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Getting the Cold War Back Again

By David Warren

Great: we're getting the Cold War back again. That can be the only conclusion from all of Vladimir Putin's behaviour in the time since George W. Bush last entertained him in Crawford, Texas. On the eve, yesterday, of the G8 meeting at Heiligenndam, the latter did not seek to appease the former with the usual soft and distracting words, but instead pointed to the obvious. President Putin's threat to aim new missiles at Europe and America, in retaliation for the U.S. developing missile-shield technology, is not reasonable. There is nothing subtle about this. A missile-shield is defensive, multiple-warhead missiles are offensive. It can't be put simpler than that.

Why is Mr Putin doing this? There is a school of diplomatic thought -- the Russophiles, let us call them -- who insist that we just don't understand Russia, and the ancient and modern historical reasons why the Russians feel so peculiarly vulnerable to external threats. So much so that, although they are bears, their persistent habit of overreacting to threats from mice must be assuaged, appeased. We must help them to feel better in their bearskins. I called them Russophiles, because I've met several of these people, and noticed that their views are generally founded on aesthetic rather than political judgements. They are animated by the romance of Mother Russia. Often they can say quite intelligent things about Russian literature and music, even about the old Slavic liturgy. It is only when they turn to discussing power politics that they become completely batty, in the manner of a man who is in love with a tart.

The analogy would be to our diplomatic Arabists, who similarly romanticize the Arabian past. And once again, make no mistake, there is much to be admired in that past, in the cultural accomplishments of Arabic-speaking peoples over many centuries (though alas, not recent ones). But they are not now, nor perhaps have ever been, models for religious toleration, or peaceful interaction with their neighbours. That the entire Arab world to this day can continue to obsess violently over the tiny patch of land that is Israel, is the indication of a political culture that has itself degenerated from former times.

Contrary to what is mistaught in our universities, the Arabs did not obsess about the loss of approximately the same territory during the Crusades. Nor did old Mother Russia freak, when she faced not polite Americans and Europeans, but the Mongol hordes. It is another example of a maturity that was lost many centuries ago; of a sharp-edged realism erased in the twilight shadows of paranoia.

Collective paranoia is worse when it is being exploited by a demagogue, and at its very worst when the demagogue is clever. Mr Putin is fairly clever. He is playing on Russian sensibilities as on a musical instrument. He is in the act of restoring the Soviet empire, as he imagines it being made to work -- without the crippling economic effects of Communism.

The current mainland Chinese leadership imagines itself to be doing something similar: forging a unified and aggressive superpower, that will achieve some dominance in the world. The lost motivator of Communism is replaced respectively by Russian and Chinese chauvinism; power always needs an excuse. All such imagine themselves to be steering cleverly between the Scylla of economic dysfunction, and the Charibdys of democracy and civic freedom. Either will undermine, then destroy, the power of a tyrant.

It won't work; it has never worked. The project, to "normalize" and thus immortalize a tyranny, has always ended in squalor and carnage. Both Russian and Chinese leaders are having another try at what their predecessors attempted -- unsuccessfully, at the cost of a hundred million human lives. They think they are smarter than Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, and can make their omelette by cracking fewer eggs. They can't: tyranny is impossible to immortalize.

Mr Bush, from his side, which is incidentally our side whether or not my reader has the ability to discern the better from the worse, added yesterday what any American President must inevitably say: that without democracy and freedom, there can only be tyranny. This was his view on Iraq and Afghanistan; it remains his view on Iran and North Korea; and will ultimately be his view (or that of his successor) on Russia and China. The American touch is the optimism: the belief that finally democracy will win through. It is a view that may prove foolish, but is at least not ugly.

Abraham Lincoln once realized that a point had been reached, when freedom for some could no longer co-exist with slavery for others, within America; that one or the other would have to go. I made myself unpopular several years ago by remarking that Bush had reached the same conclusion about the world at large. I said he was Lincolnesque. I am still convinced that Bush thinks like Lincoln. I observe, however, that this time around, the forces of the Union are losing.

© Ottawa Citizen

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