Once upon a time, Berlin was where the world was most likely to end, the point where the armies of freedom and of tyranny — or, if you prefer, the armies of progress and of reaction — stood eyeball to eyeball, wondering who would blink first.
At the height of superpower tension, right as the Berlin Wall was being constructed, Billy Wilder directed the film One, Two, Three, about the divided city and continent — and one Coca Cola executive’s schemes to conquer both sides of the Iron Curtain. The film’s satire was wide-ranging, encompassing conniving American executives, spoiled Southern belles, inadequately de-Nazified German workers. And our great superpower rival — against which America stood ready to incinerate half the world, and against which we were enjoined by our new president to “bear any burden, pay any price” — was portrayed as poor and incompetent, its officials petty, lustful, backstabbing, and clownish. In other words: not much different from the folks at Coca Cola.
It is unfortunately difficult to imagine a similar film being made today. And that’s a shame. It would be helpful if we could remember that our rivals and enemies share with us a full respective measure of human stupidity and vice. It would be even more helpful if we could remember just how extraordinarily weak our current enemies are, relative to ourselves and relative to those we’ve faced in the past.
I say this not because I believe knowledge of our common humanity will enable us to see past our differences, nor because if we realized how weak our opponents are we would be bolder in confronting them. On the contrary: every single war fought by humanity was fought between groups of human beings, and most of the time both sides recognized that fact. And substantially weaker opponents are frequently able to deny their would-be conquerors victory — just ask George III. Or, for that matter, George W. Bush.
But if we had a more realistic view of our opponents, then we would realize that our conflicts with them are far less existential than we are often led to believe. Which would be comforting, because many of them are also far less likely to be resolvable than we would like to believe, either by diplomacy or by force.
Andrew Bacevich begins his book, Washington Rules with a meditation on Berlin similarly intended to call attention to how much we got wrong about the Cold War. Specifically, right after the wall came down, he crossed over into East Berlin – and he saw, suddenly, just how weak an opponent the Communist East was. That insight led him to question the verities of much of his prior Cold War thinking. In much of the rest of the American establishment, it led instead to triumphalism. And triumphalism has now turned to an existential crisis as we realize that we cannot actually dictate terms to the entire world.
My own view is that the situation with Russia is hopeless. We have very few levers to change Russian behavior in the short term. Risking war over Crimea or eastern Ukraine would be absurd, sanctions are unlikely to have any material effect, and arming the Ukrainian government will just escalate the scale and cost of civil war. Meanwhile, Russia under Putin or under a successor is unlikely to be ready to admit that it has come to a stable accommodation with the West even if one were offered. Neither carrots nor sticks are likely to be efficacious.
But the situation is also not very serious. Russian revanchism is bad news for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc. Their independence just got much more expensive than they can afford. But the international system will not fall apart if we are unable to reverse Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, nor is Russia crazy enough to attack Germany, or even Finland. We should keep the situation in perspective and set policy accordingly.
The situation in Iran is not similarly hopeless, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much either. Iran is not going to be “turned” into a U.S. ally – because that wouldn’t actually serve either American or Iranian interests. But Iran does have a lot to gain from normal relations with the United States, and very little to gain from actually building a nuclear weapon. It’s possible that there is a window currently open to ending a period of fruitless hostility, and it behooves us to make every effort to go through it if it is.
But it’s also possible that there is no such window, that Iran’s regime depends too much for its legitimacy on active hostility to the West and to the United States specifically, and that therefore we really are in a zero-sum situation. That may be the most likely scenario, in fact. But even in that case, we can’t lose sight of the overwhelming disparity in power and resources between the United States and Iran, and the relative insignificance of the latter in the larger scheme of world affairs. A failure to improve relations with Iran would be a disappointment. It would not be a catastrophe.
There is really only one country on earth of whom one could say that whether we manage our relationship with them well or poorly has potentially existential implications, and that is China, whose importance to the world economy and to the future environmental health of the planet rivals ours, and whose potential military strength does as well. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be doing as catastrophic a job on that front as we sometimes seem to be elsewhere.
So on China, I’m nervously optimistic. On the rest of the world, a cheerful pessimism strikes me as a useful tonic.