Thursday, May 14, 2015

Strange Hate

I watched Dr. Strangelove the other night. It was - and is - a remarkable movie, combining apocalyptic humour with and end-of-the-world lesson in game theory. I remember reading in a Stanley Kubrick biography (he was producer and director) that at times Kubrick had to lay on the floor behind the camera biting his hand so he couldn't be heard laughing at Peter Sellers' portrayal of Dr. Strangelove himself. I can understand why.

But perhaps the most chilling performance is that of General Jack D. Ripper by Sterling Hayden (pictured above). The audience, along with Peter Sellers (this time as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake - he also plays the President of the United States by the way) watches in horror as it dawns that General Ripper is stark, staring, barking mad. It's a singular portrayal of the Cold War doctrine of M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) if ever there was one.

I used to think the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR. Now I'm not so sure. There's a superb two part interview with historian Stephen Cohen over at Salon that got me thinking about recent events in Ukraine and whether we are witnessing the Cold War 'by other means'.  Cohen notes:
As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly. 
What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.
Cohen also laments how the West now treats Putin, quoting Henry Kissinger on the same issue:
The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It’s an alibi for not having a policy.
In Cohen's view, Washington is deliberately or otherwise mis-reading what is happening in Russia and the crucial role Putin has played in stabilising a potentially catastrophic situation. Lucio Carraciolo describes Russia as a Democratorship - an outcome of its distinctive history, culture and circumstances, and a reason why the West doesn't 'get' Russia. It's not to say that its inevitable. As Cohen explains, things could very easily have gone in a different direction under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin. They still could under Putin or his successor.

And that's what's scary fifty one years after the release of Dr. Strangelove. The West still easily descends into a 'Strange Hate', projecting its own anxieties and prejudices onto a Russia that is always changing... and always the same. Perhaps we're the ones that haven't changed? We may not obsess about bodily fluids like General Ripper, but we still obsess about the things that make us different rather than the same.

We can't - we mustn't - go back to the Cold War, no more than we can go back to the USSR. Even Putin realises it, noting that:
Anyone who doesn’t regret the end of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who thinks you can recreate the Soviet Union has no head. 
POSTSCRIPT: on the other hand, maybe it's too late?

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