There was no particular moral to it when my old friend Fred Pillsbury told me the story of what happened the day his detachment of Marines in Okinawa learned that a second atom bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and that the Pacific war was over. For weeks they had been preparing on Okinawa to invade Japan. “Everyone walked off whatever job they were doing and started to drink. There were terrible fights that night, sailors with soldiers, Seabees with Marines.”
In time, Pillsbury’s story has become central to my understanding of US history in the twenty-odd years since the Cold War ended, with the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Though the imminent threat was seldom so fierce, excessive behavior has been occurring in the US ever since 1991 that never would have happened in a nation still engaged in a long-running contest with a rival power. So it has seemed to me.
The tax-cut mania that set in among Republicans after President George H. W. Bush raised taxes slightly to pay for the First Gulf War; the Whitewater investigations, impeachment and unsuccessful trial of President Clinton; the foreign wars of President George W. Bush; the Tea Party backlash against President Obama – all these, I think, are symptoms of a nation experiencing difficulty with a basic sense of political discipline.
True, the gyre had been widening even before the Berlin Wall came down, in 1989 (the Iran-Contra affair, etc.) And throughout the years since, the ordinary business of life has gone on remarkably well, even when its amplitude increased: China trade, Internet boom, housing bubble, financial crisis, fracking binge. But instead of regaining a sense of decorum and common sense, the battle for control of the political narrative has remained intense and often wacky since 1991.
In Russia, of course, the end of the Cold War meant far worse. The break-up of the Soviet Union produced a fledgling democracy under president Boris Yeltsin which, under “shock therapy” gave way to systematic looting of state assets by a handful of apparatchiks-turned-oligarchs. The process went far better in former satellites in Eastern Europe (and in Belorussia, where a Soviet-style strongman hung on to political control). But in Russia, the 1990s seem to have been experienced more as hardship and humiliation than as promise. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration and the European Union extended membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance, to several former Soviet satellites newly free to join. It is hard to remember, but the five-day Russo-Georgian War in August 2008 was about whether Georgia might join NATO.
After replacing Yelsin, on the last day of 1999, Putin began the laborious task of attempting to impose some coherence on Russian political culture while continuing to integrate its economy into the world market system. To put it mildly, the process was not without its ups and downs. But judging from his internal support for the decision to annex Crimea he seems to have succeeded. The business of the US leaders in the next few years is to build the same degree of consensus. But in the meanwhile what a mess! Republicans last week were beating up on the American president from every conceivable angle.
Last week, Putin won the war of words. The dominant image of what happened is his: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.” (The full text of his speech, definitely worth reading, is here. The New York Times posted an untranslated video. I watched profitably even though I don’t speak Russian.) We won’t know for years what role the Obama administration played in fomenting the breakdown of negotiations with the European Union that led to the flight of Viktor Yanukovych last month. It seems obvious that Russia expects a Finland-like non-aligned government in Kiev.
Adding to the difficulty of forming opinions about events in Ukraine are the reduced circumstances of the English-language press – at least its major newspapers. (There was a time when the Times would have made available a translation of Putin’s speech.) There is, of course, more information available than ever. That’s why I have relied almost entirely on skimming Johnson’s Russia List for the last month to see what world journalists are saying about the situation. That’s a lot of skimming – the indefatigable David Johnson has posted the full text of around forty items nearly every day since March 1. (I subscribe to the mail edition, which arrives with a handy table of contents and links.)
Yesterday Johnson sent just one item – the transcript of a Charlie Rose PBS show with three Russia experts, encompassing pretty much the whole spectrum of US opinion: Ian Bremmer, president of the EurasiaGrorp; Stephen Cohen, of New York University; and Stephen Sestanovich, of Columbia University. It was more illuminating — and alarming — than any other discussion I read last week. At one point, Bremmer urges, “Americans need to read a speech from a world leader who actually fundamentally disagrees with us and doesn’t sugar coat it….we have too many people out there who do disagree with us and do sugar coating.”
Eventually, I expect, changing circumstances will force the United States to get its act together – a more assertive Russia, the rise of China, the implications of globalization, the threat of climate change. Conventional wisdom holds that the current extreme polarization of US politic will continue indefinitely. I doubt it. Before too long those brawling soldiers and sailors sobered up.