Brussels. The speaker was Steven Erlanger, principal diplomatic correspondent of The New York Times, who since 2017 has been based in Brussels, topping out a distinguished career with the newspaper which has, along the way, earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
I went to hear Erlanger in part because his address was given the tantalizing title: “Reflections on the Vassalization of Europe.” The mention of “vassalization,” which is not complimentary either to the overlord in North America or to the vassals here in Europe, allowed one to think that Erlanger would be distancing himself from U.S. foreign policy.
My second reason for attending this event was “the old class tie.” Not the club tie, but the Harvard College tie. Both Erlanger and I are alumni of that training ground for American elites and even occasionally for American intellectuals. My graduating class was five years earlier than Erlanger’s. But in my class there was also a certain French-born Serge Schmemann, who made a distinguished career in The New York Times and spent many years based in nearby Paris as bureau chief. As I had supposed, Schmemann, who is today on the newspaper’s editorial board in semi-retirement, was once Erlanger’s boss.
I was curious to see how Erlanger’s thinking matches or contrasts with the positions of Schmemann, with whom I have crossed swords publicly in past essays. Notwithstanding his Russian ancestry, as a journalist Sergei Aleksandrovich has been anti-Russian down to his socks. I was curious how Erlanger, who claims to be a Russian speaker and claims to follow Russian television, would match up. This is all the more relevant in the present day near war situation between the West and Russia.
Chatham House rules were not in effect last night. The talk and the Q-and-A which followed were for the record.
Allow me to open with a bouquet of sorts for Erlanger. The man and his newspaper are wedded till death do them part. The intrigue hinted at in the title to his speech was just a feint, a conversation opener. He firmly believes what he writes: Europe needs American direction in order to defend itself and its values against the malevolent Big Bear to the East. Europe cannot get its act together on its own, as we all saw on 24 February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and the whole of European security was put in jeopardy. It is American money and American military hardware which has kept the Ukrainian forces in play. Without that, Kiev would have folded just weeks into the campaign. The point of variance in Erlanger’s speech with official U.S. government foreign policy was elsewhere, with regard to China. His advice to his European audience is not to follow the United States into a gratuitous fight with Beijing that may be in American interests but is not in Europe’s interests.
Of course, the question of how far America, not to mention Europe should go in pushing conflict with China is still debatable in the United States. Von der Leyen’s distinction between “decoupling” and “de-risking” relations with the PRC still finds supporters in Washington. So Erlanger had wiggle room on this issue.
Now for the other side of the coin. Everything that Erlanger said last night about how Russia has been humiliated in its military campaign against Ukraine; how it is losing the war; how the war should end by early winter, a time that is politically convenient for Washington in light of the electoral campaign: all of these statements show that his sincere loyalty to what his publication is feeding the public comes from a mind that is superficial, incapable of seeing let alone countering facts and questions that put in doubt his verities.
I rest my case on his answers to the two questions I posed at the very start of the Q-and-A session. The first question was why he is so certain that U.S. military support will ensure the victory or at least will spare Kiev a defeat when events of the past week have demonstrated that the Russians have and are deploying superior military hardware that vanquishes the best that the West is throwing at it. I mentioned the destruction of one of two Patriot air defense systems in Kiev by a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile that evaded all 30 Patriot missiles fired at it and hit target. I also alluded to the destruction by Russian missiles this past week of the stores of British depleted uranium artillery shells in the town of Khmelnitsky, in Western Ukraine, that send radioactivity levels in the atmosphere soaring around Lvov and into southern Poland. And I raised the question of the hospitalization in intensive care of none other than the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces General Zaluzhny following an attack two weeks ago on a provincial command center which killed outright the senior officers in his entourage. I could have added the Russian capture of Bakhmut on 20 May, but time to complete my question was running out.
Erlanger batted away these indications that the war is going badly for the Americans and Ukrainians without a moment’s reflection. No, the Patriot system was not destroyed, he said, just damaged and is now back in working order. As to the other indications of Russians’ superior military intelligence and striking power, not a word of counter proofs or denials from Mr. Erlanger. The Russians are being humiliated, period.
My second question was about how and why Europe found itself defenseless on the day of the Russian invasion, 24 February 2022, when for the preceding decade or more the 27 Member States of the European Union had been spending hundreds of billions of euros each year in their defense budgets? Where did that money go, I asked.
Obviously this was a question Mr. Erlanger had never encountered before. He has been spending far too much time with fellow thinkers to be challenged in that way. This is the “bell jar effect” which generally accounts for the lack of intellectual rigor of those in the mainstream. And so he said he would skip that question and move on to give others the microphone.
In fact, considerably later in the Q-and-A Erlanger came back to my question when he remarked apropos nothing in particular that the Europeans’ military budgets were all spent on salaries and pensions. Three or four hundred billion a year on salaries? I think the good journalist should dig a bit more deeply before venturing such guesses.
What I did not have the opportunity to pursue in questioning flows directly from the same critical question. How is it that the Russian military budget which comes to 80 billion euros per year produces the world’s biggest stock of artillery pieces, shells and tanks, when Europe had almost nothing on 24 February and the USA has not much more than nothing to offer Ukraine today? And if I may reach back still further in causality, was it just plain stupidity that explains why Europe and the USA were both surprised and unprepared in materiel for a land war in Ukraine? Why did Europe and America provoke Russia as they did during the period 2014 to 2022 by turning a blind eye to the murderous Ukrainian shelling of civilian populations in Donbas? Why did Europe and America provoke Russia as they did in December 2021 – January 2022 by refusing to negotiate on Russian demands for a review of the security architecture in Europe if they were unprepared for war?
Allow me to answer these questions myself here and now. Europe was unprepared for war because society and its leadership knew that they were living at peace with the Russians, who did not threaten them. They had seen Russia’s never ending restraint in the face of ever more brazen Western threats to their vital interests not just in Ukraine. The installation of dual purpose American missile launchers in Romania and Poland, the NATO war games similating capture of Kaliningrad come to mind. European elites mistook this restraint for weakness and indecisiveness, just as Erlanger today mistakes the Russians’ refusal to wage ‘shock and awe’ war on Ukraine from the start of the Special Military Operation for their supposed inability to do so.
In brief, the shallowness of thinking of Mr. Erlanger and of the editorial board that he serves is simply astounding. So much for the education imparted by our common alma mater.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2023