Posting this two weeks after the speech, in an era of instant news, would seem a little OBE, except for articles like John Vinocur’s Central and Eastern European Countries Issue Rare Warning for U.S. on Russian Policy in today’s New York Times. Mr. Vinocur, who really ought to know better, seems unaware that all the Yalta agreement did was acknowledge the fact of millions of Soviet troops on the ground in Eastern Europe. Or that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own, and when it withdrew from Eastern Europe, it did so without a shot fired: compare that to how Europe withdrew from its African and Asian colonies, and the mountains of corpses they piled up, not during colonization, but decolonization alone. And someone please tell me what on earth America’s interests are with Ukraine and Georgia, Georgia still being proud of having given to the world those two fine human beings Joseph Stalin and Lavrentii Beria.
One reason I voted for President Obama was because I didn’t want to be humilated by John McCain and Sarah Palin dealing with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. Try to imagine either of them giving an interview like Medvedev’s with Novaya Gazeta. Well, Obama has done better by this country with the Russians, but marginally.
On July 7, he spoke to the graduating class of the New Economic School in Moscow. It was an incoherent speech full of platitudes more appropriate to posturing commencement speakers than affairs of state. It was also the latest example of his refusal to talk to anyone, including his own citizens, like they were adults with a grasp of reality: a failure only exacerbated by his innate articulateness. After this sin of omission, Obama then insulted Russia’s senior leadership by not making himself available to them for informal meetings, choosing instead to spend some private time with his wife. Taking your spouse along on business trips is fine, unless it gets in the way of business. Especially on a two-day trip.
We can see that Prime Minister Putin (does anyone realize that he and President Medvedev appear to have a very efficient good cop, bad cop routine down?) is considering himself insulted, once again, by stupid Americans. (The photos Time magazine shot of him when they named him Man of theYear were just unbelievable.)
Having just finished writing a novel about Russia and America, I was exceptionally attuned to his failure, and I took it very seriously. Normally, I have little use for writing of the alternate-history variety, but given what is at stake in our relationship with Russia, I thought it worthwhile to write the speech President Obama should have given, but did not.
There are three reasons he did not give it. The first is that American political elites are brain dead to even speak of “resetting” relations with Russia, an unfortunate word that translates into Russian as “raising the price.” The second is that there are many Americans who do not want improved relations, usually as an excuse to keep defense spending ruinously high, and the President figures he has enough enemies and more immediate problems. The third reason is that what is said herein is true, and contemporary American politics is all about placing the delusional above the real, even when reality offers more.
Since I would have asked to speak to the Duma, the Russian Parliament, I have set this text there.
President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin, ladies and gentlemen of the Duma, thank you for inviting me, and thank you for allowing me to speak before you here. It is a great honor . This will not be the usual speech given on such occasions. It will be plain speaking, intended for American ears as well as Russian. That an American president should come all the way to Moscow to speak to his own people may seem strange. But I can think of no more appropriate setting to say what I have to say about our two countries and a future we might share, have we but the vision to see it and the will to pursue it.
America’s understanding of Russia has been shaped by two forces, both of them unfortunate. The first was our intense enmity during the Cold War. The second force, in some ways more destructive, has been our attitude toward Russia since the end of the Cold War: an ugly, unavailing combination of condescension and neglect, coupled with patronizing praise every time you did something that made you seem a bit more like us. What America, including too many of our so-called experts, managed to forget was the fundamental fact of Russian history.
For the past thousand years, no nation has accomplished so much while suffering so much, and Russia cannot be understood without giving full due to both. American political culture was shaped by centuries of geographical isolation from mortal enemies. Russia stood open to repeated invasion from East and West. We inherited the Western European Renaissance and Enlightenment. You suffered for centuries under the Tartar yoke. You have been invaded by Sweden and by Poland; you fought the British and the French in the Crimea. Your heroic resistance to Napoleon is legendary, but how many Americans know what Tschaikovy’s 1812 Overture really commemorates? Then there were the two World Wars, vicious climaxes of the centuries-old German Drang nach Osten, or “Push to the East.” Your World War II dead alone, without mentioning the horribly hurt and disturbed, number approximately 26 million men, women and children. By contrast, American dead from that war number only approximately 300,000. Such losses as you endured happened because the Germans, aided by many other nationalities, invaded you for the explicit purpose of exterminating you, wiping you from the face of the earth, with enslavement just a brief, if tormented, station on that Calvary road.
I will not mention here the horrors that the Romanovs and the Soviet Union inflicted upon your own people and others. I only note that the original meaning of the word Slav is Slave, and that Russia for a thousand years has struggled to change the meaning of that word. It is fashionable now to speak of “failed states.” But for much of the 20th century, Europe was a failed civilization and its barbarisms, so many inflicted upon you, occasioned many of your own responses. To understand is not to excuse, nor to forgive. In any case, you do not need my forgiveness. You need to do as you are doing, to come to terms with your own past, with what others have done to you, what you have done to others, what you have done to yourselves. Come to terms for the purpose of taking your rightful place in the world as a great and civilized nation, working with other civilized nations on matters of common urgency and concern.
That is why I am here. To talk a bit about what we might do together. For although our histories are very different, today we share a common failing. Our nations have lost their ways, and for some of the same reasons. If we can understand that much, we may have a foundation on which to build.
Today, having survived twenty difficult and challenging years of transition, you are slowly, painfully learning to reassert yourself as masters in your own home, to establish a vibrant economy and civil society that work for Russia, and secure your near abroad. No nation can tolerate instability on its borders or the domestic domination of thieves and criminals who think the national patrimony and the savings of ordinary people should be looted for private gain. These are the tasks before you.
These are also the challenges facing America.
To build on Prime Minister Putin’s speech at Davos, there is a great deal to be said for capitalism as Adam Smith conceived it: people exchanging value for value, rationally and freely, in trade that leaves both parties better off and benefits society. This is not what we have today, no matter who invokes Smith’s legacy. Smith was enormously concerned for the material dignity of ordinary men and women, farmers and laborers and craftsmen and domestics, and their children: that they have enough good food to eat, that they have clean clothes and sound footwear, that they live in homes, not hovels, that they be able to entertain themselves decently, that they not have to sell themselves into slavery or prostitution, which are virtually one and the same. He thought that capitalism was a means to that end. He certainly did not think that there was neither life nor reality nor value outside the market, or that everything had its market price and if it didn’t, it had no value. He did not believe that everything was either for sale or should be for sale. He did not believe that human beings were for sale.
As an American citizen and a human being, it grieves me terribly to say that Adam Smith’s is not the capitalism most American corporations practice today; they have not for many, many years. Nor is it the capitalism our experts urged upon your nation as it struggled and still struggles to create a market economy. You had enough problems of your own. We did you no favors.
Today, American economic life is dominated by oligarchies and corporations with no loyalty to anything beyond themselves. In their greed for profit and obsession with short-term manipulation over long-term creation, they are destroying my country. And they are taking the world down with us. They forget that, whatever a corporation’s legal responsibility to make money, human beings do not exist for corporations. Not in America and not anywhere else.
Legally, a for-profit corporation has only one purpose: to maximize profits for its shareholders. What would we say of a human being who said, I only want to make money and I don’t care who I hurt or what I harm to do it? How much would we tolerate from such a person? In his 1937 inaugural speech, Franklin Roosevelt, said: “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays.” Economic morality as Adam Smith intended it, a morality that, in its moral essence, is no monopoly of any system.
And perhaps what we say of corporations we might also say of nations. The age of the glorification of ruthless self-interest is over, not least of all because, in the long run, it doesn’t work.
So, what might we accomplish together? By this, I do not mean, how may we help you? It’s high time America got out of the business of “helping,” high time we got into the business of working together.
Since Russia and America have a great many interests and concerns in common, I propose we take a number of immediate, practical steps together to benefit our two nations.
We are, for which all America should give thanks, cooperating in the fight against Islamist terrorism and separatism. In many concrete ways, you have been of far more help to us than most of Western Europe has. That cooperation should be deepened and broadened and it should, of course, be very bilateral. We understand that Islamist terrorism, separatism and insurrection present grave dangers to your country and to the millions of Russian Muslims who wish to live in peace. We are ready to do what we can. We are certainly ready, as a government, to stop the self-righteous criticism of your desire to remain a single country, even if it comes to force of arms. Abraham Lincoln, I think, would understand.
Economically, in many ways the Russian Far East and the North American Northwest and Far North constitute a single trading area, rich in natural resources and possibilities for human development. I should like to consider the possibilities of joint exploration, development and marketing, perhaps regional agreements on everything from timber and coal to fish, as well as environmental and other energy issues. Canada would be a logical participant in many of these. So would Japan as a consumer.
As for trade, let me be blunt. I should like to see more goods saying “Made in America” for sale in Russia…and in America. I would also like to see more goods saying, “Made in Russia,” available in America and Russia. I would especially like to see substantial amounts of American manufacturing moved to Russia from other foreign lands, whence they have been “outsourced.”
And perhaps we would do well to consider reinvigorating our respective space programs, which are already linked. In many ways, the space race of the Cold War brought out the best in all of us. Let it be so again. And let it be so in developing the technologies and procedures necessary to safeguard our planet and tend to its health. We have a name for our space shuttle projects that study our planet: Mission to Planet Earth. It is a mission we should share.
Finally, we need to see more of each other as people. This means tourism, educational and other exchanges, visits from our respective cultural institutions: museums, symphonies, ballet, and yes, an occasional swapping of rock poets.
We are not enemies. And so it benefits neither of us, not my country nor yours, nor our world, to allow those who want us hostile, for reasons of their own, to set our agendas. Nor does it benefit either of us to be impoverished because we have squandered the work and intelligence and talents of our peoples.
There has been much talk of “resetting” the American and Russian relationship. The obvious question: reset to what? There is really nothing to go back to. But there is much to look forward to. In their famous “Kitchen Debate” of 1958 (?) then Vice President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khrushchev argued over whether communism or capitalism, the Soviet Union or America, was the true wave of the future. We know now that, in differing ways, neither is. Neither the failed communism of the Soviet era nor the present perverted capitalism of our present. We can do better than that. We should. We must. We will.