From the moment the use of the term “reset” as a synonym for do-over, start-over, or make-over, entered the political vocabulary – inserted by none other than that wonderful wordsmith, Vice President Joe Biden – it has been applied foremost to our relationship with Russia. But as a recent, probable reluctantly chosen, headline in the Washington Post indicated, a reset button can often create an error message.
“Russia Not Budging on Iran Sanctions: Clinton Unable to Sway Counterpart,” was how the largely pro-administration paper put it.
This past week, while my wife and I were enjoying a few days in Maine, she went shopping for things for the grandkids, and I, as is my very predictable pattern, gravitated toward the local bookstore, this one a newly constructed establishment in Kennebunkport. Among my catch for the day was an interesting and well-written work by Nicholas Thompson, who has, in fact, written for the Washington Post, about two men who greatly influenced U.S. policy during The Cold War - George Kennan and Paul Nitze. The author is actually the grandson of the latter. The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, is a great read describing two giants who maintained an uneasy friendship, while usually working on opposite sides of the foreign affairs street.
Early in the book, there is a passage about a memo written by George Kennan in May of 1945. The diplomat was living and working in Moscow when the war in Europe ended. Most Cold War buffs, such as myself, know very well of Kennan’s memo writing skills. His February 1946 “long telegram” is considered to be one of the seminal documents of the period, in which he described the Soviet Union’s “neurotic view of world affairs” and the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” not to mention their, “secretiveness and conspiracy.”
But the memo written roughly 10 months earlier, though largely overlooked at the time due to his relatively insignificant role as “nothing more than a highly competent clerk,” is one that all the reset button aficionados in the State Department and elsewhere should revisit right about now.
Kennan began with the quaint, “Peace, like spring, has finally come to Russia,” but the reader is quickly confronted with the fact that the change of seasons was “far more noticeable on the Moscow scene.” And in language similar to what he would use in 1946, he bluntly acknowledged that Joseph Stalin knew just what buttons to push to get the United States to do his bidding. The Russians were already manipulating reality and events and had been all along. Kennan wrote: “They observe with gratification that in this way a great people can be led, like an ever-hopeful suitor, to perform one act of ingratiation after the other without ever reaching the goal which would satisfy its ardor and allay its generosity.”
In case some haven’t noticed, all this talk about the United States pushing the reset button is meaningless because the Russians have long since pushed theirs. And it took them back about 65 years.
Jesus told some of his disciples of the need to be at times “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” This kind of clear-headed approach balances good intentions with a realistic view of the fact that others may not be operating from similar motives. You can almost see the image of Gorbachev rolling his eyes about now, as he stood next to Ronald Reagan again and again and heard that phrase, “Trust, but verify.”
By the way, is it just me or has anyone else actually tried to reboot a computer to fix a problem only to have the error right there again on the screen when the machine came back on?
Political reset buttons are, of course, pure contrivance. What some are really longing for is to erase the past eight years – or the past 50. Let’s all go back to August of 2001, or December of 1989, or July of 1941 – wouldn’t that be cool? Sure. It also, though – and please get this – can’t happen. To even try to do so is like trying to glean public policy philosophy from the script of Napoleon Dynamite:
Uncle Rico: Kip, I reckon... you know a lot about... cyberspace? You ever come across anything... like time travel? Kip: Easy, I've already looked into it for myself. Uncle Rico: Right on... right on.
Many these days are betting the future on the fact that the leaders of Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela will approach global politics with the same level wisdom as those serving on the Nobel Peace Prize committee (did they meet in Amsterdam this year?). Good luck with that. Go ahead and press all the reset buttons you can find or create. But in the end, let’s hope that someone, somewhere has kept a paper copy of the map back to reality, because it will certainly be needed.
An aging and seriously ill Franklin Roosevelt gave the store away to Mr. Stalin and company at Yalta. His inexperienced successor, Mr. Truman, didn’t do much better at Potsdam. But of course, they were dealing with a Soviet dictator and we are dealing with Vladimir Putin. Putin is nothing like Stalin, right?
Of course he’s not. Putin is taller and looks better without his shirt (possibly channeling his inner-Mussolini). Anyone knows that.
Actually, Mr. Putin has more in common with the pock-faced “man of steel” than most people care to notice. He is driven by power and operates as his own Lavrentiy Beria. The guy is one dangerous dude.
It took a glorified clerk and a recently-rebooted-out-of-office politician to remind the world that danger was the default human experience. Kennan wrote his telegrams, read by insiders, and a man named Winston Churchill gave a speech about “the sinews of peace” and that ominous “iron curtain,” heard by the world.
Let’s hope that there are clerks somewhere in our camp writing about reality and that their warnings will be noticed. Let’s also pray that there will be voices crying in a wilderness disguised as never-never land, voices that will refuse to be silenced. The message of danger is never a comfortable one to deliver or receive, but without it we may find ourselves with no real comfort zone at all.
I say let’s forget about this whole reset button nonsense. Frankly, what some in Washington should actually be concerned about is an eject button. It is shaped like a lever and every voting booth in the country will be equipped with one over the next few Novembers.