The debate was quickly framed as follows: Did President Bush, by his remarks, contribute to the stability of democracy, or did he enhance the prospects of destabilization in Russia?
That criticism is serious and attracts immediate concern. A reductionist formulation of the criticism would remind us that territorial Russia stretches across eleven time zones and that however bedraggled the Russian military is at this point, Russia is still the second largest nuclear power in the world–by some reckonings, the premier nuclear power, since the old, wicked USSR hid and lied about its nuclear production. Add to this that democracy is not a fixed component of the Russian DNA, and we’re left with the question: Did President Bush make a mistake in provoking Putin–and the Russian people?
It was a great weekend for major-power politics. On Sunday it was the 60 Minutes program, with Mike Wallace doing his unique act with a Putin who was driven, by Wallace’s prosecutorial questioning, to demand, in effect, to know about the Negro situation in the South. Old cold warriors will remember that cliché of the 50s, when the Communist apologist would reply to the American who documented charges of Soviet aggression, imperialism, concentration camps, and genocide by denouncing the U.S. for Jim Crow. Mike Wallace observed that the Russian nomenklatura controls the media and that democratic accounting simply did not prevail, to which Putin replied (finding his Jim Crow) that it wasn’t democracy but a judicial court that decided the U.S. election of 2000.
It transpires that Mr. Putin is diligently curious about world affairs and reads the foreign press diligently. But to hang in there with a non-sequitur when replying to charges of non-democratic practices must have made him wistful for the old days, when simple assertions of Soviet rectitude were all that was needed, or expected.
What President Bush did do was wonderfully bracing. To begin with, he apologized for our own complicity in postwar arrangements authorized at Yalta. When he spoke in Latvia, he made no attempt to elide the events of 1945, when Communist aggression simply replaced Nazi aggression and the long period began when these little republics were merely vassal states of great Russia. The president applauded the evolution of democracy in Ukraine and Georgia and even pitched for freedom for Belarus. After his two hours with Putin at the presidential dacha outside Moscow, Condoleezza Rice reported that he had spoken of the rule of law, a free press, and a political opposition, as constituent factors in a democracy.
Mr. Putin in due course got it said that Russia was its own master and needed no help from foreign ideologues in making its way into a democratic future. As much was expected. National pride almost always, in every situation, prevails.
But what was special about the scene was the all-American directness of Mr. Bush’s commentary. Sometimes it matters when, in dealings with leaders of foreign powers, there are exchanges of social intimacies. When President Eisenhower greeted Premier Khrushchev in 1959 he was meeting for the first time on American soil with a Soviet leader, and he passed on the word to the photographers that he would not smile. His countenance would be that of an official doing his duty. When 13 years later, President Nixon consorted with the leaders of Communist China, there were those who felt dismay at the bonhomie of a shared repast with men actively engaged in the pursuit of bloody tyranny.
Bush brings a hygiene which shields him from criticisms that would be engendered by others who are thought fatalistic, or indifferent, to the slights to human freedom. He is certain to be criticized in Europe by those American critics who don’t like spontaneous approaches to diplomatic affairs, who don’t like Bush, and who in their present mood don’t like America. Bush knows that there are such problems, and it would be wrong to suppose that he is ignorant about them. But he is bound by the dictates of his own nature, and these encouraged him, over the weekend, to say candid things to President Putin, to acknowledge historical failings of his own country, to remark the doleful decades in the Baltic community, and to exude a cheerful feel for the whole situation. What he did was, if not exactly made in America, very American. And the next time he comes to town, if he sets down in Berlin or in Paris, he is certain to say pleasant and cheerful things to the leaders of our allies.