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The Kiev Speech

But though Bush 41 was in many respects a smashing foreign policy success, he also made a number of egregious missteps, including the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he essentially endorsed the survival of the multinational Soviet empire and not the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe. ~Reihan Salam That Kiev speech really sticks in […]

But though Bush 41 was in many respects a smashing foreign policy success, he also made a number of egregious missteps, including the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he essentially endorsed the survival of the multinational Soviet empire and not the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe. ~Reihan Salam

That Kiev speech really sticks in the craw, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard so much about the elder Bush’s 1991 Kiev speech in the last fifteen years as I have heard about it in the last week and a half. It seems to be a touchstone for everyone dissatisfied with “crabbed realism,” as if the “nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe” didn’t include the aspirations to displace and slaughter one’s neighbors, expel entire populations and pursue self-destructive policies in the name of restoring national glory. All of a sudden, nationalism in Europe, which was once the scourge that neoconservatives wanted to squash in the ’90s and which horrifies them when it takes peaceful, democratic forms in western Europe, has become something in retrospect that it was wrong to discourage at the end of the Cold War.*

Over the last eighteen years, the idea that there was something unforgiveably wrong in urging Ukrainians–whose country is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy under the rule of squabbling kleptocrats–to resist seeking independence seems increasingly absurd. Warning against the dangers of nationalism as a multinational empire was coming apart at the seams was very sensible. The example of how the Ottoman Empire had come apart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries offered a sobering reminder that political fragmentation along nationalist lines in ethnically mixed societies can carry a high cost in human suffering. Given the experience of the Balkans and the Caucasus over the last eighteen years, does anyone want to look back and say that the President of the United States should have endorsed nationalist aspirations?

* I should add that neoconservatives have never had any trouble with anti-Russian nationalism, no matter what form it takes and no matter where it crops up, which is at least part of the reason why the Kiev speech must be so irritating.

Update: Of course, it doesn’t hurt to revisit what Bush actually said in 1991. For starters, there is this part:

I come here to tell you: We support the struggle in this great country for democracy and economic reform. And I would like to talk to you today about how the United States views this complex and exciting period in your history, how we intend to relate to the Soviet central Government and the Republican governments.

In Moscow, I outlined our approach: We will support those in the center and the Republics who pursue freedom, democracy, and economic liberty. We will determine our support not on the basis of personalities but on the basis of principles. We cannot tell you how to reform your society. We will not try to pick winners and losers in political competitions between Republics or between Republics and the center. That is your business; that’s not the business of the United States of America [bold mine-DL].

Do not doubt our real commitment, however, to reform. But do not think we can presume to solve your problems for you. Theodore Roosevelt, one of our great Presidents, once wrote: To be patronized is as offensive as to be insulted. No one of us cares permanently to have someone else conscientiously striving to do him good; what we want is to work with that someone else for the good of both of us. That’s what our former President said. We will work for the good of both of us, which means that we will not meddle in your internal affairs.

O, the villainy! Who would want to have these words on his conscience? I mean, treating other nations as if they weren’t children to be scolded and ordered about–what was the man thinking?

Looking back over the last eighteen years, during which time Washington has been obsessed with personalities, not principles, and preoccupied with picking winners and losers and telling people how to reform their societies, one wishes that there had been more of the wisdom the former President showed in Kiev and a lot less of the carping from his detractors.

Second Update: Reihan responds with a long, interesting post. It is well worth reading.

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