World

Obama's Cold War Rhetoric Is Outdated—And Masks Ukraine's Real Crises

Realities on the ground today are very different than the 1980's.

With his speech on foreign policy at West Point falling on deaf ears, and the scandal of the Bergdahl/Taliban exchange growing, President Obama decided to prop-up his foreign policy credentials by resorting to what I would call the “Charlie Wilson solution”: maintain your political relevance by getting tough with Russia. As opposed to Israel, Arab countries, or China-- criticism of which can land you into economic or political trouble--Russia is always available. Furthermore, what can be a better place to exhibit one’s anti-Russian credentials than Poland, the country where suspicion of all things Russian goes back to the 17th century, the time when Russia had overshadowed Poland as the dominant power in Eastern Europe. Having his political career shaped in Chicago, whose metropolitan area boasts 1.5 million Polish descendants, Obama knows it well.

With its invocations of such concepts as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “moral and physical courage” intended to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Poland’s liberation from Soviet Communism, Obama hit all the proper Cold War notes speaking in Poland, striving to conjure the mood of President Reagan’s famous 1987 West Berlin Speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” delivered at the height of the Cold War. Only he didn’t. That type of rhetoric might still work well in Warsaw or Chicago, but for the rest of the world, realities on the ground are very much different from June 1987.

The speech’s invocation of Cold War concepts sounded as anachronistic as the explanation of Einstein through Newtonian physics or Euclidian geometry. The paradigm has definitely shifted, but neither politicians nor the press seem to notice. Ideas do age, and when an old idea is dressed in the latest fashion it looks as incongruent as a muscle shirt on an unfit body. I experienced such incongruence in the Soviet Union, when the rhetoric of the revolutionary era, with its equalitarian and internationalist ethos, would be used to justify the invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia or the suppression of dissidents. This desire to utilize the Cold War’s image of courageous East Europeans resisting Soviet tyranny is not just anachronistic, or ill-timed. It is also – when applied to the current situation is Ukraine – is deliberately misleading.

It hides the complex reality of Ukraine, a divided country, whose division grows as the bombing of the eastern Ukraine –blatantly condoned by western powers --continues. It clearly misrepresents the attacks on Donetsk, Sloviansk, Luhansk, Kramatorsk, Krasny Liman and other towns where CIVILIANS (and not just so called “separatists” or “terrorists”) are brutally killed. It obfuscates the fact that the grievances of eastern Ukrainians are similar to anyone living in Europe or in the States: job insecurity, falling standard of living, and the central government's neglect of their concerns. But besides these obvious grievances, it also obfuscates the fact that the eastern Ukrainians held their political referendums, and demanded that their economic, political, and cultural concerns be recognized by the Kievan government. Yet this new government—consisting of the same old oligarchs who were in power before, and whose corruption brought down the previous government—dismissed these demands as mere Putin propaganda, and proceeded to bomb instead. This Cold War narrative also fails to acknowledge that the recent rewriting of Ukrainian history, undertaken by western Ukrainians in order to pull their country away from Russia toward the West, is both false and divisive.

This obfuscation of history is particularly egregious at the time when western leaders descend on Normandy to celebrate 70 years of Normandy's invasion. Ukrainian heroic sacrifice in the war against Germany has been deliberately downplayed in recent Ukrainian history for the sake of highlighting another Ukrainian tragedy – Holodomor, the death of thousands of Ukrainian peasants as the result of Stalin’s brutal agricultural policies. This decision to replace one tragedy with another does not sit well with the people on the east—as opposed to some western Ukrainians, who insist that those who resisted Stalin, even if they collaborated with Nazis, should be treated as national heroes. During the last 20 years at least two dozen monuments were erected to Stepan Bandera, the controversial leader of Ukrainian nationalists, whose supporters killed thousands of Jews, Poles and Russians. It is easy to imagine the feelings of various Ukrainians when they witness historical revision done with such a vengeance.

In short, the timing and wording of the president’s speech turned out to be rather unfortunate, since--thanks to the internet- there is an influx of videos and photos depicting exploded bodies, destroyed houses, refugees escaping to Russia, angry parents, scared children, and everything else in between. To dismiss all this by pledging support for Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s efforts to “stabilize his country” is callous at best.

Of course, President Obama could have avoided simplistic the anti-Russian paradigm and criticized his new ally Ukraine and its misguided policies, but that would have meant provoking the ire of neocons and the State Department, whose skewed geopolitical vision coupled with incompetence has already led Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Some sane policy makers have already suggested such direction. A National Interest essay by Rebecca Miller argues that we are being dragged into a Ukrainian quagmire by Poland's and Lithuania’s fears of Russia, and suggests that this obsession doesn’t necessarily fit American interests: “When European nations, under the security blanket of NATO’s Article 5, decide to make poorly-thought-out foreign-policy decisions that risk antagonizing large, influential powers like Russia, when does the United States decide that its role in NATO goes against America’s national interest?” While Miller insists that “Washington should be more careful about … unnecessary conflict,” President Obama bravely decided that he’d rather “draw Russia into a conflict” than challenge the State Department establishment.

Ignoring the advice of foreign policy professionals, President Obama embraced a narrative that is blatantly outdated. How else can one interpret Obama’s claim that "bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small, or impose their will at the barrel of a gun”? It would sound perfect in 1956 (when Soviet Union invaded Hungary) or 1968 (Czechoslovakia). But it hardly makes any sense now, in light of the endless militaristic adventures of the US, and in light of Kiev’s shelling of its cities and civilians only because civilians refuse to acquiesce to their government’s rejection of their political and cultural demands.   

Equally puzzling was hearing from the president that “leaders must uphold the public trust and ... not steal from the pockets of their own people. Our societies must … recognize the inherent dignity of every human being.” Haven’t the last month of fierce fighting in the East fully revealed that as far as Ukrainian oligarchs are concerned, grabbing power and drowning the inherent dignity of Donbass inhabitants in blood is more important for them that “upholding public trust.”

Invocation of Cold War rhetoric also obscures serious national and global issues. It is tempting to go back twenty five years, and invoke relatively a simple world when the truth resided in the West, when the Soviet Empire had nothing but bayonets to keep its subjects down. But besides its resounding one-liners, Reagan's speech had substance behind it. His appeal to tear this wall down was based on the real superiority of the West – its economics, its institutions, its ideas, and its ideals were proving more dynamic and humane for the majority of Germans, East Europeans and Russians. Western military power was the consequence of this superiority, but it clearly was not the decisive factor that made millions of Warsaw Pact citizens look westward.

The world has changed since then. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and most of its current economic, political or cultural institutions, imperfect as they are, are based on western models. These western models, however, hardly look as appealing now as they did twenty-five years ago. With its economics, foreign policy, and neo-liberal ideology that frequently fail to deliver and are challenged from both left and right, western superiority remains unquestioned only in the area of firepower.

Yet the simplifications of a Cold War outlook continue to tempt politicians, the press and the public. Isn’t it great to embrace the stories that celebrate our values – especially at a time of economic and other forms of uncertainty and challenge? It is precisely the shakiness of our foundations that Cold War rhetoric attempts to hide. Ubiquitous Charlie Wilson knew it well, as when he argued for another foreign policy venture. Appealing to lift the arms embargo to Bosnia, the Texas Congressman asserted: "This is good versus evil and, if we do not want to Americanize this, then what do we want to Americanize? We have to stand for something." So let’s stand for the Ukrainian people against the Russian tyranny!

The trouble with the Manichean world view that Obama’s Warsaw speech embraces is that it offers very little beyond a comforting story. As someone who’s been studying stories and fiction for the last thirty years, I can easily recognize in all this political grand-standing a rather simplistic master-narrative of Socialist realism, the artistic form that dominated Stalinist art and literature.

Socialist realism was not expected to be “realistic.” Its goal was to convey “society in its revolutionary development.” For the Soviets, the “revolutionary development” was leading toward communism, and the need to overcome the fierce resistance of bourgeois enemies. In its Western rendering, it becames the story of heroic individuals who, in their striving for liberal democracy, overcome their autocratic and tyrannical rulers. Traditionally, the role of “bad guys” blocking the path toward democracy was assigned to the Soviets. Recently, during the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern dictators began to compete for this role. This socialist-realism paradigm of American foreign policy was forged during the Cold War, and it makes perfect sense in the case of such country as Poland--but it doesn’t mean that it can be used indiscriminately.

Socialist realism was not just one big lie. As in the story of Poland’s liberation, there were facts that supported it. “The Earth” (1930), the classic of Socialist realism cinema, a stunning film by the greatest Ukrainian director, Alexander Dovzhenko, was also based on a true story. Yet, for anyone who studied the genre, it is clear that when these stories became formulaic and ritualistic, they not only simplify but obfuscate and mislead. The formulaic simplicity of Socialist realism can be usefully applied for any ritualized political drama, like the celebration in Normandy, but the formulas are not the substitute for analysis, nor should ritualistic narratives take place of objective presentation.

But the power of these pre-fabricated narratives is such that not only the press and the politicians fail to resist them. Even scholars frequently yield to them, as can witnessed by the recent output of Yale professor Timothy Snyder and award-winning writer Anna Applebaum. Ukrainian rebels who organized the coup in Kiev are turned into “liberal democrats” while Russians who had considerable reservations about the direction and implication of the Ukrainian revolution are presented as tyrannical enemies, foreign to western liberal values. With Putin and Russia playing the villain, this script has been immediately accepted, even though the Maidan uprising was carried out and sponsored by people who have very little to do with democracy. There were right-wing violent brigades, heirs to the ultra-nationalist movements that terrorized Ukrainian lands at the time of Nazis, and who continue to terrorize it now. The Odessa massacre of May 2, 2014 comes immediately to mind.

Once one side is labeled “liberal and democratic” and another “anti-western and autocratic,” the rest becomes a matter of technique. Endless pundits with very little knowledge of local histories embarked on elaborating the familiar plot, finding more examples of “autocratic” or “non-western” Russia, and more examples of “liberal Ukraine.” Politicians and others follow, be it Hilary Clinton’s desire to compare Putin’s actions to Hitler, or the recent French darling of neocons, Mr. Bernard-Henri Levi, who desperately tries to put French intellectual luster upon the tired social realist fiction, now comparing Putinism to fascism, now demanding to bomb Syria into liberal democracy.

What is troubling is that even when the mainstream press reports on atrocities committed by the current Ukrainian government, these facts do not stick, they do not congeal into a story that can be understood both by the reporters and the public. The socialist realism fiction of the State Department, however, continues to flourish. Thus, one of the authors of the current Ukrainian fiasco, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland, has just meet in Odessa (of all places) with the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the person who arms the Ukrainian army, who offers a bounty on every “separatist” dead or alive, and who clearly stands to benefit from the Odessa massacre. They used their meeting as an opportunity to stress the American endorsement of the economic progress of Ukraine. When the Pope Gregory XIII congratulated French King Charles IX for the genocide of French Protestants during St. Bartholomew massacre he also viewed it as progress beneficial for France. It is highly ironic that of all European leaders, only Ivan the Terrible expressed his horror at the massacre. Plus ça change…

It is very hard for Putin to resist the popular demand to act on behalf of Donbass in light of the totally different reality presented to Russians on their TV or computer screens, where the images of legless women, charred bodies, or the shelled civilians dominate. But let’s presume that Putin backs off and allows resistance in the eastern Ukraine to be drowned in blood. What kind of victory will it be? Will it make us more competitive, more innovative, more sophisticated, and more admired? Will it make the world around us more secure, or simply more intimidating?

Vladimir Golstein is a professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. He was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1979.