I was fortunate enough to attend part of this conference on Monday morning, where Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger held forth on the origins of détente. Kissinger engaged in his characteristic autobiographic revisionism, warning everyone not to believe what their own lyin’ eyes tell them about “certain phone conversations.” Schlesinger argued that détente depended on several tough stances he took. The chemistry between the men was prickly until they were given the opportunity to kick around Melvin Laird, at which point things loosened up somewhat, but I had to leave then.
Before their discussion, which was supposed to also include Al Haig, Secretary Rice delivered some opening remarks:
For us, and for many in Russia too, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a triumph – ushering in a new promise of international security and stability; a new hope of a Europe whole, free, and at peace; and a new era of liberty, and opportunity, and justice for all Russians. But we need to realize, too, that for many ordinary Russians, who saw the end of the Cold War differently, it was remembered as a decade of great uncertainty, and lawlessness, and weakness, and perhaps even humiliation; a revolution in its truest meaning, when the only social order that most ever knew overturned with devastating abruptness, when the state collapsed and the public wealth of an unsuspecting nation was pocketed by too few.
I firmly believe that we cannot understand Russia today, and we cannot fully connect with the Russian people, unless we continue working to see our shared history in common terms. This can not, and it will not, lead to apologize for Russian actions that never should have happened. But a deeper understanding between our peoples will help our governments to work with each other, not talk past each other, and to continue to build a better relationship; something that we both want and surely that we both need.
It’s all well and good to recognize the psychological implications of Soviet collapse and its impact on relations with Russia, but simply “to realize” that Russians have hurt feelings is to disregard what are perfectly rational security concerns. Our proposed missile defense system, NATO encroachment, etc. all add up to some genuine headaches for Russian policy makers, however righteous we may feel about those things.
Rice urges a “deeper understanding between our peoples” on one hand, but shows only the most superficial conception of Russia’s position as it might appear to a Russian, many of whom were in the audience. Someone with the Secretary’s depth of experience in the field could have crafted a more sophisticated account of what Russia’s interests really are and a better explanation of where our common interests really lie.