Conquering Today’s Adversity by following Admiral Nelson’s Example

Admiral Lord Nelson (Source: Royal Museums Greenwich).

History remembers October 21st 1805 not only as Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last day on Earth, but also as the day he won the naval battle off Gibraltar (Cape Trafalgar), ensuring his name would forever live in posterity, history books and in our collective memory. A simple stroll on Trafalgar Square in London or a quick visit in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral where he lies for eternity highlight how much this victory and the man who made it possible mean to British consciousness.

Standing at most five and a half feet and afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […].

Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis

During last spring’s confinement, I obtained and reviewed a copy of one of the best books I read this year Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (The Penguin Press) by Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis. This motivating author devoted one of his chapters to the famous son of Albion.

“Born weak and sickly, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […] he stood at most five and a half feet in his stockings. Slight of built, and eventually missing both an arm and an eye lost in combat, he was also afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses on and off throughout his life.” He furthermore suffered from a boyhood insecurity complex that made him seek and revel in public recognition. Traits that would certainly be mocked by the likes of Donald Trump where he be alive today.

Whatever physical impediment he suffered from was vastly compensated by his character. To that effect, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO reminds us that the famous sea warlord was an adept team-builder who also knew how to take care of his men, “[…] ensuring that his sailors received the best possible treatment.”

How can this role model of the past inspire us today?

Seasonal depression is upon us as the days grow shorter, influenza is about to rear its ugly head and we are in the midst of a worldwide and deadly pandemic. Much to be depressed about and wither in self-pity. But we must not. Despite his condition and preconditions, Horatio Nelson was never one to cower or shy away from his duties. Were he alive today, he would certainly be one of the staunchest fighters against the current somber context, displaying his values of determination, discipline and goodwill unto others. We can do the same today by wearing a mask, keeping our distances, helping local foodbanks, getting in touch with the elderly just to name a few examples.

It is not at all difficult to imagine Admiral Nelson wearing a mask himself and caring for people around him, as any true leader should, because he did in his times. “He worked hard to make to make sure that food was fresh [for his sailors], water plentiful and unpolluted, and each ship had a competent surgeon.”  

Despite his handicaps, Nelson trusted his judgment to achieve his goal. At the battle of Copenhagen, in 1801, “[…] he famously deliberately pressed a telescope to the eye that had been blinded earlier in his career, thereby ignoring the signals of his superior, and ended up winning an important victory over the Danes. The phrase “turning a blind eye” was reportedly inspired by the incident.”

A powerful testimony that our liabilities can be pivoted to become our greatest assets.

Today, more than ever, the victor of Cape Trafalgar – who clipped Napoleon’s sails and guaranteed Britain’s safety – has a lot to teach us. And we would all be well advised to learn from his school of character.

Want to read more about inspiring figures like Horatio Nelson who rode the waves of adversity and led the ships home safely? I strongly suggest you grab a copy of Admiral Stavridis’ excellent book.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.

________

Admiral James Stavridis, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, New York, The Penguin Press, 2019,336 pages.

President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

_____________

Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

“Hunkering down and waiting until Russia melts down is not a policy.” – Exclusive interview with Pr. Sergey Radchenko

Former Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Canada, Mr. Georgii Mamadov (Source: The Globe and Mail)

(version française)

After the publication of my post about his recent and excellent article about the relationship between Russia and the West in the immediate aftermath of Cold War, Professor Sergey Radchenko (University of Cardiff) kindly accepted to answer few questions to examine the matter further. Here is the content of our exchange.

Having met with former Deputy Foreign Minister Georgii Mamedov when he served as Ambassador of the Federation of Russia in Canada, I am wondering if you might have more information about his role during this pivotal period in the relations between Washington and Moscow?

Mamedov is a mystery to me. He seems to have played a crucial role in the relationship, and one that was very constructive. If I were to guess at his political orientation, I would say that comes across as someone who valued Russia’s cooperation with the West and worked to bring Moscow into a closer alignment with the West. On the other hand, unlike other key figures on both sides of Russia-US relations (e.g. Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov and others), Mamedov has not been willing to go on record with his version of events. I hope he will change his mind and we’ll get to hear his side of the story.

In your article, you oftentimes refer to the Russian elites and their impact on the policymaking about the relationship with the West. What about the American and Western elites? Did their influence play a role in the attitude towards Moscow?

The article talks a lot about the “elites,” which I guess is the same thing as what is often referred to as the “foreign policy blob” in the American context. There has recently been much discussion in the US about the role of the “blob,” as well as its vested interests (for example, in the question of US global leadership). This discussion is immediately applicable to the Russian context (and vice versa), since foreign policy of a country is really what the elites (or the “blob”) make of it. I am not being critical of the “blob” here; I just argue that there are certain narratives that are shared by the elite. In Russia’s case, it’s the narrative of their country’s international “greatness.” In the US case, it’s a question of America’s global leadership. In both Russia and the US these narratives cut across partisan lines.

The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.

The Clinton administration clearly did not seem keen on engaging Russia in the perspective of offering that country a seat at the table. Your article depicts Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher as being in the opposing camp of such an outcome. But were there senior officials who diverged with that assessment and who might have been more inclined to convey Russia to a greater role?

Mary Sarotte has done much more work than I have on the US side; her research shows that, indeed, there were people in the Pentagon, for instance, who were abhorred by the idea of rapid NATO enlargement. They were worried about Russia’s negative reaction and were more interested in the strategic arms control dialogue with the Russia or in Ukraine’s denuclearization. Whether this means that they were willing to give Russia a seat at the table is another matter. The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

On the Western side, you refer to Americans – of course – and to a certain extent to the Germans. I was also very interested in reading your reference to a memorandum from British Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite to Anthony Lake. How would you resume the British attitude in regards with NATO enlargement and potential Russia membership?

I have spoken to Malcolm Rifkind who was the Defense Secretary and the Foreign Secretary in the UK while this debate was going on. His position then (and now) is that Russia could never be a part of NATO, as this would undermine the very purpose of the alliance. This of course suggests that the purpose of the alliance is to keep Russia at bay, and perhaps this is how the British policy-makers viewed the problem at the time. More often, they expressed their opposition with reference to practical concerns, e.g.: how could Russia be integrated in military terms? Would this not make the alliance into another version of the OSCE?

Fundamentally, of course it was not in the immediate British interest to dilute NATO by inviting a country like Russia into the alliance, especially that the Russians claimed at the time that they have a special kind of relationship with the United States (as a key partner). This would just diminish Great Britain’s status as a key player in the West. It is interesting that in the early 1990s, the British were trying to redefine Britain’s post-Cold War role. In one of the seminars that was convened by the Prime Minister to do that, it was proposed to strive towards maintaining Britain’s status as one of the three key European powers (the others being… Germany and France). Russia was not even on the radar.

The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

After he arrived at the Kremlin in 2000, President Putin sent signals that he was well-disposed towards the West (notably his relationship with President Bush and a visit to the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport) – a disposition that changed over time. In your opinion, could more have been accomplished at the beginning of the Putin reign to engage further Russia with the West?

It seems clear that Putin was inclined to build closer relations with the West early on in his tenure. Like Yeltsin, he expressed interest in joining NATO. I do think that an opportunity was missed to tie Russia institutionally to the West. It does not mean that Putin can evade his share of responsibility for the worsening of the relationship. It just means  that, just as the article argues, the resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

The notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.

Are there still pro-Western advocates in the entourage of President Putin?

Yes, the two narratives that were present in the 1990s are still present, although the narrative of engagement is much less pronounced now. Putin is deeply invested in the adversarial narrative and won’t easily shift back. But were he to step down, the elites can easily shift in the other direction. No one hold deeply ideological views about Europe; if anything, the notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.

What would it take for Russia and the West (NATO) to get back on a more cooperative trajectory? Would it even be beneficial?

It’s tricky now because there are structural impediments (primarily, Crimea). It would be completely unrealistic to imagine that Russia will return Crimea even after Putin is gone. Re-establishing good relations between Russia and the West would thus require the West to find a viable position for itself in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Perhaps this would mean offering incentives to both in the context of eventual membership in both NATO and the EU. This is a far-fetched idea at the moment but the alternative to creative thinking is to simply hunker down and wait until Russia melts down. This is not a policy.  

Are you currently working on a book and, if so, would you agree to lees us know what it will be about?

The book is a history of Soviet/Russian foreign policy since 1945 to the present. It’s been years in writing, and I can’t wait to finally present it to the readers! I hope it will appear in print next year.

Many sincere thanks Professor!

_____________

(version française)

« Attendre que la Russie disparaisse n’est pas une option. » – Entrevue exclusive avec le Professeur Sergey Radchenko

Dans la foulée du billet que j’ai publié à propos de votre article très perspicace sur la relation entre la Russie et l’occident immédiatement après la fin de la Guerre froide, le Professeur Sergey Radchenko (Université de Cardiff) a généreusement accepté de répondre à mes questions pour approfondir le sujet.

Ayant rencontré l’ancien sous-ministre des Affaires étrangères Georgii Mamedov lorsqu’il était ambassadeur de la Fédération de Russie au Canada, je me demande si vous pourriez nous en dire plus à propos de son rôle au cours de cette période charnière dans les relations entre Washington et Moscou.

Mamedov est un mystère pour moi. Il semble avoir joué un rôle crucial dans la relation, et un rôle très constructif. Si je devais deviner son orientation politique, je dirais qu’il s’agit d’une personne pour qui la coopération de la Russie et l’Occident était importante et qui a déployé des efforts pour rapprocher Moscou de l’Occident. D’un autre côté et contrairement à d’autres personnalités clés des deux côtés des relations russo-américaines (par exemple Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov et autres), Mamedov n’a pas été disposé à donner officiellement sa version des événements. J’espère qu’il changera d’avis et que nous aurons accès à sa version de l’histoire.

Dans votre article, vous faites souvent référence aux élites russes et à leur impact sur l’élaboration des orientations politiques concernant les relations avec l’Occident. Qu’en est-il des élites américaines et occidentales? Leur influence a-t-elle joué un rôle dans l’attitude envers Moscou?

L’article parle beaucoup des « élites », ce qui, je suppose, est la même chose que ce que l’on appelle souvent le « blob » (la communauté washingtonienne d’experts en politique internationale selon Ben Rhodes, ancien conseiller du président Barack Obama)[1] dans le contexte américain. Il y a eu récemment beaucoup de discussions aux États-Unis sur le rôle du « blob », ainsi que sur ses intérêts particuliers (par exemple, dans la question du leadership mondial des États-Unis). Cette discussion est immédiatement applicable au contexte russe (et vice versa), puisque la politique étrangère d’un pays est vraiment ce que les élites (ou le blob) en font. Je ne critique pas ici le « blob »; Je soutiens simplement que certains discours sont partagés par l’élite. Dans le cas de la Russie, c’est celui de la « grandeur » internationale de leur pays. Dans le cas des États-Unis, il s’agit du leadership mondial. En Russie et aux États-Unis, ces discours transcendent les axes partisans.

Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.

L’administration Clinton ne semblait manifestement pas désireuse d’engager la Russie dans la perspective d’offrir à ce pays un siège à la table. Votre article dépeint Anthony Lake et le Secrétaire d’État Warren Christopher comme étant dans le camp opposé à un tel scénario. Mais y avait-il des hauts fonctionnaires qui ont divergé de cette option et qui auraient pu être plus enclins à amener la Russie à jouer un plus grand rôle?

Mary Sarotte a travaillé le côté américain beaucoup plus que moi; ses recherches illustrent que, en effet, il se trouvait des gens au Pentagone, par exemple, qui avaient en horreur l’idée d’un élargissement rapide de l’OTAN. Ils étaient inquiets de la réaction négative de la Russie et étaient plus intéressés par le dialogue sur le contrôle des armements stratégiques avec la Russie ou par la dénucléarisation de l’Ukraine. Est-ce que cela signifie qu’ils étaient disposés à accorder une place à la Russie à la table est une autre question. Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.

Du côté occidental, vous faites référence aux Américains – bien sûr – et, dans une certaine mesure, aux Allemands. J’ai également été très intéressé de lire votre référence à un mémorandum de l’ambassadeur britannique Rodric Braithwaite destiné à Anthony Lake. Comment résumeriez-vous l’attitude britannique en ce qui a trait à l’élargissement de l’OTAN et l’adhésion potentielle de la Russie?

Je me suis entretenu avec Malcolm Rifkind, qui était ministre la Défense et des Affaires étrangères de la Grande-Bretagne pendant que ce débat avait cours. Sa position à l’époque (et maintenant) est à l’effet que la Russie ne pourrait jamais faire partie de l’OTAN, car cela minerait la nature même de l’alliance. Cela suppose naturellement que le but de l’alliance est de tenir la Russie à distance, et c’est peut-être ainsi que les décideurs politiques britanniques percevaient la question à l’époque. Plus souvent, ils ont exprimé leur opposition relativement à des préoccupations pratiques, par exemple: comment la Russie pourrait-elle être intégrée sur le plan militaire? Est-ce que l’effet d’une telle mesure n’aurait pour effet de transformer l’alliance en une autre version de l’OSCE?

Fondamentalement, bien sûr, il n’était pas dans l’intérêt britannique immédiat de diluer l’OTAN en y invitant un pays comme la Russie, et ce, d’autant plus que les Russes affirmaient à l’époque qu’ils entretenaient un type particulier de relation avec les États-Unis (en tant que partenaire-clé). Cela ne ferait que diminuer le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant qu’acteur de premier plan en Occident. Il est intéressant de noter qu’au début des années 1990, les Britanniques tentaient de redéfinir le rôle de la Grande-Bretagne après la Guerre froide. Dans l’un des séminaires qui a été organisé par le Premier ministre à cette fin, il a été proposé de s’efforcer de maintenir le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant que l’une des trois principales puissances européennes (les autres étant… l’Allemagne et la France). La Russie n’était même pas sur les écrans radar.

La résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.

Après son arrivée au Kremlin en 2000, le président Poutine a envoyé des signaux indiquant qu’il était bien disposé envers l’Occident (notamment sa relation avec le président Bush et une visite à la résidence d’été de la famille Bush à Kennebunkport) – une disposition qui a changé avec le temps. À votre avis, aurait-on pu faire plus au début du règne de Poutine pour renforcer les liens entre la Russie et l’Occident?

Il semble manifeste que Poutine était enclin à établir des relations plus étroites avec l’Occident au début de son mandat. À l’instar de Eltsine, il a manifesté son intérêt à joindre l’OTAN. Je pense qu’une occasion a été manquée de lier institutionnellement la Russie à l’Occident. Cela ne signifie pas que Poutine peut être dédouané de toute responsabilité dans l’aggravation de la relation. Cela signifie simplement que, comme l’indique l’article, la résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.

L’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.

Y a-t-il encore des partisans du discours pro-occidental dans l’entourage du président Poutine?

Oui, les deux discours qui étaient présents dans les années 1990 sont toujours présents, même si celui des tenants du rapprochement est beaucoup moins prononcé maintenant. Poutine est profondément investi dans le discours antagoniste et ne reviendra pas facilement en arrière. Mais s’il devait quitter ses fonctions, les élites peuvent facilement changer de direction. Personne n’a une vision profondément idéologique de l’Europe. Pour tout dire, l’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.

Que faudrait-il pour que la Russie et l’Occident (OTAN) reviennent dans une trajectoire davantage axée sur la coopération? Serait-ce même bénéfique?

C’est délicat, car il y a maintenant des obstacles structurels (principalement la Crimée). Il serait totalement irréaliste d’imaginer que la Russie retournera la Crimée, même après le départ de Poutine. Le rétablissement de bonnes relations entre la Russie et l’Occident exigerait donc que l’Occident trouve une position avec laquelle elle serait à l’aise dans le conflit russo-ukrainien. Cela signifierait peut-être offrir des incitatifs aux deux dans le contexte d’une éventuelle adhésion à l’OTAN et à l’UE. C’est un scénario tiré par les cheveux pour le moment, mais l’alternative à la pensée créative est simplement de se recroqueviller et d’attendre que la Russie s’effondre. Il ne s’agit pas d’une politique viable.

Travaillez-vous actuellement sur un livre et, si oui, seriez-vous disposé à nous dire à quel sujet?

Ce livre sera une histoire de la politique étrangère soviétique / russe depuis 1945 jusqu’à maintenant. J’y travaille depuis des années et je suis impatient de l’offrir aux lecteurs! J’espère qu’il sera disponible l’année prochaine.

Merci beaucoup Professeur!


[1] Sylvie Kauffmann, « 2021, avec ou sans Donald Trump », Le Monde, jeudi 8 octobre 2020, p. 32.

The sources of Russian conduct

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton (Source: The Telegraph)

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?

Professor Sergey Rudchenko’s recent article “Nothing but humiliation for Russia’: Moscow and NATO’s eastern enlargement, 1993-1995”, published in the last issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies, offers many answers.

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.

Jesus Christ and General Jackson

In just a few hours, veteran news anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, an exercise that will shine a bright light on the character of these individuals vying to occupy the Oval Office starting next January 20th.

As a seasoned journalist, Chris Wallace has a unique perspective of those who are called to occupy the seats of power. He has recently put this quality to good use in offering a better understanding of Harry S. Truman, one of the most consequential President in American history.

In Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, the anchor of Fox News Sunday surprised me with his portrait of Truman. I had always been under the impression that the 33rd President was a trigger-happy man who was only too pleased to bomb America’s nemesis in the Pacific. The reality is much more nuanced.

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt’s Veep left behind the bourbon and branch water drink he was enjoying on Capitol Hill to reach the White House urgently. Notoriously sick, the news of the death of the United States Commander in chief nevertheless sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Clearly unprepared, Truman was de facto constitutionally called to replace the beloved leader.

Approximately two weeks after becoming the new White House resident, Secretary of War Henry Stimson broke the news to President Truman that he was about to possess a new superweapon, the atomic bomb, which could play a determining role in the end of the hostilities with Japan. Only two months after being sworn in, Truman travelled to Potsdam for a summit with seasoned leaders Churchill and Stalin. His education as a warlord must have been quite brutal.

Confronted with a seemingly war with no end, the President juggled many different scenarios over several weeks. At first, he considered a ground invasion, a scenario that entailed “[…] a long and bloody conflict.” Another option was “[…] a nonmilitary demonstration [of their new weapon], so the Japanese would see the futility of continuing the war.” But the possibility that the bomb might not work disqualified that option. Furthermore, Secretary of War Stimson, Chief of Staff Leahy, General Marshall and General Eisenhower were all against going for the atomic avenue. And they were no peaceniks. According to the author, “Truman spent more and more time on the question of how to deliver a final ultimatum to Japan”. After several weeks of “long and careful thought”, of agonizing, losing sleep and suffering from headaches, the new President “[…] felt it was inescapable that if the weapon worked, he must be willing to use it.” Even if he didn’t like it.

Even though I will always feel that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been one of the greatest human tragedies of history, I am nevertheless of the opinion that the Americans were blessed to have a thoughtful and considerate man like Harry S. Truman to end the war.

Throughout his book, Chris Wallace depicts him as a decent, loyal and straightforward man whose favorite expression was “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” (I might adopt it myself!). The kind of person you would like to have breakfast with at your favorite eatery. To that effect, my favorite passage from the book is worth quoting at length:

One evening, after another frustrating day at the conference, Truman’s motorcade was leaving the palace when an Army public relations officer asked if he could get in the president’s car. Once the two men were by themselves in the backseat, the colonel said, “Listen, I know you’re alone over here. If you need anything like, you know, I’ll be glad to arrange it for you.”

“Hold it, don’t say anything more,” the president interrupted. “I love my wife, my wife is my sweetheart. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff. I don’t want you ever to say that again to me.” Truman and the colonel rode the rest of the way back to the Little White House in silence.

Chockfull of interesting details that entertain the reader, I was captivated to read about the creation of the Underwater Demolition Teams – the ancestors of the American Navy SEALs – who had to endure “Hell Week”. I also enjoyed learning about Sergeant Bob Caron – a tail gunner from New York – who wrote to the Brooklyn Dodgers to ask for a baseball cap of his favorite team, which he wore during the fateful mission on August 7th, 1945. These are the type of eccentricities that give life to history.

Countdown 1945 deserves a place in the gallery of great books about past US Presidents. Chris Wallace has an engaging pen and a knack for evoking the kind of details that humanizes the characters of his story – even though I would never be fond of being invited to a liver and bacon meal like the one Truman and Stalin liked so much to share at Potsdam.

Hopefully, Chris Wallace’s questions and interventions in tonight’s presidential debate will highlight the qualities required for the highest office in the United States.

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Chris Wallace (with Mitch Weiss), Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World, New York, Avid Reader Press, 2020, 313 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Allie Lawrence from Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), who has been extremely kind in helping me obtaining a copy of this enthralling book.

“I shall be an autocrat: that’s my trade”

Following the news about Russian political life these days – notably in the aftermath of the poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny – one might think that this quote comes from President Vladimir Putin. But it would be wrong to assume that. These words were pronounced by none other than Catherine the Great.

In his brilliant and insightful book A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Professor Mark Galeotti chronicles the historical continuity – and I could add ingenuity – of power in the land of the double-headed eagle. During his reign (980-1015), Vladimir the Great took “[…] the Rus’ beyond their Viking roots”, made a show of piety that “[…] was actually a piece of ruthless statecraft.” If that sounds familiar with today’s operating mode, that’s “[…] because one can draw a direct and often-bloody line between these times and the present day. The origin story, in which vulnerability is spun as agency, sets the tone, especially as this is not simply a story of weakness, but of embracing conquest and creating something new from it.”

Ever since, Russian leaders have proven pragmatic and ruthless in crafting power. To remain at the top, Russian stateswomen and statesmen had to thwart the power and influence of indocile aristocrats, because a strong state requires subjecting real and potential opposition to undivided authority. Those considering Vladimir Putin to be a scandalous anomaly should consider the fact that Peter the Great “[…] had his eldest son tortured under suspicion of plotting against him, a torment from which he died.” Or that the great Catherine was complicit in the assassination of her husband-tsar to ascend to the throne.

Not that I condone violence, poisoning and assassinations – far from it.

But past leaders who did not abide by the rule that power is acquired and kept at all cost – sometimes at the price of violence – did not last. Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev were excellent cases in point. Before them, tsar Nicholas II impotently saw power escape from his hands because of his lack of political skills.

Vladimir Putin, of whom many say that he is a keen student of history, certainly keeps this storyline close to mind. Western governments can draft protests condemnations, launch inquiries and express the most eloquent outrage. Alas for them, they have little to say in who occupies the Kremlin. The day he loses his grip on power and the forced docility of current-day boyars will be the last of his reign. One can and should feel sorry for what happened to Alexey Navalny. Making a political opponent suffer physically – and potentially die – is something I guess I will never be able to understand. At the same time, the trends of Russian history are much larger than the evolution of our current values. Mr. Navalny is not the first nemesis of the throne to be tossed aside in the land of the tsars. And my guess is he won’t be the last either. I imagine that few tsars and successors departed this world with a conscience clean of such lethal political maneuvers.

All in all, those who seek to better understand the nature and demands of power in Russian politics should grab a copy of Mark Galeotti’s latest book and embark on the journey of understanding why Vladimir Putin acts the way he does. “Much is known about Peter [the Great]; much less is truly understood”, writes the author. The same applies to the current defender of the double-headed eagle. You may dislike him and what he does, but that does not diminish the urgent need to better understand the sources of Russian power.

At the stylistic level, Pr. Galeotti has an acknowledged quality offering the reader a simplified version of the intricacies of names and events – where other authors could simply bore the reader. He writes in a way that requires being peeled away from his book in order to attend to other tasks. I will await with great eagerness his next book.

________________

Mark Galeotti, A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, Toronto, Hanover Square Press, 2020, 224 pages.

I would like to express all my gratitude to Emer Flounders, from HarperCollins, who provided me with a review copy of this excellent book and who is always more than generous and helpful whenever I need some assistance about a title published by this fantastic publishing house.

Putin and Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Source: Ynetnews)

(version française)

There are lots of historic and major diplomatic announcements between Israel and Arab countries (UAE and Bahrain) these days, a development in which the United States are directly associated. In the last couple of years, we have observed the existence of another well-frequented diplomatic channel between Moscow and Jerusalem and I was very glad when acclaimed author Professor Mark Galeotti – author of an excellent biography of Vladimir Putin and more recently of A Short History of Russia – accepted to respond to a few questions about the subject a few weeks ago. Here is the content of our exchange.

Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Do you think the election of pro-Russian Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister in 2001 played a role in President Putin’s stance about Israel?

I think it certainly helped in that Putin tends to respond well to tough interlocutors.

Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention […].

Judging by the number of meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin (10 visits by Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow since 2013 and 2 visits by Vladimir Putin in Israel since 2012), one could think that there is a notable rapprochement between Moscow and Jerusalem. How important is this relationship for the Russian president?

It’s important for both Putin and Russia. Israel is in many ways a Russian ally, despite some inevitable points of contention – when the IAF bombs Hezbollah positions in Syria, for example, the Russian air defense system there is not activated and clearly they have been forewarned. Likewise, Russia at times shares intelligence with Israel about Iran.

How important are the Middle East issues in Russian domestic politics? Is there a link between Russian domestic politics and President Putin’s relationship with Israel?

Honestly, it’s not really a factor – neither a plus, nor a minus.

Some observers are of the opinion that Israel is just a pawn on Russia’s chessboard. Could Russia become a key strategic ally of Israel in the near future?

That gives Israel too little credit. Yes, it has good relations with Russia (the first drones the Russians fielded were bought from Israel, for example), but it is not going to be anyone’s pawn.

Putin sends the signal that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

You mention it briefly in your book (on page 75), when you mention that President Putin demonstrates “[…] no hint of anti-Semitism”, but could you tell us more about where he stands on the issue and what he does to confront this trend?

One can’t say that he has especially actively fought against it, but his evidently good relations with Israel and also the Chief Rabbi of Moscow are certainly powerful symbols to powerful and ambitious Russians that anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

Compared to the trend observable in other East European countries (like Poland for example), what is the current status of anti-Semitism in Russia?

It’s present, of course, but subjectively it feels in decline – in the 1990s one could often see anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls or slurs in the media, but both are much less evident today. In some ways an interesting development is that the extreme nationalists, from whom one might expect some prejudice, actually express respect for Israel in terms of its willingness to stand up for its own interests, with force if need be.

Apart from the President and the Prime Minister, who are the engineers of the relationship between the two countries? Is there any track II diplomacy involved in your opinion?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, has been a very significant player in this respect – and, of course, there are many oligarchs and minigarchs of Jewish origins and often dual Russian-Israeli citizenship who act as connectors.

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(version française)

Poutine et Israël

On assiste ces jours-ci à plusieurs annonces diplomatiques historiques et majeures entre Israël et des pays arabes (les Émirats arabes unis et le Bahreïn), un développement auquel les États-Unis sont directement associés. Dans les dernières années, nous avons observé l’existence d’un autre canal diplomatique très fréquenté entre Moscou et Jérusalem et j’étais très heureux que le Professeur Mark Galeotti – auteur réputé d’une excellente biographie de Vladimir Poutine et plus récemment du livre A Short History of Russia – accepte de répondre à quelques questions à ce sujet il y a quelques semaines. Voici le contenu de cet échange.

Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Pensez-vous que l’élection d’Ariel Sharon, qui était notoirement pro-russe, au poste de Premier ministre en 2001 a joué un rôle dans la position du président Poutine sur Israël?

Je pense que cela a certainement aidé, dans la mesure où Poutine a tendance à bien réagir face à des interlocuteurs coriaces.

Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables.

À en juger par le nombre de rencontres entre le Premier ministre Netanyahu et le président Poutine (10 visites de Benjamin Netanyahu à Moscou depuis 2013 et 2 visites de Vladimir Poutine en Israël depuis 2012), on pourrait penser qu’il y a un rapprochement notable entre Moscou et Jérusalem. Quelle est l’importance de cette relation pour le président russe?

C’est important pour Poutine et pour la Russie. Israël est, à bien des égards, un allié de la Russie, et ce, malgré certains points de frictions inévitables. Par exemple, lorsque l’IAF (les forces aériennes israéliennes) bombarde les positions du Hezbollah en Syrie, le système de défense aérienne russe n’est pas activé et les Russes ont clairement été prévenus. De même, la Russie partage parfois des renseignements avec Israël au sujet de l’Iran.

Quelle est l’importance des questions moyen-orientales dans la politique intérieure russe? Existe-t-il un lien entre la politique intérieure russe et les relations du président Poutine avec Israël?

Honnêtement, ce n’est pas vraiment un facteur – ce n’est ni un avantage, ni un inconvénient.

Certains observateurs estiment qu’Israël n’est qu’un pion sur l’échiquier russe. La Russie pourrait-elle devenir un allié stratégique clé d’Israël dans un avenir prochain?

Ce serait accorder trop peu de crédit à Israël. Oui, ce pays entretient de bonnes relations avec la Russie (les premiers drones russes qui sont entrés en fonction avaient été achetés en Israël, par exemple), mais Jérusalem ne deviendra le pion de personne.

Vous mentionnez brièvement, à la page 75 de votre livre, que le président Poutine ne manifeste « […] pas une once d’antisémitisme », mais pourriez-vous nous en dire davantage à propos de sa position sur le sujet et ce qu’il fait pour lutter contre ce fléau?

Poutine envoie le message que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

On ne peut pas dire qu’il l’a particulièrement activement combattu, mais ses relations manifestement bonnes avec Israël et avec le grand rabbin de Moscou sont certainement des symboles puissants pour les Russes influents et ambitieux à l’effet que l’antisémitisme est inacceptable.

Par rapport à la tendance observable dans d’autres pays d’Europe de l’Est (comme la Pologne par exemple), quel est l’état actuel de l’antisémitisme en Russie?

Le phénomène est présent, bien sûr, mais subjectivement, il semble en déclin – dans les années 1990, on pouvait souvent voir des graffitis antisémites sur les murs ou des insultes proférées dans les médias, mais les deux manifestations sont beaucoup moins évidentes aujourd’hui. À certains égards, une évolution intéressante est observable à l’effet que les nationalistes extrémistes, de qui on peut s’attendre à des préjugés, expriment en fait leur respect pour Israël, au niveau de sa volonté de défendre ses propres intérêts, avec force si nécessaire.

À part le président et le premier ministre, qui sont les architectes des relations entre les deux pays? À votre avis, y a-t-il une diplomatie parallèle à l’œuvre?

Pinchas Goldschmidt, le grand rabbin de Moscou, a été un acteur très important à cet égard – et, bien sûr, il existe de nombreux oligarques et minigarques d’origine juive et souvent détenteurs de la double nationalité russo-israélienne qui agissent comme entremetteurs.

A new Cold War with China seems inevitable

AdmiralJamesStavridis_UNDispatch
Retired four-star Navy Admiral and acclaimed author James Stavridis (Source: UN Dispatch)

(version française)

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 Character which 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. 

SailingTrueNorthIn 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?

I’m Greek Orthodox, and yes faith is vital for me personally – and for many others. Continue reading “A new Cold War with China seems inevitable”

The importance of “Soft Power”

GeorgeHWBush_ChinaFile
President George H. W. Bush on Tiananman Square in Beijing (China), February 25, 1989 (Source: ChinaFile)

Cliquez ici pour la version française

Few years ago, I was captivated by Professor Joseph S. Nye Jr.’s book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. I recently approached the former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former Clinton administration official to submit him a few questions. He generously accepted to respond. Here is the content of our exchange.

You are the father of the term soft power. Just to make sure all my readers understand well, what would be the best short definition of this concept and why is it so important in international relations?

Power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want and it is basic to international relations analysis.  You can affect others by coercion, payment, and attraction. Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment.

Continue reading “The importance of “Soft Power””

FDR: The Fearless President

3DaysAtTheBrink_BretBaierI have always loved to read about FDR, one of my favorite Presidents. Being a fan of presidential libraries and having done some research in a few in the past, I have vivid memories of the time I spent at his inspiring Presidential Library at Hyde Park. I was therefore very interested in Bret Baier’s latest book, not only because it covers a period of contemporary history – World War II – for which I have an unquenchable intellectual thirst, but also because he dove into the presidential archives, a real treasure trove for anyone eager to fully understand the magnitude of the accomplishments of those larger than life Commanders in chief who lead America at crucial times.

The title of Bret Baier’s book Three Days at the Brink: FDR’s Daring Gamble to Win World War II refers to the Tehran Conference (1943), where the Big Three (FDR, Churchill and Stalin) agreed on the necessity to open a second front on the West – with Operation Overlord – to relieve some pressure on the Soviet troops, which occurred on June 6, 1944. But only a quarter of the book is devoted to the historic conference.

Continue reading “FDR: The Fearless President”