Friday, July 29, 2016
When Talks Stop, Bombs Drop
In October, 1962, United States President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev negotiated through a very tense situation. It seems that a certain enthusiastic branch of the US government decided that it would be a nifty idea to place friendly nuclear missiles in Turkey, where they would be within love making distance of willing communities in the western Soviet Union. Incredibly, the Soviets took issue with this action and, in an act of unprovoked aggression, put their Commie nuclear America hating missiles in Cuba. Right next to where they make the cigars! The nerve!
Well, old K&K negotiated for 13 days and finally Jack hog tied and chicken fried the Commies into withdrawing their commie missiles from Cuba. And all we had to do was take our buddy bombs out of Turkey. Brilliant!
Some people have suggested that it was this conciliation with the Soviets, along with Kennedy's drive to end the Viet Nam war and severly limit the power of the CIA, that resulted in his abrupt exit from politics. Coincidence, I'm sure.
I barely remember the incident, but I'm pretty sure nobody faulted Kennedy for talking to the Soviets. Maybe it was a cold war thing. World leaders were a chatty bunch back then. Even while Kruschev was banging his shoe on the UN conference table (I hope he paid for the damages) threatening to 'bury' us, there was talking going on in the quieter, less banged up, rooms. With everybody talking nobody had any time for any big wars. Except for Korea and Viet Nam, of course. Too bad there wasn't a president who wanted to stop them.
Still, I don't remember any Internet memes (we called them 'Political' 'Cartoons" back then and they appeared in 'News' 'Papers.' Look it up.) showing Nakita Kruschev holding a sock puppet Jack Kennedy. No one condemned anybody for wanting to talk openly and respectfully with the enemy. We might not have trusted them, entirely; or believed them, evidently; or were willing to give them the time of day, snarkelly; and they no doubt returned the favor, frivolously; but we talked. And guess what? Once in a while something got done! Nuclear arms treaties and stuff like that. Imagine! One thing I'm sorry for is that there is no Russian pavilion in Epcot Center. It might be nice to know that Russians are people, too. Hell, I'm one quarter one myself. Pass the vodka!
So the world survived for the sixties and seventies, un-detonated.
In 1989 President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev undertook an unheard of effort: To voluntarily disassemble an empire. That had never been done before. Empires tend to follow the trajectory of a fire work rocket. They start off with enthusiasm, energy, and creativity, reach a high point where they are on top of the world and resplendent in glory, only to fall in the end. The beginning stages are always unique and represent Golden Ages of art, theater, politics, literature, and reason; but the downward trajectory is dismally similar for every empire. Empires end by multiplying military exploits, devaluating currency at home, losing respect abroad, and suffering political paralysis at home until the surrounding vassal states suddenly realize that the Emperor has no power and gather around for the kill. The closest that any empire had come to a controlled demolition before was when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the modestly named city of Constantinople. He basically wrote off the western Roman Empire and downsized into the Byzantine Empire. It bought the empire another thousand years, so, all in all, a nice move. Europe? Well, not so nice.
Not so here. Reagan and Gorbachev planned the voluntary and controlled decompression of the colossus that was the Soviet Union into client republics. Not too shabby and quite literally history making, to boot! Of course, there were tremendous details to work out. What's to be done with the nuclear stock pile? Russia, the largest and most powerful of the former Soviet republics, agreed to take all nuclear weapons in former republics, most in Ukraine, and secure them. Ukraine agreed to lease the Savastapol naval bases in Crimea, a former provence of Russia anyway, in exchange for rent and discounts on natural gas deliveries. They signed a 99 year lease. Crimea had been a part of Russia for four hundred years, anyway, going back to Katherin the Great. That's twice as long as the US has been a country and four times as long as it's been an empire. Show some respect.
A lot of horse trading and securities guaranteeing had to go on. On our part, the West agreed to respect the old borders of the Warsaw Pact nations and not use NATO to encroach on that territory. Not one foot east! Russia then agreed to the reunification of Germany. Back and forth went the patient negotiations until it was a done deal. An empire had voluntarily downsized and obtained a workable relationship between all of its previous parts and pieces! Stunning. I hope it lasts, that whole peace thing. At least they made a good effort, Ronald and Mikhail. Some day it will be our turn. I wonder if we'll handle it as gracefully?
Again, I don't remember any mockery of the negotiations or peace process that it involved. No 'bromance' between Ronnie and Mik.
And now, just 25 years later, that same Russia, the one we partnered with to end the cold war, has rebuilt itself into a world power. A global partner able to host a winter Olympics and become the number one exporter of wheat in the world. A nation that is building trade agreements around the world and fighting terrorists in the Middle East. Wow! Not too shabby! We should be proud to call them comrades! Partners! Isn't that what we wanted? In 1991? With Reagan and Gorbachev? Perestroika? Isn't it? Hello? Anybody? Crickets? What changed?
So why do we here in the West have such a problem with Russia? And why its president, Vladimir Putin? Is he that much worse than Kruschev or Gorbachev? Roosevelt even talked to Stalin! They even took a selfie! Churchhill looked kind of grumpy, though. He was the grumpy cat of politics. We treated them with respect and talked to them on matters vital to both our countries and the world regardless of how they looked. Why not now?
Come to think of it, why does NATO still exist? It was a cold war relic. The cold war ended 26 years ago. And what happened to that whole, NATO won't move one foot to the east, thing? It looks like we kinda dropped the nuclear football on'a coupla things. We've even got nuclear capable missiles in Romania now. I thought Kruschev and Kennedy settled that 54 years ago? As the young people say, WTF? It seems like someone didn't live up to their end if the bargain. And it looks like it might just be us. Maybe we are now what they were then.
Why do we stop talking to people? Or even worse, why do we demonize them? Putin, the democratically elected president of the second most powerful country in the world with a greater that 80% approval rating of his subjects, a country we helped create through cooperation and compromise, is suddenly the bad guy? Huh?
Donald Trump, an unabashed flim flam man who, in a saner universe, would be a joke candidate on the Daily Show, has been endorsed by Putin, or so we are told. No. It didn't happen. Putin is not that stupid. He did not endorse Trump. He said that Trump is 'colorful' which Trump reinterpreted as 'brilliant.' Please don't insult the president of the resurrected Russia by putting him in the same chamber pot as Trump. Putin is a politician. Putin is a dangerous adversary. Putin is someone I would hate as a chess partner but welcome as a friend. Putin is a pragmatist who will strike the best deal for Russia regardless of ideology or what the currently reigning empire wants. And he will talk. Just like Reagan talked to Gorbachev. And maybe on the same topic. But he's not stupid.
So What? We've talked to worse. We're no better. We are all broth in the same political soup.
Hate Putin if you like, but he's not stupid. At least don't put words in his mouth. Talk. Listen. Bad things happen when we stop thinking of our adversary as ourselves with another opinion.
When talks stop, bombs drop.