There are times when I wish that my graphical talents extended beyond crude PowerPoint diagrams and stick people.
Like so many repelled by acts of inhumanity on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve been reading column acres about the Gaza stand-off over the past two weeks. Much of it is in the form of propaganda, received wisdom and formulaic condemnations. For me, the most futile debate is about who is entitled to the land. Not futile because the suffering of those dispossessed and oppressed over the past 100 years is irrelevant – of course it’s not. But it’s when territorial claims are represented as God-given, or even backed up by treaty or ancient right that I get exasperated.
Perhaps it’s all very simple. The most recent land-grab becomes a legitimate right after a few decades. And the most recent act of aggression condemns the aggressor until the other side trumps it with something worse, after which the original aggressor becomes the oppressed. And so it goes over centuries and ultimately millennia.
Now if I had the graphical skills I crave, this is what I would do.
I would take a region that has been in conflict for as long as anyone can remember- Israel/Palestine in this case – and create an animated timeline overlaid on a map of the area. I would track ethnic migrations, conquests, disaporas, and population breakdowns and numerical estimates for as long as we have historical and archaeological records to back them up. You would see arrows for incoming Cretans, Samaritans, Jews, Arabs, Hittites, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Franks and every other group that migrated to, colonised and occupied the land for any length of time. Then there would be other arrows to indicate emigration – Jews to Babylon, to Andalusia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and India for example. You would also be able to select a second view by religious faith. Again population numbers, but this time divided out between Christian sects, Muslim sects and the various branches of Judaism.
The kind of map you can see above is the classic way of showing immigration and movements of people. Its static, has no jump-off points and lacks the critical elements of time and numbers.
If you were able to track the comings and goings over all of recorded history of so many peoples, faiths and civilisations in an easily-grasped animated graphic, perhaps all but the most narrow-minded fanatics would be persuaded of how pointless it is to use history – or divine right for that matter – to justify the rights and wrongs of the present.
You could use the same technique in just about every region of the world. Ukraine for example, whose history in terms of conquest, forced migrations and ethnic cleansing is far more complex than most casual observers will realise. France – a battle-ground since the days when it was occupied by ever-shifting Gallic tribes. Britain – a melange of Celts, Gauls, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and now immigrants from Africa, the Asian subcontinent, the Caribbean and all parts of continental Europe. America, from the arrival of the Paleoindians from across the Bering Straights to the multi-ethnic mix resulting from four centuries of European immigration.
When looked at against a moving tableau of time, what appears to a contemporary witness to be a rock of ages turns out to be nothing but a pebble on a sea-swept beach. Which goes to show that history explains, and sometimes predicts, but should never be used to justify.
Sadly, relatively few people have the time, the inclination or the interest to read history in any depth. These days most of us rely on what we read on the web or watch on TV. And the more simplistic, the more we prefer it. Which is why we’re so susceptible to those peddling religious and political agendas – simplicity is easy, but complexity is difficult. It muddies the waters. Yet we pay our taxes and vote for politicians who best explain themselves in words of one syllable, and then proceed to spend our money without feeling the need to justify themselves, 0r, if called upon to do so, respond again in simple terms that mask the real underlying complexity.
What we now need is a way of conveying complexity to a generation addicted to the easily digestible overview. So here’s a project for a budding historian, and perhaps a digital media artist as well: create an animated template into which historians can populate data and trends over sustained periods in a clear and compelling way. Or maybe a group collaboration involving historians, archaeologists and graphic designers. It’s certainly something to which I’d be happy to contribute.
If anyone is aware of such a project that’s currently underway, I’d be very interested to hear from them.
As the anniversaries of key events leading to the outbreak of the First World War start to fall almost on a daily basis, I like to imagine the scene in the institution that was at the heart of the crisis: Britain’s Foreign Office. Smartly-dressed clerks scuttling around the building carrying telegrams from the ministries of other protagonists; reports from the Britain’s far-flung embassies describing meetings, opinions and hunches; morning-suited mandarins and ministers drifting in and out of their ornately furnished offices; foreign envoys waiting in anterooms waiting to meet the man at the apex of this venerable organisation: Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary.
Not a bad time, then, to read Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles’s latest book, Ever the Diplomat. In writing his memoirs, Cowper-Coles is following a long tradition on the part of retired diplomats. As he points out in the book, a diplomatic career doesn’t earn you a fortune, so I’m sure the royalties help. A couple of years ago I read his last effort, Cables from Kabul, in which he tellingly portrayed the consequences of of the muddled thinking behind the West’s intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11.
In Ever the Diplomat he covers his pre-Afghanistan career. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have been desperately happy with the subtitle Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin, which sounds a bit like the latest in a series of sleazy tomes that started with Confessions of a Window Cleaner. As he himself notes in the introduction, there are limits imposed by obligations of confidentiality as to what he can say, so much of what he writes is in the form of personal reminiscence likely to offend nobody.
That said, it’s an interesting read. Cowper-Coles comes over rather like Forrest Gump with brains. At the heart of many significant events over the past twenty five years in which British diplomats played a part, was Sherard. The Lebanese civil war, Sadat’s assassination, Hong Kong at the handover, Paris when Diana died, Saudi Arabia during the Al-Qaeda attacks on Western expatriates and finally Afghanistan, where he ended his public career as the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative.
In many respects I would have loved to have worked in the FCO. The life of a top career diplomat – hopping from one foreign post to another and enjoying the lavish (though now fast diminishing) facilities accorded by Her Majesty’s Government to its senior diplomats – would definitely have appealed, but I fear that I would have been too much of an outsider, both in attitude and background. The world Cowper-Coles moves is inhabited by insiders. Public school, Oxbridge, distinguished ancestors, connections everywhere made him eminently suitable material. Having said that, the days when the nice but dim second sons of the great and the good could forge themselves comfortable careers in the Diplomatic Service seem to be over. Nowadays connections are useless without intelligence, discretion and good judgement, all qualities which the author seems to have in abundance.
Exalted insider though he undoubtedly is, Cowper-Coles comes over as refreshingly unpompous, and not afraid to mock himself, even if he occasionally appears a tad self-satisfaction, which I supposed he’s entitled to be. He is an expert in damning with faint praise, but tends to be annoyingly effusive in his praise – though no doubt sincere – of various fellow mandarins and others he meets along the way.
He describes colleagues as having high intelligence, as incisive, kind and so forth. I keep hoping that he will condemn one or two people (apart from the usual suspects like Gaddafi) as total rats. But that’s not his style, even if it would probably sell more copies of his book.
I have passing familiarity with his world and the conventions within which he operated, so his stories of the internal workings of the FCO, its hierarchy and obsession with form, often over substance, ring true. But while he’s also under no illusions about Britain’s declining influence in the world, he tells a story of a government department that really does believe that it matters.
In recent years the Foreign Office in my experience has seemed much diminished. Yes, our embassies still harbour the usual cluster of acolytes – the political officers, the military attaches and the British Council staff, not to mention a few spooks – but the decline in our political clout has undoubtedly caused some painful adjustments in the role of the Diplomatic Service.
Our armed forces are reduced to a shadow of what they were even at the time of the last Gulf War. We have been so badly bruised by Iraq and Afghanistan that virtually no modern British politician has the courage even to contemplate armed intervention, let alone carry it off, beyond the use of air strikes and Special Forces.
So there is a gap between the ultimate deterrent – sledgehammers with a single purpose – sitting in our nuclear submarines, and the efforts of our diplomats. The great powers of today – the US, China, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Germany – have a far wider range of options sitting behind their diplomatic efforts. They can deliver as well as threaten. We have not been able to take significant unilateral action since the Falklands. So we are reduced to piggybacking on the agendas of allies better equipped and powerful than us.
What remains of our network of embassies and consulates these days appear to most casual external observers as a set of sales offices for Britain plc with a bit of customer support thrown in for citizens who get into trouble or need rescuing from situations not of their making.
Yet as Cowper-Coles points out, the curious reality is that many countries still seem to believe the myth of Britain punching above its weight, of having more influence or power than it actually has. Hence the disaffected – especially in the Arab world – tend to lump us with the US as the main cause of their troubles – the great manipulator and fomenter of unrest, the Little Satan.
Our involvement in recent wars certainly helps to cement that impression, but as Cowper-Coles noted in Cables from Kabul, beyond the unhappy participation of our armed forces, our influence has been limited. In post-Saddam Iraq, the blundering US grand vizier Paul Bremer proceeded to sow the seeds of the current ISIS land-grab by applying a disenfranchisement policy against Baathist structures, most notably the armed forces, based on the denazification of Germany after World War 2. In Afghanistan the US again called the shots in its clumsy attempts at nation-building. However much our politicians claim otherwise, there is probably more distrust and divergence of opinion between Britain and America over foreign policy than at any time since the Suez crisis in 1956, when Eisenhower effectively torpedoed our attempt to neutralise the growing power of Gamal Abdul Nasser.
The author is good on the often uneasy relationships between junior and senior officers of his department, and especially interesting when describing his years as Principal Private Secretary to Tony Blair’s first Foreign Minister, Robin Cook. Cook was a difficult man. Intelligent, principled but chaotic in his working habits. Not the kind of biddable insider that the mandarins prefer. By all accounts he so loathed the red dispatch boxes that were full of government papers he was expected to read and act upon, that Cowper-Coles often had to chase after him with documents requiring his signature like a mother trying to feed a reluctant toddler.
Intellectually vain, bad tempered and given to wearing inappropriate hats, Cook nonetheless won praise from his chief minder and occasional dog-walker for his achievements in the job, even though he was heartily disliked by the FCO hierarchy. Not content with “being Foreign Secretary”, by which Cowper-Coles means submitting to the time-honoured system created by generations of civil servants, Cook was more interested in doing, and won the author’s respect for what he achieved in East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and other troubled hotspots of the time.
It’s a fair bet that someone like Cook, with his quirky looks and personal idiosyncrasies, would be unlikely to make it to the top in today’s coalition government. His closest modern counterpart, Michael Gove, equally a man of principle and no more blessed in his looks, has just been kicked downstairs (or sideways, if you believe the Prime Minister) from his job as education secretary, allegedly at the behest of the Conservative Party’s abrasive election strategist Lynton Crosby, who argued that Gove’s “style” did not sit well with the electorate. I suspect that Cook’s removal was for similar reasons.
Which goes to show that an anodyne appearance, preferably with a full head of hair, combined with a biddable nature, can give a male politician a serious head start in British politics. Though when there’s an election coming up, he should look anxiously over his shoulders at female rivals equally capable of doing his job, provided that they don’t look like Russian shot-putters. Margaret Thatcher would not have approved.
A measure of the decline in the status of Cowper-Coles’s beloved Foreign Office since 1914 – when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith effectively delegated the conduct of negotiations with the other great powers in the run-up to war to Sir Edward Grey – is that in today’s crisis over Ukraine, Philip Hammond, the new Foreign Secretary, is a relatively anonymous figure who sits in the background while David Cameron does all the talking and, presumably, negotiating.
That said, those of us who have lived abroad for any length of time would miss the FCO if it wasn’t there, still flying the flag in locations popular and obscure. I have met many diplomats in my time, including a few ambassadors. Ours representatives are unfailingly polite, pleasant and, of course diplomatic. I would sooner be dealing with them in times of trouble than some of the diplomats of other nations I’ve encountered along the way.
Sherard Cowper-Coles, according to friends who knew him during his stint as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was one of the best. He writes fluently and thoughtfully about his experiences. Ever the Diplomat is well worth reading if, like me, you have taken a keen interest in international politics through the times he describes. If I was starting out today, would I consider a career in Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service after reading his book? Absolutely. Even working in a mouldering South American outpost surely beats a zero-hour contract in a call centre any day of the week. But don’t be dazzled by the glamour – that’s for the chosen few. And stay off Twitter.
It was a pleasure meeting you last week in Saint Petersburg. I loved what I saw of your city even though I suspect I only saw the bright side. It was hard to see a dark side on a day when it was bathed in brilliant sunshine almost until midnight.
It was also touching to hear how proud you and your fellow guides are of the city. We British tend to be a bit more cynical about our cities. I remember one of the guides saying that she was horrified at the number of rats she saw in the London Underground, whereas in the Petersburg metro there are none. I wanted to say “ah yes, but we have the most beautiful rats in the world”, but I doubt if she would have picked up the irony.
I was also surprised by your colleague’s candour when she said that while the KGB tried to control people’s minds, the FSB, its successor, is more interested in their wallets. I remember her saying that every business, big or small, has to contribute a slice of its income to the secret police. Her lack of fear runs counter to Western perceptions that Russia is still a highly controlled society. Perhaps it was because she was a young woman who never knew the ways of the Soviet Union.
Our guide the day before was in her fifties. She was far more circumspect. When she took us to the prison in the Fortress of St Peter and Paul, where pre-revolutionary assassins and political prisoners were incarcerated, the conversation turned to Leon Trotsky. Someone mentioned his assassination, and she came out with what could only be described as a Soviet response. “Possibly,” she said. “That depends on who you believe.” I should have thought that there were easier ways of committing suicide than to impale yourself with an ice pick. Clearly, among the older generation, old habits die hard.
I was intrigued when you brought up the subject of Ukraine. We were in a cathedral whose walls are covered in golden icons. We had been talking about Russian history, and the central role of Kiev in conversion of Russia to Christianity. You said that when you think of the current state of Ukraine, you and many others feel deeply hurt. I can understand that, and I think that few in the West appreciate the extend to which Russians feel connected with your neighbour, not just because of family ties but also because of a common history stretching back to the days of the Kievan Rus.
I also understand that you might share the view of many commentators in your country that there was a strong Nazi element among those who overthrew the government of Yanukovych. You believe that the crisis came about because of interference by the West. I would agree with you that many politicians in the West are reluctant to accept the concept of spheres of influence – that Russia, as a great power, has learned through bitter experience that it needs to protect its borders by establishing buffer states that are either friendly – as was the case with the so-called eastern bloc – or politically neutral, as Finland was until it joined the European Union.
We talked about Vladimir Putin. You couldn’t understand why the West is so antagonistic towards him. You were very surprised when I said that dislike was the wrong word, and that a better description would be fear.
We didn’t get the chance to discuss this at length, so I’m going to try and explain what I meant.
The world I grew up in was polarised. On the one hand, as we saw it, there was the West. We had democratic government, however imperfect. We are able to speak freely and travel freely from one country to another. Looking over fortified walls were the communist countries, of which the Soviet Union was by far the most powerful. We saw in your country an aggressive exporter of a totalitarian system in which freedom of movement and political expression were severely limited.
Thanks to the mutual paranoia that grew up since the Second World War, the two sides engaged in a massive arms race that on at least one occasion nearly resulted in the obliteration of all the countries that aimed nuclear weapons at each other. I’m old enough to remember the Cuba crisis, and I’m sure your parents would have remembered it too. There were other times – during the Yom Kippur War, for example, and in the early eighties, when some of us feared that the next day might be our last.
Then came détente, and the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the cold war, as we thought. When both sides stopped aiming nuclear weapons at each other, we rejoiced, even though we realised that the price on the Soviet side was crippling poverty among the privileged classes (I won’t call them the middle class, because I’m not sure that since the revolution was there ever moneyed class that corresponds to our meaning of the phrase). We worried as technocrats, academicians, engineers and doctors found themselves struggling to get by, their savings wiped out, their pensions reduced and often having to wait months for their salaries. We were concerned that among the technocratic elite, those who worked in the arms industry might be tempted to sell their nuclear and biological knowledge to ruthless state actors – North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria amongst them – none of whom were friends of the West. Worse still, we feared that fully assembled warheads, or their lethal components – enriched uranium or plutonium, might find their way out of Russia and into the hands of our potential enemies.
Thankfully, through cooperation on both sides and new arms limitation treaties, the Soviet nuclear arsenal returned to the Russian Federation, and large-scale decommissioning of warheads on both sides took place.
With the defeat of the coup against Gorbachev and the coming of Yeltsin, we began to feel that the long nightmare of the cold war was really over. Even though we could see that the privatisation programme was giving opportunities to ruthless businessmen who quickly used the opportunity to amass huge fortunes, our major financial and industrial concerns felt confident enough to invest in the new Russia. For us, your country was a bit like the Wild West – a land of opportunity, yet lawless, corrupt and racked with gang warfare. A dangerous place, yet worth the risk.
What we – or at least those of us who took a passing interest from afar – failed fully to grasp was the sense of humiliation felt by so many of your compatriots at the loss of power, influence and prestige that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Also resentment at the fact that so few – apart from the oligarchs – benefited from the economic boom brought about by the rising price of oil.
For ordinary people in the West, the most noticeable change was the appearance of Russians in our towns and cities. Thirty years ago, I had never met anyone from Russia. Now we meet Russians in the street, in businesses, in bars. Wealthy Russians buy huge houses, football clubs and banks. Gazprom sponsors the European Champions League. And millions of people from the former eastern bloc countries would come to Britain for work once their membership of the European Union permitted them to do so.
When Vladimir Putin appeared on the world stage – as if from nowhere – we knew that he was a native of your city, and a middle ranking former KGB officer who had been an assistant to your mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Beyond that he appeared to be just another grey apparatchik. How wrong we were!
From our perspective here was a man who ruthlessly and rapidly consolidated power around himself and a small group of associates. The press freedom that grew up under Yeltsin slowly eroded under Mr Putin. We saw this as an attack on an essential element of the kind of open and democratic society into which Russia appeared to be transforming itself.
Since then we have seen many other signs of a return to a more authoritarian – if not Soviet – style of government. The imprisonment of Khodorkovsky; the Pussy Riot trials; the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko on British soil. To us it seemed that President Putin was able to use the judiciary and the FSB as a means of enforcing his will. Again, for the West, an independent judiciary is another pillar of a free society.
In the foreign policy arena we have been concerned by actions that many western politicians have viewed as cynical and inhumane: the intervention in Georgia; the use of gas pricing as a means of rewarding punishing near neighbours; and more recently the continued support of Bashar Al-Assad’s vicious regime in Syria. Regardless of the logic behind these actions, many in the West see them as an ominous return to the style of a previous era.
We are also concerned at the concentration of power in the hands of the President. In Soviet times, the General Secretary’s powers were limited by the need to maintain the confidence of the Politburo and the Party Congress. Today it seems to us that Mr Putin has few constraining influences that curb his power. Our perception is that the Duma acts only to rubber stamp his decisions. Yes, he goes through the motions of seeking its approval of key decisions, but in the knowledge that approval will not be denied.
However, nobody in the West would deny that he has huge support in your country. It seems to us that many people value stability and national self-respect above democracy and the rule of law. Yet we also hear rumours of the massive wealth that the President has accumulated during his terms in office – wealth that cannot have been accumulated only through his salary as president. Whether or not the rumours are true, they reinforce the perception that Mr Putin presides over what is in effect a mafia state, with himself as the chief beneficiary
Now we come to Ukraine. You said that people in Russia are hurt by what is happening to your neighbour. I’m not surprised. Ukraine is so intertwined with Russia that the fighting in the eastern region must feel like a family crisis. And yes, President Yanukovych was freely elected. When he was ousted, extreme right elements in Kiev played an influential part in his overthrow. I fully understand Mr Putin’s intense hatred of Nazism, an emotion that must be shared by all those in Saint Petersburg who suffered so grievously in the siege of the city during the Great Patriotic War.
Yet I’m not sure that Russians are getting a fully balanced picture of events in Ukraine. By no means all of those who opposed President Yanukovych were right-wing fanatics. And although the West surely did influence his downfall, just as it played an important part in helping to hasten the end of the Soviet Union, I believe that the main drivers of the Maidan uprising were economic.
On the ground a major factor in the uprising was that many Ukrainians could see that the key to their future prosperity lay in increasing closeness with the European Union. They can see the transformation in the economies of neighbours and former allies such as Poland, the Baltic States and the former German Democratic Republic. They want some of that prosperity for themselves. They perceived that Yanukovych presided over institutional corruption that led him and his close associates to accumulate massive wealth. The evidence was laid bare for all to see when the doors of his palace were thrown open.
Again it’s understandable that ethnic Russians in the east of the country should naturally gravitate towards their cousins across the border, and fear discrimination by ethnic Ukrainians in the western region. But for us in the West, the massing of Russian troops and tanks on the border, and what we saw as Russian influence and support in the attempted successions of Donetsk and other eastern cities reminded us of Stalin’s tactics in bringing about the incorporation of Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries into the Eastern Bloc after World War 2. We also remembered the suppression of the reformist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1967.
As for the annexation of Crimea, you argued that 97% of the population voted for the region’s return to Russia. Are you sure that ethnic Ukrainians – and the Tatars who had returned to the peninsula after having been resettled by Stalin in the 1930s and account for 12% of the population – took (or were given) the opportunity to vote? And how does the referendum result tally with a Ukrainian opinion poll taken after the Maidan that suggests that only 41% of people in Crimea supported a union between Russia and Crimea?
Commentators in the West saw Crimea as the first step in a strategy by Mr Putin to reassemble the old Soviet Empire. After Crimea, Eastern Ukraine would follow, and then Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Ridiculous or not, this has been a widely held perception. The West then responded by confidence building measures to reassure the worried Baltic states in the form of joint military exercises. Bridget Kendall of the BBC offers an interesting analysis of Mr Putin’s objectives and tactics here.
Mr Putin is aware that NATO is unlikely to risk military confrontation with Russia, but the statement in March by Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the state news agency, that “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash” did nothing to ease tensions. The ultimate deterrent is still in place.
You argued that Russia has no territorial ambitions beyond its borders. You may be right. But such is the mistrust of Mr Putin among many governments of the West that few would be surprised if Russian military force intervened in Eastern Ukraine to “prevent the oppression of ethnic Russians in the region” – a reason that they consider to be a pretext to justify Mr Putin’s expansionist strategy.
In any event, I’m confident that we are not about to enter a new cold war. Your country has so many links to the West today that such an outcome would be catastrophic. We are entering an era in which the use of oil and gas as a weapon of economic warfare is less effective. Russia needs to sell its commodities as much as the West needs to buy it. There are so many economic ties that bind the Russian economy to those of the West that Mr Putin risks much by damaging them.
So to come back to the central question: why is the West afraid of Vladimir Putin?
First and foremost, because we perceive that he sees relations with the West in terms of “great power rivalry”. Let’s forget the word superpower. These days, as was the case 100 years ago at the outbreak of World War I, the world is dominated by great powers, of which the most potent are the USA, China and Russia. The fact that each is a nuclear power is no coincidence. Germany, though not a nuclear power, is a significant fourth power because of its economic strength. Of the first three, Russia has certainly lost influence since 1989, and Mr Putin is trying, with considerable success, to restore that influence.
Second, because although I have referred to the West throughout this letter as though it was a monolithic entity, it is not. Britain, France and Germany, the European Union’s most powerful members, are no longer politically tethered to the United States, even though in extremis we still regard American military might as an ultimate shield. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the European Union has become weaker and more politically divided than ever before. We seem incapable of coherent political action, and rely for defence on NATO, a Cold War institution dominated by a non-European power whose confidence has also been badly shaken by recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though we are capable of applying damaging sanctions on Russia, the effective leader of the EU, Germany, has too much to lose by cutting economic ties with Russia much further.
Third, there is concern that Mr Putin presides over an unstable political environment in which nationalist factions such as Alexander Dugin’s Eurasian movement and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR will increasingly come to the fore if a decline in the price of oil causes the country severe economic difficulties. The limits to Mr Putin’s power would then be seen on the streets.
These are perceptions and assumptions that are widely held in the West, Yelena. They may or may not be based on reality. Likewise, opinions in Russia that the West sought to exploit Russia’s weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union may or may not be based in reality.
It’s easy to understand that under Stalin’s post-war logic it would never again be acceptable to your country to tolerate neighbouring countries governed by ideologies fundamentally unsympathetic to yours. But today the logic is different. Russia is no longer under the control of a dominant ideology. The West no longer sees Russia as an exporter of a political system that is fundamentally threatening to its cherished institutions. There should be no more domino theories, Vietnam wars and Cuban crises.
The three main nuclear powers recognise that each has the power to annihilate the other and in the process annihilate themselves. That’s a given. But there are new threats that face each power equally: Islamic extremism, climate change and the instability of the global financial system. These are common problems that require a common approach. Paranoia and confrontation between Russia, China and the West will only make the task of tackling these problems harder. We need partnership, not peer rivalry.
You live in a beautiful city that is rightly proud of the legacy of Peter the Great. Your political legacy may be different to ours, but your people’s values and aspirations are not so different. I watched a newly married couple posing for photos on the banks of the Neva and other young people sunbathing near the river, talking on their mobile phones.
I was one of thousands walking open-mouthed through the magnificent Hermitage museum as we passed by the Leonardos, Rembrandts, Titians, Monets, Gauguins and Picassos and marvelled at the intricacy of the Scythian gold artefacts recovered from Russian soil. You showed me the statue of Dostoyevsky, one of many Russian giants of world literature.
We passed by an old lady offering wild strawberries outside the food market. We stood in the cathedral where the devout were offering prayers in low voices, their heads gently touching the icons that would not have looked out of place a thousand years ago in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman empire.
You and I were able to talk without fear about politics. No minder stood in the background straining to hear what we were discussing. You said how much you enjoyed visiting London. I told you how impressed I was with Saint Petersburg.
Despite the current fears and suspicion that are causing old barriers to rear their ugly heads again, Russia, its culture, its civilisation, its deep spirituality and its technical ingenuity enriches the world. And the rest of the world has much to offer Russia. That idea defines Saint Petersburg, where English, French and Italian architects and builders helped to create a jewel that is nonetheless profoundly Russian.
Yelena, I offer these thoughts in a spirit of respect and admiration, and in the hope that you and your friends will continue to visit my country, and that I will be able in the future to see more of yours. The more that ordinary people like you and me are able to meet, communicate and understand each other, the better the chance that we will never again need to stand behind ramparts under dark clouds of ignorance and mistrust.
Today is the anniversary of the killing of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. During my visit I stood at the memorial to the slain Romanovs in St Peter and Paul Cathedral, where they have taken their place among the tombs of all the other Romanovs since Peter the Great. It seemed like a sign that your country has come to terms with its past. What remains to be seen is whether it can become comfortable with its present reality – something that my country has struggled with over the past 70 years. I sincerely hope so.
In respect and friendship,
Lovers of conspiracy theories tend to fall into two categories: those who feel conspired against, and those who are amazed and occasionally amused at humanity’s enduring gullibility. I fall into the latter category.
I don’t believe in the grassy knoll. I don’t believe that the neoconservatives brought down the twin towers. I do believe that we went to the moon. I don’t believe that George Bush Senior is a member of a reptile elite running the world. And I don’t believe that a bunch of clapped-out politicians known as the Bilderberg Group is running it either. Roswell, alien abductions, X-files? Not convinced. And sadly, I don’t believe that the passengers of MH370 are hunkered down in a remote Pacific island waiting to be rescued from the clutches of a demented pilot.
I write this because a friend in Bahrain sent me a link to an article in a Canadian website on which he thought I might like to comment. The site is impressive and scholarly in appearance. It is run by the equally impressive-sounding Centre for Research on Globalisation, which is the brainchild of a Canadian economist by the name of Michel Chossudovsky. The writer of the article claims, among other things, that the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom have over the past couple of decades been engaged in a strategy to re-draw the map of the Middle East according to their strategic objectives. For the US, bolstering its superpower status, for Israel, self-preservation, for the UK, who knows? England winning the FIFA World Cup perhaps.
According to the article, the three Satans are pursuing a policy of “constructive chaos” – that’s divide and rule to you and me – whereby they foment civil war across the Middle East and end up with a bunch of fragmented, exhausted and thereby compliant states that will supply all the oil required by the Satans without making troublesome land grabs, exporting terrorism or brandishing weapons of mass destruction. Iraq replaced by Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states. The Shia state to include Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province – thus slicing off the vast majority of Saudi oil revenue – and a coastal strip currently part of Iran. Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Oman inexplicably left independent. A greater Jordan expanded down the Red Sea. An “Islamic Sacred State” including Mecca and Madinah. Saudi Arabia’s southern borders shrunk to accommodate an expanded Yemen. What remains of the unfortunate Saudi state is all the dusty territory with Riyadh as its capital, under the catchy title of “Saudi Homelands Independent Territories”. Oh, and Baghdad, straddling the borders between the Sunni and Shia entities as an independent city state.
The re-drawn map in the article is the work of Ralph Peters, a former US lieutenant colonel who writes spy thrillers and has produced many articles over the years on military and geopolitical topics that have found their way into publications such as USA Today, the New York Post and even the Washington Post. An example of his views is to be found in a 1997 article called Constant Conflict:
“There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines, but cultural and economic struggles will be steadier and ultimately more decisive. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”
Colonel Peters also recommended assassinating Julian Assange at the time of the Wikileaks exposés.
According to the Global Research article, the US is assisting both the Shia-led government of Iraq and its deadly enemy The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS) in its efforts to hasten the fragmentation of Iraq.
I won’t go on. The theory might be plausible to people in the Middle East who believe that they are victims of a giant conspiracy to keep them divided and permanently under the thumb of the United States. But to anyone else it’s a piece of garbage. The idea that the US, over twenty years straddling the presidencies of Clinton, Bush the Younger and Barack Obama, should have a coherent policy on anything is ludicrous, unless you subscribe to the well-established conspiracy theory that US administrations are puppets in the hands of an evil military-industrial complex, of which Dick Cheney and Haliburton are the current bogeymen.
This is not to say that there aren’t powerful factions and interests in America, and within the military and ex-military there are undoubtedly people as deranged as General Jack D Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic cold war black comedy Dr Strangelove It was he who kicked off World War 3 by launching a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union from a British air base under his command. But fortunately the Rippers of today don’t have his ability to act unilaterally. And to suggest that the USA is in the hands of people bad enough to pursue a long-term policy of fomenting civil wars that kill millions of people is an insult to a nation whose values – despite its periodic destructive blunders and acts of malevolent self-interest on the part of groups and individuals – can hardly be considered those of an evil empire.
In the Middle East, conspiracy theories are balm for national humiliations, and convenient excuses for the stupidity of leaders. It’s easy to blame all the problems the region faces today on the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Great Satan and all the little Satans who have interfered, exploited, fomented and grown wealthy at its expense over the past century. And it’s equally easy to believe narratives that support the idea of continued victimisation.
But just as a needy adult will blame his parents, his teachers, the environment he grew up in and any number of other factors beyond his control to explain away his present troubles, the people of the Middle East will not come to terms with their present and make a better future until they start taking a measure of personal responsibility for their predicament. Not easy, I know, as the fallout from the wave of uprisings in 2011 demonstrates.
And whatever influence overweening foreign superpowers may have on the region, I can’t see that influence being mitigated by the foresight and wisdom of leaders whose decisions are based on more than aggrandisement, enrichment and self-preservation, because there aren’t many of them out there.
I fear that the friend who sent me the link to the Canadian website that sparked off this little diatribe will not like what I’ve written. He’s a charming, well-educated person just starting on an entrepreneurial career. He has a great future in front of him because of what he is, and I hope he will understand that I’m not suggesting that the Middle East is devoid of people like him – bright, full of potential and with a sincere desire to leave the world a better place. I’ve met more idealists – especially among the young – in the Arab world than in any other area I’ve visited.
But sometimes I think that the past sits on the region like a heavy blanket – comforting yet smothering. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of minor conspiracies out there. But if we place greater faith in our ability to see the obvious for what it is and act for ourselves, the less we will be inclined to ascribe our failures to ulterior motives on the part of others. In the big geopolitical picture there are plenty of agendas, but most of them are pretty obvious if you take the time to think about them. And that goes for just about every region, not just the Middle East.
But then if you think otherwise, you can always do little, blame others, sit back and immerse yourself in all the plots, conspiracies and alien paranoia offered up on a daily basis by the History Channel.
Sorry, but the truth isn’t out there. It’s right in front of us. In the words of Don Henley’s song They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming:
They’re not here, they’re not coming
Not in a million years
Turn your hopes back homeward
Hold your children, dry their tears
You may see the heavens flashing
You may hear the cosmos humming
But I promise you, my brother
They’re not here, they’re not coming
They’re not here, they’re not coming
Not in a million years
‘Til we put away our hatred
And lay aside our fears
You may see the heavens flashing
You may hear the cosmos humming
But I promise you, my brother
They’re not here, they’re not coming
(Lyrics by Don Henley and Stanley Lynch © Warner/Chappell Music Inc)