Vladimir Putin went to Munich and said what everyone was already thinking: that the United States is fucking shit up. Robert Gates, the United States Secretary of Defense, said in response, "As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time." He paused, as the saying goes, for effect. "Almost." That he would refer to himself as a "Cold Warrior" and speak of "nostaligia for a less complex time" is telling. The idea of the "Cold Warrior" is a classic of the Reaganite habit of conflating rhetoric with action--to make a speech calling something an "Evil Empire" is to in some sense combat it; to say "tear down this wall" is to tear it down, and so on. The newly acquired habit of referring to the Cold War era as "a less complex time" is a clumsy bit of verbal flippery meant to obfuscate charges that the relative dangers of "terrorism" or "jihadism" or "Islamofascism" are insignificant compared to a half-century of nuclear brinkmanship between two paranoid continental empires sitting atop tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, each ruled fitfully by crazy people with varying penchants for bouts of bellicose grandiosity. It's meant to suggest that the "complexity" of the current "situation," by which the speaker means something like the multiplication of entities called enemies, renders it equally "existential," although how, when, and with what particular means this feat--the wholesale destruction of the United States a national entity; the wholesale destruction of 300 million people--would or could be accomplished always remains notably vague. There is talk of "nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons," or "Weapons of Mass Destruction," or "WMDs," among which only nuclear weapons have the capacity for the total eradication of a populous half-continent, and only in quantities such as those held by the United States and Russia. So the question of our "existence," in the physical sense at least, is not in fact a question, and the issue of "complexity," in the sense that we can no longer claim a single locus of anti-American hostility called "Moscow" or "the Kremlin" or, yes, "the Evil Empire"--however the metonymic and synechdocic winds are blowing on any given day at any particular press conference--is likewise not really a question at all.
But to the question of Russia--Will it once again seek to destroy us--Charles Krauthammer, the Strangelovian avatar of jingo nutjobbery, says yes and no. He gives a series of predictable regrets about a Russia that is no longer a supine Yeltsinian drunkocracy, lamenting those national policies that are called "assertive" by people in politics. Or as Putin, equally circumlocuitous, put it himself, for Russia to "play an increasingly active role in world affairs." There is some pablum about Putin's well-known Soviet background, about his psuedo-Marxian verbal tics, about his plans for an increased ballistic missile armory. But:
Nonetheless, Putin's aggressiveness does not signal a return to the Cold War. He is too clever to be burdened by the absurdity of socialist economics or Marxist politics. He is blissfully free of ideology, political philosophy and economic theory. There is no existential dispute with the United States.It's rather rich for an American of any stripe to lecture on "absurd" economics, as if the state-military, corporate-welfare debtor economy of the United States presents some sort of rational, let alone ideal, model for a capitalism of freely functioning and unburdened markets. "He is blissfully free of ideology, political philosophy and economic theory." The same could be said of Josef Stalin or Leon Brezhnev or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan. The "blissfully" seems especially well-suited to the last of that list. Putin is many things, but "mere mafia don" is not one of them. He is much-beloved in his own country, both by his "cronies" and by the general population, which has indisputably benefitted economically from his tenure in office. His "vision of the Russian national interest" seems neither exactly "assertive" nor exactly "expansionist," whatever that means, but just an idiosyncratically Russian understanding of the modern state--autocratic, yes, but also increasing in affluence, relatively free on a day-to-day level for ordinary citizens, more communicative and open to the rest of the world, less an international joke and pariah. These are neither good nor bad developments; it's an American pretension that the growth or diminishment of other states is a particularly American problem.
He is a more modest man: a mere mafia don, seizing the economic resources and political power of a country for himself and his (mostly KGB) cronies. And promoting his vision of the Russian national interest--assertive and expansionist--by engaging in diplomacy that challenges the dominant power in order to boost his own.
Land of the Free, Home of the Dumb.