It took a trip across the country, to Fort Myers, Florida, and dinner at an Uzbek restaurant for me to fully appreciate how poorly led, brainwashed and dangerously clueless most Americans are about Russia.
My wife and I were among a party of six at the Silk Road restaurant in a nondescript shopping center in south Fort Myers. As we shared orders of plov (a savory pilaf topped with mutton), morkovcha (a shredded carrot salad), and lagman (a hearty chicken soup), our eyes and attention were drawn to a large TV screen behind the bar.
It was playing a video of a flashy pop concert featuring a parade of entertainers, including a Cher-like singer clad in a clingy red dress, a crooner who looked like Garth Brooks without the hat, and another with an Elvis pompadour. I was initially confused, since Siri had informed me that Uzbekistan, a nation of 33 million, is 89 percent Muslim, and Islam tends to frown upon secular music and women who expose too much flesh. Our server cleared up the matter. “Russian,” she said of the concert.
That made sense. The production values were top-notch, the concert hall seemed to go on forever, and the audience was good looking and smartly dressed. In one cutaway from the action on the stage an attractive woman in the crowd was captured taking a selfie with a smartphone.
“They look just like us,” one person at our table observed in a tone of astonishment. Exactly, I thought, and saw my cue.
“But our government wants us to see them as enemies. It’s about the only thing the Democrats and Republicans agree on—that Russia is evil and that we should go back to the Cold War.”
At that point my wife gently kicked me under the table. She hates it when I bring up “politics” in mixed company.
Undeterred, I continued. “Wouldn’t it be better if we could just somehow get along and trade instead of imposing sanctions and rattling sabres?”
Blank looks all around. You’d have thought I’d been speaking in Uzbek or Russian. Finally, a man in the party “agreed” that maybe we could trade something—we could send felons from our overcrowded prisons to the former Soviet gulags.
Clearly, the idea of trading or being friendly with Russia failed to resonate with my dining companions. Chastened, I went back to my order of lamb kebobs and my pot of sweet lemon tea.
Yet my mind wandered—to encounters with smart, cultured and friendly Russians I’d had back in the 80s: journalists (okay, probably KGB agents) in Tokyo, where I spent five years as a foreign correspondent; a couple of women I shared a compartment with on the Trans-Siberian Railroad; and students I partied with in Irkutsk who were awfully keen to buy my Walkman and Levis.
The only unpleasant experience I remember took place in Moscow—in the form of an old crone who sat at a desk on the floor of my hotel, presumably keeping tabs on the western guests. She angrily muttered something about President Carter. This was after he had ordered the boycott of the Soviet Summer Olympics following the invasion of Afghanistan. Ironically, some 20 years later we invaded Afghanistan ourselves after Osama bin Laden, ostensibly on “our” side during the Soviet occupation, masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
You can say what you want about him, but I think President Trump’s instincts on Russia are correct. He looks at the world not as a geopolitical chessboard, as did Nixon and Kissinger or the denizens of Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the CIA, but as a businessman. He sees opportunity for mutually beneficial trade and commerce and economic growth. As Bastiat has been quoted, “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”
I should interject here that I didn’t vote for Trump (Johnson-Weld got my vote) and I don’t support the border wall or Trump’s equally misguided tariffs.
But if Trump wants to build office complexes, hotels and resorts in Russia, more power to him. Why not? Wouldn’t it be better to see Trump properties—or Hiltons and Holiday Inns—in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Novosibirsk–adapted, of course, to fit the local architecture and culture — than to return to the Cold War and a new nuclear arms race?
I’d feel safer if Vladimir Putin was a frequent visitor to Mar-a-Lago. Ditto Kim Jong Un.
Wouldn’t it be a better world if counterproductive economic barriers came down and we were able to harness some of the considerable computing talent in Russia, now supposedly devoted to scams and hacking? American tech entrepreneurs could set up shop in Russia and Russians could set up shop in the U.S. And imagine being able to learn from and share information with Russian scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
Examples abound in the world today—the U.S. trades with scores of countries that don’t see eye to eye with us on every issue. But we don’t have to agree on everything before we can do business; in your own work, do you ask a customer’s political persuasion before selling them a widget? Significantly, once we are engaged in business, both sides have an incentive to keep the peace, in order to keep the business and profits flowing.
Sanctions don’t work. We’ve seen that in places like Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Venezuela, they typically hurt the average folks, not the thugs in power. And sanctions give those in power a rallying cry—“Death to the Great Satan” or “Down with U.S. imperialism.”
Hasn’t this whole Russian election “meddling” business—politics aside—been trumped up to prepare us for a new cold war, a posture that only pads the Pentagon’s obscenely huge budget and benefits the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about?
But politics is at play too. If President Obama or a President Hillary Clinton had tried to “reset” relations with Russia, would the editorial writers at the Washington Post and the New York Times be in the sort of lather they were in when Trump seemingly tried to do the same?
I think Trump’s natural proclivities are to bring home our troops and stop the wars, whether hot or cold. I like that goal. It’s a shame he’s been thwarted by, as a friend of mine describes them, the “illiberal left and the war-mongering right.”
The U.S. defense budget, at $610 billion in 2017, is larger than that of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom and Japan combined. This is nuts and clearly unsustainable.
From the end of World War II until the Berlin Wall fell, we were in a cold war with the Soviet Union. (Which is odd since we couldn’t have defeated Hitler without the heroic effort and sacrifice of the Russian military.) After 9/11, we had a new Great Enemy—Islamic terrorism, the “Axis of Evil,” as George W. Bush described it. Now it’s back to Russia. This need for a bogeyman is straight out of 1984. And it’s so 20th century. Isn’t it time we moved on? Only libertarians seem to get it.
Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii.
FreedomFestForum is a publication of FreedomFest, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds,” held at Paris Resort Las Vegas July 17-20, 2019. For ticket information, go to www.freedomfest.com. Two films about Russia: “Big Lies” and “Women of the Gulag” will be featured at FreedomFest’s Anthem Film Festival, along with several films made by Iranian freedom fighters.