Fifty-six years ago, World War II, the bloodiest conflict in history, came to an end. In that war, commemorated by young and old as one of the most solemn holidays in Russia, tens of millions of Russians and others lost their lives. In that war, as well, the Soviet Union and the United States were allies, albeit for reasons of necessity.
As TV screens are once again filled with images of U.S. and Russian soldiers shaking hands on the Oder river, some words are called for on the subject of current Russian-American relations. In particular, the "hard line" toward Russia and apparent attempts on the part of the United States to drive it into the status of semi-rogue statehood.
Amid all the bluster in Washington, one thing is clear: Washington will not accept any challenge to its self-designated role as unilateral rule-giver, not from its European allies and certainly not from Russia or China. Also clear is the attempt to demonize Russia one of the most vociferous objectors to U.S. policy on issues such as National Missile Defense and NATO expansion as somehow being "dangerous."
Leave aside for the moment the question as to whether the controversial U.S. proposals will actually work in that country's interests. (The dubious feasibility of NMD, for one, makes one entertain the question of whether the phrase "American national interests" might well be serving as a synonym for "the interests of Americans who hold shares in defense-contractor companies.") What is really disturbing is that this vision of global political order is being force-fed on the community of nations by a leader and administration of dubious integrity, intelligence and intentions.
It may well be that this is mostly rhetorical posturing on the part of a president attempting to appear tough and an administration anxious to find or concoct justifications for its policies. For the umpteenth time in the last 15 years, the Cold War has been declared over. President George W. Bush made it a point to mention to Vladimir Putin, in his convoluted English and logic, that "it's important to think beyond the old days of when we had the concept that if we blew each other up, the world would be safe."
The truth is that hostility and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction have been dead for decades, and it is shocking that a young president in this new century would rake up the demons of Cold War long-since buried. The greater danger now seems to be the extent to which the United States is disengaged from reality and the likelihood that it will bring about the very conditions that it claims to be concerned about.
First of all, though broad segments of the Russian political elite have, for domestic political reasons, been trying, largely unsuccessfully, to whip up anti-American feeling, in reality Russia's foreign policy toward the United States and its allies has been largely reactive. NATO intends to expand eastward; Russia opposes it. The United States plans to develop NMD; Russia voices its objections. Caspian oil catches the eye of American policymakers; Russia takes countermeasures. The United States wishes to continue sanctions against Iraq; Russia wants to end them.
These are not the actions of a dangerous aggressor, but of a country defending its interests mostly economic. Russia is no longer an expansionist state with imperial ambitions. It has confined itself by and large to matters of its own social, political and economic security just as any country with a rational leadership would. Vying with American attempts to co-opt Caspian oil is hardly posing a danger to vital U.S. interests. Nor is objecting to American attempts to woo Ukraine or other former Soviet Republics.
Second, while weak at present, Russia is by no means down and is not likely to drop dead at the first display of U.S. ire or pressure. Once alienated from the West, it can now turn to seek allies everywhere. If the United States is really worried about Russia selling weapons to Iran or joining in anti-American blocs with countries such as China, it could do no better than issue a serious and immediate demarche to its own State Department.
The veterans and millions of younger Russians out there on parks and streets, by and large, bear no animosity toward the West in general, the Germans and especially the American public. It is these very people, after all, who helped defeat the scourge of fascism. Nor do most American citizens seem to have anything against Russians.
Let us remember, both for their sake and that of the world, that harsh words and harsh actions by the leaders will reap harsh consequences.