Sunday, July 8, 2007

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our [American] dead.” In other words, President Bush’s invitation to Vladimir Putin of Russia to spend a weekend in Kennebunkport, Maine, was an attempt to regain lost ground. But had the ground ever been won?

During Mr. Bush’s tenure Russia slipped away from Western tutelage, disappointing the American Pollyannas again, while the world began to withhold its sympathy for America. The attempt to cozy up to the iron-fisted Vlad was like an attempt to bring back the joys of childhood by playing the tune one heard when 10 years old.

Mr. Putin did of course use the invitation to his own advantage. The government-controlled Russian press used the opportunity to belittle the United States by ostentatiously reducing news about the meeting to small print. Other than a photo-op and another unrealistic rocket defense proposal, the beach summit seems to have yielded few points for Mr. Bush.

In the meantime, the real partner of the United States, the European Union, is undergoing the convulsions of change. At the June 2007 Berlin summit Great Britain requested special privileges for itself. They were granted without much ado, but a request by Poland to forgo the simple majority voting system (which would have enabled the EU’s demographic giants to dictate policy) occasioned much recrimination against the former Soviet satellite. Poland managed to delay the introduction of majority vote by seven years, to the accompaniment of barroom attacks from the German press.

Such dissonances are inevitable. By admitting 10 Central and East European countries to the EU, its leaders opted for a concept of Europe that had been suppressed for two centuries. In the 19th and 20th centuries, European empires dominated not only Asia and Africa but parts of Europe. Let us call a spade a spade: it was white-on-white colonialism, of the kind familiar to the Irish before they regained independence. Poland, Czechia, the Baltic States, Slovakia and others were suppressed peripheries of German, Russian and Austrian empires.

In 2004, they regained a voice, thereby changing the EU choir for good. The importance of this change cannot be overestimated. The 2004 enlargement of the European Union canceled two centuries of internal European imperialism.

Before these countries became members, the European Union was more like a concert of the great powers conceived at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, rather than a concert of all European nations.

The Congress of Vienna represented the peak of European imperial arrogance. The peace it proclaimed was not stable because it was predicated on a suppression of aspirations to liberty of many nations. Therefore, the 19th century was punctuated by uprisings and the rise of revolutionary ideologies.

In 2004, Europe decided to reverse the course by opting for a nonimperial future. It extended a welcoming hand to small countries such as the Baltic republics. It assured them their voices would be listened to regardless of their size. In contrast, Russia continued to suppress small voices such as Chechnya’s.

In this context, one should view the productive dissonances at the EU summit and the largely ceremonial meeting in Kennebunkport. Together, the 10 EU newcomers have fewer citizens than Germany. In the United States the demographic imbalances between states are flattened in various ways, among others by allowing all states to have the same number of senators. The electoral system in the election of presidents likewise allows less populous areas a voice.

The EU acquiesced to Poland’s request to delay the majority vote until 2014. This decision allows the smaller EU nations to find their bearings in the system before they are asked to line up according to size.

The United States needs to pay attention to these European developments not only because the countries of the “New Europe” are among the staunchest allies of America but because EU as a whole is one of the few stable partners in an increasingly unpredictable and nationalistic world.

Vladimir Putin may look like a run-of-the-mill white American, but he was head of the KGB (now called FSB) before he became president of Russia. In other words, he was the supreme “master of deceit.” To Kennebunkport he brought “gifts”; one of them a proposal to entrust America’s security to an international office in Moscow and therefore make the planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic superfluous.

Shortly before Mr. Putin traveled to America, his government negotiated a sale of submarines to Venezuela and signed several bilateral agreements endangering Europe’s energy security. On his watch, Venezuela disinvited Western oil companies and invited Russians to help develop its oil resources.

The fires of Russian nationalism Mr. Putin helped stoke replaced the old fires of communist zeal. The ideology was renamed, but the zeal remained.

Mr. Putin knows that if America bleeds out in the Middle East, Russia will be able to pick up the pieces. Buoyed by high oil prices, Russia has plenty of time. It is not in Russia’s interest to tame Iran: Mr. Putin would rather that America bled further on behalf of nonproliferation. If Iran is contained at America’s expense, Russia wins without cost or incurring the wrath of the Islamic world.

If Iran further develops its nuclear potential, Russia becomes the only possible mediator between it and the United States. Whichever way the chips fall in the Middle East, Russia wins.

So Mr. Putin can take leisurely trips to America and offer fake solutions, and be like the lady who protests too much. The attempts to enlist Russia in taming Iran go against Russia’s national interests, and are therefore futile. President Bush would do better to turn his attention to Europe whose loyalty and friendship America both needs and is in a position to obtain.


Research Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University and author of “Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism” (2000).

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