Lost Lessons of the Cold War

By August 19, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Aug. 19 (UPI) — Once the West stood tall against the great Bear. NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact. More than 1 million U.S. and Soviet troops faced each other in a divided Germany. Then communism fell. The Bush administration has forgotten all the United States learned and knew since.

The Bush doctrine has been marked by arrogance, condescension and using friends as pawns. The U.S. playbook harks back to the days of the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to be a colonial power. Politics was best implemented by the barrel of a gun — pointed squarely at an “ally’s” head. Bravo, Bush administration, you have learned from an atrocious example.

Several strategic blunders in the past year have led to Russia’s incursion into Georgia. A missile-defense shield, which even U.S. experts doubt works, has been sold to Poland and the Czech Republic as though it were Moses speaking down from the mountain. The West rushed to recognize Kosovo, caring nothing about Russia’s sensitivities or those of the Abkhazians or South Ossetians or the implications of other folks seeking self-determination.

The biggest strategic blunder was not joining Russia in placing the missile-defense system in Azerbaijan. The Russians understood rightly — keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer. But even a cynic knows the Russian plan bore an honest effort to build bridges.

Russia’s response to Georgia is, in fact, a response to this series of perceived insults. Kosovo was the last drop — but it all began to unravel with Azerbaijan. The U.S. rejection of the offer (see my column “Putin’s Bush-whack”) convinced the Russians that the United States was being disingenuous about the intentions of the missile shield. It convinced Russia that it was not for Iran and the Middle East, but a Trojan horse against Russia. Many security experts in the United States — and out — agree with this assessment.

Had the United States — and the European Union countries — been on the ball, they would have used the European Union, not NATO — at least initially — to engender the expansion of stability. The Russians would not object to Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey being part of the EU. I have been told this up and down the chain of command in Moscow.

Regrettably, China’s example of using soft power to gain control is the case study that should have been used. I question China’s use of soft power. It has mostly used it to destabilize. But as a strategy, it has been quiet, effective and billions cheaper than U.S. ventures into yonder places that have cost trillions and have had negligible results. China has grown in stature; U.S. influence and reputation have declined exponentially.

The lesson of the Cold War is that a praetorian guard must be functioning behind the scenes and maintaining stability — engagement, engagement, engagement!

No one understands this better than the Israelis. Even while fighting their enemies publicly, they are constantly in contact with them behind the scenes. I mean constantly — and do not be fooled by public rhetoric. Even Ronald Reagan understood this when he said, “Trust but verify,” because enemies might just become friends.

A respected equity fund manager based in Austria and the Czech Republic who comes from a diplomatic family of long standing said to me, “Georgia is nothing more than a U.S. aircraft carrier. The United States still thinks in Cold War paradigms and, frankly, has learned nothing in the last 20 years.”

My recent trips to Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia confirm that many are sure the United States has suffered irreparably as a result of the Georgian conflict. “The United States will suffer long term. It might not seem like that now, but trust me: People remember the U.S. was nowhere to be seen in Berlin in ’53, in Hungary in ’56 and Czechoslovakia in ’68. It is all talk and no action,” a leading Central European politician said to me. “Many now see the United States as a friend incapable of delivering.”

At the very least, notwithstanding the severe blunders preceding the Olympics, George W. Bush should have packed his saddle, left Beijing and flown to Tbilisi. He should have made it clear he supports the Georgians while standing next to President Mikheil Saakashvili — who, believe me, is no angel. He then should have flown immediately to Moscow to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev. As Germans say, he should have made this Chefsache! Instead he waited in Beijing, uttered a few mumbles and dropped the responsibility down the chain of command to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Again a strategic and managerial blunder, and again all too little, too late.

Russia wants to be a regional player and a global energy superpower. It wants to have influence over near markets. It wants to have global influence in oil, gas and energy security. Said a foreign minister to me, “Like the Monroe Doctrine, Russia wants to keep an eye on her backyard. The United States is mistaken to underestimate her will to do this.” I echoed this in several of my last columns.

Whether the United States likes it or not, there will be a big global realignment. Europe and Russia will form a strategic alliance. They already are in the midst of it. It is best for both.

The West accepts a “fait accompli” with China — it is here to stay and we must deal with it. Regrettably, countries are not doing enough to fight China’s human-rights abuses. They blather in strong language about it, but do little. Regardless, at nearly every turn China is shown respect — even while it practices the most destabilizing policies on the planet — in Africa, in the Middle East — everywhere.

Russia is not destabilizing the planet. Russia deserves respect — respect it is not being shown.

Once this respect is evident, Russia will behave differently. And Russia knows it.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)