And yet, many Americans seem astonished that the Russians should take offense when NATO, a military alliance, expands up to and beyond the western border of the former Soviet Union. And NATO did so in violation of an agreement between President Bush (Senior) and Mikhail Gorbachev. As Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell,reflected on a recent broadcast.
When ... George H. W. Bush accomplished ... the reunification of Germany ... without a shot being fired, ... one of the reasons [he] could do it was that [he] assured Gorbachev and later Yeltsin that NATO would be quiescent, it wouldn't move. It wouldn't threaten Russia. In fact I was there when we told the Russians that we were going to make them a member. Well that fell apart [when] they perceived right quickly that we weren't really serious.
And then ... we started to expand NATO, and stuck both our fingers into the Russian eye, so to speak. It's clear to me why Putin responded in Georgia and why he is now responding in Crimea and Ukraine. This is what great powers do when they get concerned about their "near-abroad." So we have as much fault here as anyone else in this situation. (The Real News, 5/9/14).
In 1997, George F. Kennan, the foremost American diplomat of the twentieth century, wrote that "expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era." (New York Times, 2/5/97) And yet, despite solemn assurances to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, NATO did just that.
"Why," many Americans are heard to complain, "don't the Russians trust us?" The reasons are obvious and part of the historical record. Yet few will pause to listen to a reply.
2. Historical Ignorance . Survey after survey tells the same story: most Americans are appallingly ignorant of world history -- and of Russian history in particular. For example, American are very concerned about Ukraine. Yet in a recent poll, only one in six could locate Ukraine on a world map. When asked to name the decisive battles of World War II, you will likely hear Americans say first of all, "Normandy," and then "Okinawa." Mention Stalingrad, Kursk or Sevastopol and you will likely be greeted with a blank stare. Even some allegedly educated Americans persist in the belief that Russia is a cultural backwater, notwithstanding its enduring contributions to the arts, literature and science. (See my "Russia, An Appreciation" ).
So how many Americans today are aware of the violated agreement not to expand NATO beyond the border of a unified Germany? How many are aware that about 25 million ethnic Russians now reside in the fourteen former Soviet republics outside Russia, often under hostile regimes? How many know that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is the historical birthplace of Russian culture? Regrettably, not many.
3. Americans lack a "mirror image" perspective -- a capacity to appreciate what it is like to walk a mile in another's shoes.
At the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, the U.S. Army assigned Dr. Gustav Gilbert, a psychologist fluent in German, to interview the Nazi defendants. What moral flaws, the Army asked, allowed these criminals to do what they did? Dr. Gilbert concluded that the fundamental flaw was "an absence of empathy" a failure to recognize the basic humanity of their victims, and to perceive the world as their victims see it.
"Absence of Empathy" is not only a moral failing, it is also fatally impractical. "Knowing the mind of your opponent" is essential to success in warfare, in games and sports, and in international diplomacy. A chess player incapable of "getting into the mind" of his opponent, will surely lose.
I submit that much of the conflict between our nations is due to an inability, deliberate or otherwise, to study and understand the mind of the opponent -- to know, from our side, what it's like "to think like a Russian."
And so, in the American media and among our politicians there is a widespread failure to acknowledge that Russians are people very much like us, who respond to threats and insults very much as we do. Instead, our policies seem to assume that Russians and Americans are of different species.
For example, we often hear in our media that "Russians only understand strength" or that "signs of weakness such as negotiation and compromise will only encourage aggressive Russian behavior." So if we send troops to eastern NATO members or impose sanctions, then the Russians will surely "back down." And yet if the Russians treat us the same way -- if they stand up against us with troop deployments and sanctions -- we are resolved to "stand our ground" and respond aggressively.
Out policy makers also claim to be astonished at the Russians' complaints about the eastward expansion of NATO, or of our involvement in Ukrainian domestic politics. But as Vladimir Pozner wisely points out, "try to imagine for a moment that a revolution occurs in Mexico, a new leader comes to power and invites Russia to place part of its armed forces along the Mexican-American border." No need to imagine, just look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. If John Kennedy would not tolerate Soviet missiles 90 miles offshore the United States, why should Vladimir Putin not complain of NATO missiles along the Russian border?
4. American policy-makers need an enemy . I believe that the American media and politicians are much more captivated to this need than is the American public, although this media and these politicians have persuaded many ordinary Americans to believe that the designated adversary of the moment is in fact an "enemy.".
In a 1987 letter to The New York Times, Georgi Arbatov, then the Director of the Soviet Institute of the US and Canada, wrote: "We have a secret weapon ... we will deprive America of The Enemy. And how [then will] you justify ... the military expenditures that bleed America white?"