"Totalitarianism Demands a Disbelief in the Very Existence of Truth"

July 16, 2018

So wrote George Orwell in "Animal Farm".

Or more precisely, "Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of truth."

As a result, unless challenged--vigorously, based on truth-- it not just the future that belongs to the all-powerful, but also the past. This we must resist with every bone in our body.

 While what constitutes "truth" will in many cases be hotly debated, the agreement that we are COMMITTED to identifying "truth", based on the best interpretation of available FACTS,  lies at the foundation of a functioning democracy.

Doing the Best We Can--Doing What God Would Have Me Do

July 10, 2018

Today, at a time when we are faced with what can seem like an interminable number of challenges, it is good to reflect on something that Robert Penn Warren wrote in his book, "Segregation",  decades ago:

"We have to deal with the problem our historical moment proposes, the burden of our time. We all live with a thousand unsolved problems of justice all the time. All we can do for posterity is to try to plug along in away to make them think we--the old folks--did the best we could for justice, as we could understand it."

For me two mandates help me on this journey.

Trying to follow the honest answer to the question : "what would God have me do?"

Recognizing that in all I do, everyone counts..that there is no higher calling than making a positive difference in someone else's life.

"Beware of Declaring Premature Victory"

July 9, 2018

In cleaning out some old files, I came upon a review of a book I read a decade ago:  Giants, the Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer.  An element of that review reminds me of a painful lesson I have learned over the years:  “Beware of declaring premature victory.”  I’ve seen that in business; I’ve seen it in the life of our nation; I’m seeing the risk of it today.  The extract below, which draws directly from Stauffer’s fine book, refers particularly to the belief that the Emancipation of the slaves was leading to true “freedom.”  Of course, that was not the case; the fight for freedom continues today.
In 1876, Douglass gave a talk to commemorate the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington.  He encapsulated there Lincoln’s principles beautifully.  “In organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict,” Lincoln had succeeded.  “Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union” he would have alienated large numbers of people “and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible.”  
As Douglass stood there that day, it had already become clear that “the slave was sinking back to his knees after standing in ‘brief moment in the sun’.”  Douglass’ worst fears from the Civil War years had been realized, yet he remained largely silent.  Why was this?  Like most other black and white abolitionists, Douglass saw the end of the war as the end-point of an era and of his life’s work.  It also marked the end of his continual self-making.  After the war “a strange and perhaps perverse feeling came over me.  I felt I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life; my school was broken up, my church disbanded and the congregation dispersed, never to come together again.”  His life’s work was now “among the things of memory.”  
It was an astonishing confession, as Stauffer says.  Douglass himself in 1852 had summarized the uses of history by saying:  “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”  But now, the past had become the main theme.  His Freedman’s Monument speech totally ignored what was happening to blacks in the present.  They were being systematically murdered and terrorized by former Confederates, who sought to re-establish slavery in form if not name.  In this sense, he resembled a retired athlete or political leader, whose life work and great achievements were behind him, unable to re-enter the fray with the same passion and in the same way.  Freedom had represented for Douglass and most other abolitionists a glorious culmination rather than the beginning of new struggles.  Emancipation had been the “key to a promised land” but the dream soon turned into a nightmare and the promised land was nowhere in sight.  In the face of growing doubts and disappointments, Douglass (and most of his fellow abolitionists) turned to the past as a source of solace.  
There is a very important message for us here.  
Recognize that battles won are often just laying the foundation for a new battle to be won.  A message that major undertakings will not proceed on automatic pilot.  A message that new champions need to come forth to replace those that started it.  For, like it or not, energy is not unflagging despite the best effort of those involved.  This is no excuse to give up sooner than one can and should.  But it does underscore the importance of respecting that admonition from Douglass in 1852.  “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”  I don’t agree with that in every dimension, but I do in its basic thrust.


How Our View of the Past Can Thwart the Right Path Forward

June 23, 2018

Reading Benn Steil’s magnificent book, The Marshall Plan:  Dawn of the Cold War*, reminds me how easy—and tragic—it can be for us to project earlier genuine and existential conflicts to the present—despite importantly different circumstances—with devastating results.

I refer to the projection of the Cold War conflict following World War II between the West and the Soviet Union to current times.  The Soviet Union then had an unmistakable and unshakeable ambition to expand globally.  It was driven by an ideology deeply opposed to that of the West.  I submit that the projection of the dynamic which existed then to the relationship of Russia and the West following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990 has been a huge barrier to developing the relationship and policies supporting the best interests of our nations and the world.

Looking back, the United States following World War II generously and strategically (in terms of its own self-interest) undertook an extraordinary economic investment to help rebuild Western Europe through what became known as the Marshall Plan.  The motivation for this plan reflected a deep human concern about the impact of the devastation on the people of Europe. It was also believed that an economically healthy Western Europe would allow the United States to withdrawits military force, something already underway.  U.S. Armed Forces shrank from 12 million in 1945 to 1.6 million in 1947.  An economically healthy Western Europe was also seen as vital to thwart the increasingly emerging threat from the Soviet Union. 

From the very beginning, the Soviet Union worried that the underlying intent of the Marshall Plan was to encircle the Soviet Union, as a prelude to potentially attacking it.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

But life develops unexpectedly. Before long, the point of view developed that the Marshall Plan had to be complemented with a defensive militaryalliance.  As the financier-philanthropist Bernard Baruch testified in January 1948: “The Marshall Plan was no more than a good start; it had to be accompanied by political and military union in Western Europe.  The United States and its European allies, he argued, should “mutually guarantee…against aggression.  By guarantee, I mean a firm promise to go to war in joint defense if any of them are attacked.”  

As the Marshall Plan was carried forward in the U.S. Senate, Senator Arthur Vandenberg thought it doubtful that economic stability could take hold in Europe without American military backing.  “I am inclined to think,” he wrote, “that ‘physical security’ is a prerequisite to the kind of long-range economic planning which Western Europe requires.”  

*I am indebted to this book for much of the central argument of this essay, as well as many of the cited quotations from involved leaders.
The U.K.’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ernest Bevin echoed Vandenberg.  “I have done and will continue to do all I can to bring the Marshall Plan to fruition; but, essential though it is, progress in the economic field will not in itself suffice to call a halt to the Russian threat.  The time is ripe for the consolidation of Western Europe. We are entitled to organize kindred souls in the West, just as [the Soviets] have organized kindred souls in the East.”

So, the Marshall Plan geographic bloc was well on its way to becoming a militarized bloc—NATO—much as Stalin always asserted it would.  Soviet officials wrote:  “The agreement presents itself as a military alliance, directed first and foremost against the Soviet Union…and is an instrument of American expansion.” 

The resolution establishing NATO was approved by the Senate by a note of 64-4 on June 11, 1948. Newly-elected President Truman, in his January 1949 inaugural address, pledged to buttress the Marshall Plan with a “collective defense arrangement,” tying the United States and Canada with Western Europe.  

Contrary to what was originally planned and expected, this economic alliance would expand over the course of two years into a “defensive military alliance”—NATO—which was intended properly at the time to contain the expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union.


Rolling the clock forward to early 1990, the Soviet Union disintegrates.  In one gasp after another, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, which had been satellites of the Soviet Union, become independent. NATO still exists, extending as far as Western Germany.  The economies of Western Europe have recovered strongly; though not yet operating within the Common Market, they are tightly integrated.

The former Soviet Union, led by now-independent Russia is in economic meltdown.  The size of its military implodes.  Yeltsin follows Gorbachev as president.  Vladimir Putin takes over in the year 2000.  

Little could one have imagined in 1948 that the Soviet Union would dissolve and that the expansionist intent of the previous Soviet Union was neither credible nor present. Despite this reality, we have seen, especially post the year 2000, a building conviction that Putin’s Russia is intent on restoring the Soviet Union, and that we are facing an existential ideological chash that is summed up in all-too-simplistic, bumper-sticker fashion as “autocracy versus democracy.”

This growing dangerous perception, fueled by mainstream media, combined with Russia’s perception bordering on paranoia that the West’s actions are part of an imperialistic plot, has brought us to where we are today—in the middle of what the former Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, rightly describes as a “Hot Peace.”

I believe the central issue which has poisoned the relations between Russia and the West, even if not recognized by many at the time, was whether and how far to expand NATO to the East.  

As Benn Steil writes, ending the American military presence close Russia’s border had been a strategic priority of Stalin’s going back to the 1940s.  The Soviet commitment to create the buffer represented by the Eastern and Central European countries drew majorly from this strategic commitment.  Despite glasnost and perestroika, and Gorbachev’s genuine desire for cooperative relations with the West, little with regard to providing these buffers had changed in 40 years.

Yet, much to Secretary of State Baker’s surprise, when he met with Gorbachev in Moscow on February 9, 1990, the Soviet leader showed signs of flexibility.  He was open to Germany’s being part of NATO.  However, Baker told Gorbachev that  he agreed with Gorbachev’s insistence that, following a hypothetical unification of Germany, “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” In a letter to Helmut Kohl summarizing the discussion, Baker reported that Gorbachev was taking the position that Germany could unify but that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position.”

President Boris Yeltsin’s aides would prove to be no more accepting of NATO expansion than Gorbachev. They stressed to the United States that it would be a historic error.  Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned that his countrymen saw the alliance as a “monster directed against Russia.” 

In trying to assure their Russian counterparts that NATO was not a threat, State Department officials took it for granted that legitimate Russian interests, in an era following glasnostand perestroika, should not clash with NATO interests.  But this view presumed that the problem of the Cold War had been driven by Marx, and not Mackinder.  Ideology and not geography.

Again, as Steil writes, this was a view George Kennan had sought to dispel half a century ago.  “At bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is [a] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” he wrote in his Long Telegram.  Vast, sparsely populated, and with huge transport challenges, Russia’s natural tendency was to fracture.  Looking outward, Russia was a “land which had never known a friendly neighbor.”  Its defining characteristic was indefensibility.  No mountain ranges or bodies of water protected its western borders.  In consequence, it suffered repeated invasions over centuries.  These features encouraged the emergence of a highly centralized and autocratic leadership obsessed with internal and external security.  Communists had been just one variety of such leadership, peculiar to the age in which they emerged.  

An influential RAND Corporation study controversially estimated only modest NATO expansion costs on the grounds that the alliance had no enemy; the “premise [was] avoiding confrontation with Russia, not preparing for a new Russian threat.”  Such doubletalk could not ease Russia’s concerns.

Even many of NATO expansion’s most prominent advocates could not abide this thinking.   Clinton officials “keep talking about the absence of dividing lines,” observed Henry Kissinger at the time.  But “with all due respect, this is nonsense. If you have an alliance, you have a dividing line.”  And Russia was on the other side of the line, just as it was in 1949.  

Kennan, who had died only a decade earlier, age 101, would not have been surprised at the rising tensions. In 1997 he had written an op-ed in The New York Timesarguing that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”  Kennan predicted that it would “inflame nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” “have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy,” “restore the atmosphere of cold war to East-West relations,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

Thus, the Marshall Plan, which was aimed at aiding American military disengagement from Europe, ended up, through NATO, making it both deeper and more enduring.  That Moscow believed Washington had planned this all along only helped make it so.

The expansion of NATO to Russia’s border and the threatened further expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, combined with what Putin’s Russia saw as the unilateral overthrow of governments  of Iraq, Libya and the attempt to do so in Syria has led to Russia’s conviction, bordering on paranoia, that the U.S. and the West were pursuing an imperialistic expansionist strategy.  At the same time, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of the Russian dominated portions of Eastern Ukraine gave credence to the view in the United States and West that the expansionist commitment of the U.S.S.R. was being reborn in Putin’s Russia.  

So, we have seen since 1990 a replay of the dynamics that existed following World War II.  Yet, the circumstances are very different. While Putin’s incursion into Ukraine was wrong, as is his support of President Assad of Syria, it is a tragic mistake to read from this an intent on Russia’s part for broad scale expansion. While Russia has undoubtedly tried to influence elections in the United States and Western Europe (just as the Soviet Union did in the 1940s-1960s and we did as well in the Soviet Union), this is a far cry from the threat which was posed by the U.S.S.R.  Most important, the commonality of our interests are overwhelmingly greater than what separates us.  I refer particularly to the interests of avoiding a nuclear disaster which could end life on this planet as we know it.

And at a more personal level, research and my own people-to-people contacts in Russia and the United States show that our peoples overwhelmingly desire the same things:  peace and a satisfying life for our families.

My point in writing this is to establish that the altogether valid belief in the need for a defensive alignment (NATO) to thwart a Soviet Union committed to expanding its ideological and physical presence during the post-World War II era has carried over to the current day, erroneously, in a way that is preventing a relationship and, from it, the policies and actions that are demanded for the future well-being and maybe even existence of our countries and the entire world.

As a friend of mine, Cynthia Lazaroff wrote, we have “applied with a sense of moral authority historical lessons from the past that do not fit with the current circumstances.”  

Let me close with these two statements:

Former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, Interview, November 2017

 “We are, today, inexplicably recreating the conditions of the Cold War. We're recreating the dangers of the Cold War...Today the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger. We don't understand that...Because we don't understand the dangers we make no attempt, no serious attempt, to repair the hostility between the United States and Russia. And so we are allowing ourselves to sleepwalk...to sleepwalk into another catastrophe. We must wake up.”

Vladimir Pozner, Russia’s most influential TV political-talk show host, Interview, October 2017

“We can simply say ‘Look, let’s agree or disagree on these things.’ But we have to find common ground. If we don’t, then we are pretty sure to destroy ourselves one of these days.  In the final analysis, all human beings are human beings. You can’t distinguish Chinese blood from Russian blood from Jewish blood. And we all die. And we all love... So I think we have to find this common ground and we should not insist that you have to be like me.  I have always felt that if the United States and Russia were able to be partners, we could probably solve the world's problems.”

Check Points for Making a Tough Decision and Deciding What to Say

June 16, 2018

On Making a Tough Decision?

1. Is it consistent with my own vision, my beliefs, and my understanding of the facts?

2. Am I doing what I believe is morally and ethically right? Does it feel right? (If it doesn't feel right, improbably isn't).

3. Would I fee;l comfortable telling my wife, Francie, and my children what I have done and why?

On Deciding What to Say? *

1. Is it kind?

2. Is it true?

3. Is it necessary?

4. Does it promise  to advance the purpose of  my organization?

*With thanks to my good friend, Angela Schunk.

Reflections on the Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's New Memoir

June 14, 2018

McFaul, who has returned to Stanford after his stints of public service in Washington and Moscow, writes of his abiding interest in Russia, which goes all the way back to his high school days and which has been borne out by his longstanding commitment to getting to know Russians on a personal level.
Yet it’s clear to me that McFaul’s prior writings about Putin and Russia soured government leaders in Russia on his being appointed Ambassador.
And while I’m not sure that having a different Ambassador than McFaul for the somewhat less than two years he held the position would have made a difference in the trajectory of the U.S.-Russia relationship, I cannot believe his presence there helped the situation. This is not to say that the treatment he and his family received at the hands of Russian authorities, which he recounts in his book, was in any way justified.
McFaul came into the position of Ambassador with a deeply skeptical, indeed negative, view of Putin and his behavior.  Many of these negative views, some of which could be justified later in Putin’s tenure, are often identified as attributes Putin had from the start. For example, McFaul claims (Page 259) that “Putin developed his theories about American foreign policy years earlier, when he was a KGB agent in East Germany.” Yet if Putin was anti-American from the start, what explains, for example, him being the first international leader to offer assistance to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11? As it happens, even Michael McFaul expressed a measure of optimism about US-Russian relations at that time.
It seems to me McFaul’s approach to Putin became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, by the time he got to Spaso House, he had already decided that Putin was not someone with whom the US government could or should do business. In that connection, I found it bizarre that McFaul found it so important to underscore (Page 79) that “good relations with Russia was not the goal of Reset, but a strategy for pursuing American interests regarding Russia.”
Similarly, I found McFaul’s characterization of the relationship between Obama and Medvedev at the June 2010 Summit to be somewhat odd.  McFaul writes that, “Obama started his remarks by using the dreaded ‘f-word,’ saying that it was a ‘pleasure to be here with my friend and partner…’”  McFaul continues, “I was always wary about using the word ‘friend’ in diplomacy, but I could not stop the President’s reference in relation to Medvedev.”  I found that a very sad comment.
McFaul goes to great lengths to lay out alternative motivations for Putin’s behavior.  He acknowledges, for example, the impact of the expansion of NATO, the bombing Serbia, the overthrow of Gaddafi, as factors that influenced Putin’s thinking.  But then, in his ultimate analysis of what guided Putin, he again and again downplays the impact that these factors might have had.
I find McFaul flipping back and forth from expressing a commitment to work with Russia and then advocating action, or a possible line of action, that presumes Russia is an adversary.  For example, during the 2009 Reset, he expresses his belief that, “For the Reset to succeed, we had to do more to enhance the security of our NATO allies in closest proximity to Russia; translating this aspiration into policy proved challenging.  NATO expansion was not an option.”  But he then goes on to note that NATO issued a “confusing statement which welcomed ‘Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO’ and insisted ‘that these countries will become members of NATO’ but also kicked the start of their MAPs (Membership Action Plan) to the distant future.’”
How did he expect Putin and Russia would react to this?  Naturally, they’d see it as a signal of continued intent to expand NATO eastward.
At the same point in time, there was the issue of missile defense.  The Obama administration argued that our intent in locating missile defense batteries in Poland and Romania was to “defend against Iran, not Russia.”  Was it realistic to believe that Russia would accept that?  I don’t think so.  Here was just one more instance of the U.S. taking action which, through Russian eyes, looked adversarial.  And this in the midst of the Reset!
In the end it seems McFaul was either unable or unwilling to empathize with what the Russian government viewed as legitimate national security interests.
I have the sense that McFaul’s academic work, including the study of how autocratic regimes can transition to democracy, colored his belief as to what should be his and the U.S. government’s role in Russia. I come away from this book feeling that he saw himself as something of a “savior” to bring about “democracy,”as he envisaged it in Russia.
This is not to say Putin’s Russia hasn’t violated acceptable norms.  For instance, I believe that Putin’s decision to annex Crimea was both wrong from the standpoint of international law and wrong for the best long-term interests of Russia. There had to be other ways (a protectorate?) for Russia to have protected its interests on the peninsula. The suppression of opposing Presidential candidates and bombing of Syrian civilians in alliance with President Assad cannot be excused.
Despite the currently poisoned relationship (deserving McFaul’s description of a “Hot Peace”),  I continue to believe that the time will come when our relationship with Russia will return to a positive plane. I know there is a lot of “hope”in that belief. I base it on the commonality and existential importance of so many of the interests of our two countries, above all control of nuclear proliferation and terrorism.  For this to happen, we’re going to have to find a way to break through on the knottiest problems of Syria and Ukraine.
In the end, for me, Mc Faul’s account is a cautionary tale which reveals how the failure to consider how our actions, as well-intended and justified as they seem to us, may appear to another country and its leaders, and might, unintentionally, impede the achievement of our common interests.
A cautionary tale, too, in that it shows how a reflexively negative view of another country’s leader – in this case Putin-can become so personal and so unidimensional that the assumed inability to reach a “win-win” outcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Relationships Which Have Underpinned Our Prosperity and Safety Are Under Threat by Our President

June 11, 2018

Column by David Leonhardt—New York Times—6/11-2018
"The alliance between the United States and Western Europe has accomplished great things. It won two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Then it expanded to include its former enemies and went on to win the Cold War, help spread democracy and build the highest living standards the world has ever known.
President Trump is trying to destroy that alliance.
Is that how he thinks about it? Who knows?  It’s impossible to get inside his head and divine his strategic goals, if he even has long-term goals. But put it this way:  If a president of the United States were to sketch out a secret, detailed plan to break up the Atlantic alliance, that plan would bear a striking resemblance to Trump’s behavior.  
It would involve outward hostility to the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Specifically, it would involve picking fights over artificial issues—not to win big concessions for the United States, but to create conflict for the sake of it.”
This is a horrible betrayal of the leadership the United States has provided over the last 70 years to make the world a more prosperous and safer place. 
As Ben Steil writes in his book, The Marshall Plan:  Dawn of the Cold War:
"Forty years after Dean Acheson’s observation in the second half of the 1940s on the need for Washington to have allies, its early Cold War alliances were still intact, while Moscow’s were in tatters.  Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., had in October 1947 written to Vandenberg, who passed his words on to Marshall, that ‘the recovery of Western Europe [was] a twenty-five to fifty-year proposition and…the aid which we extend now and in the next three or four years will in the long future result in our having strong friends abroad.’ This insight was keen and important.  Containment successfully navigated between appeasement and war for four decades, and the Marshall Plan played a principal role in bonding the West together for the struggle.  Many of the institutions we now take for granted as natural elements of the liberal postwar order—in particular, the European Union, NATO, and the World Trade Organization—were forged under U.S. leadership during the early Marshall years.”
The U.S. must not abdicate the position of providing respectful, collaborative leadership for these organizations and treaties which have underpinned the relative prosperity and peace we have had since World War II.  President Trump's behavior threatens to do just that by undermining the trust our allied leaders have in us. Our Congressional and other leaders must speak up.  Life is all about relationships, and good relationships have to be based on trust. We never have nor will we ever always agree with our allies, but we have to treat them as we would want to be treated, with respect.