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Nicholas Kristof: A Faulty Prophet

The New York Times columnist seems primed for another failed foreign policy prediction.

(Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has amassed a long record of faulty, overly optimistic predictions about international affairs. His latest effort is likely to continue that embarrassing trend.

Citing his recent road trip through Ukraine, the Baltic republics, and Poland, Kristof concludes that “it’s clear that Putin has managed to unite nearly everyone against Russia. Even Russian speakers who often used to feel loyalty to Moscow are now fund-raising for Ukraine.” He favorably quotes Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, who asserted that “the majority of our Russian-speaking people are with us.” Kristof was not inclined to question that statement in the slightest. Instead, he contended that “the mood in the Baltics is reflected by a huge poster in Riga, Latvia, showing Putin’s face as that of a skull-like monster.”


Such an interpretation is not entirely erroneous. There is evidence that the invasion of Ukraine has alarmed neighboring populations and undermined Moscow’s efforts at diplomacy and public relations. Even most Russian speakers in Eastern Europe are not eager to see a repeat of the Kremlin’s dour, heavy-handed rule during the Soviet era, and Putin’s actions have fanned such fears.

Nevertheless, Kristof’s account of his travels raises more questions than it answers. Worse, his column sometimes reads as though it were taken verbatim from official propaganda outlets in Ukraine and other East European capitals. He ignores even the most obvious evidence that might raise doubts about his thesis. Kristof especially fails to address why, if there is such a massive rush on the part of Russian speakers in neighboring countries to repudiate Russia, those governments are adopting laws that restrict or outright ban manifestations of Russian politics, religion, and culture. Such hostile, intolerant measures would seem excessive and superfluous.

Yet that trend is unmistakable, with Ukraine being the worst offender. Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has taken steps to outlaw any media outlet or opposition political party that officials even suspect harbors ‘pro-Russian” sentiments. The government has stripped the Russian Orthodox Church of its properties and restricted its clergy, effectively crippling the church in Ukraine. The Zelensky regime also has led a strident campaign to ban the works of even pre-Soviet Russian authors, artists, and composers. It amounts to a pervasive “de-Russification” effort. Such moves hardly seem to reflect the behavior of leaders who are confident that Russian speakers in Ukraine are repudiating Vladimir Putin and everything Russian. Instead, such conduct is typical of insecure regimes that are highly suspicious about the loyalty of an ethnic or religious minority.

This would hardly be the first time that Kristof has badly misread developments in a foreign country. His rosy assumption about the likelihood of much greater political pluralism in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the late 1980s before the Tiananmen Square crackdown still stands out as a glaring example. In a 2014 retrospective, the editors of the New York Times conceded that the paper’s reporters and columnists had been too complacent about the prospects for political reform in the PRC: “Before the violence of June 4, [Times reporter Nicholas] Kristof and others had been optimistic about the prospect of a more open, more democratic China.”

Kristof grudgingly conceded that “looking back at what I wrote 25 years ago, I’d say the tone was right but the timing way too optimistic.” Yet he remained confident about the long-term prospects for freedom in the PRC. The Communist party “has diminishing control over people’s lives,” he insisted. Given the regime’s dramatic tightening of controls under President Xi Jinping over the past decade, Kristof clearly was still too optimistic in 2014.

His assessment of the NATO-assisted revolution that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 was not much better. In an August 31, 2011, column, Kristof gushed about how the people he encountered in Libya loved America. “Americans are not often heroes in the Arab world, but as nonstop celebrations unfold here in the Libyan capital, I keep running into ordinary people who learn where I’m from and then fervently repeat variants of the same phrase: ‘Thank you, America!’” Although Kristof at least made the pro forma caveat that things could still go wrong, he saw the Libya intervention as an attractive model for future regime-change missions; "to me," he said, "Libya is a reminder that sometimes it is possible to use military tools to advance humanitarian causes.” The Libyans, Kristof contended, “overwhelmingly favored our multilateral military intervention.”

Barely a year later, Islamist militias attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans (who likely were CIA operatives). Post-Qaddafi Libya descended into all-too-predictable dysfunction and chaos, which persists to this day. The outcome was far different from Kristof’s assumption that life for the Libyan people would be much better with Qaddafi gone.

Given such cringeworthy, faulty predictions, one might think that Kristof would take a more cautious, nuanced view of developments in Eastern Europe. Instead, he plunges ahead with an assessment that facts on the ground already undermine. The assumption that Russian speakers and their nationalistic, anti-Russia neighbors will forge gloriously united, democratic societies is naive. Such ancient tensions are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Nicholas Kristof likely is headed for another acute embarrassment.