Friday, March 06, 2015

Stay tuned.. .

A new post will appear on tomorrow--it will be linked here.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Addictive self-destruction -- p.s.

Jon Stewart, in his inimitable way, addresses the problem of repeating one's self beginning at about the 8 minute mark of this clip.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Addictive self-destruction

This morning's New York Times reports that Republican candidates, with the sole exception of Ron Paul, are becoming more militant on foreign policy, and that several of them are arguing that we must meet ISIS in Iraq and Syria with ground forces.  Among other things, they apparently see this as an effective way to attack Hillary Clinton, whom they will blame for going along with President Obama and ignoring the threat of Islamic radicalism during his first term and pulling out of Iraq too quickly.  Already, of course, President Obama has committed himself to the "disruption" and eventual destruction of ISIS.  This marks a profound step down the road to a new hell, involving an almost unbelievable ignorance of recent history.  History is littered with such catastrophes, but I am very sad that I will apparently have to live through yet another during the last decade of my life.

What makes addictive policies self-destructive is that they are based on self-fulfilling prophecies: they bring about, or increase, the evils that they are supposed to combat.  I first discovered this pattern writing my dissertation, which became the book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War. (It is the only one of my books, at right, not still in print, but Princeton University Press is going to make an e-book available some time this year.)  Hitler based his plans for expansion on the idea that Germany could not afford to depend upon world trade and needed the territory necessary feed itself.  As soon as he took power, he began rearming to prepare the conquer the territory he thought Germany needed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  Rearmament took resources away from export industries and increased demands for imports--making it that much harder for Germany to meet its needs through world trade.  That is why Goebbels, in 1935, had to announce that "we can do without butter, but we must have guns"--because there was no butter to be had in German groceries, since there was no foreign currency to import it.  As I showed, the Germans found quick fixes in the late 1930s by trading grain imports from Eastern European states for arms, but their problems were compounded by 1939 by acute shortages of labor.  When the war began they immediately put Polish and then French prisoners to work, and made enormous use of forced labor throughout the war.  They still however had no chance in their war with three powers with vastly superior resources: Britain, the USSR, and the United States.  In the postwar period the Germans have learned their lesson and depend proudly on their extraordinary skill at manufacturing industrial exports.

The US's disastrous addiction began, of course, with 9/11.  President Bush immediately announced that this proved that terrorists all over the world threatened the United States, and that they, and any governments that sponsored them, had to be eliminated.  As a matter of fact, the 9/11 Commission report showed how hard it was for Al Queda to get the necessary personnel (only 20 men) into the US to perpetrate that attack in in a relatively relaxed security climate, and it is really no surprise that no one has ever managed to pull off anything remotely similar again.  In the United States, in Britain, and in France, a tiny number of local Muslim terrorists have managed to pull off a few outrages, but that is all, and frankly, it is unrealistic to think that we can stamp those out.  Bush decided, of course, to overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that he could replace them with pro-American democracies that would deal with any terrorist threat.  That was the disastrous mistake that we shall apparently be living with for much of the 21st century.

The intervention in Afghanistan initially drove the Taliban out of power, but they have grown much stronger since both inside of Afghanistan and, more critically, within Pakistan.  The case of Iraq is much worse.  There were no Al Queda terrorists in Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein would never have allowed them to operate.  But when Saddam was overthrown and the US helped create a new, Shi'ite dominated government, a new Al Queda in Iraq took root among the Sunni population.  General Petraeus's surge and the opening up of good relationships with Sunni tribal leaders quieted things down late in the last decade, but as excellent reporting by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker has shown, the Shi'ite government threw those gains away within a few years by repressing the Sunnis.  Thus, last year, they welcomed ISIS into their territory--and ISIS is a direct descendant of Al Queda in Iraq.  Meanwhile, the United States responded to the Sunni revolt against President Assad in Syria by demanding that he step down, rather than working for some kind of settlement.  ISIS has become the strongest force within the Sunni rebels as well.

Last year, ISIS decided to behead several American captives that the US government had (rightly) refused to ransom on camera.  That vaulted them to the foreground of our radar screen, and President Obama declared all-out war on them.  It seems incredible to me that no one seems to understand that this is exactly what ISIS wanted: to be seen as the spearpoint of Islam, particularly Sunni Islam, in the struggle against the United States in the Middle East.  It would have made far more sense to make one retaliatory strike, and to advise all Americans, in the strongest terms, to stay out of war zones in Syria and Iraq to avoid being kidnapped and murdered. (Such a declaration is obviously a logical corollary to the no-ransom policy, with which, once again, I agree.)  Now we are trying to do in Iraq what we tried to do in Vietnam in 1962-4 and 1972-3: to use air power to buck up allied Iraqi forces in an attempt to retake the territory that has been lost.  The problem, of course, is that those forces are Shi'ite forces who are very likely to commit atrocities and alienate the population once again if they do retake Mosul and other territories.  Meanwhile, ISIS is getting stronger in Libya and even in the Sinai peninsula and on the Egyptian side of the Libyan border.

The leaders and the people of the Middle East must solve the problems of the Middle East.  The process will be long and very bloody, and their solutions may not reflect western values.  But there is no evidence that the United States can do anything but make things worse by intervening militarily.  At home, a new war will escalate the federal deficit once again.   Because the economy is now improving, it may well create pressure for a draft, since it will be very difficult to refill the ranks  of infantry and armor units with new enlistees.  It will divert attention from increasingly serious problems in Europe. And worst of all--if recent history is any guide, and I believe it is--it will create more chaos.

We are on this path, as I have said here again and again, because both Republican and Democratic foreign policy specialists have a neo-Hegelian world view and assume that American values are destined to prevail.  Our higher education system, increasingly intolerant of any views other than its own, contributes to this as well.  Politically Republicans once again see a muscular foreign policy as an asset.  And the pro-Israeli lobby is delighted to have gotten America into an even larger endless war than the one Israel is fighting, since it inevitably relieves such pressure as still remains upon the Israeli government to make peace.  The Republicans will also probably line up against any nuclear deal with Iran, setting the stage for a confrontation with Iran if a Republican President is elected.

We are dealing today with chaos in regions that western powers ruled only very briefly, if at all.  The British and French mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine lasted only a few decades.  The Ottoman Empire, which ruled them effectively for centuries, is not about to be reconstituted, and a renewed western imperialism to secure and administer these areas is simply out of the question, not least because their population has grown so much.  A coalition of Sunni and Shi'ite governments could, one hopes, defeat ISIS, although the process would be a brutal one.  Yet it is not clear that critical governments such as the Turks and the Saudis want ISIS destroyed--at least not yet.

I have no idea where, and how, all this will end. I do not believe in the possibility of a good outcome.  I know that some others hold these views, but there does not seem to be much that we can do.  Nor, sadly, does there seem to be any real statesmanship within the Arab world prepared to cope with what it faces.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Sunday New York Times, February 1965 and February 2015

Reading last Sunday's New York Times, I noticed an announcement in the magazine of a new format, and that set me thinking about long-term changes in that venerable newspaper and how they reflected changes in our society as a whole.  I decided to compare two Sunday editions:  February 17, 1965--half a century ago--and February 15, 2015.  I picked two weekly sections to compare: the magazine, where I had started, and the Sunday Review, formerly the News of the Week in Review.  The results more than justified my expectations--and here they are.

 The very first story in the magazine for February 17, 1965 was in the long run probably the most important:  "The Berkeley Affair: Mr. Kerr vs Mr. Savio & Co."  It was a long survey of the student rebellion that had begun at Berkeley in the preceding fall, led by Mario Savio, a young New Yorker and veteran of the Mississippi Summer, on the issue of the right of students to conduct political activities on campus. 

The next story is historical: "A Japanese Remembers Iwo Jima," a battle well within the memory of any New York Times reader of 30 or older--the audience the Times was trying to reach. Then comes a piece from London, "Could Maudling Win for the Tories?"  Harold Wilson's Labour Government had come into power a few months earlier by winning an election by the very narrowest of margins.  Reginald Maudling was not the leader of the opposition Tory party: he was one of the two contenders to replace Sir Alec Douglas-Home, whom Wilson had edged out, and who was now stepping down.  As it turned out, Maudling lost the leadership election to Edward Heath.  The intraparty battles of opposition parties in Europe are no longer newsworthy in major American newspapers, unless, of course, some kind of sex scandal is involved.

The next piece is a kind of prescient counterpart to the Berkley one: "We are in Too Deep in Asia and Africa," by Senator Frank Church.  This was, as we shall see in a moment, the week that the bombing or North Vietnam got started in earnest, and we easily forget that a substantial cohort of major political figures, including Senate Majority leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright, opposed the war from the beginning, as did Church.  Nowadays no major political figure in Washington is standing against the Administration's Middle Eastern adventures.  Of course, this was only the beginning.

Russell Baker was the Times's resident humorist, a place that has been vacant for some time, and he contributed a mildly entertaining page on living in Washington, D.C., emphasizing how relatively simple and easy life was there, compared to New York or San Francisco.  I too remember that well, and it is interesting that Washington remained so small just as the Great Society was being put into place. Ronnie Dugger, a distinguished Texas journalist, then added an article about two reporters from Moscow who reached his home in Austin, Texas, while covering President Johnson.

Summing up, the New York Times Magazine in 1965 was a place for long news feature stories, as well as long opinion pieces by politicians and opinion leaders.  It assumed that its readers wanted new insights about world events, and tried to provide them.  It also provided a few puzzles for entertainment, including the famous Sunday crossword, which of course survives today.

This last Sunday's magazine has a similar format--although it is much shorter and has far, far fewer ads--but the subject matter of most of its articles is quite different.  It leads with "Feed Frenzy," an account of how people have unwittingly ruined their lives with indiscreet or somewhat offensive posts on social  media that went viral--truly a story for the age that we live in.  The second story, a very long one, deals with the relationship between a female Stanford undergraduate and a local businessman in his late twenties--single--who was designated as her mentor in a program linking the campus with local businesses.  They had an affair, which has degenerated into accusations of sexual assault and rape, and the piece draws on numerous emails between the two of them, between the woman and her best friend, and between the best friend and the woman's mother.  Such stories, obviously, did not find their way into major newspapers in 1965.  The third article would have been at home in the magazine 50 years ago--it deals with the attempt to hold Hezbollah accountable for the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon in 2005. Then, on the next page, we find, "Fear of Flying: What our Paranoia about Drones tell us;" a piece by "the ethicist" on the very complicated roommate policies of a college; a brief interview with David Axelrod regarding his new book on his life in politics; and a science piece on how atmospheric microorganisms may affect the weather.  There's also a piece about measurements in recipes, and a piece by Calvin Trillin, who is apparently in his late seventies, about haircuts in the 1950s, culminating in a revelation that his local barber habitually copped a feel of his customers genitals when he finished the haircut.

The change in the magazine's subject matter seems to me quite simple.  The main subject in 1965 was world politics,  not surprisingly, given the astonishing events--both tragic and heroic--that had taken place during the previous half-century. The subject matter today, for the most part, is the readership that the Times is trying to attract--well educated young adults.  The articles focus on their lives, their problems, and their interactions with one another.  And all that began, in my opinion, in the Berkeley rebellion that was the subject of the main story on February 17, 1965.I shall return to this later.

 The second subject I looked at was The News of the Week in Review--now, significantly, the Sunday Review.  It was very long in those days, and it is no exaggeration to describe it as a third news magazine, comparable to Time and Newsweek, but without the entertainment sections.  The first two full pages were exactly what the section's title promised, a summary of the major national and world news stories of the week.  Most of the first page is about the widening war in Vietnam--a day-by-day review of events of the past week.  .  The rest of it deals with the United States'   balance of payments problems--it was very recent that our imports had begun to exceed our exports, and the US government was still committed to maintaining the dollar at a fixed value in terms of gold.  The next page carrries an item about changes in the State Department, where Averell  Harriman had been relieved as Undersecretary for Political Affairs.  Then comes an account of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign for voting rights in  Selma and King's meeting with Johnson, who promised voting rights legislation.  (Bloody Sunday in Selma was another three weeks away, but coverage of the campaign was already intense.)  Then came a long story about the election of the President of the United Steelworkers union, in which half a million members had defeated the incumbent, David J. MacDonald, with I. W. Abel.   Another piece about a longshoreman's strike involving 60,000 workers.  Organized labor had been a tremendous economic and political power for thirty years now, and the subject of continuous coverage.

The World  , the next subhead.begins with a story about Egypt and Israel: "A cardinal aim of United State policy in the middle East has been to maintain the balance of arab-Israeli military stgrength in that intermittently troubled area of the world."  (Times do indeed change!) Then follow stories on government cutbacks in the aircraft industry in Britain; riots in India about the use of Hindi throughout the country; and  a UK ban on TV cigarette advertising, which says a similar ban in the US is not likely. (It came about six years later.) The New York Section begins with a story about a fatal air crash off Long Island, followed by a story about the new NY Senator, Robert F. Kennedy, becoming involved in a fight to determine the new legislative leadership.

The next page is taken up entirely with two articles on the foreign policy of Communist China, with particular focus on the Vietnam War and Chinese-Russian relations.  2/3 of the next page is a more extended discussion of Johnson's attack on the balance of Ppayments problem; the other third is about Harold Wilson's slim majority in London.  Then comes most of a page on voting rights campaigns in the Deep South, with the other 1/3 devoted to a regular feature, "The News of the Week in Law."  The following page features the News of the Week in Science, with items on measles vaccines and changing rabies treatments. And then came the News of the Week in Education.

On the op-ed page, James Reston leads with a piece on Vietnam, "The Undeclared and Unexplained War."  C. L. Sulzberger follows with a column on France, West Germany, and European unity, and Russell Baker, citing stories of increased teacher assaults in NY schools and marijuana at Harvard, talks prophetically about the threats posed by the Boom generation, which he does not specifically identify, who are tasting too many of life's pleasures too fast.  A page later Arthur Krock weighs in with another Vietnam column, and there is a sampler of editorial opinion from around the world.  On p. 10 we have "Report from the Nation," with stories from Tennessee, Houston, California, Detroit, and Atlanta. And that's that.

The News of the Week in Review is now the Sunday Review, and it is even more unrecognizable than the magazine.  It does not include, much less begin with, a summary of the week's news.  Instead, the two articles on the front page deal, respectively, with the impact even of hiking through the wilderness on the environment, and the second, with the impact of "faceless" abuse on the internet.  The story taking up half of page 2 is about what readers' online comments on news stories signify--a telling counterpart to the summary of recent news stories one found there fifty years ago.  The opinion section begins on p. 3 with a harrowing guest contribution, "Did a Text Kill My Brother?", about a fatal auto accident apparently caused by the other driver's lapse of attention.   Then regular op-ed columnist Frank Bruni has a column, "Too Much Prayer in Politics"--a sentiment with which I certainly agree, but which does not address contemporary news events.  An op-chart on p. 4 analyzes nine particular egregious misstatements of fact by various politicians.  Below that is an article about vaginal reconstruction, the latest procedure women are being encouraged to undergo to make themselves more attractive. (Contemporary feminists might ponder whether such a story represents progress for women over the last half century--and why or why not.)  Then the author Susan Jacoby contribued a long piece on the massacres of Jews during the first Crusade in Europe (there is nothing in the Sunday review about the massacres going on in various parts of the world right now), and another guest contributor argues that "Vitamins Hide the Low Quality of Our Food."  On p. 6, there's an autobiographical piece about writer's block.  Page 8 features a man-to-man letter, "To a Friend, On His Divorce."  On p. 9 we find a feature by a beekeeper about beekeeping. 

The op-ed page features three regulars:  Maureen Dowd, who wrote about David Brock and infighting among Hillary Clinton's campaign team; Nicholas Kristof, with a typical piece about "Unpaid, Unarmed Lifesavers in Syria;" and Ross Douthat, about the film Fifty Shades of Grey.  (Full disclosure: I saw it myself last night and while no masterpiece, it was much better than expected and featured a brilliant performance by Dakota Johnson.)  The back page summarizes a study showing that even those who should no better accept misstatements of facts in movies as the truth, and an article about how a boy with a troubled childhood (the author) found refuge in skateboarding.

Now battles were building up in the Congress during the preceding week over immigration, and the Republicans seemed likely to shut down the Department of Homeland Security.  An actual war between sovereign nations (albeit fought in part by proxy) is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and a new revolutionary movement, ISIS, has seized substantial portions of Syria and the Middle East.  A change of government in Greece has re-ignited the Greek debt crisis.  Fifty years ago the French and German governments' discussions on European unity figured in the News of the Week in Review; this year the Sunday Review ignores those same governments' attempts to arrange a cease-fire in Ukraine. And so on.  It was no accident, obviously, that the word "news" was dropped from the title of the Sunday review.  My wife recently heard an interview with the administrator of a website, who referred to hard news as the "vegetables" of the information menu nowadays, the thing people didn't really want to eat, but thought they had to.  I suspect that the MBAs who now run the world have convinced the Times management of something similar.

I chose this date almost randomly, but incredibly and coincidentally, the Times magazine of half a century ago documented the beginnings of the changes that would lead us to where we are.  They can be found in A. H. Raskin's remarkable piece about the Berkeley student revolt, from which I cannot resist quoting some passages.

"The Berkeley mutineers did not seem political In the sense of those student rebels in the turbulent Thirties; they are too suspicious of all adult institutions to embrace wholeheartedly even those ideologies with a stake in smashing the system. An anarchist or LW.W. strain seems as pronounced as any Marxist doctrne. . .

"The proudly  immoderate  zealots  of the  F.S.M. [Free Speech Movement] pursue  an  activist  creed -that only commitment can strip life of its emptiness, its absence of mean­ing in a great "knowledge factory" like Berkeley. That is the explanation for their conviction that the methods of civil disobedience, in violation of law, are as appropriate in the civilized atmosphere of the campus as they are in the primordial jungle of Mississippi. It was an imaginative strategy that led to an unimaginable chain of events.

"The cutoff in political re­cruitment [this refers to the ban on recruiting tables for local political action that triggered the first demonstrations] confirmed a convic­tion already held by some of the students that bankers, in­dustrialists, publishers and other leaders of the Establish­ment in the Board of Regents were making a concentration camp out of the the "multi­versity''--a term coined by [Berkeley Chancellor Clark] Kerr in a series of .lectmes at Harvard nearly two years ago to describe the transformation of a modem university, like Cal, into a vast techno­-educational  complex.
This conviction was not di­minished by the extreme free­dom the university has long allowed 
students  to  express their own political views. how­ ever unorthodox, at "Hyde Park"  areas 
inside  the cam pus. Even during the ban on the   use   of campus   property for organizing off-campus po­litical action, students re­tained their hberty to invite Communists, Nazis or Black Muslims  to  address  meetings at  the  university. They also could-and often did-agitate for the right to smoke mari­ juana,  to be able to buy con­traceptives at the University Bookstore or for other far-out [sic] objectives.

"If Clark Kerr is the high priest of the multi­ versity, social ·critic Paul Goodman is its Amtichrist and thus beloved of the F.S.M. The opening theme of an F.S.H. pamphlet is a declaration by Goodman  that in the United States today, 'students-mid­ dle--class youth-are the major exploited class. • • • They have no choice but to go to college.' Rejecting their role as factory workers on an academic assembly  line.  the  F.S.M.  demands a humanized  campus. a 'loving community' based on comradeship and purpose. 'We  must  now  begin   the demand of the right to know; to know  the realities of  the present   world - in- revolution, and to have an opportunity to think cleariy in an extended manner about the world," says the F.S.M. credo.  It is ours to demand meaning; we must insist upon meaning!'

Towards the end of his piece, Raskin questioned how far the protest could go:

"And who is listening, now that the clear-cut issue created by the closing of  the Bancroft Strip and the blackout of po­ litical recruiting has been re­solved? The signs are that the overwhelming  support  for F.S.M. aims among  students of all political hues and of no hues has evaporated along with the issue."

"One of  the  imponderables in trying to guess   whether peace ha.s really come to the campus Is that some F.S.M. activists obviously have devel­oped a vested interest in find­ ing things to fight about. They seem to operate on the theory that, in a. system they believe Is basically corrupt, the worse things get, the easier it will be to generate mass resistance."

"The reckless prodigality with which the F.S.M:. uses the weapon of civil diSobedience raises problems no university can deal with adequately. Harsh discipline carries  the  danger of martyrdom and a spread of sympathetic disorders to other campuses."

The events that would trigger the further spread of civil disobedience, disciplinary reaction and protest were the subject not only of Frank Church's article in the same magazine, but of the lead paragraphs of the News of the Week in Review: the beginnings of the escalation of the Vietnam War.  Thus did the older generation confirm the worst fears and anxieties of their children, eventually convincing them that yes, meaning could be found only in their own thoughts and feelings, and not in the political, intellectual or journalistic legacy of the past.  That generation has been in charge for about 25 years now, and the results are all around us.

Let us be fair:  the front page (although now only six columns instead of eight) and the front section of the Times today is relatively similar to that of fifty years ago.  It is for those that I get home delivery every day and plan to do so until either I or the paper Times finally expires.  But in a failing effort to attract new generations of readers, the Times, it seems to me, has abandoned most of its educational role.  Both the magazine and the Sunday Review are about the readers they want to attract--their lives, their fashions, their hopes.  The readers of 1965 seemed to understand, bless their hearts, that their private lives were their own business.  But the Berkeley undergraduates wanted the wider world to take their thoughts and feelings more seriously.  No one in 1965 could possibly have imagined the scale of their eventual triumph.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why Putin is winning

Last week, on her way to Minsk with her ally Francois Hollande to reach a new cease-fire accord involving Russia and Ukraine, Angela Merkel made a rather striking statement about the past and the future.  Citing the difficulty of resolving the situation satisfactorily, she remarked that she was a small child when the Berlin Wall went up, and that it took about three decades for it to come down.  Similar patience, she implied, was needed to deal with Putin's ambitions and this crisis.  I am afraid that Chancellor Merkel does not understand the age in which she is living and the differences between our world today and the one in which she, and I, grew up.  Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, understands it very well.

The Berlin Wall was not a turning point in the Cold War in Europe; indeed, it could not fairly be described as an offensive measure undertaken by the Soviet Union.  When the US, Britain and the USSR drew up their occupation plans for Germany in the last year of the Second World War, they split the country into three (later four) zones of roughly equal size and population, but decided to put their headquarters in Berlin, well within the Soviet zone.  (At least one American planner realized that this decision might cause problems and suggested putting the headquarters at the intersection of the three zones, but he was one of those singularly brilliant people to whom no one listens until it is too late.)  That meant that the American, British and French garrisons in Berlin were stranded within Soviet-occupied territory.  After 1949 they were stranded within the German Democratic Republic, which the western powers refused to recognize in deference to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany.  Even before then, in 1948, the Soviets had taken advantage of the situation to cut off land access to West Berlin.  The allies responded with an airlift and Stalin lifted the blockade after about a year.  The blockade was an offensive measure that had failed.

The Berlin crisis reached its peak in 1958-61, when Soviet premier Khrushchev--the most adventurous Soviet foreign policy leader ever--repeatedly threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany and turn the control of access of Berlin over to the East Germans.  If they denied access and the West tried to force its way through, general war would result.  This was the prospect Khrushchev threatened John Kennedy with in Vienna in 1961.  But meanwhile, the Berlin situation had created crisis for East Germany.  Because Germans could move freely through all of Berlin--even using the subway--East Germans could escape to the West at will.  The flow of refugees became a flood in the summer of 1961 and the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, insisted that it must stop.  According to summaries of recent scholarly studies (which I have not read in their entirety),  the wall was Ulbricht's idea, not Khrushchev's. It did not change West Berlin's status, although it encircled West Berlin--it merely made it impossible for East Germans (like Merkel's family) to cross into West Germany.  (I have no idea whether Merkel's family had entertained such ideas.)

In any event, by 1961, the situation in Europe had been stable for some time. NATO and the Warsaw Pact had both been formed and their armies faced one another along West Germany's borders. Thousands of American nuclear weapons were stockpiled in Europe to fight a war with the USSR, should one begin.  Communist governments controlled all Eastern Europe, and revolts in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956) and Hungary (1956) had been crushed.  Political means had kept Communist parties out of governments in the West since 1947.  A decade after the Wall went up, Chancellor Willy Brandt, one of the forgotten heroes of the twentieth century, began stabilizing the situation still further, recognizing Germany's postwar borders and opening relations with East Germany.  The rest of the West followed suit in the Helsinki agreements of 1975.  They officially accepted the division of Europe, and it was 14 years after that that the Wall came down.

The problem American policy makers have dealing with the situation that has emerged over the last 25 years is their Hegelian obsession with the idea that American values have triumphed, once and for all, and that anyone who stands in their way may be safely ignored.  Thus, breaking promises that James Baker made to Mikhail Gorbachev, the US in the 1990s extended NATO eastward to Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, and eventually, to include all the former members o fthe Warsaw Pact.   In 1999 the US led NATO in the war against Yugoslavia, detaching Kosovo, over Russian opposition.  We assumed that Ukraine would follow the western model as well, but it failed to produce an effective democratic government. 

What distinguishes Putin from his western adversaries is his recognition that American unipolarity has failed to bring about stability, and that his western borders include a number of weak stakes with immature political systems that are open to foreign influence and intimidation.  Hungary now has a semi-Fascist government quite comparable to Putin's, and its leader has acknowledged his kinship with the Russian leader. The Russians exert considerable influence in Bulgaria.  And now, having already annexed Crimea, they have used armed force effectively to detach eastern portions of Ukraine.  Here an analogy with Hitler in 1938 is relevant: the British and French let Hitler have the Sudetenland, the largely German-inhabited portion of Czechoslovakia, at Munich, on the assumption that he would go no further.  Six months later he broke up what remained of Czechoslovakia and occupied what is now the Czech Republic.  Putin may simply want the rest of Ukraine to remain weak and chaotic, or he may want to turn it into a satellite like Belarus instead.  In any case, the situation on Russia's western borders and in Eastern Europe as a whole has nothing in common with the situation in 1961.  It is dynamic,. not static, and Putin is using the instability and weakness in the region to enhance his power. 

I cannot help wondering whether the generation of Merkel and Hollande have gotten too accustomed to deferring to superpowers.  The Europe of the EU would not have been possible without American protection and support.  For 24 years now--really, since the first Gulf War--the Middle East has replaced Europe as the most important focus of American foreign policy, and a new power has emerged in Russia.   I would be very interested to read the appreciations that are coming out of the French and German foreign offices these days, but the heads of government of those countries seem to be resigned to letting Putin have what he wants, at least in Ukraine.  How they will feel if he tries to extend his sphere into some of the new NATO nations is not clear, although they have signed on to NATO's new rapid deployment force.

In times of strong governments and alliances, status quo powers can more easily make their will felt--and in Europe, both the US and the USSR were status quo powers for most of the Cold War.  But in times of weak governments with less legitimacy, a disruptive regime has far greater opportunities.  Putin understands this.  He also understands that the United States was first off the mark using the instability of the post-Cold War period for its own purposes, expanding NATO, making war on Yugoslavia, and invading Iraq.  As he repeatedly makes clear in speeches, two can play this game.  So far, no Asian nation has decided to do the same.  But the long-term future of Europe is once again in doubt.