History has been kind to the
United States, or, as Bismarck famously put it, God tends to “protect idiots, drunkards, children and the United States
of America.” The USA no doubt has been given its share of second chances: after 1812 when it very nearly lost its independence;
after 1865 when it came closest to self-destruction; after 1945 when its favored new world order, nipped in the bud by Hitler,
Mussolini and the militarists of Tokyo, was given a second chance to thrive, and thrive it did.
What will people say about the period after
1989? Many Americans are scratching their heads today and asking themselves, we thought the Cold War was
long over? It’s all about Islamists now. But here go the Russians invading their neighbors all over again. So the Americans
continue with building missile defenses along the old Soviet perimeter; enticing its former republics to join NATO; badgering
the Russians in fora large and small for every last political, moral and even commercial advantage.
Every few years or so a “who lost X?” campaign begins anew in the United States. Just when it finished
asking who lost China, who lost Iraq and who lost Pakistan, Americans are now asking, again, who lost Russia. These oversimplifications
seem impossible to resist. But seriously, is it worth asking whether the Americans failed in some way to convert their former
enemy into an ally as they imagine themselves to be so adept at doing? Or were the Russians – wicked and opportunistic
by nature – just biding their time, gaining stronger year by year?
thing could be, and has been, said about the Germans, Japanese and other defeated enemies. Whether or not the Russians really
are so different and were bound to recreate their empire by force someday is not a question Talleyrand can answer definitively.
But there is no doubt that the United States and its NATO allies lost an opportunity. During the past decade they have treated
the Russians with a strange combination of condescension, flattery and passivity: acquiescing when they should have resisted,
lecturing when they should have listened, and bullying when they should have sought convergence. Even the most sober ex-Cold
Warriors now must be wondering whether Mr. Gorbachev should have put up more of a fight. It is hard to recall the last time
so formidable an enemy was treated so dismissively in defeat.
Is it too late for a second chance to get
the post-Cold War right? Not at all. Russians and Americans each have bigger fish to fry than to start a new round of proxy
wars across Eurasia in the name of prestige and self-determination. Everyone, including the former captive nations, has more
to gain if the two find a way to put the past behind them. But getting from here to there seems more challenging than ever.
Americans are not the only ones who will need a good deal of Divine luck in the years to come.
Faced with demands
to react to a crisis in the Balkans, Lord Palmerston once said that he did not endorse a “policy of scold.” Such
is running rampant in recent days. Georgia has sought to punish the South Ossete and Abkhaz people for their disloyalty. Russia
has sought to punish Georgian people and overthrow its government. Many thousands of people are now dead or displaced.
Nobody who has
been paying attention to the former Soviet Union for the past several years should be surprised by any of this. And the fingers
have begun to point. Some say Russia is to blame for over-reacting and using a long-standing crisis to reassert imperial rule. Others blame the United States and the West for any number of humiliations of Russia, the most recent being acceding to Kosovo’s
independence and flirting with NATO membership for Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. And some blame Georgia’s mercurial president, Mikheil Saakashvili for badly miscalculating the moment. It was he who, this time,
got the ball rolling. In doing so, he reminds one of any number of other second-tier revisionists, from the Corcyreans to
Josef Beck to Fidel Castro. Somehow these people always seem to find a way to connect their parochial crises to larger ones.
They rarely come out the better for it.
So, Saakashvili punished the Ossetes; the Russians have punished him; and they may do worse
in the days to come. And so the West will punish Russia, although how and to what extent remains to be seen. Nothing good
can come of this. It has damaged the decade-long quest for a stable peace in the former Soviet Union. And it has reaffirmed
Russia itself as a first-tier revisionist, and a most dangerous, power.