Vladimir Putin is Re-Thinking the Unthinkable

On July 25, 1945, acting U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas T. Handy wrote orders to Gen. Carl Spaatz then commanding U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific.  The orders numbered one page and were remarkably succinct: upon receipt of the “special bomb” by the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island, Spaatz would order its delivery after Aug. 3 on “one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Hiigata and Nagasaki.”

“Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by project staff,” the orders continued. “Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.”

In other words, the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was operational, not political—a decision to be made not by the President but by the theater commander. At that moment, two bombs were ready for use in warfare. A third could be delivered to Tinian by Aug. 15, 1945. With two demonstrated designs, the Manhattan Project had reached industrial production of the atomic bomb. On Aug. 13, four days after the destruction of Nagasaki and only two days before the Japanese surrender, Col. Lyle Seeman, an aide to Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, told Gen. John Hull that they could expect new bombs to be available at the rate of nearly three a month. Hull himself counted the weapons in total: seven available through September and October 1945.

Hull recognized the effect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese morale.  That was their intention.  But if this and further bombings did not force the Japanese to capitulate, Hull was already thinking ahead to Operation Downfall, the planned Allied amphibious landings on the Japanese home islands.  He grasped the new weapon’s use on the battlefield to destroy division-strength formations of Japanese troops or to tear up lines of communication deep in the enemy’s rear.  If the atomic bomb failed as a strategic weapon, perhaps it could succeed as a tactical weapon.

The atomic bombs did not preclude conventional air attack.  Two days after Hiroshima, American aircraft firebombed Yawata and Fukuyama.  On Aug. 14, 1,000 American aircraft attacked Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki.  The U.S. and its Allies had already firebombed Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Kessel, Darmstadt, and Pforzheim in Germany, Kobe and Tokyo, and Japanese-occupied Wuhan, China.  The Tokyo incendiary attack killed at least as many people as Hiroshima.  By the end of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay had attacked 68 of 70 industrial targets across Japan.  “If you kill enough of them,” he once said, “they stop fighting.”

Today’s historical narrative summarizes the end of World War II as immediately following the two atomic bombings that saved a million Americans from having to invade Japan.  This is true but not complete.  At the time, the United States was prepared to fight a prolonged nuclear war to hasten surrender or completely destroy Japan’s warfighting capability.  The atomic bomb was a political weapon but very nearly became a common one.

Vladimir Putin reads history as only a cynic can.  He views Western rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, international law, and human rights, as simple cover for what is, to him, base national interest.  If the price for what he wants requires a little window-dressing, he can perform the necessary public gestures.  So Putin’s naked aggression in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, West Africa, and Ukraine is legitimated by political referendum or legal argument.  There is no difference in his mind between shelling Grozny flat and the Second Battle of Fallujah.  There is no difference between poisoning dissidents in London and American drone strikes in Kabul. There is no difference between his intervention in Syria and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no difference between Russian protection of the self-declared independent Donbas republics and NATO-protected Kosovo, no difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Putin’s rhetoric extends well beyond cynicism into real danger.  His window-dressing is cover for his personal and national ambition: great power status, the new Russian empire, and an anti-modern political ideology.  He believes in the exigencies of state.  There is no Russia without a strong Russia.

If Putin has studied American war projections in mid-1945, he would see something very familiar from recent years: the United States using overwhelming force against a rapidly dwindling threat.  American leadership was already prepared to destroy Japanese cities one by one or annihilate whole armies in a stroke to end the war and avert mass American casualties.  The United States has never modified its nuclear first-use policy.  There is no doubt in Putin’s mind that if Warsaw Pact armored columns had poured through the Fulda Gap in 1983 that the U.S. and NATO would have started firing tactical nuclear weapons, the size of the first atomic bombs, into eastern Europe.

So what would keep Putin from doing the same?

This war of choice, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is now existential—to him.  It is true he has been buoyed politically by the “special military operation” and he is genuinely supported by most Russians, propaganda victory or no.  The only real opposition comes from his right.  He is in a much stronger position than he was a year ago.  He has compromised all of his lieutenants so that, like Cortés scuttling his ships at Veracruz, their own survival is at stake.  So, in a sense, he has already won if what he risked was his own position and power.

But things could go badly for him very quickly.  He has managed to hide battlefield failures and the incompetent and hollowed-out Russian military so far.  It will be difficult to hide his defeat if Ukraine mounts a successful counter-offensive or if Russian forces capitulate, desert, or mutiny.  More importantly, the destruction of his armies will mean he has one less security backstop protecting him from a putsch.

This brings us to Putin’s scenario of the unthinkable:

With his armies fighting a rear-guard while trying to withdraw across the Donets River, Putin activates Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems prepositioned in Crimea. Russia has already deployed to the Black Sea land-attack submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped Kalibr cruise missiles.  As he did earlier in the invasion, Putin issues a vague threat to Ukraine and the international community—but the ultimatum would be clear.

Iskander (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missile launcher. Wikipedia

Unheeded, he orders a strike on Odessa, population one million.  A missile launched from Crimea flying barely 400 kilometers reaches its target in seconds.  The 500-kiloton (estimated—yields on modern Russian nuclear weapons are not known) nuclear warhead explodes, destroying half the city instantly and setting fire to the rest.  A toxic plume of radionuclides pours out of the city.  Depending on the direction of the wind, fallout either settles into the Black Sea or spreads north over Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia, largely missing Russia. Ukraine’s only major seaport is now a razed, radioactive no-man’s-land.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Odesa. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein.

The international community is shocked and horrified.  But Putin has attacked his neighbor, not an ally.  He has drawn the nuclear saber and his ultimatum stands.  As a port, Odessa was a legitimate strategic target.  Putin orders Kyiv to capitulate.  There is no difference in his mind between the Western exigencies demanded to end World War II and his own survival.

Nuclear-capable improved Kilo-class Russian submarine Rostov-on-Don. Russian government official photo.

After a day without a response from Kyiv or the international community Putin orders another strike. The Russian Kilo-class submarine B-237 Rostov-on-Don, which transited the Dardenelles to enter the Black Sea in February, receives its order and fires a Kalibr cruise missile, aiming its thermonuclear warhead at Mykolaiv, a city of nearly 400,000 on the Buh River with access to the Black Sea. Mykolaiv is closer to Crimea, but it is also another strategic target with its shipbuilders and refit yards. In a moment, the city is devastated and the Buh boils.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Mykolaiv. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein

Two cities are destroyed, tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, thousands of square kilometers laid waste and irradiated. This is no loss to Putin, who still claims innocently that he wants only the Donbas. The cost of clean-up and reconstruction will fall on Ukraine and its Western supporters. NATO will never extend its security guarantees to a defeated neighbor. The European Union will slow-track Ukrainian membership while it pours billions of euros into rebuilding and decontaminating the second-largest country in Europe. The mess, in other words, is in others’ hands, while the Donbas is in Putin’s. Mission accomplished.

Deterring or responding to a nuclear attack on a third country do not figure in current U.S. or NATO nuclear weapons planning.  We extend the protection of our nuclear umbrella to countries with whom we have written security agreements.  That does not include Ukraine.  For what we know at this point, deterrence has worked as intended: Russia has not resorted to chemical or nuclear weapons, it has not attacked countries outside Ukraine, and it has not explicitly threatened NATO member nations.

But with his back to the wall, his political survival suddenly at stake, Putin is all in and ready to call a bluff.  He bets the West will not respond in kind.  He bets NATO will not risk global thermonuclear war over two peripheral eastern European cities.  He bets European capitals will pressure Kyiv to cough up Donbas for everyone’s sake.  In which case, Putin will win.  Maybe not the full pot he expected when he tried to seize Kyiv, but enough that he can claim victory at home and further consolidate his power.  He could claim to have killed tens of thousands of fascists threatening Russia while he was at it and burdening the West with Ukraine’s clean-up and recovery.  Putin wins again.

If we can’t deter Putin, what options are available to prevent or respond to a nuclear strike?  Modern anti-aircraft weapons with anti-ballistic missile capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome, or similar C-RAM systems can provide point defense against missile attacks and strike aircraft.  These should be sent to Ukraine with training immediately.  U.S. Aegis seaborne systems in the Black Sea and NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft deployed from Romania could warn of launch.  Western nations should also prepare equipment and training for Ukrainians to respond to a nuclear incident.

Putin’s willingness to play with this kind of risk is found not just in his cynical rhetoric but also in current practice.  Garrisoning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station is only the latest example—Russian forces effectively bulldozed parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in their initial push to sack Kyiv.  With the stakes so much higher now, not just for military success and Russian glory but his own individual survival, Putin could very easily justify a rapid climb up the escalation ladder.

After all, he would say, it’s what the Americans did first.

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What matters most

Via Grist magazine.

A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate.  We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror.  I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign.  On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country.  On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.

It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters.  But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others.  The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things?  Why don’t we all think the same way?

This is a substantial issue.  I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris.  I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people.  But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.

This was not a matter of self-justification.  When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply.  I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts.  The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me.  More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I.  This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.

My initial query stands:  why do we feel differently about these things?  Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children?  Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues?  When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.

But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society.  There are more than enough problems we face to go around.  It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time.  While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time.  That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality.  Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions.  Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress.  Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.

What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective.  It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances.  But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence.  It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists.  That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed.  Imagine if they worked together.

More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life.  We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.

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The ontology of the ‘Unknown’

Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Known Unknown,” was accompanied by an extraordinary series of interview-essays in The New York Times where the filmmaker acknowledged that he felt he now knows less about the former twice-serving Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff than he did before he made the film. Rumsfeld’s clear pleasure engaging in verbal and semantic sparring, combined with a maddening lack of concern for concrete truth and that opaque Cheshire grin of his, made for an utterly compelling subject but brought no more illumination to his character or the matters of state that he influenced during his tenure.

I always felt that in the great “mystery” — John Keegan’s words — of the Iraq war, the political, strategic, and tactical dynamics of the conflict hinged on any number of key individual decisions and judgments. Had the French been convinced early on to join the Coalition and adopt the latter U.N. Security Council resolution authoring the invasion. Had the coalition force package been doubled or tripled for the invasion. Had the Iraqi Army not been disbanded. Had more time been allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors. The war would have gone very differently, and we would think about very differently. And so on.

The most important variable in the conflict were the weapons of mass destruction. If they had existed, and if they had been found, the political understanding of the conflict would be irreparably altered. (That may not have affected the insurgency afterward, but perhaps it would have if a larger, U.N.-backed coalition were on the ground.) This is, of course, the largest question involved in Morris’ Times essays, and yet unfortunately he forgets to mention (although this may be in the film, which I have not yet seen) perhaps the most important aspect of these weapons — that while they did not exist, Saddam Hussein acted as if they existed, and the fear of these weapons was just as important to the survival of his regime as their existence.

This ontological paradox is examined in one of the post-war CIA reports on the intelligence failures. It notes, in effect, that the CIA had little ability to interpret what looked like a cover-up of something as a cover-up of nothing because Saddam needed to appear to have weapons that had been destroyed in 1998 to deter internal threats rather than outside attack. This is at least as a complex puzzle to solve as any verbal jujitsu Donald Rumsfeld engaged in from the podium at the Pentagon.

But to unpack it also requires something that neither Rumsfeld really demonstrated during his years at the Pentagon nor what Morris (or, for that matter, many political observers during those years) manifests in his articles: keen analytical judgment. The conventional history of the “intelligence” about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says it was made up entirely by those looking for a pretext for invasion. But that’s not entirely the case.

I worked for a nonproliferation nonprofit at the time of the invasion. I knew about Iraq’s chemical weapons program and had studied deeply Iraq’s crash nuclear weapons program prior to its destruction after the 1991 Gulf War. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, I felt it was highly unlikely that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program because of the intense capital development that would require. But I also knew how well Iraq had hidden their nuclear weapons development program prior to 1991 — and the lengths to which the regime went to deceive weapons inspectors — and felt that it was possible it had hidden a chemical weapons program about as well since then. Not having any access to classified information, it was reasonable to assume that the Administration had better data. Many people in our coalition made the same assumption. Indeed, I think there was a broad presumption that Iraq had something, but our political position was to force Iraq to submit to U.N. inspections that would eventually uncover it. In other words, our judgment was faulty, too.

If there were others out there putting together the pieces and drawing the opposite conclusion — that Saddam had no clothes, that he had no weapons of mass destruction — I don’t know who they are. But that is the nature of good, keen judgment — facing incomplete information (especially when “incomplete” actually means absent, an abstract point about which Morris and Rumsfeld argue) and drawing the most accurate conclusion.

Morris is so disturbed by Rumsfeld’s deflection and penchant for argument that he wonders if there is anything substantial behind the quip and self-satisfied grin. Maybe there’s nothing more beyond the clever debate team captain’s tricks, he argues, and a mind made up to invade Iraq. Maybe there is no actual mind there capable of pure reason and problem-solving; no mind dedicated to, never mind interested in, concrete truth in the actual world.

It would seem from Rumsfeld’s record that Morris would be right. A mind like his is designed for and honed by a life in politics — arguing a point, driving a cause, giving no quarter, relentlessly in pursuit until he wins. The winner defines the political reality and that was how his political career evolved. But the one reality he could not shape was Iraq after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 and he did not have the imagination (a term he used relentlessly and with great irony prior to the invasion) to comprehend what was happening nor the ability to find a way out of the debacle he created. He fell back on the tools that had served him so well for so long, which were mostly language. But at a point early on those tools failed him — when his language no longer had any connection to the reality of the chaos in Iraq.

Morris doesn’t write about this, either, and Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have been humbled by his experience.  Morris appears amazed by this, and perhaps we are, too, given the experience he and we had with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rumsfeld doesn’t give us the satisfaction of McNamara’s comeuppance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experience and judge him for it.

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“What Forever Stirs in the Human Heart”

I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.

Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.

It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.

Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.

It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.

Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace.  The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.

Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics.  As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.

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Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream

The Church of St. John, Ohrid, Macedonia (via The Guardian)

With nods to George KennanJoan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.

Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.

Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.

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Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

A plenum convened in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 9, 2014 (via Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso)

The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.

It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union).  I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.

And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.

But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.

In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.

Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east  and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.

But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.

It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.

While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.

What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla,  Zenica and elsewhere.

As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum.  That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.

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Do We Need A Cultural Foreign Policy?

The historical archives of Sarajevo, attacked and burned on Feb. 6, 2014 (via http://www.arhivsa.ba/)

This month in Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens protested government paralysis in every major city in the country, in some places leading to destruction of municipal government buildings. In Sarajevo, somebody took advantage of the chaos and burned the city archives – a terrible echo of the war of the 1990s, when the beautiful National and University Library was shelled by federal Yugoslav gunners and gutted, destroying the entire collection.

This event is particularly poignant given the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney film about an odd clutch of Allied soldiers tasked with saving art looted from across Europe by Adolph Hitler. Such an action may seem superfluous in the middle of the titanic struggle with fascism in Europe and nationalism in Asia, with literally millions of lives in the balance. Indeed, as the movie and the book by Robert Edsel make clear, the treasure hunt was seen by some as a distraction from Allied war aims. But Lt. George Stokes, Clooney’s character, understood the stakes all too well. “If you destroy a people’s history, it’s as if they never existed,” he says. “That’s what Hitler wants.”

Unfortunately, as events in Sarajevo demonstrate, the world’s cultural patrimony faces an array of threats less immediate but all the more dire and insidious for it. And we lack a coherent, coordinated ability to respond to threats to art and culture that measures up to the achievement of the monuments men.

The Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikimedia Commons)

Today the Sarajevo Haggadah – the oldest Hebrew codex in the Balkans – sits in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been closed for a year, unprotected. The Bosnian national parliament cannot agree on its status as a federal institution and refused to fund it. The Balkan Wars, both world wars and the wars of the former Yugoslavia could not shut down the museum, which until last winter had remained open for 125 years. This is only part of the reason why Bosnians are protesting.

Without funding and support, professional curators and preservationists cannot ttend to their collections and artifacts. Climate goes uncontrolled. Collections are left unguarded and unmonitored. An entire nation’s patrimony is at risk. And Bosnia is not alone in Europe. Due to the financial crisis, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania cut funding and closed many or parts of their national museums and galleries. Their collections, too, were threatened.

Direct threats remain as well. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they ripped out a part of the Afghan nation. When Ansar Dine extremists destroyed the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, they assaulted an ancient center of Islamic history and Malian identity. It is difficult to justify intervention on behalf of works of art, but it is impossible to say we won’t help restore them the way the Stare Most was rebuilt after it was destroyed more than 20 years ago in Mostar, Bosnia.

But the United States today has no means, no unified institution and no philosophy – in short, no foreign cultural policy – to do what the monuments men did 70 years ago: to advocate on behalf of, preserve and, if necessary, rescue endangered art and culture around the world. What we have now in the United States is a hodge-podge of various agencies, bodies and private foundations – the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, the State Department, USAID – each pursuing its own, limited projects without coordination, direction or support to match the need.

Some of these projects are important and noble. For example, the Smithsonian moved rapidly after the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-á-Prince to rescue Haitian art. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation provides flexible funding to U.S. embassies to support museums and galleries. But programs like these are small-bore or one-off. The Ambassadors Fund amounts to little more than $5 million per year for the entire world and only a fraction goes to securing the art works themselves.

In my recent book, I proposed creating a public-private entity called the U.S. Arts Restoration Trust to coordinate government and private resources for the advocacy of art and culture around the world. USART would need to work with the State Department, because execution of these projects would by necessity be enabled through American embassies which have permanent personnel on the ground. And it would need to work with private foundations and galleries with the financial resources and technical know-how to help preserve and restore art in foreign countries.

USART would represent, too, an ideological argument in our particular American approach to promoting art and culture. Culture in the United States is not entirely cut loose in the free market, but it is far more so than the rest of the world. American galleries and museums depend on philanthropy, particularly in contrast to their European or Asian counterparts. While the Smithsonian receives some federal funding, most municipal galleries and museums rely on local foundations and corporate charities. More precisely, we have a far deeper and longer history of philanthropy to draw on. When the European arts community was hit by the financial crisis, it was largely a recession of state support, and they had nowhere else to look for funding. As a result, their collections and personnel suffered.

The Ma’il Qur’an, British Library (via http://www.islamitalia.it)

While traveling abroad I saw the Ma’il Qur’an at the British Library, one of the oldest copies of this sacred text in the world. The importance of a library for preserving a codex becomes clear when you hear what senior conservator David Jacobs told the Arab News about the Ma’il Qur’an. “The problem with that particular manuscript is pigments that are quite friable and flaky, so obviously it needs care and attention and constant monitoring of its condition.” That kind of monitoring is no longer available to the Sarajevo Haggadah and possibly countless other irreplaceable texts and art pieces around the world.

When viewing treasures saved by the monuments men or preserved in the British Library, it is impossible to imagine them not existing. But that is because they survived and are protected to this hour. Rescuing threatened art was a mission we assumed 70 years ago and it is a duty we should take even more seriously today.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (r), Lt.Gen. George Patton (c) and Gen. Omar Bradley (l), inspect art looted by the Nazis (NARA via DeutscheWelle).

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Punk Is Not Dead

Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.

I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.

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The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

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America Is It

State Department and Customs and Border Protection, take note. Leave it to Coca-Cola, the preeminent American brand, to get so much right in 60 seconds during the Super Bowl. The short spot is the song “America the Beautiful” cut between a variety of scenes of family and friends from different cultural backgrounds enjoying themselves in the natural beauty of this country, in cities and at home. With slight edits (to remove the product placement) this could easily be played at every port of entry in the country.

What really sets this spot apart is the seamless weaving of our emotional national ode sung in several different languages — Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, to name a few. (If you visit the Youtube page with the videos you can learn about the “making of” with the many people who helped sing this multi-linguistic version of the classic hymn.)

It’s hard not to be moved by the music and the subtle message of the change in language (although there are the haters) which speaks more clearly than any argument I’ve ever made that America the beautiful is made up not so much of people ticking those ridiculously confining ethnic or racial boxes  but people who speak different languages. And somehow, for the most part, we make it work better than any other country on the planet. That’s something to celebrate and to emulate, not to disparage and denounce.

I’ve also written before about the effectiveness of advertisements and what we can learn from them for effective public diplomacy. Coke once taught the world to sing and I think this spot is even more effective than that famous advertisement. It’s more than enough to make the whole world smile.

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