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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Higher Education

I am at the moment working my way through the last half of Francis Parkman's famous series on France and England in North America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,  written over a long period during the 19th century.  I was introduced to Parkman as a Harvard freshman, and I bought a complete set of this work--about ten volumes--as a grad student.  The early volumes are rather slow, and I'm not sure I'll ever get through them, but I decided to read the last 7 (each volume is only about 350 moderately sized pages), which cover the period 1688-1770 or so, that is, the years in which the conflicts between the French and English were part of larger world wars, culminating in the Seven Years War. (The last two volumes are about the conspiracy of Pontiac, about which I know nothing at all.)  Perhaps it was this that got me thinking about my undergraduate education--so different from what students receive now--and a light suddenly went on in my head.

The bulk of my undergraduate courses, including most (but not all) of the best ones, were lecture courses devoted to broad topics--large swathes of history, great authors, or branches of economics.  (Because I did so well in Economics 1, I took much too much economics in subsequent years.)  The quality of the lecturing varied widely. Some lecturers were organized and always did what they set out to do; others could not manage that feat.  The average history or literature or government course, however, had an enormous amount of reading.  Just to give you a couple of highlights, in my sophomore year I took a very popular course by a visiting professor from Chicago on Dostoevsky, Camus, and Faulkner.  The list included three of the four major Dostoevsky novels; all Camus's major works; and three novels by Faulkner, plus some short stories. And. . .we read them.  The next term, that spring, I took a course on international politics from 1919 to 1945 taught by Ernest May, who became my dissertation adviser, and Sam Williamson, who is still a good friend.  It included entire, substantial books on Germany, Britain, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Far East in that period, and a good deal more as well.

There were already complaints in those days that students were too cut off from senior faculty, but I see now that they were misplaced.  Most of my classmates--though not all--had demonstrated substantial intellectual ability to get into Harvard in the first place.  We were being treated, I now see, like adults.  It was up to us to engage with the reading, whether we kept up steadily (as a few people did)_ or crammed in the three week reading periods in January and May (which I never failed to put to good use.)  We had to be ready to discuss those works in a three-hour final.  Young people can always rise to challenges, and we did.  Meanwhile, we were learning the experience of deep immersion in a subject.   This wasn't very hard for me. Books had always been my refuge and my most reliable friends.  But it was also required of my classmates, as part of their ticket to wealth and power which their diploma would represent. That had been true for about a century then--but all that was about to change.

I did what I could to keep that tradition alive both at Harvard from 1976 to 1980, where I taught a lecture course myself.  It had quite a lot of reading--although not as much as I did for May and Williamson--and because of the structure of the final exam, there was no way to avoid doing it.  (I made sure students would become immersed by dividing most of the reading into about ten sections and requiring each student to do two of them, and write one-hour essays on the subject they covered on the final.)  At Carnegie Mellon I developed a course called War and Revolution in the Twentieth Century, in which students read Pasternak, Malraux, Silone, Orwell, and Solzehnitsyn.  I don't know if there's anyone reading these posts who took that course, but I know it has stayed with certain students for the whole of their lives.  That was the point.

The trend for many years has been against large lecture courses and in favor of small group discussions.  That, it seems to me, inevitably puts more of a premium on grasping the approach of the instructor, rather than making up one's own mind about a long, great book. Scholars in the humanities, moreover, have become increasingly narrow.  And thus, it seems to me, today's elite students graduate with the ability to assimilate arguments quickly and regurgitate them, but without much experience in diving into large amounts of data and coming out with a conclusion themselves.  That in turn makes them much more likely to accept the conventional wisdom of their profession in their careers.    It also makes it less likely that they will spend much of their spare time reading long books later in life.

The world today is changing very rapidly, and we are having trouble coping with it, it seems to me, precisely because of a lack of long-term historical sense.  As I mentioned last week, our foreign policy establishment is committed to a rather naive belief in the continuing, unstoppable spread of democracy.  A few sanctions, it seems, will get any dissenters--like Vladimir Putin--back on the straight and narrow.  But that is not so.  The period of the Cold War was parallel to the long peace that followed the Napoleonic wars, roughly from 1815 until the mid-1860s.  A series of wars in that decade created modern Italy and Germany, but, thanks largely to Bismarck's skillful diplomacy, things did not spin completely out of control until 1914.   Bismarck may be Putin's model as well:  he wanted to make Prussia supreme in most of Germany, just as Putin wants to restore some of Russia's position in the former Soviet Union, but even Bismarck did not want all German-speaking lands under his control.   The Middle East, meanwhile, has essentially abandoned western tutelage.  The future relationship of the West and the Far East is, I think, much more uncertain than many of us realize.

We need men and women at the head of our institutions who can think both historically and on behalf of our whole society.  We do not seem to be producing very many of them any more.

I shall take a moment now to touch on another current controversy: Israel's insistence, as part of the peace negotiations involving the Palestinians, that the Palestinians and other Arab states accept Israel as a specifically Jewish state.  This, to  me, is a sad commentary on the decline of classic western political values.  After the American and French Revolutions citizenship became increasingly divorced from religion and, in much of western Europe, from ethnicity as well.  The Enlightenment called for equal political rights for all.  The Balfour Declaration called for a "Jewish national home": in which Jews--and specifically the Jews of the Russian Empire, who enjoyed very few political rights--could enjoy those rights, although it also specifically promised to protect the rights of the Arab population.  Israel has never been a completely Jewish state, and indeed, its Arab minority is increasing.  No advanced nation has found a way to keep its birth rate high enough to do without immigration.  Yet Israel wants to give special status to its majority of Jewish citizens--and to treat the Arab citizens similarly to the way Jews were treated in Europe in earlier ages.  I do not think this was what the founders of Zionism had in mind, but they came from much earlier generations.

Monday, March 24, 2014

P.S.--what the real Ambassador thinks

   It is interesting to compare my imagining of what Kennan might have advised the government with today's op-ed by our most recent Ambassador to Russia.  In my opinion it displays all the worst aspects of contemporary American diplomatic thinking: an utter inability to grasp that Putin might have a case, an eagerness to escalate the confrontation further (see his comments on Ukraine), and a vain fantasy that the Russian people are not, in fact behind what Putin is doing.  The Ambassador feels it is our duty not to rest until the entire world has accepted that Washington knows best.  That is not the kind of diplomacy I learned to appreciate first hand as a kid.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Another long telegram

In February 1946, George F. Kennan, then the ChargĂ© d’affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow, wrote what became known as the Long Telegram in an effort to awaken his superiors in Washington to new realities.  No one could have spoken with more authority than Kennan: he spoke Russian fluently and was highly familiar with its literature and history, and he had been serving in the Moscow Embassy for several years.  The telegram, which may be read here, stated his case simply and clearly. The wartime alliance against Hitler was over, Kennan wrote, and the Soviet Union's hopes for the new world had little or nothing in common with those of the United States.  The Communist leadership deeply believed in the historical  necessity of a worldwide struggle against capitalism and would do nothing that did not, in its view, further that cause.  Yet Kennan was not without hope, because he did not believe that the Soviets saw the struggle as a military one, or that they had the slightest wish to resume a world war.  Eighteen months later he published some of the same insights in his famous X article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."  By then he was the chairman of the State Department's Policy Planning Council. By a stroke of extraordinary good fortune, his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall--one of the half-dozen greatest unelected public servants the United States has ever produced--was a man who had risen to the command of the American Army by identifying the ablest available subordinates and following their advice.  He believed the Policy Planning Council should plan policy, and during the next two years, Kennan laid the foundation for the strategy of the Cold War.

I cannot pretend to expertise comparable to Kennan's.  I have made only one brief visit to Russia, 42 years ago, and I have never studied the language, although The First Circle and Dr. Zhivago are among the books I return to again and again in translation.  Yet I would like to think that I learned diplomatic realism from him, among many other sources, and that I can put it to use in examining the new situation that has been created by President Putin's annexation of Ukraine.  Kennan has become increasingly unfashionable in recent years, and the publication of his diaries, which are a very poor substitute for his extraordinary memoirs, isn't helping his reputation either.  But never in my whole life have I felt so acutely the complete absence of anyone like him in the highest councils of our government--and thus, I am going to yield to temptation and try to suggest what a young Kennan, were he posted in Moscow today, might say.

The ChargĂ© d’affaires to the Secretary of State
March 21, 2014

The current situation in Russia, the Ukraine, and surrounding nations inevitably calls to mind the immediate aftermath of the last great crisis in the Atlantic world in 1933-45, when the defeat of Hitler and the Japanese was immediately followed by the Soviet installation of Communist regimes in various countries of Eastern Europe.  It also recalls developments in the wake of the First World War, when Russia was briefly reduced almost to its current extent within Europe, facing a newly independent Ukraine and Baltic States, while retaining control of Belarus.  That previous example is, in fact, more relevant.  The problem Lenin and Trotsky faced at the time of the German collapse was to recover the territory they had lost early in 1918 in the Peace of Brest Litovsk, and they successfully reincorporated Ukraine into the new Soviet Union, but failed in a war against Poland and had to tolerate the independence of the Baltic states for twenty years, until the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler.  The current crisis began, of course, with the collapse of Communism in 1989-90, followed by the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Vladimir Putin did not come to power in Russia until 1999, and he has obviously moved much more slowly than Lenin in 1919 or Stalin in 1920 to begin increasing the extent of his territorial control and influence.  The nature of his goals has become clearer in recent years, and his speech last Monday in Moscow, which I encourage all serious students of Russian policy to read, leaves relatively little doubt of how he sees the world and where he may be heading.  Our first, and perhaps easiest, task, is to understand what he had to say.

The collapse of Communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union were indeed world-historical events comparable in impact to each of the two world wars.  We must be extraordinarily thankful that they were accomplished with relatively little serious bloodshed, a most remarkable outcome, but no one should have expected the emergence of a new order to be a smooth process.  Indeed, President Bush and Secretary of State Baker plainly had mixed feelings, to put it mildly, about the disintegration of the USSR, and the kinds of regimes that have emerged in many of the successor states have not been inspiring.  In his speech, Putin regretted the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but he did not dwell upon it, much less lay the blame on foreign influences, as he so often likes to do when discussing unpleasant subjects.  What he objected to was, first, the way in which the boundaries of Soviet Republics automatically became the borders of newly independent states, and, second, the ways in which, as he sees it, the western powers have taken advantage of the situation over the last 25 years or so.  There is not the slightest evidence that Putin wants to embark on a worldwide crusade comparable to those of Lenin and Stalin, and it is highly doubtful, to say the least, that he has any designs even upon eastern European nations such as Poland and Rumania.  But he is not willing to accept the situation within the former Soviet Union as it has evolved to date, and the events of the last month show that he has powerful cards to play.

It was to be expected that the collapse of Communist authority over Eastern Europe would lead to turmoil, and even to the redrawing of borders, as indeed it has.  The process was not confined to the former USSR.  Czechoslovakia immediately separated into its two component parts, ironically vindicating those who in the 1930s pronounced it an artificial creation that was not destined to survive.  Yugoslavia, which Serbia had managed to create in 1919 by virtue of having played the key role in unleashing the First World War that destroyed Austria-Hungary, came apart much more bloodily, and it took the better part of a decade to establish new frontiers for Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia--the last still a very fragile construction.   The first Bush Administration declined to intervene in the war among the successor states, but the Clinton Administration took a different view.  It brought what seemed to be the last phase of the struggle to an end with the agreement on Bosnia in 1995.  Then, in 1999, the rump state of Yugoslavia apparently embarked upon a campaign to cleanse Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, and the government of the United States, supported by NATO--but not by the UN Security Council--went to war with it to stop this process.  The war, conducted entirely from the air, succeeded, and Yugoslav (really Serbian) authorities gave up Kosovo.  Kosovar independence followed, and the United States and other NATO countries recognized it.  In the succeeding 15 years, most of the Serb population has been driven out of Kosovo, although peaceably, not violently.

It was the Kosovo war, Putin makes very clear, that established the precedent that he is determined to fight.  Confronted with a conflict generated by the collapse of Communism, NATO, as he sees it, unilaterally took responsibility for determining the proper outcome without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China would have refused assent.  And in so doing, NATO only extended the approach it had already taken to the aftermath of the collapse of Communism: its belief that the extension of western influence and western values must be the inevitable result.

It is at this point in the story, it seems to me, that our own government must for a moment reflect upon the wisdom of the choices made by previous administrations.   There were those of us who believed that NATO, having functioned successfully for more than 40 years as a defensive alliance against Communism, had lost much of its raison d'etre when Communism collapsed, and that its role in a new world might be re-evaluated.  The government of the United States, however, did not take this road.  Instead, NATO became a mechanism for expanding western and American influence as far eastward as possible, and all the former Soviet satellite states of the Cold War era, as well as the former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, are now members.  The second Bush Administration, indeed, was on the point of offering Ukraine membership in 2008, but the current Administration--wisely in my view--did not pursue this initiative.

The US government made these decisions, it seems to me, in the belief that the Russian government's views did not matter.  They also made them in the belief--encouraged by our triumph over our Cold War adversary--that American institutions and American values were destined to triumph over the entire world.  That view, specifically enunciated in the National Security Strategy of 2002, still seems to remain the basis of our policy. As one who has never held it--who has instead believed that democracy is the heritage of certain specific nations, who must always be vigilant to make sure that it functions well, and hesitant to assume that it will thrive elsewhere--I cannot say that I believe this to be the basis of a sound foreign policy.  In the past five years, we have adopted another set of assumptions highly relevant to the current crisis.

Those assumptions, in essence, seem to hold that any uprising against an authoritarian or dictatorial government must be a good thing, and that the United States should embrace revolutionary movements as soon as they have become large enough to fill the main square of their nation's capital city with demonstrators.  That is what the United States has done, Putin points out in his speech, in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria--with very mixed results.   And that is also what both the United States and the EU did in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been, indeed, the test case for our assumption that democracy must follow Communism, and its recent history has not born it out.  We have assumed that anti-Russian elements within Ukraine would be both more democratic and less corrupt, but that did not turn out to be the case. The Orange revolution of 2004 did not have the results we had hoped, and a pro-Russian government returned to power.   The Ukrainian people, like so many others in the western world, have been hit hard by the Great Recession, and last year they turned against that government.  Both the EU and the United States seized upon this as an opportunity to return a friendly regime to power.  To this Putin decided he must respond.

In arranging the secession and rapid accession to Russia of Crimea, Putin, as his speech makes clear, has taken advantage both of ethnic realities and of history.  Russians constitute the bulk of the Crimean population, and Khrushchev's decision to transfer it to Ukraine 60 years ago took place within a completely different context.  As Putin pointed out in his speech, were a Ukrainian state that included Crimea to join NATO, as has been discussed recently, NATO forces would acquire the only major naval bases in the Black Sea.  The referendum just held almost certainly reflects the wishes of the bulk of the population.

In my opinion, our government must reconsider the wisdom of the sanctions it is imposing in response to these events, since we have no means of undoing them.  We do face a continuing crisis and we need strategies to face it, but we cannot make Crimea part of Ukraine again, and it will not serve the interests of the American, Russian or Ukrainian peoples to create an endless confrontation over what has taken place.  Diplomacy must be based upon reality.

The serious question we now face involves the future of the government of Ukraine. Putin denies its legitimacy, and clearly threatens in his speech to make that a pretext for intervention in Ukraine proper, and perhaps for the separation of the large Russian-speaking portions of eastern Ukraine and their addition to Russia as well.  Meanwhile, the new Ukrainian government--which, it must be acknowledged, did not come to power by constitutional means--is moving rapidly to strengthen its ties to the European union.  It may ask for NATO membership.  Putin, very simply, is determined not to allow the West to choose who shall govern Ukraine.  He clearly desires to turn more of the former USSR into a Russian sphere of influence based upon his Eurasian union.  He will use what cards he has to play to achieve these goals--but he will only use the military, in all probability, if there is no opposition, as there was not in Ukraine.

Elections are now scheduled in Ukraine.  I would suggest that we invest our political capital in ensuring that all interested parties, including the Russian government, will respect the results of those elections.  A conflict over the legitimacy of the government within the shrinking territory that divides the NATO alliance from Russia is a recipe for disaster, one that could even lead to war.  Meanwhile, we need Russian cooperation to deal with both Syria and the Iranian nuclear program.  We need, in short, to do the work diplomacy has always tried to do: to find a solution that we all can live with.

Here the Cold War, properly understood, provides some useful examples.  We must face the fact, as we did in 1946-7, that Putin does not share our values or our vision of the future. He feels Russia to be different from the West and he wants to increase its influence.  He is not, however, prepared to do so by war.  The early years of the Cold War featured a number of struggles within contested nations that were decided by political, rather than military means.  Hungary in 1947 and Czechoslovakia in 1948 fell to Communism because of internal political changes, not Soviet military power.  Finland and Austria remained outside the Soviet orbit for parallel reasons: their anti-Communist forces proved stronger than Moscow's satellites.  That also happened in the critical nations of France and Italy.  It will happen now, one way or another, in the Baltic States, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Our assumption that democracy would spread, as it were, automatically, has proven false.  That does not however mean that it cannot spread--only that its spread will require determination and character on the part of the nations of the former USSR, and also of the United States and the nations of the European Union.  They must assess each situation wisely and do what they can.  They must also realize that the Putin government remains very important to a host of broader problems in which we have an enormous interest.  Let us not not once again allow dogma to trap us into an endless confrontation with a nuclear power, punctuated by crises that put the whole world at risk.  Let us base our ends upon realities and trust to the long-term movement of history.

[sgd) George Kennan

(not really--DK)

(Please share this as widely as you can. Thanks.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Taking things seriously

I was fortunate to be born into the world I inherited.  The greatest war in human history had ended less than two years earlier, paving the way for the triumph of industrial and democratic civilization in most (but not all) of the world's temperate zones.  Although my elementary school classes were large by today's standards--generally numbering about 30--and I spent one term in half-day sessions waiting for the construction of a new school, my teachers were caring, smart, encouraging, and often enthusiastic--even though they worked for next to nothing--and my fellow students were curious.   Public education was virtually free, and even private education cost less than 1/3 of what it does today, adjusted for inflation.   The older generation to which my parents belonged had been taught to value great works of art and literature, and new media like film and television still drew heavily on those older traditions.   They also had been taught a belief in equality and human rights, one which helped the civil rights movement end legal segregation in my childhood

I can see, now, that this atmosphere was the climax, really of a process that had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century: the attempt to design a new world based upon reason and principles of equality.  Indeed, that was the way our textbooks taught American history: as a long struggle for freedom, beginning with the Pilgrim's trek across the ocean to practice their religion freely and continuing through the revolution, the expansion of the nation, and the civil war, and culminating int he Second World War.  None of this happened by accident, or as the result of blind historical forces: men made it happen, based upon their beliefs.  And--critically--it was hard work.

Yes, civilization is hard work, politically, artistically, and in any other way.   I was reminded of that yet again watching the remarkable documentary, Tim's Vermeer, in which Tim Jenison, a specialist in film and television lighting, spends many months testing his theory of how Vermeer used a lense and a mirror to reproduce reality so exactly.  Jenison is like me, but with a broader skill set.  If he has an idea he wants to pursue he doesn't care how long it takes and, crucially, he doesn't need immediate feedback--the work is its own reward. Surely every great historian and every great artist has had that quality.  It is natural for many of us, but society has to encourage it to allow to thrive, and it is no longer a prized quality within academia or, for the most part, in the arts.   We are much poorer as a result.

It also took time, energy, concentration, and event he sacrifice of life to create and preserve democracy against many threats.  The Civil War was an unprecedented expenditure of energy and resources to prove, as Lincoln argued, that a democratic government could resist an internal threat.  The New Deal was a huge effort to organize industrial society and regulate capitalism.  The Second World War dwarfed any previous or subsequent feat of mobilization.  And all this raises the question--what kinds of activities command such energy and dedication today?

The answers, I'm afraid, are not encouraging.  Certainly the designers of new apps and video games have some of the same quality, but it is producing anything of lasting worth? (I ask--I'd be the last person to know.)  Hedge fund managers and bank division heads, who have some of the brightest young minds in the world at their disposal, move heaven and earth to find the tiniest new edge, regardless of the broader consequences.  Marketers strive to design movies just like the ones that succeeded last year.  There are still a few people in the movie business, such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt, who are willing to use their star power to make something great happen, but they are the exceptions who fall outside the system.  I wonder whether any twenty-something filmmaker would set out to do the kind of thing they do now.

And politically, all the energy in the nation seems dedicated to tearing down, not building up.  For many months, as regular readers know, I have wondered if the latest Tea Party outrage or Congressional shutdown might mark the high tide of the radical attempt to undo the last hundred years of American government.  Nothing, however, seems to daunt Republican enthusiasm for more--and worse, nothing seems to inspire Democrats to put forward a real alternative.  I am waiting for Nate Silver to begin sharing his insights once again at espn.com, but so far it looks like the best the Democrats can hope for is to hold on to an even narrower Senate majority.  Not only does Hillary Clinton seem to have no serious rivals for the Democratic nomination, but I can't imagine who the alternative candidates would be if she did not run. Democrats take women's issues and gay rights seriously, but they are no longer engaged in trying to remake our society along more just lines.

This is, alas, clearly a fundamental rhythm of human experience.  When younger generations like my own start taking their parents' achievements entirely for granted, they are in danger.  Thus Boomer foreign policy specialists have assumed for twenty years that the collapse of Communism meant the worldwide triumph of the American model.  Vladimir Putin is giving them the first of what may be a series of rude shocks.  Something similar seems to be happening even in Europe, where extreme right-wing parties attract more dedication, if not yet more voters, than mainstream ones.  Communism as it once existed is waning in China, but the same sort of oligarchy that now rules Russia seems like the most likely alternative to it.  Meanwhile, much of a new generation is repudiating their parents' pacifism in Japan.

Politically, I would argue, the Anglo-American world began traveling down a certain very inspiring path in 1688 or so.  Three hundred years is a very long time in the history of any civilization. We still have,. of course, our democratic freedoms and institutions but they are a shadow of what they once were.  Our ability to act on behalf of the common good is much reduced.  Here, surely, is a threat to our civilization at least as serious as global warming, but one that we are only beginning to understand.

Friday, March 07, 2014

New rules or old?

A few days ago, Henry Kissinger, who will turn 90 this year, vainly tried to revive the realist tradition in an op-ed on the Ukraine crisis in the Washington Post.  Ukraine, he argued, had been too closely linked to Russia for centuries to be completely separated from it, and must be regarded as a bridge between East and West rather than the furthest point of advance of western civilization.  And while Putin might not meet western ideals of statesmanship, Kissinger hinted that we had to accept him as the leader of a major nation and pay some attention to his concerns.  President Obama, meanwhile, calls for rigid adherence to international law as we have come to understand it.  That, alas, is another fantasy of American foreign policy, comparable to George Bush's and Condi Rice's fantasies of a democratic Middle East eager to be born.  The peoples of Ukraine, the United States, Europe and Russia need peace and economic recovery, and they can only secure them upon a foundation of political liberalism.

In the last crisis of the 1930s and 1940s--the subject of my forthcoming book, due out exactly one month from today--the government of the United States stood unreservedly for international law, against international anarchy.  That had been Woodrow Wilson's goal during the First World War.  The Roosevelt Administration had practiced what it preached, most notably in Latin America, where it brought more than three decades of armed intervention to an end.  That gave the United States credibility when it warned against the spread of aggression in Asia and Europe beginning in about 1937.  Again and again President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull called upon nations to respect one another's territorial integrity, and warned that anarchy, once unleashed, was bound to spread to the western hemisphere.  In 1938 the American government, as my book shows, began planning to meet that threat.

We live in a very different world today.  The United States and the western hemisphere are not threatened with invasion, but anarchy threatens much of the world, including Ukraine.  The first Gulf War in 1991 was based upon the same principle stressed by FDR and Hull: the restoration of the territorial integrity of Kuwait.  That was no accident: President George H. W. Bush had fought in the war Roosevelt declared.  Boomer pretenders to his throne like Paul Wolfowitz and his own son, however, regretted and resented Saddam Hussein's survival, and began scheming to remove him from power.   Then in 1999 Bill Clinton led NATO into war against Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.  The Russian government and the UN Security Council did not bless that war, and thus began a chill in Russian-American relations.  For a few years before 1999, the foreign officer program at the Naval War College had included a Russian officer.  None ever returned after that.

There is no need to revisit the disastrous intervention in Iraq, but a variant of the Bush foreign policy has survived--like so much else--into the Obama years.  Wicked dictators, we still believe, must go as soon as a few hundred thousand people demonstrate against them in the street, and democracy will naturally follow.  Unfortunately in practice our embrace of this policy is inevitably limited by our interests.  Even at the height of the Arab Spring we allowed the Saudis to put down the Shi'ite revolt in Bahrain.  In Egypt the first democratic elections put the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and we stood by when the military overthrew it, killed several hundred of its followers, and jailed its leaders.  Then in the last few months we applied the same policy towards Ukraine, where an unpopular President had rejected closer ties with the EU.  The government of the United States, as a released Russian phone tap showed, was discussing the membership of the new government of Ukraine that took power after the elected President fled.  This was too much for Vladimir Putin.

I do not have any real credentials as a Russian expert and I cannot say for sure what Putin is up to, but he has publicly decried the collapse of the USSR--which he loyally served in the KGB--and it seems to me he wants to restore Russia to a position broadly comparable to the one Prussia occupied in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918 within at least some of the former Soviet Union.  He snipped two small provinces away from Georgia in 2008 to show who was boss, and he now seems determined to teach the world a comparable lesson about Ukraine.  He wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union and out of the EU, and he wants a friendly government there.  While I still think it unlikely that he wants to detach Crimea from Ukraine and annex it to Russia, the referendum he has called on independence will be a club in his attempts to intimidate the government in Kiev.  As I heard a Russian explain patiently on NPR the other day, Putin also believes he has considerable influence in western Europe, exercised through his own financial resources and those of Russian oligarchs.  Many distinguished retired European statesmen are on his payroll, and the London banks profit enormously from the Russian underground economy.   I think Putin must know that an attempt to subdue Ukraine by force would be disastrous.  He does not have the military resources to hold a nation of 40 million people captive.  But he is playing a traditional game of power and influence in which his troops in Crimea and on the Ukraine-Russian border are one of several assets.  And he does not intend to allow street demonstrations in Kiev, backed by western governments, to drive out a friendly ruler. 

When Franklin Roosevelt explicitly went on a crusade for the defense of democracy in 1940-1, he disposed of another enormous asset: his stature as by far the most effective and inspiring democratic leader in the world.  Alone among elected leaders, he had struggled against the depression with some success and rallied a great nation behind him.  When he announced the Four Freedoms in early 1941--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear--they struck his countrymen and the world as much more than a slogan.  The millions of peoples conquered and oppressed by Hitler and the countless millions still unconquered, a world leader told FDR's envoy Harry Hopkins in the last few days of July 1941,  “could receive the kind of encouragement and moral strength they needed to resist Hitler from only one source, and that was the United States. . .. .The world infl uence of the President and the Government of the United States was enormous.”  It was not Winston Churchill who spoke those words, but Josef Stalin, and he was right.

The stakes today are not nearly so high as in 1941, when either racist totalitarianism or democracy might rule the industrialized world for decades to come.  Yet the future of a broad swath of the world is at stake, and the United States could exert far more influence if its domestic picture were the least bit inspiring now.  In contrast to 1941, we are deeply divided, deadlocked in Washington, and suffering the increasing influence of a financial and energy oligarchy.  American and Russian economic giants, it seems, have reaped the benefits of the American victory in the Cold War.  Putin is betting that Europe will not fill the void, and the evidence suggests that he was right.  The form democracy that ruled the industrialized world in the second half of the twentieth century did not simply having as the result of an evolutionary process, as the Bush National Security Strategy, following Francis Fukuyama, seemed to claim in 2002.  It arose because men and women in the United States and Europe consciously built it.  It shall not return until new generations do the same.  Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin will inevitably win some victories in his very traditional, utterly cynical struggle for power and influence.