Magazine | March 24, 2014, Issue

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Tell Vlad that after my election, I have more flexibility. Even at the time, it sounded like your daughter’s sleazy boyfriend saying, “You know, dude, after her 16th birthday, it’ll be legal” — and expecting you to nod and respect him for his forthrightness. Speaking of lines that come back to haunt you, here’s John Kerry at the 2012 Democratic Convention:

“Folks: Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska; Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV.”

It was a cheap laugh line at a political convention, and it shouldn’t diminish Kerry’s reputation as a deep thinker steeped in history; his tenure at State will do that nicely. President Obama avoided the Rocky IV swipe but crafted his own: During a presidential debate, you’ll recall, he told Mitt that the ’80s had called, and they wanted their foreign policy back. The proper retort was, “I hope it wasn’t at 3 a.m. while the embassy was under attack,” but Romney was visibly rocked back by the president’s remark. Oh! Good one! On the ropes! some may have thought, but in retrospect Romney may have been attempting to conceal his surprise that the president is a glib naïf who thinks Russia is an elongated France with more snow. It wasn’t the suggestion that Russia was our geopolitical foe that Obama dismissed; it was the idea that we had geopolitical foes at all.

Perhaps Obama’s worldview paraphrases Will Rogers: A geopolitical adversary is just a friend you haven’t concluded a treaty with yet. Never mind that the Putin regime has adopted Lenin’s attitude towards treaties. As Lenin famously noted, “Treaties are like pie crusts. Made to be broken — with the crumbs swept up into a mailed fist and smashed into the face of the capitalist, while the baker is being beaten for using nutmeg. It’s not that I don’t like nutmeg. But let it be an example to any who might hoard nutmeg, or transport nutmeg, or suggest that the Five-Year Plan for nutmeg production will fall short. These are the falsehoods of the kulaks and wreckers, and we have a bullet for each, more bullets than there are grains of nutmeg in the average pie whose crust is a metaphor for our international obligations.”

Then he picked up a kitten and absent-mindedly snapped its neck while staring out the window at the future, and everyone backed out of the room.

The quote has been cleaned up for brevity’s sake.

You get the gist: Nations have interests, which vary; the only constant is self-interest. President Obama has sought to abolish this antiquated notion. Once he’s done with that, he can work on changing the temperature at which water freezes.

#page#But back to Rocky IV. Remember the villain: Ivan Drago, a steely-eyed, contemptuous slab of state-sponsored homicide. He was scientific and remorseless and looked spectacular in a Red Army uniform. A man who grew up drinking antifreeze and standing in line for seven hours to get six squares of corrugated cardboard for the monthly toilet-paper ration, he is hard. He will prevail.

It’s been a while since I saw the movie, although I recall that Rocky trained like a Russian — running through the drifts carrying frozen pails of water while pulling a sled loaded with dead reindeer, or something — and in the end he prevailed because Drago ran out of ideas. He was hampered by ideology, and Rocky, being American, improvised a strategy that came down to “being hit in the head repeatedly without suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.” Eventually his pluckiness won over everyone, including Gorbachev, who was in the audience. This was like Hitler bolting to his feet in the 1936 Olympics: Run, Jesse! Mein Gott, run!

Anyway. Drago was a Soviet movie cliché, one seldom seen anymore. The other big Movie Soviet was the chummy, lovable, alcoholic bear, given to song and soulful poetry and mad cackling and protestations of friendship. In the movies this fellow would always be friendly and say comical things like “But Russia, she invent the television!” and “In Russia, we have sayink, not to be waking dogs of sleep.” In the last act he dropped all pretense and usually shot someone.

If there was a Movie Soviet you could depend upon, it was the scrawny, cynical, world-weary guy whose Slavic soul shone through the thin, stinking sheet of Bolshie orthodoxy draped over the face of Great Mother Russia. You could see Alan Arkin playing him in a movie. These guys were smart, bitter, but proud. All of their relatives had died at Stalingrad, sometimes twice. If they had a story, it was how they were given Medal for Hero of Cosmodrome. Is true! At last minute before Gagarin’s first flight he discovered some dolboyop had substituted an inferior part on the rocket, and he had to fix it with cheap Soviet masking tape (“Volga Canal brand, the worst”) as the rockets fired. “But we got Yuri up. And we got him back.” Cue the massed choirs.

They were interesting adversaries. Worthy foes. Putin may not want to bring back the USSR, but it would be clarifying if he did. We have cultural contexts for that. Modern Russia, with its ghastly arriviste architecture and McDonald’s and resurgent Orthodox identity and dissident bloggers who write iPhone apps — it’s all over the map.

Literally, in the case of Crimea. You hope the ’80s do call the Oval Office again, except with a difference. Want to borrow our foreign policy? Sorry, the president would say. I’ve got the ’70s on the other line, and I really want to take this call.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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