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Sunday, March 9, 2014
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ...

Ah, the poor Ukraine. Three of my grandparents hailed from Poland, growing up not far from the Ukraine border. The fourth was from Belarus, just to the north. They all came to America about 100 years ago. It’s nice to see that Poland has escaped domination and gotten itself on its feet as a modernizing Western nation. Belarus is still a mess, but it’s a mostly stable mess, having accepted second-rate status as a Russian satellite nation. But the Ukraine – – it just can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be another Poland or another Belarus. And the Russians have made it eminently clear that they will make it as difficult as possible for the Ukrainians to escape their dominance and work more closely with the European community. Several years ago I wrote a post noting the Orange Revolution in Kiev. The same issues were in play back then, and 5 years later, they are still way up in the air. This one is not going to get resolved anytime soon.

The big question for the USA is just how to approach this situation. Should we channel our inner Winston Churchill (as the British themselves are no longer able to; Great Britain is now just another Euro nation, not the declining but still world-dominating force that it was in the late 1930’s . . . the USA of today has inherited this role, including the downward trend) and get tough with Putin? Well, unlike the days of Churchill and the rise of Hitler, the Russians still have enough nuclear weapons remaining to basically put an end to our civilization. So we need to approach this with much caution.

Another part of this big question is, just how dangerous is Putin and modern Russia? Is Putin another Hitler? Does he have plans for the world, plans that we and a lot of others may not like? And even if he does, can he do as much damage as the Nazis did? Hopefully, we can put aside Russia’s nuclear force, which probably is not going to be used given that we could likewise end the history of the Russian nation. Unlike Hitler, Russia is NOT able to roll tanks into Poland, France and Belgium.

What’s mostly at stake here is a Russian “zone of domination”, a “greater Russia” to the west and south, including the Ukraine. Given the regressive trends in Russia since the brief return of hope after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it is regrettable to see Russian power reasserted along its borders. Even more so when people in an affected nation take to the streets to protest, as has happened in the Ukraine (at least in western Ukraine; the return-to-Russia scenario is reportedly better accepted the closer east one gets to the Russian border).

Unlike the days of the Cold War, there is no great ideological clash behind the situation. I don’t think . . . Actually, NY Times columnist David Brooks feels that there is something of a “Putinism” in play here, a mix of old-fashioned Russian nationalism together with the ancient Tsarist and Orthodox ideal of guarding the majesty and greatness of ancient Rome (given the corrections and reconciliation with Christianity that Rome eventually achieved later in its glory days, via Constantine). In a nutshell, Rome fell to the barbarians, followed centuries later by Constantinople, but Moscow still harbors the great heritage of centralized power, religious values and civil grandeur that the later emperors and early Christian bishops had known. Hmm, does Vladamir Putin see himself as the savior of Christendom, the man who would restore a bulwark of orderly civilization in an age of increasing anarchy and violent apostasy? Seems laughable to us, but some in Moscow (and the Crimea) might actually take that idea seriously. (Interestingly, in 2008 the Russian federation TV aired a movie made by an Orthodox priest, Father Tikhon Shevkunov, that espoused the Third Rome idea. More interestingly, Fr. Shevkunov is the spiritual adviser of Putin’s wife.)

Here is a quote from the Brooks article: “’The Russian messianic conception,’ Berdyaev [a Russian political philosopher from the early 20th Century] wrote, ‘always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.’” Oh dear. Whenever a nation exalts itself as being able to help solve the problems of humanity, you know you’re in for trouble. Especially when that nation actually has some power. The Romans used this rationale to justify their conquests. So did Nazi Germany. Ditto for Queen Victoria and her tribe. And the good old USA has gotten into trouble whenever such an idea became popular, e.g. the recent Bush Administration and Iraq. I’m sure that Al Qadea and other violent Islamist groups feel they are working to ‘solve the problems of humanity’. Why can’t we all just be like Mexico or Denmark or Thailand, and just get on with our business without trying to solve the problems of humanity?

Thus, some of the pundits and politicians are talking about a return to the Cold War. Hmm . . . Cold War 2? Akin to how we had to have a second World War in the 20th Century, after German expansionism was temporarily stopped but not fully uprooted two decades before? There would be a lot of bad consequences for the USA and the entire world if we were to go back to that (including opportunities for Chinese expansionism). We would need to re-militarize our economy and significantly raise taxes, lowering average living standards. We might also become involved in more hot wars around the edges, akin to Korea and Vietnam; it can’t be forgotten that a lot of people died to keep the Cold War from getting even hotter.

But then again, I can’t help but wonder if there would be some unanticipated positive results of a CW II. I grew up in the latter half of CW I, and despite all the fears of nuclear incineration, the nation certainly was more united. You didn’t have a Tea Party clamoring to tear down the government. Democrats and Republicans still seemed able to talk to each other and work together behind the scenes (once they got the nut cases like Senator Joseph McCarthy out of the room). National politics didn’t seem like blood sport. You didn’t have a terrible gap between rich and poor. Businesses didn’t seem quite as greedy and cut-throat. Business people and financiers didn’t take home obscene salaries. The notion of “corporate responsibility” was not widely debated back then, but most corporations seemed to “play fair” and made their accommodations with the stronger labor unions of the day. The military-support industries were largely kept “on-shore” (not a good idea relying on potential enemies to provide your critical supplies, or vulnerable ocean routes to transport them), creating many job opportunities for the middle and lower classes.

Furthermore, the fear that the Soviets would eclipse us technologically forced us to put a lot of public money into education, especially scientific education. One of the side-effects was our space program, which put men on the moon and machines on other planets. Another was the vigorous computer and high-tech industries that blossomed in the late 1980s and is still going strong today (albeit more and more dependent upon foreign scientists and technicians to keep it going). For all of the drag on the economy created by a huge military, there were many countervailing positive effects caused by its technology spin-offs. Recall President Kennedy’s talk of “the long twilight struggle” against Communism and how it brought out the best in Western society.

So, when I hear talk of a return to the Cold War, I can’t help but feel a bit of nostalgia mixed in with the trepidations. I really don’t want to see my taxes go up 25% so that the USA can re-militarize. I’m not looking forward to renewed threats of nuclear annihilation or Joseph McCarthy-like political repression. But by the same token, if it would slow everyone else down (especially the super-rich) and create more opportunities for the poor (e.g. more domestic jobs) and the young (cheap college, especially if you can do math and science) . . . and if it would put the rest of the world (including China and the radical Islamists) on notice that the USA cab still get its act together and make sacrifices for what it ultimately believes in (i.e. your basic Enlightenment values such as human liberty, responsible government, responsible citizenship, etc.) . . . well then, who knows. Maybe something good could come out of this new dark chapter in world history, which appears to be evolving once more from the gloomy north countries on the planet.

I don’t really expect the Ukrainian crisis to be another Sudetenland, and I’m not sure that Vladimir Putin actually has any theories and visions beyond his own self-aggrandizement (albeit with a drop or two of Mother Russia sentimentalism). What I just speculated about most likely won’t happen, especially the good things. But still . . . who would have thought that the weakened and down-hearted USA of 1938 would somehow rebound and defeat two powerful conquering nations over the next decade, and then settle in for the next four to outlast an even more powerful burgeoning empire. All while raising its living standards to unprecedented levels, and at the same time addressing historic wrongs such as racial prejudice, gender inequality and sexual orientation hatred. Sometimes it takes the worst to bring out the good in the good guys.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:13 am      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m a little at a loss with this post, as it seems to me you are in favor of an actual Cold *War* 2. Cold or hot, war is war. Then again, perhaps I may be misreading you.

    First, a few points: My initial reaction to the whole business in the Ukraine was to simply not understand really what was going on. Then I read a quite informative article (I think in the [conservative] “Chicago Tribune”. I might make excuse that I read so many things that I can’t remember where I found this article and thus cannot give you the reference. Then again, perhaps I’m just an old lady who can’t remember; the latter is more likely.)

    Regardless, this article, which I found most interesting, stated that (albeit in a jagged-y pattern in the country) almost exactly half the people of Ukraine speak Ukrainian and want alignment with the West, the other half speak Russian and want alignment with Russia. Thus, there is the division between the 2 groups who have their particular East/West preferences. It seems the Ukrainians want little to actually do with Russia, having been under its thumb for numerous years.

    Another point that occurred to me is that Ukraine seems to be going the way of so many countries recently, most of them in the Middle East. That is, although the government is democratically elected, the people end up not really liking the president and/or government and want to/decide to throw them out. Somehow the concept of democracy and waiting until the next election to throw out the present government or president has escaped a lot of countries that are “new” to democracy. (This is my interpretation; I’m sure there are others who would seriously disagree with me, but so be it.)

    Then too, I read (this time I make no excuse for having no reference) that Putin has said that he favors a return to the old Soviet Union. When I read that, suddenly a lot became clear: Putin made it a point to become president of Russia in the last Russian election (anybody could see it coming); and now he’s back to the old Stalin days when Russia gobbled up many smaller countries to the East of it. Perhaps this is the beginning of Russia taking back all the countries that it once counted as part of its own. I tend to think this is not a good sign, politically or otherwise.

    Then there is Obama, who as much as I may like him, I think is likely no match for Putin. Putin has that kind of ruthlessness that *will* get him what he wants. Whether the people like it or not is irrelevant to him, is my hunch. Obama is much more of a “let’s sit down and talk about this and compromise and get along” type of person. Personally, I like that type of individual; yet I doubt he’s a match for Putin, when Putin wants to gobble up a few countries around Russia that have already spent many years as part of the Soviet Union. Yes, Putin will sit down and talk – somewhat like “talking” has been in the Catholic Church (here I reserve a judgment about Pope Francis). There is “talking” where people actually communicate with each other, i.e., each side states its stand and some commonality is reached. Then there is “talking” which actually means: “We will talk; you will listen and do.” Obama is the first kind of “talker”; Putin much more the second kind, I think.

    As to the Orthodox and Russia: If Putin gives the Orthodox Church a little more room to practice its religion (maybe he has already, I really don’t know), those who are Russian are likely to be very in favor of Putin – nothing’s better than a return to having a religion, granted. But, the little I know of that religion is that it’s basically stuck back in 1054. From the little I know of the Orthodox they are not a group that is in favor of “new” ways of governing. Thus, Putin will have a plus that Stalin did not have; Putin will have religion on his side.

    Where does all this leave the half of the Ukrainian people in Ukraine who *want* to be more “Ukrainian” than “Russian”, who *want* to be more Western than Eastern? It doesn’t look good for that group. While they speak almost in terms of being willing to go as far as having a civil war in the Ukraine, I would think Putin would crush such an attempt with little empathy and great force.

    Putin has bothered me from the time he was ousted from office. I tho’t then that he was little likely to put up with not being in office – and sure enough, he’s back as president and now he’s sending a great many Russian troops into Crimea – the beginning of getting the *rest* of the Ukraine, as I see it, and a return to the old Soviet Union and the greatness that was Russia in more modern times.

    As regards a “Cold War 2”: I find it hard to look on the period of Cold War 1 with any kind of sentimentalism and/or nostalgia. It was a period of quite of bit of inner turmoil in the U.S. Yes, there was not a “hot” war; nevertheless, war is war. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it was the period that allowed the East to remain set in the “old” ways and the West to move ahead in many ways – OK a plus for the West.

    Then too, no matter how “unmodern” a particular country may be, somehow it’s always interested in weapons of massive destruction, specifically, nuclear weapons. It was a period of time where a great many people in the U.S. suffered greatly, refusing to “tell on” their friends; others “told on” their friends and suffered in their own way. I’m speaking of the Joseph McCarthy era here; but I was kind of set back with your short dismissal of Joseph McCarthy and his group. Somehow they are reminiscent of the Tea Party nowadays, now that I think about it.

    I also remember the anxiety it produced in “everyman” with the talk of where to go and how to remain safe from radiation should an atomic (or nuclear) bomb explode over one’s head. (At the time in the school in which I was teaching, I was put in charge of learning the various kinds of radiation and how far students had to be from the outside walls of the school building should a nuclear bomb go off in our city. My younger sister remembers the anxiety of practice drills of hiding under one’s desk. (Frankly, my considered opinion is that should such a bomb go off within a very wide radius of wherever one is, “one” is toast.) While this was not a “hot” war, it was, nevertheless, *war*.

    While, yes, some good came out of that Cold War, I would ask: How about achieving the same good without a *war*? I would not like to see a Cold War 2.

    It seems to me that just about the time there may be a uniting of East and West – a simple kind of movement toward globalization, one might say (the recent Olympics and present Para-Olympics and other movements of Russia toward the West and the West toward East) Putin comes along and wants to make sure that *he* and his country (read here *not* Russia but the Soviet Union) are going to be the leaders of whatever the future holds in any kind of globalization. It may be that Putin’s glad for this opportunity to seize the Crimea; it’s the toehold to the Ukraine. Will the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union be “acquired” one by one? What will each country think of becoming part of the Soviet Union again? Will they be in favor of that? Will Putin stop at the countries that once had been part of the Soviet Union? Will he reach for other western countries close who may favor him and his government?

    Sorry to disagree with you here, but I find a Cold War 2 not a good thing. MCS

    Comment by Ma — March 9, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

  2. I read your post to essentially say “there may be some positive externalities from a second Cold War”. Perhaps. But at a time when the most sophisticated econometric models cannot predict the unemployment rate for the next month, can we really be comfortable in effectively predicting what those externalities will be? Maybe the externalities will be negative.

    While I didn’t conclude that you thought a second Cold War would be good, you appeared to attribute some positive developments to the Cold War that were really caused by other events. For example, the US economy flouished in the 1960s, but wasn’t that at least partially attributed to the rest of the world still recovering from WW II? It is easier to have high paying jobs when you are the only one manufacturing the cars, And who is to say that a Cold War II would end well? You are at least as smart as me to think of enough scenarios in which the Cold War II sets in motion a series of disastrous events. Aren’t we a little lucky that Cold War I ended so well? Perhaps some unforeseen event could easily have caused the Cuban missile crisis turn out very differently.

    Comment by Zreebs — March 11, 2014 @ 6:40 am

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