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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Know Thine Enemy

A bit of historical empathy may be in order; or, as the Americans like to say, we need to stand in the other guy’s shoes every now and then.

When John Kerry accused Vladimir Putin of living in the 19th, not the 21st, century, he must have meant the early 20th. For the 19th century—at least up to the last Crimean War when, for a few strange reasons, Britain and France decided to terminate their half-century-long arrangement with Russia and switch sides—was a comparably peaceful and well-ordered period in Europe, when nearly every major, and even minor, power played by the rules.

Three times in modern history the powers of Europe were overtaken by passions and nearly committed continental suicide. Three times—in 1648, 1815 and 1945—their statesmen gathered to pick up the pieces by asserting a rather simple geopolitical principle: that borders should not be violated, least of all by passions. The final one, begun as it happens also at Crimea, took a while to set but finally, in 1975, did in something called the Helsinki Final Act.

Helsinki’s shelf-life was rather short. For the organization which underwrote it—the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe—gathered in Istanbul in 1999 and declared, in the words of a well- known Czech-American, that “human rights trump sovereignty.”

In the meantime the borders of Europe had moved. Putin is told again and again that the 21st century mind does not think this way, and that Europe—especially Europe—has progressed to a new era of human society where Machtpolitik is no longer waged with maps, armies and gold. He could easily reply that this is what European imperialists have always said to defend and promote their empires. A German hegemony underwritten by American nuclear weapons and Chinese consumers is no different. And every year it swallows even more territory.

Thus it may be reasonable to depict Putin and his country as stuck in a time warp, “on the wrong side of history,” etc. It may also be reasonable to draw analogies not to 1938-39 but to 1999 or perhaps to a year before the Helsinki Final Act, 1974, in a place not too far from Crimea called Cyprus. Putin may or may not be a “revisionist” on a rampage. Or he may just be fed up at being lectured to by people who can’t get their centuries right.


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