When pushy meets touchy

A note from my chief Irish veterinary correspondent calls my attention to the current spat between Obama/NATO and ex-Soviet/Putin, which is being conducted over many issues, some perhaps too subtle for the mass media to have catalogued. Indeed, so subtle that even I, a connoisseur of subtle conflict, would have to retreat to the foreign policy journals to make a good list. And I’m no longer willing to go that far.

But the Anakonda exercise in Poland, which ended last week after ten days of fun and war games, involving tens of thousands of NATO troops, and quite a few aeroplanes, was designed, as the Obama administration blatantly hinted, “to send a clear message” — we all know to whom. Frankly, sometimes I prefer a message to be garbled.

There is some history here. Perhaps gentle reader may recall it. As an old Cold Warrior, I remember it almost with nostalgia.

A country the physical size of Russia has a lot of “backyard,” and the country is ringed by ex-Soviet republics, many of which, if not all except Belorus, are enthusiasts for NATO. They do not wish to be “forgotten” by their historically more recent allies, and the demand for some show of force did not come primarily from USA. Perhaps our diplomats have privately asked the ex-KGB agent who rules Russia today why he thinks this would be. Or perhaps they have not thought of it. They’d be sure to get the answer that, for allied historical reasons, there are substantial Russian ethnic minorities in many of these countries, too, and that none of those have been “forgotten,” either.

Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, could be mentioned, as examples of Russian behaviour that does not display a perfect understanding of international law pertaining to the violability of national borders. But then, the Russians could cite instances where the same was overlooked in the West. Verily, the redrawing of boundaries is an ancient practice, usually accompanied by main force, and not necessarily by chaste arguments. And often, it has gotten out of hand, as we remember from two World Wars — from which, it strikes me, we may not have learnt so much as we imagine.

Obama is often criticized, from the Right, for being flaccid in defence of American and Western interests; for appeasing enemies, and sacrificing allies. I do not think this criticism is entirely just. In my own view, which dominates this website, the problem with them has more to do with weak heads and general incompetence. Their rhetoric means almost nothing at all: it is spacey and “academic” and naïve, in the smug Harvard manner. It is not pacifist, as some of my best warmonger buddies allege. It is instead lackadaisical. The Obamanites are willing to assert American superpower, but only after events have migrated beyond their control. They vaguely understand that “the world is a dangerous place,” that “the law of the jungle” governs much of it. They do not, most certainly do not, intend surrender, even to the ayatollahs of Iran. They are, sincerely, trying to be tactical. The difficulty is that, if I may resort to a vulgar, commonplace expression, they don’t know their ass from their elbow.

Moreover, it is fair to add, the mismanagement of the Russia file goes back ninety-nine years. (Our ancestors realized that Leninism needed snuffing at birth, but in their moral and physical exhaustion after the Great War, could not summon the will to complete this task.) Through all this time there has been a misunderstanding of the nature of that country: that it is, even remains, essentially Christian. By the progressive loss of our own Western Christian sensibilities, we became unable to appreciate this fact.

Communism, and Islam, are genuine opponents. But Russians, and Muslims, are not. It is wiser to appeal to the best in them, than to the worst.

In the case of Russia, the fatuous “reset” of a simple-minded former secretary of state inspired only derisive laughter from the other side. She did not understand that change is not effected by pressing buttons, which are not connected to anything. (Indeed, as we gather from the email scandals, button pressing is not her forte.)

What for all their own flawed judgement the Bush administrators did understand, was the need for best efforts behind the scenes. Bush himself tried to befriend Putin, over a barbie at the ranch. This was part of a larger scheme to improve contact between the countries, beginning with tone. It required, behind the scenes, diplomatic acknowledgement that, strange to say, the Russians might have some plausible grievances; that there could be some merit in their analysis of the historical fallout from the Soviet collapse; that there could be some comprehension of views that the (unpleasantly aggressive, if substantially weakened) successor regime shares with most Russian people. Like us, perhaps even more so, they do want to look after their own.

Let me mention that I think Putin is vile. I think Obama is vile, too, but in much different ways. In the virtual world of the Internet, everyone may “comment” — showing that we are all pretty vile, in our respective ways.

In the world of diplomacy, however, the tradition is to keep opinions to ourselves. The task is to identify common interests, including an interest in not killing each other. This is not, as often thought, a vain activity. It beats, I think, making threats to people likely to retaliate in kind, when we have no idea what we will do if they do that.

Perhaps this, in a sentence, is what Bush understood, and Obama does not understand: That threats should never be empty. That empty threats should never be made.