For as long as I can remember, November 22 has always been a sobering date on my calendar. My late father, like many of his generation, revered John F. Kennedy. He owned several pieces of memorabilia. He also vividly remembered where he was and what he was doing on that fateful day when his favorite statesman tragically fell under the bullets. Before the Roosevelts, Truman, LBJ, Reagan and both Presidents Bush – commanders in chief for whom I have tons of admiration – JFK was the first one who piqued my intellectual curiosity.
I cannot proclaim that I have read every book regarding the main figure of contemporary Camelot, but I always make a point of skimming the pages of as many as I can. Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian whose work I have always been interested in. I was, therefore, impatient to grab a copy of his recent book Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency. I was expecting a good read because the author has an enthralling writing style. But I got much more than that.
Giles Milton is one of my favorite authors. And it’s always a real pleasure to be in touch with him. Even before I wrote my review of his last book, he agreed to answer some questions for this blog. If you haven’t read his book yet, run to the bookstore or get it online. This is a must, in the context of the aggression war conducted against Ukraine. For the time being, I trust you will enjoy this interview.
Mr. Milton, Checkmate in Berlin is a brilliant lecture about American and British innovation in adversity, mainly in organizing the Berlin airlift. Do you see the same attitude these days towards Ukraine?
Nothing on the scale of the Berlin Airlift had ever been attempted before. True, the Americans had airlifted vast quantities of weapons to the Chinese during the Second World War, but the Berlin Airlift was supporting (and keeping alive) several million Berliners.
As I grow older, I realize that history is one of the surest guides to navigate the present. While many adhered to Francis Fukuyama’s theory that the demise of Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, represented the end of history, others lamented what they perceived as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
Old habits die hard and Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern Worldis an excellent representation of that idiom. “”America is now the primary enemy,” said one of Marshal’s Zhukov’s general at the time of the capture of Berlin. “We have destroyed the base of Fascism. Now we must destroy the base of Capitalism – America.”” Things haven’t changed much in the last 77 years.
Harry S. Truman always ranked among my favorite presidents of the United States, if only because he made sure America was the first country to recognize the birth of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. In his new book Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization (HarperCollins), bestselling author and renowned TV personality (MSNBC) Joe Scarborough reiterates that the 34th president faced stern opposition from his Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his deputies, which “[…] led to an open conflict between the State Department and the White House.” Although such a conflict is to be expected, I was surprised and amazed to read that it only took 11 minutes for the president to make his decision, against all odds.
Not much is written about Truman. Not enough in my humble opinion. After all, there is much more to the 34th President than the decision to use the bomb to end World War II. In Joe Scarborough’s words, he was “the most consequential foreign policy president of the past seventy-five years.”
Apart from showing tremendous courage in facing headwinds about Israel, he had previously been instrumental in blocking the Soviet Union’s advance in the Mediterranean area. Upon learning in February 1947 that Great Britain could no longer shoulder its global role because “[…] Hitler’s war machine wreathed that nation in everlasting glory, but exhausted its resources and its people”, the Truman administration had a choice to make. Revert to isolationism or espouse a leadership role in the world. Great Britain would pass the torch to the United States and Washington would undertake the mission of developing and implementing a policy to prevent Greece and Turkey from falling under the hammer and sickle.
Russia is fascinating, Russia is dangerous. It is nevertheless important to question ourselves as to the sources of its current pugilistic conduct. Was it predestined by its history, its political DNA or could this reality have been avoided by a more efficient engagement in the past?
The Cardiff University Professor argues that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the “adversarial relationship [between Washington and Moscow] was replaced with the idea of a partnership between Russia and the West but would that partnership carry enough weight to satisfy the Russian elites’ pretensions to global importance? The proof was in the pudding, and the baker was in Washington.”
In a nutshell, Russia wanted to be seated “[…] at the head of the table, right next to America’s” But Washington “[…] did not need Russia’s help in running the world, neither during the Cold War, nor, especially, in its aftermath.” After all, “[…] the world was a jungle, where the mightiest had the power of persuasion and no one listened to the counsel of the weak.”
Fast forward, Vladimir Putin has learnt that lesson and applies it in the implementation of his vision of international relations.
But let’s go back to Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. There were talks about Moscow joining NATO, but no one in the West was much interested in that prospect, even though American officials dangled the possibility as bait. During that period, the embers of war inflamed former Yugoslavia and the world witnessed a vicious and murderous civil war begin in 1991. President Yeltsin “tried to make Bosnia a showcase of Russian-American cooperation.” But Washington was not interested, and Russia was “left on the sidelines”, the pride associated to her self-declared status humiliated. Much the same happened when Moscow sought to collaborate in the negotiations with North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a word, Moscow was not to be seated at the head of the table with Washington.
But by embracing enlargement without finding an appropriate role for Russia, the same [Western] policy makers overlooked the possibility that it might actually contribute to the latter’s nationalistic resurgence or, indeed, externally legitimize it. This is exactly what happened.
Pr. Sergey Radchenko
At that stage, one can sympathize with Russia’s frustration and feeling of abandonment.
Since nature abhors vacuum, “Russia’s own ontological security as a part of the West depended in large part on whether it was being recognized as such. If it wasn’t – that, too, was legitimating, because it helped the Russian political elites find their ground in an uncertain world, if not as friends, then at least as adversaries of the West.”
Professor Radchenko brings some nuances to that point of view, when he writes that “[…] one can of course lament Russia’s exclusion from Europe as a deliberate act of policy but it is hard to deny that such exclusion was partly justifiable in view of Russia’s own policies [like, for example, the war in Chechnya] […].”
Russia sought “legitimation through an adversarial relationship”, while the United States refused to offer “[…] enough leeway for legitimation through a genuine and inclusive partnership.” The seeds of confrontation had been planted by efficient gardeners. “It is hard to blame the White House”, writes the author. “They were the realists. But by being too realistic and not sufficiently idealistic at a time when they could have made a difference, they helped make Russia’s imperialist resurgence a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
As a student of history, I would bet that a discreet apparatchik named Vladimir Putin took careful notes and vowed not to fall into the idealist trap if his time came. And it came.
Russia certainly is not faultless in the current international context. But one can wonder what could have happened if the Clinton administration had adopted a different posture. In the land of “what ifs”, anything is possible, and I am not fond of revisionism. But one can easily assume that humiliating someone is never a good insurance policy for future good relations.
You can’t change the past, but there is always hope for the future. Russia is not immune to good relations with the United States. Vladimir Putin was the first international leader to call and offer assistance to President George W. Bush after the horrendous terrorist attacks on 9/11 and he was among the first ones to wish a speedy recovery to Donald Trump after news broke that the US President had tested positive to Covid-19.
Retired Four-Star Admiral James Stavridis served as the 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander – a function once occupied by the legendary General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2016, it was reported that he was vetted as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He recently published an excellent book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Characterwhich I recently had the privilege – and tremendous pleasure – to review here on this blog.
Having always been attached to the Fourth of July celebrations because of my deep admiration for the United States, it was my intention of publishing a special interview for the occasion. Admiral Stavridis generously accepted to answer my questions and I’m profoundly grateful.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book would be an excellent holiday read. Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends!
Here is the content of this insightful interview.
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war.
In Sailing True North, one of my favorite chapter (with the one devoted to Nelson) is the one about Zheng He. What do you think of the current tense situation with China and how do you think we should deal with that?
We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. That will require a mix of diplomacy, military deterrence, tech savvy, economic tools (both in competition with China and in encouraging other nations to avoid Chinese “debt traps”). In essence, we should confront China where we must (cyber, trade, tariffs, their claims of “owning” the South China Sea) but cooperate where we can (environment, pandemics, arctic trade routes). It will be a difficult and at times a dangerous passage. My next book, In Face, out in March 2021, is a novel about … a war with China! It is a cautionary tale, and let’s hope we don’t find it turning from fiction to fact before our eyes. Here’s a link to the Amazon page.
In the book, there are several references to religion, one to the Conclave, the other to John XXIII and Thomas Aquinas. I might be wrong, but I assume you are a Catholic and that faith seems to have had a significant impact on your journey. Am I wrong? Would you say that faith might also be an important buoy on the voyage of character?
Coming from the man who made sure that Soviet soldiers fired no bullets when the Iron Curtain came down, it is worth heeding the lessons given by Mikhail Gorbachev about the current situation. Without this man and his interlocutor, US President Ronald Reagan, the world might be a much worse place today.
Gorbachev’s advice reminds me of what Winston Churchill said in the British House of Commons on May 2nd, 1935:
“When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
We might not agree with everything the former Soviet leader says. And I certainly don’t. But the more time we will spend listening to people like Gorbachev who were on the brink and who made sure we would not fall into the abyss, the less we will regret we did not.