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.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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.
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.
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
Dr. Johanna Granville, a professor at the American University of Bulgaria, who has conducted extensive research in Ukraine, has written a thoughtful policy paper (“The Folly of Playing High-Stakes Poker with Putin”) that identifies some of the dangers that can arise from a U.S. policy that tends to divide Ukrainians rather than helping unite them. Though it was written a few weeks ago and thus does not take account of the most recent events, her observations are still pertinent and her essay deserves the attention of all those with an interest in helping keep the people of Eastern and Western Ukraine in the same state and avoiding both civil conflict and Russian annexation of some Eastern provinces.
In summary, here are the conclusions of Granville’s paper, The Folly of Playing High-Stakes Poker with Putin: More to Lose than Gain over Ukraine:
In the weeks following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, both the United States and European Union have issued a range of sanctions to punish the Putin administration. But a belligerent response aimed at “punishing Putin,” even if confined to economic measures, will probably just escalate the crisis. Continue reading
Much of the media and official comment on the turmoil in Ukraine has focused on geopolitical factors, with little attention to the historical context of the various issues or to one of the most emotional issues dividing Ukraine: the status of the Russian language. One of the first acts of the Ukrainian parliament following the forcible ouster of President Yanukovich was to vote by an overwhelming majority to deprive the Russian language of official status. This law was promptly vetoed, but to Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South, it was viewed as a deliberate act to make them second-class citizens.
Lev Golinkin, an American writer who was born in Kharkiv and came to the United States as a child has written a perceptive essay explaining the importance of the language issue to many in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. He has agreed that I can share it here.
The Lessons of Donetsk’s Referendum
By Lev Golinkin
While the 5/11/14 referendum conducted by eastern Ukrainian separatists cannot in any way be considered legitimate as far as fairly-monitored elections go, it does shed light on two crucial points about the situation on the ground. First, contrary to the narrative coming out of eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk Basin is not just a land of masked, Moscow-backed militants. It is also home to factory workers, miners, families, and scarf-wrapped babushki. Continue reading