I have been amazed that so many people whose judgment I respect have criticized President Obama’s decision not to go to the mass demonstration in Paris following the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery. It was appropriate to have the American ambassador in Paris represent us. After all, an ambassador is the personal representative of the president, authorized to represent the president in all respects—that’s what “plenipotentiary” means in the formal title. (When I was ambassador to the Soviet Union I was designated to represent President George H.W. Bush at Andrei Sakharov’s funeral.)

Of course, I am as outraged as anyone at the wanton murders that occurred in and near Paris last week. (more…)

Cold War II??? Notes for a Presentation

I was invited to speak at the Eighth European-Russian Forum tomorrow in Brussels. Because of a bureaucratic glitch, I am unable to attend. But I append below the notes from which I intended to speak.

My description of the false myths about the end of the Cold War will doubtless seem like listening to a broken record (back when we played records). These myths are so widespread and so fundamental in encouraging destructive foreign policies that I feel I must continue to refute them.

The ideas for the way the Ukrainian crisis might be resolved will doubtless seem unrealistic to many. But how can either the Ukrainian or the Russian leaders believe that the interests of either country are served by prolonging the civil war in Eastern Ukraine?

Ukrainians and Russians in the area are the main victims of the violence that continues. How long will it take their leaders to come to their senses and put a stop to it?


The Terrorist Threat: President Obama’s Response

I was as thrilled as anyone to see the reports of the missile strikes on ISIS and other terrorist sites in Syria and I felt that President Obama made a stirring speech at the United Nations regarding the terrorist problem. Still, I have been uneasy these last few weeks with the way these issues have been handled in Washington, and the context in which they were taking place. It is laudable that the President has been able to line up so many Arab states as allies in this fight. But where are the Europeans, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians in this effort? All of them have stakes in the struggle against jihadist terrorism greater than we have, being closer to the scene and in many cases, more vulnerable.


A Novel That Reverberates on Many Levels

Since I write and lecture mainly about international relations and twentieth-century diplomatic history, most of my reading is related and leaves little time for fiction. But this summer I decided to relax with a thriller or detective story to get my mind off the fast-paced disasters taking place in the Middle East, Ukraine, North and West Africa, and the slower-paced ones brought on by environmental degradation, organized crime, pervasive corruption, and political deadlock. Maybe fiction could provide distraction and even, perhaps, restore some remnant of the optimism I felt about the world a quarter century ago when the Cold War ended, Europe united, and the world was at peace–even, for a time, in Palestine.


Ukraine: Cool the Rhetoric; Focus on the Outcome

In his interview with Thomas Friedman published on August 9, President Obama gave a convincing explanation of why the United States could not create an effective government in Iraq: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” he pointed out, and also explained: “Societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.”

The President has identified the central issue, not only in Iraq but also in many of the world’s hotspots. In particular, his perception should be applied to guide our policy toward Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. American policy makers also need to pay closer attention to regional power realities and perceived interests than they apparently have in the recent past.


Stupid Stuff: Hillary Clinton on Syria

Former Secretary of State Clinton remarked in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that President Obama’s admonition not to do stupid stuff “is not an organizing principle.” Quite true. But then, the opinion she expressed regarding Obama’s early decision not to supply arms to the opposition to Assad in Syria is almost certainly dead wrong. (more…)

Pfaff on European Parliament Elections

The elections to the European Parliament have produce a flow of articles stressing the rise of “extreme right” or “neo-fascist” parties. An important article today by William Pfaff puts that in perspective. The rise of opposition to the bureaucrats in Brussels has little to do with the fascism of the past.

Europe’s Electoral Aftershock by William Pfaff

Paris, May 29, 2014 – The outcome of the recently concluded European Parliament elections is described in press and political circles in Europe and North America as a shock or crisis, but the actual reaction is better named hysteria, as if “Europe” is all over, and the rise of the right in these elections resembles the rise of fascism in the 1930s — all of which is sheer nonsense. (more…)

Viktor Hryhorov’s Painting “Independence Day”

"Independence Day"

As Ukraine approaches a fateful election next Sunday, I have been drawn to contemplate one of the most moving and thoughtful paintings in our collection. The painting pictured above is by Viktor Hryhorov (Grigorov–Григоров). Rebecca and I purchased it from the painter in the early 1990s. We visited Victor’s apartment and were stunned by his and his wife’s art. He was not in good health but his art was bright and joyful. He explained that he had been asked to do an exhibit of his paintings in an area affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster shortly after it occurred. It seems the Communist Party officials wanted to demonstrate to the locals that there was no danger. Of course, there was danger. And then, by the time we visited him, Viktor was suffering from his exposure to the radiation, and could no longer drive the Mercedes he had purchased in Germany from the sale of his paintings. He died in 2002.

Independence Day is not a typical Hryhorov painting. Art critic Svitlana Fesenko described his work as follows: “His lines are lively, always moving in a fantastic dance, turning into an inconceivable maze full of vague images.” The lines in Independence Day are lively, but the images are anything but vague and the patterns are not “inconceivable.”

Reception of a work of art is always a very personal matter. But what I see in this painting is a combination of celebration and reserve. The bright colors of the Ukrainian flag and the clapping hands portray joy and celebration, but a close look at the faces reveals something else: they convey not joy or celebration but contemplation with a touch of sadness, a pensive mood. Could it be brought on by doubts about the future? No way to know. But I have turned to contemplate this painting frequently over the last few months.

You can find more about Viktor Hryhorov here.

USSR 1987-91: An Empire Self-Destructs

There seems to be a prevailing opinion in Russia and elsewhere that the Soviet Union broke up under the pressures of the Cold War. Wrong! The Cold War ended before the USSR fell apart. There also seems to be a conviction in Russia that the US and NATO somehow engineered the Soviet demise. Also wrong–in fact the opposite of the truth. The U.S. and its principal allies tried to help Gorbachev keep the USSR (minus the Baltic countries) in a voluntary union.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Foreign Service Journal describing the work of the American Embassy in Moscow from 1987 to 1991 and explaining how the Embassy perceived the unraveling of the Communist state. The Soviet disintegration was instigated and led not by outsiders but by leaders inside the country, first of all and most importantly, the elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. If Russians are nostalgic about the USSR and think its collapse was a disaster, they should look back at their own history and stop blaming outsiders.

If interested, you can find the text of my article here.

Remembering Vasya Aksyonov

It is now nearly five years since Vasya Aksyonov died, much too young, like many of his compatriots who began their public careers in the 1960s during Nikita Khrushchev’s brief “Thaw.” A couple of years ago I was asked to write a short piece on Vasya for a volume of collective essays dedicated to him. I don’t know whether it was published in Russian (I never got a copy), but here is a link to my essay in English for those who may be interested: Remembering Vasya Aksyonov