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Who is the enigma - Putin or Clinton?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 5, 2011

Winston Churchill said that "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. But even if that is true is that a reason for the way the West has treated Russia since the end of the Cold War?
A good example at hand is the hand wringing, on occasion verging on apoplexy, that Western commentators have exhibited over Vladimir Putin’s decision to run for president once more. Personally I don’t think it’s a good idea because it plays to Russia’s long practice of autocracy. On the other hand France has five year terms with no term limits. The UK has no term limits and if Tony Blair had had his way and not been undermined by Gordon Brown with whom he made a private understanding not to run for more than two terms (he ran for three) he would probably still be prime minister today.

In the US the Bush family play a role rare in the annals of democracy. Father and son were president for a total of 12 years. It could easily have been 16 if the economy had performed better under George G.W. Bush and it could still be 16 or even 20 if his second son, the former governor of Florida, decides to make a run for the presidency in next year’s election - an attempt that he has more than hinted could be a possibility. (We should add that many observers believe the Bush family and its supporters fiddled the result in Florida to ensure the election of George W. Bush.)
Of course this is all “could be”. But so are the projections that Putin could be in power another 12 years,  then step down for six years, presumably to do some horse riding and fishing, and then serve another 12 years. Many things could connive to end Putin’s rule long before then - overstrain and illness, a disastrous turn in the economy if oil prices come down as North American oil shale production rises, or the electorate is confronted by a new younger, charismatic face (a Barack Obama type) who can speak to the times better than a wearying Putin.
The conclusion must be that we make Russia more of a mystery than it is. In fact there is over 200 years of history between the US and Russia. During the nineteenth century it is fair to say that the US and Russia were the closest of friends. Russia stood with the North during the civil war, even sending warships to prevent England and France supporting the Confederacy. Only in the early years of the twentieth century did the relationship weaken. When the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet in 1904 the US declared its neutrality much to Russian chagrin. Increased persecution of the Jews also soured America. But in 1914 Russia went to war on the side of the US and Britain and repeated that in World War 2. (Most historians argue that Russia’s army did more to defeat Hitler than did the armies of the West.) Of course the US hated Lenin’s revolution and refused to recognize the Bolshevik government for the next 25 years.
Still, the US and Russia have never come to blows, even during the Cold War. Not one shot has been fired in anger against the other in their long relationship.
If one wants to apply Churchill’s observation to real life it should be to explain the policies of President Bill Clinton. These still remain something of an enigma and a riddle. Clinton came to power with a silver spoon in his mouth, at least as concerned foreign policy, bequeathed to him by President G.W. Bush. The post Cold War friendship was maturing nicely. President Mikhail Gorbachev was regarded as a friend not a foe and his foreign policy, as enunciated in a masterful speech at the UN, was regarded as inspired. Nuclear disarmament was given priority by both sides.

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But Clinton in office did practically nothing on the disarmament front and then, without  any support from the foreign policy establishment and breaking a solemn promise given to Gorbachev by the US and West Germany, he decided to push for the East European nations to be given membership of  NATO.
There was no grand strategy in this move of Clinton’s. Indeed the opposite. It was sprung upon a surprised nation as well Russia. Its only explanation was that in a tight election Clinton was seeking to clinch the Polish, Czech and other eastern European votes among the immigrant population.
The cost in turning a good relationship into to a bad one has been immense. President Barack Obama has tried hard to change the atmosphere. But it left a deep mark on Putin. Perhaps for a long time (but who knows how long Putin will rule) the US will have to go on rueing the day.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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