Hirsh: Icy G8 Meeting for U.S., Russia

It wasn’t like Harry and “Uncle Joe” at all. Or was it? Sixty-two years ago, here at Potsdam, Harry Truman and Joe Stalin seemed to get along famously, putting on a display of bonhomie that belied how fast their relationship was about to go into a deep freeze. During the conference after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the U.S. president quietly received a message that said, “Babies satisfactorily born,” meaning the world’s first successful atomic test had just occurred at Los Alamos, N.M. The cold war—and the start of a four-decadelong arms race—was just a year or so away. On Wednesday, representatives of the major powers met again in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, this time for a G8 meeting. Such gatherings are typically relentlessly amiable, and so the delegates tried to make it this time. But beneath the forced grins, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchanged icy, even scary, words that suggested a new cold war is not inconceivable. “The arms race is starting again,” Lavrov said flatly.

The immediate issue was a missile-defense shield that Washington is trying to set up in Poland and the Czech Republic. Rice, in remarks the day before on her plane, had dismissed Russian concerns that the shield was aimed at Moscow as “ludicrous.” The United States only intended to guard against nukes from smaller countries like North Korea and Iran, she said. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is still steamed over George W. Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the antiballistic-missile treaty, warned Washington against turning Europe into a “powder keg” and promptly fired off a new test ICBM. His deputy prime minister and putative successor, Sergei Ivanov, boasted that Russia “has new tactical and strategic complexes that are capable of overcoming any existing or future missile-defense systems." Asked about Rice’s comments at Potsdam, Foreign Minister Lavrov was cutting—and uncompromising. “There is nothing ludicrous about” Russia’s concerns, he snapped. The U.S. secretary of State, seeking desperately to keep the atmosphere light-hearted, tried a mild joke (to the extent that mass destruction can be funny). “I would note that President Putin said yesterday that Russia would ... destroy any shield,” she said. “We quite agree.” There were a few chuckles in the room. But the laughing ended when Lavrov said: “I hope that nobody has to actually prove that Condi’s right about that.”

This is rough language indeed for a meeting that’s supposed to represent the calm “world of ‘post-history’,” where great nations rise above such petty threats and make war no more. The atmosphere between Washington and Moscow has grown so tense—not only over this, but over Putin’s bullying on energy supplies, over continuing aggressive U.S. moves to bring former Soviet satellites and states into NATO, and over smaller issues like independence for Kosovo—that Bush resorted to the only card he has left, his still-cordial personal relationship with the Russian president. The White House abruptly announced Wednesday that the president was inviting Putin to the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, for two days in July. As if sensing that things had spiraled out of control in Potsdam, Rice interrupted the end of the news conference Wednesday to deliver what an aide described an impromptu confirmation of the visit. In Maine, Lavrov added humorlessly, “All sorts of areas where our positions do not coincide will be discussed.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conventional wisdom in Washington has been that a new cold war wasn’t possible because the vast ideological differences that separated America and Russia no longer existed. But is that so true any longer? Once an eager student of Washington’s free-market, democratic reforms, the Russia of today has become another beast entirely, says a senior Bush administration official. The Putin government has come to operate by the rules of a new form of fascism, a blend of open markets and state control. And don’t try to talk to elite Russians about the glories of democracy any more: they’ve had their earful of advice from America. But perhaps nothing is more worrisome than the current clash represented by Bush’s missile shield and Putin’s countertest. Russia is “slowly becoming a revisionist power, seeking to revisit the settlements of ’89 to ’91” that ended the cold war, the official said.  “That’s an unsettling thought.” Among these: the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty limiting troops and weapons in Europe.

This is, sadly, a shift in the post-cold war world that is becoming all too familiar. Compared to a decade or so ago, the belief in the messianic power of democracy and markets has reached a new low. Bush has helped the trend along by allowing Iraq to disintegrate from a would-be model into a morass, turning the country into perhaps the most powerful example of democracy’s drawbacks since the Weimar Republic, and by hypocritically embracing the rhetoric of democracy while giving big hugs to its most flagrant detractors, like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Not only Russia but China—Washington’s other great cold war rival—has pressed the idea of an alternative model on the world (Beijing has shown, at least for the moment, that you can have a booming market economy with totalitarian rule).

Let’s hope that meeting in Kennebunkport goes well. Better, at least, than Potsdam.

Join the Discussion