The Blog

The Cool Peace?

Resolved: Russia is becoming our enemy again.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2007 • By MICHAEL WEISS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TUESDAY NIGHT MARKED the eleventh Intelligence Squared U.S. debate hosted at the Asia Society and Museum on Park Avenue. Generously endowed by the conservative philanthropist Robert Rosenkranz, IQ2US underwrites a series of intellectual exchanges modeled on the full-blooded forensic style of the Oxford Union, though given that the august society has lately invited speakers like Nick Griffin, head of the fascist British National Party, and David Irving, Holocaust denier in chief, one wonders if like so many other British traditions this one has better thrived by crossing the Atlantic.

The proposition before the house on Tuesday was perhaps the most tantalizing yet: "Russia Is Becoming Our Enemy Again." Arguing in favor of the motion were Bret Stephens, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, Claudia Rossett, journalist-in-residence at the Defense of Democracies and a WEEKLY STANDARD contributor, and J. Michael Waller, the Annenberg Chair in International Communication at the Institute for World Politics. Arguing against were Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of the Soviet premier and professor of International Affairs at the New School, Robert Legvold, a political science professor at Columbia University, and Mark Medish, a former Clinton administration official and now the vice president for Studies of Russia, China and Eurasia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A nicely arrayed Sovnarkom of laurels, yet the most interesting curriculum vitae of the evening belonged to moderator Edward Lucas, who has a new book coming out titled The New Cold War: The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West.

If that language strikes you as as assured then perhaps it's because the calendar of bilateral relations does appear to be heading back to 1962. World headlines announce Le Carré-esque tales of irradiated expatriates, gunned-down journalists, and poisoned politicians, all of whom were guilty of the unforgivable crime of opposing Moscow. The bald-faced euphemism of Eastern dictatorship has returned in the form of Russia's post-millennial "managed democracy." Gas and oil pipelines have been made hostage to the pro-Russian sentiments of Caucasian peoples who rely on them stay warm in winter. A Baltic state and NATO ally has been subjected to a costly cyberwar, with at least a few soldiers of the invading army residing, according to their virtual signatures, in the fortified offices of the Kremlin. And Vladimir Putin, the KGB Tsar who has presided over all these episodes of intimidation and repression--and likely plans, as prime minister, to preside over many more--happily finances a Middle Eastern theocracy's "peaceful" wish to explore the varied uses of the atom. Yet it's soft brinkmanship when the U.S. announces plans to construct a defensive missile shield on European soil.

American debates over Russia's present and future have always lent themselves to witty theatrics. Rossett alone twice reminded me of the Trotskyist Max Shachtman's devastating indictment of CPUSA chief Earl Browder in 1950: "There but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!" First she recounted a dinner she attended in Moscow ten years ago at which one Russian held forth against a tide of Western skepticism about the positive direction in his which his country was headed. "His name was Gary Kasparov." Next, having poured herself a cup of tea at the lectern prior to her opening remarks, Rossett brandished the photographs of the dying Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB agent turned British citizen who was poisoned by Polonium 210, and a badly disfigured Victor Yushchenko, the current pro-Western reformist president of Ukraine. She invited the audience to imagine itself a Russian dissident sitting down with an envoy from the Kremlin to discuss the murder of a journalist in a foreign city. "Would you, without a second thought these days, drink that tea?"