Russia, the Big Picture

People sometimes ask “What would Reagan think?” and “What would Reagan do?” I don’t understand this and tend not to play. How would I know, how would you? He was a man of his time and place who responded to the great questions of his day. He could be surprising—actually he was both constant and surprising. The famous cold warrior who spiked defense spending worried fairly constantly about nuclear weapons and was willing to gamble all to get rid of them at Reykjavik.

Also he was human, and you can never calculate with complete certainty what a human would do.

Mostly I steer clear because the question is both frivolous and, around the edges, sad. “What would FDR do?” “What would JFK do?” “Only Lincoln’s wisdom will suffice.” Boo hoo. This is nostalgia as an evasive tool. You’re alive, what would you do?

But the past few weeks I’ve been witness to many discussions of Russia at gatherings of American diplomats, journalists and historians, and taken part in interviews with experts and foreign-policy thinkers. I am coming to conclude that almost everyone is missing the headline and focusing instead on a factoid in the seventh or tenth graf. Journalists pound diplomats with questions about U.S. sanctions, as if they believe the right one will do the trick and solve the problem. Diplomats dilate on the last Kerry-Lavrov meeting, or the next, or the credibility and potential impact of the Kiev government’s most recent accusation.

One sophisticated observer will muse aloud about the Russian government for the first time really starting to clamp down on the Internet, while another will mention offhandedly the high state of Russian nationalist feeling—and anti-U.S. feeling—among politicians and the press in Moscow. But they don’t seem to understand the implications of their observations.

The American leadership class has taken on a certain ship-of-fools aspect when it comes to Russia. They are missing the essential story.

So the other night I was walking from a gathering when a writer and academic, a smart, nice man, turned to me and said, softly, “How do you think Reagan would view what is going on? How do you think he’d see all this?” And I surprised myself by answering.

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I said that what people don’t understand about Reagan is that his self-conceptualization in the first 40 years of his life, meaning the years in which you really become yourself, was as an artist. Not a political leader or an economist, not a geo-strategist, but an artist. I saw this when I went through his papers at the Reagan Library. As a boy and young man he was a short story writer, a drawer of pictures, then an actor. He acted in college, went into broadcasting and then went on to act professionally. He paid close attention to script, character, the shape of the story. He came to maturity and middle age in Hollywood, which was full of craftsmen and artists, and he respected them and was one of them.

He cared about politics and came to see himself as a leader when he was immersed in Screen Actors Guild politics, and later led that union.

But he, to himself, was an artist.

And the thing about artists is they try to see the thing whole. They try to get the big shape of things. They’re creative, intuitive. Someone once said a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist, and it’s true. An artist has imagination, tries to apprehend the full sweep of what’s happening. An actor understands what moment you’re in in the drama.

And so with that as context this, I said, this is how I think Reagan would view the moment we’re in:

The Soviet Union fell almost a quarter-century ago. It was great news, a victory for civilization. That fall was followed by something: a series of governments trying to maintain stability and pick up the pieces, turning toward democracy, toward modernity, really going for a non-state-dominated economy. Russian leaders were to some significant degree accommodating to the West, which had vanquished them. They engaged in reconstruction on many fronts, reinvention too. They moved in varying degrees toward Western values.

Again, it lasted almost a quarter century.

Now it is over.

That history has ended and something new has begun. Now we are in an era so new we don’t even have a name for it. Maybe we’ll call it “Putinism,” maybe “Cold War II,” who knows—but it’s brand new and it’s different from the past not only in tone but in nature, character and, presumably, intent.

Vladimir Putin is in control. The state is increasingly entwined with him. We don’t know how much autonomy he has, as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations noted the other day. But we have to assume it is significant. We know he is not only in charge but popular, and the tougher he is, the more popular he appears to be. (A real question: Will Russian democracy itself survive this new era? We will find out in the next few years.) A spirit of nationalism is rising, and that nationalism may contribute in time to a feeling of blood in the air. The Russian government is clamping down on the press, on free speech.

The Russian government isn’t trying to please us or work with us anymore. Mr Putin has formally set himself as our antagonist. Something big got broken here. It will have world-wide implications, and be a major foreign-policy challenge for the United States in the coming years

But we are in a new time and will have to plan anew and think anew.

That is how I think the artist formerly known as Reagan would judge what’s happening. He’d see it clear and figure it from there. He wouldn’t think it was about sanctions and tweeted insults.

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I would add that to create a new strategy we will not only have to see Mr. Putin clearly. We will have to consider—honestly—what steps and missteps, what assumptions and attitudes, led to this moment not only there, but here. We will have to figure out how the new moment can be nonviolently countered. This in turn will require being honest about ourselves—who we are, what we need and what we want—and our allies, and their particular character and imperatives. It would be good to remember it is not 1950. That, truly, was another world.

It is my opinion that Reagan wouldn’t be alarmist because there’s no use in alarm. At the same time he’d be serious as a heart attack about what has happened and what it implies. Being serious would not involve putting down Russia as a merely regional power, as President Obama recently did. No nuclear power is merely regional. If Putin were merely regional, he wouldn’t have been able to save Obama’s bacon in Syria.

I do think Reagan would be startled—that isn’t quite the word, because it doesn’t encompass a sense of horror—that it clearly won’t be the American president leading the West through the start of the new era, but a German chancellor.

That, actually, would have taken him aback.