Five days after D-Day, Winston Churchill got this message from Stalin: “My colleagues and I cannot but admit that the history of warfare knows no other like undertaking from the point of view of its scale, its vast conception, and its masterly execution …. History will record this deed as an achievement of the highest order.”
Now President George W. Bush has gone to Moscow, on the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, to pay tribute to the Soviet Union’s achievement in defeating Hitler. At the same time, in very Bush-like fashion, he has been ruffling feathers.
Russia deserves Mr. Bush’s tribute. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were pretty scary, but in the scale of the eastern front in World War II, it was a burp. Hitler lost his vision, his war and his life on the plains of Russia and Poland. Britain and America stabbed Germany in the belly and back in Africa, Italy and France, and incinerated it from the air. But it was annihilated by the Soviet Army.
President Bush can hardly avoid praising the Soviets now, considering how much Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill praised them then. When Harry Truman was still a Senator, he speculated that the United States should help the Communists so long as the Nazis were winning, then help the Nazis once the Communists were winning. Good political theory, lousy politics. Such a nice balancing of the efforts of all-out war is psychologically impossible, and makes you distrusted by both your friends and your enemies: Your friends won’t trust you to back them up, and your enemies won’t trust you to beat them down. We made the judgment that Germany was the more dynamic enemy, and we couldn’t beat it without Soviet help. After 1941, that’s the way the war played out.
It had terrible consequences, of course: for us, in the trillions of dollars we spent on Cold War weaponry; more terribly for the people that the Soviet Union conquered and the people they had already imprisoned- the long-suffering Russians. Mindful of this endgame, President Bush added to his trip to Moscow a side trip to Latvia, a former Soviet republic enjoying a still-tentative independence. Latvia’s first tentative independence followed World War I and ended when it was obliterated by the Soviets, the Nazis and then the Soviets again during World War II. Mr. Bush’s visit is an effort to do what we could not do at the time- to say “Alas!” to the defeated. “In Western Europe,” Mr. Bush said, “the end of World War II meant liberation. In Central and Eastern Europe, the war also marked … Soviet occupation.”
Vladimir Putin, who is as determined as any old Soviet-era apparatchik to launder this history, was irked by Mr. Bush’s itinerary. His government frostily let it be known that Latvia had invited the Soviets in as liberators in 1945. As for the domestic history of Russia, Mr. Putin, without formally being a Communist himself (any more, that is), has encouraged a muzzy nostalgia about the Communist past. The New York Times ran an amusing story about Oleg Gazmanov, a Russian pop singer who seems to be Mr. Putin’s Bob Dylan. Mr. Gazmanov’s most recent tribute to his roots-his Nashville Skyline, if you will- hails Lenin, Stalin, Pushkin and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Poor Pushkin, the flamboyant 19th-century liberal, to be stuffed into such company. If the most popular pop singer in Germany wrote ditties about Goethe, Goebbels, Haydn and Hitler, I suppose it would excite comment, not least from Vladimir Putin.
So the lightning crackled, though the storm blew away in time for Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush to take the ride in Mr. Putin’s 1956 Volga. Bush diplomacy clumps on. Why did Mr. Bush take such risks on the eve of a trip to a nation which, if no longer a superpower, still has vast potential for good and ill, not least because it is menaced by Islamist terrorism, yet nevertheless arms every brutal Islamic regime it can find?
Mr. Bush believes his personal rapport with Mr. Putin can survive a few honest shocks. One hopes he is right. The rebels of the age of Enlightenment thought that, by toppling kings, wars would no longer be waged or averted because of royal whims. So in the democratic age we elect our own kings, and we have all the old nonsense. Only time will be able to add the balance sheet of Vladimir Putin’s cooperation, and his double-dealing.
A more important reason for Mr. Bush’s Latvian stopover is ideological. This President is committed to democracy, and liberals who have long loved such rhetoric, as well as conservatives who have long distrusted it, are beginning to realize the fact. Mr. Bush believes the ultimate answer to the Islamist menace is draining the swamps of dictatorship, impotence and self-hatred masked as hatred in the Middle East. He also believes that the way to keep the post-Soviet world on keel is to encourage democratic and anti-imperial tendencies in its component parts. He uses both violence and patience; he has fought two wars, and he is willing to hold a Saudi’s hand. But he seems truly relentless in his approach.
This is not the traditional view of how statecraft works. The ideal diplomat was supposed to be able, like Talleyrand, to receive a kick in the backside without showing a sign of it on the face. One time, after a half-hour-long tirade from Napoleon, who threw everything at him from his cuckoldry to his limp, Talleyrand shuffled off, saying only, “What a pity that such a great man should be so ill-bred.”
Are such levels of duplicity and self-control even possible now? How would Talleyrand have fared if a dozen reporters had thrust microphones in his face and a hundred pundits had discussed his position, day in, day out? The price of omnipresence is transparency.
And is traditional diplomacy even desirable, once people enter the equation of international affairs? When subjects want to take their lives into their own hands and become citizens, should they be talked over and around by their rulers? If Mr. Bush sometimes seems a little rough, that is partly because he is broadening the discussion. Who knew the oil-patch rich kid would be such a sans-culotte?