December 23, 2015

Ian Kershaw's magisterial new history of Europe, 1914-1949,"To Hell and Back" reminds us that during the 40 year period from 1914 to 1945 Europe came close to "self-destruction" in two World Wars and an economic depression that cost over 50 million lives. 

Yet, defying centuries of internecine warfare and history, Europe came together in the second half of the 20th Century to form organizational constructs (NATO, ECM, etc.) that make the prospect of another war between the European nations inconceivable.Yes, tensions still exist: economically and socially. And will continue to. But the common interests were so clear and the bonds now so strong that war is not conceivable. 

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, I believe our civilization faces a question not dissimilar to what was faced in the 20th Century: "will we allow civilization and the world as we know it and want it to be, to self-destruct?"

This may strike the reader as a needlessly draconian question. I do not think it is. 

What are the risks to our civilization as we know it? I believe there are three.

One is the threat of fundamentalist driven terrorism seeking to expand its reach across borders and annihilate "non-believers"  via a new caliphate. 

The second is the threat of nuclear disaster. Let us not allow the half century which separates us from the first hand ravage of the hydrogen bomb to disguise the annihilation to civilization which will result from atomic warfare. To our knowledge, we are the only celestial body with life as we know it. The possibility of our ending it is in our hands. 

The first and second threats are related for a dooms-day scenario is having a nuclear device in the hands of terrorists. 

The third threat, while less immediate is no less real: climate change which would cripple life as we know it on earth. 

It is clear that confronting and curtailing these threats will require Nations to work together as they have not before. Without trying to identify an exhaustive list, these Nations must include the United States, Russia, China, Western Europe, Japan,
Saudi Arabia, and  India.

There are those who will object to Russia and China being included, attributing to these Nations the intent to expand their geographic reach. The evidence that this is their intent is frail, defies what their leaders assert and what is in their own best interest.

Neither China or Russia are driven today by a Mission which seeks to convert other Nations to a given ideology (unlike Germany under the Nazis or ISIS today). Neither have a need for more land. Like the United States and Western Europe, they are threatened by ISIS. Yes, their values, their economic and judicial systems will not be identical to ours. Corruption may exist at higher levels. And they will look for good relations with neighboring countries just as we in the United States always have with countries near our own. 

But the commonalities of their interests--preserving peace and safety for their citizens, being treated with respect--will be far greater than the differences.

Just as world leaders following WW II had the wisdom to bring together organizational coalitions to normalize cooperation and the creation of stronger bonds so must the world leaders do that today.

With regard to Russia, we had the opportunity to create an organizational construct which would have bound its interests to those of the West post glasnost and perestroika in the early 1990's. We missed that opportunity. We have the opportunity again, confronted by the greatest threats we have had since that of Nazi Germany in the 20th Century.

Today's leaders will be judged by how well they seize this opportunity. I believe the future of civilization as we know it depends on it. 

John Pepper



December 17, 2015


Timothy Schneider’s “Black Earth:  The Holocaust as History and Warning” follows his prize-winning book which covered much the same geographic and chronological ground:  “Bloodlands:  Europe between Hitler and Stalin.” 

Schneider’s thesis is that the Holocaust, at its worst, i.e., where the highest percentage of Jews were murdered, coincided with those geographical areas where the “state” had been demolished.  For Hitler, the destruction was intentional.  His purpose in moving into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and then the Soviet Union, was to obliterate these states; to act as if they never existed.  The Aryan race would move into these spaces, creating his new empire.

In annihilating the state, Nazis decapitated the leadership structure and elite from the top and the middle.  Because Jews, Schneider argues, constituted a large part of that leadership, they suffered  the greatest carnage.

Schneider doesn’t deny the anti-Semitism that permeated the areas which Germany, coming from the west, and the Soviet Union, coming from the east, pillaged.  I refer to Poland, Hungary, Austria, Romania and the Soviet Union. 

Schneider’s primary point is that it was the dissolution of the “state” which, despite the anti-Semitism had protected the Jews to a fair degree, that dramatically accelerated their decimation.  In fact, the percentage of Jews who were murdered was far higher in those countries where the state collapsed.  Poland is an example…compared, for example, to France and to Italy where, despite Nazi occupation, the state continued to have a sustaining framework.

Schneider develops his argument carefully, for example, comparing the relatively low rate of Jews being murdered in Sweden, where the government was intact, compared to Lithuania, where it was annihilated.

He further makes the point that the conditions which unleashed the greatest atrocities on the Jews were in areas which suffered two invasions; the first, the Soviet Union from the east, followed then by the Nazis from the west.

I believe this history has searing relevance to what we have seen occur over the past decade.  We are seeing that the failed state of Libya has unleashed tremendous internal carnage.  The failed state of Iraq, which our invasion precipitated, has resulted in far more deaths than occurred under the regime of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.   And what we’re seeing now in Syria follows the same pattern:  a failed state unleashing forces that have been held together, to some degree, by the rule of force and, yes, a dictatorial state government.

This perspective makes nonsense out of the advocacy to simply wipe out Assad and his government without having a transition government in place, as difficult as that will be to achieve.  It also shows that, with all its imperfections, the strong government that flowed in the Soviet Union and then Russia from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin; yes, with all the corruption involved, this represented a far better direction in terms of the well-being of the people than other alternatives that could have sent Russia into internecine chaos. 

If there is a risk in Timothy Schneider’s presentation, or at least an unspoken reality, it is the danger that exists in any nation, strong or failed, on the fueling of “we vs. them” attitudes toward people of different ethnicities and faiths that, in times of economic hardship and political uncertainty, when fear starts to brim for whatever reason, people will strike out against one another, sometimes in deadly fashion.  There is a risk in that right now in the U.S. in the irresponsible comments about Muslims being made by some of our political candidates, particularly Donald Trump.


December 11, 2015

Jon Meacham’s Biography of George Herbert Walker Bush

This is one of the finest biographies I can recall reading.  It describes the life of a man whom I’ve admired for decades.  The basis for that admiration—his strength and integrity and his commitment to service and his country and his family--was brought forth in a transparent and convincing way.

The book is greatly strengthened by Meacham’s judicious use of Bush’s diary which he dictated for much of his active life.

Bush’s role in overseeing the peaceful end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his empathetic and constructive relationship with Gorbachev and his balanced judgment emerge clearly.  His decency was remarkable.

I agree with Meacham’s judgment:  “His life was spent in the service of his nation, in his spirit of conciliation, common sense and love of country will stand him in strong stead through the ebbs and flows of posterity’s judgment.  On that score—that George H.W. Bush was a uniquely good man in a political universe where good men were hard to come by—that was shared by a bi-partisan consensus a quarter of a century after his White House years.

Bush in many ways was like John Smale and in some ways like myself.  Modest but driven, almost always compassionate, he was out to serve but also to win.  Yet he had his personal doubts.  I think he failed to appreciate his full excellence, this despite a remarkable record of accomplishments:  at Yale; in the service; in business and in public service: in Congress; Envoy to China; leading the CIA, etc.

I had no idea how many disappointments he had faced, above all the death of his and Barbara’s daughter, Robin, at the age of three.  Losses in political elections, not getting the job he wanted.  And indeed until the very last moment, feeling he would not get the Vice Presidential slot with Ronald Reagan. 

I’m not sure Bush ever would have become President if he had not been the Vice President for Ronald Reagan.  He learned so much from Reagan, though never, happily, tried to be like him.

Of the various tributes to George H.W. Bush, I rate none stronger than this.  It came from his son Jeb:  “How great is this country that it could elect a man as fine as our dad to be its President?”  That remark so struck Laura Bush that she included it in the White House memoir she wrote after she and George W. left Washington in 2009.

I think it is fair to say, as Meacham does, that George H.W. Bush represented “the twilight of a tradition of public service in America, one embodied by FDR, by Eisenhower, and by George H.W. Bush.”

There is so much to be learned, and imitated, in Bush’s relationship with Gorbachev.  It took the two of them.   Bush fully understood how important it was to work constructively with Gorbachev.  And so did Gorbachev with him.  The “old suspicions” between the two super powers had to go, Bush said.  Both nations had to learn how to thrive in a multi-polar world. 

If only we had not lost that instinct.  Gorbachev made a huge concession in agreeing to a united Germany and then, with great reluctance, agreeing for it to become a member of NATO.  Gorbachev’s associates were dumb-founded that he agreed to do that. 

Nowhere did Bush’s respect for and empathy with Gorbachev manifest itself more than in his reaction to the attempted overthrow of Gorbachev.  He resisted John Major’s suggestion of convening the NATO ministers out of his fear that “it will make it look like we are militarizing and that we anticipate a military threat to the is the last damn thing we need to get involved in in that kind of confrontation.”

And then he spoke with Gorbachev on the phone:  “My dearest George,” Gorbachev said.  “I am so happy to hear your voice again.”  “My God,” Bush said, “I’m glad to hear you.”  They spoke for 11 minutes.  “He sounded jubilant and he sounded upbeat,” Bush dictated, “he was very, very grateful to me...for the way we have conducted ourselves.”

The peaceful resolution of this crisis was, for Bush, ratification of his essential diplomatic instincts of balance and moderation.  “We could have overacted, and moved troops, and scared the hell out of people,” Bush told his diary.  “We could have under-reacted by saying, ‘well, we will deal with whoever is there.’  But...I think we found the proper balance.”

The respect which Bush showed to other leaders was genuine and worked to great advantage.  The relationship with French President Mitterrand was an example.  There had been worry that France might not support the use of NATO outside of Europe in the circumstance of the Gulf War.  However, when Bush asked for that support, Mitterrand simply said, “we will be there.”  To his diary Bush confided that he felt that the visit he (Bush) had with Mitterrand at his place in Maine and “the respect I have tried to show him personally, (paid) off in diplomacy.  I differ with his personal diplomacy, but I think when you talk from a basis of friendship, it does help; and I think he knows I respect him.”

As always, respect builds trust and trust means everything. 

During the Gulf War, Bush reflected on the nature of American leadership.  Gregarious and inclusive by nature, Meacham writes, he could uphold the Presidency in keeping with these essential elements of his own character.  “All countries in the west clearly have to turn to us,” Bush told his diary, “but it is my theory that the more they are included on the take-off, the more we get their opinion, the more we reach out, no matter what is involved in terms of time involved, the better it is.  Everyone is proud.  Everyone has his place in the sun—large country or small, they should be consulted, their opinions considered and then when the United States makes a move, and I make a decision, we are more apt to have solid support.”

If only we conducted ourselves more in line with that conviction today.  If only that spirit had permeated our relationship with Russia over the last 15 years.  If we had, I do not believe we would be in the position we are today.  The neocons, whom Bush resisted, but whose son, George W. Bush, sadly did not, have continued to have an influence that has been disruptive, in my view, to the best interests of the United States.  George H.W. Bush demonstrated this more than ever as he decided not to occupy Iraq.  The war to unseat Hussein, “to occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero,” Bush recalled in 1998.  “It could only plunge that part of the world into ever greater instability and destroy the credibility we were working so hard to reestablish.”  If only his son had followed this instinct.

The candor and honesty of Bush’s own self-reflections pours out of his diaries in a manner that I can sometimes identify with.  The post-Gulf War period was, as Meacham describes it:  “a study in shadow.”  Coming off that intense experience, Bush had to turn back to what he really didn’t relish, domestic affairs, and it is clear to me he was tired.  He was now 66.  He fantasized in his diary about surprising the world by announcing that he would not seek reelection:  “You need someone in this job (who can give) his total last ounce of energy, and I’ve had (that) up until now, but now I don’t seem to have the drive.”  He was tired of what he described as “sniping, carping, bitching, predictable editorial complaints.” 

But he continued on.

I’ll conclude these notes with a salute to George H.W. Bush by his son George, on the occasion of the commissioning of an aircraft carrier named after his father.  “We will always be inspired by the faith, humor, patriotism, and compassion he taught us through his own example.  And for as long as we live, we will carry with us Dad’s other lessons:  that integrity and honor are worth more than any title or treasure, and that the truest strength did come from the gentlest soul.”

George H.W. Bush is a role model for me, for all of us.


December 8, 2015

"The War of the Worlds"
Some years ago a pastor friend of mine delivered a sermon in which he averred that maybe what we needed was to discover that there is another populated planet out there and its inhabitants are out to destroy our civilization. Maybe that, he went on, would finally lead us to come together across nations and races, bridging differences that have too often separated us, to save our civilization. 
Well, horribly, I don't think it is engaging in hyperbole to say that we have our "War of the Worlds" today in the form of ISIS. It is dedicated to destroying civilization as we know it. Beyond that, we have the overhanging threat of nuclear disaster which would destroy civilization as we know it. 
ISIS is a new and long term threat. It has taken tens of thousands of lives: Muslim and Christian lives in Syria and Iraq, Russian lives in the plane bombing in the Sinai peninsula, French and other lives in Paris; most recently lives in San Bernardino. It has contributed to a refugee crisis in the millions. 
I believe that defeating ISIS and what it stands for and neutralizing the risk of nuclear annihilation will require new thinking and a new coalition of nations who have not worked together recently if ever. Arab and Muslim countries, NATO, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, etc. Countries not agreeing on all things, not all being bosom buddies, not all having the same values, but seeing that preserving civilization as we know it demands that we work together to a common goal.


December 2, 2015

US-Russian Relations

I offered these comments at NYU in New York City in late November, 2015

I was part of a panel, other members consisting of  former Senator Bill Bradley; former
Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock; historian, Stephen Cohen and former Ambassador William vanden Heuvel

Key Points:
1.     proving very possible to continue to do business in Russia, despite the geo-political tensions between our two countries and the significant financial challenges growing from the decline in the price of oil and, to a lesser extent, sanctions.  Russian political leadership has stopped short of falling into the trap of impeding American business in Russia.  Neither the political leadership nor the public has entered into what we have seen in some countries in the past, such as boycotts of U.S. products. 

Russian leadership has stated that it is open and anxious for investment and multi-country collaboration.  It has been very consistent on this position, including the recent summit meetings of the Foreign Investment Advisory Committee attended by over 30 CEOs and chaired by Prime Minister Medvedev. 

The rank and file in Russia appreciate the higher standards that have been set for employees and for business by multi-national firms like ours.

These businesses have had a positive influence on life in Russia.

People often raise with me whether corruption has affected our business and the short answer is “no”; while overtures have been made, they have been refused and people understand that’s just not something we would do.

Note that there is another aspect of doing business in Russia I’d note.  My own experience over 25 years has given me and other business leaders the opportunity to come to know Russian men and women, in the government, universities, and our own employees that has helped us even more understand how common our basic interests are, underscoring even more the need to come together where we can.
2.     Let me make just a few observations following the comments from my associates:
a.     What is Russia’s/Putin’s long-term intent?  Some see it as wanting to extend its geographical reach and presence in ways analogous to what existed under Communism.  I do not.  Time will tell.  I think Putin’s goal is to achieve a sustaining, economically thriving, respected Russian state, looked at and treated as a partner in critical world matters and free of what would appear to be encroaching threats on its immediate borders.

There is no question that for Russia to have a healthy, growing economy, and for the entire world to be safe from terrorism, Russia needs constructive, non-adversarial relationships with the U.S. and the West. 

Whatever, I believe the main thing we need to do is to understand what are our core goals as a Nation, goals which parallel what the world needs and identify those which, in order to achieve, require that Russia and the U.S. (and others) work together.

Today, I believe those goals—those threats—are, most importantly:
·      Terrorism
·      Failed states
·      Nuclear proliferation and disaster
      At a minimum, we need to:
·      Avoid a further breakdown in the relationships between Russia and the U.S.  This means that we must work together to resolve what are the open wounds now in Ukraine and Syria and others parts of the Middle East which are killing hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Both require political settlements which require Russia and the U.S. (and others) to be at the table, as well as the defeat of ISIS.
·      Come together to identify what are the common interests which Russia and the U.S. and others must work to achieve.  Interests so important and so requiring Russia and the U.S. to work together that we must form a common goal and plan.  Those for me are two-fold:
o   Avoiding the risk of nuclear proliferation and disaster.
o   Combatting terrorism, starting with but not exclusively combatting ISIS

We are going to need to accept the fact that some values as they relate to the mode of democracy and cultural issues such as same-sex marriage will be different in Russia than the U.S., just as they are different with many other countries and, indeed, in parts of our own country and have differed over time.  We must avoid seeming to or actually working to impose our values on Russia.  We must acknowledge Russia as a major global power, with a history and status that deserve and demand respect.  We should dial down the rhetoric which vilifies the other party when what they are doing is essentially expressing their own national interest and pride as we do.  Such rhetoric runs the grave risk of creating “self-fulfilling” negative outcomes—“mythical enemies”—distracting us from the real enemies in front of us.  

Of course, we should make it clear that we will not stand by and allow Russia or any country to infringe upon the integrity of another national state like Ukraine. 

We should be under no illusion that Putin’s mindset and deeply entrenched attitudes will change quickly.  They are the product of decades of experience.  To the degree they change, they will change based on actions and behaviors on both our parts as we work together on objectives of common interest.  Most importantly, at this moment, combatting ISIS and reaching political settlement that brings greater stability and peace to Ukraine and Syria and other countries of the Middle East.

I hope and believe President Putin understands that it will only be through a coalition of forces, prominently including the United States, that terrorism can be beaten, nuclear proliferation avoided and economic progress optimized.

I am convinced that if leaders will come together with cool heads and firm will to identify the principles and goals and focus the discourse forward on our common imperatives, including combatting terrorism and taking steps to control the threat of nuclear annihilation, we can progress. 

I identify with the way Henry Kissinger expressed it:  On a foundation of recognizing the realities of Russian power and interests and on treating Russia as the global power it is, we should identify how “their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities” and try to “integrate Russia into the international order in a way that takes Russia’s interests into account.”

It has always been human nature that we come together best when we face a common enemy.  Unlike the past, we do not have ideological differences with Russia as we do with ISIS that should lead to war or to competing commitments to global expansion.  We should work together to resolve the greatest threats to our two nations and the entire world.