How to Keep Track of Things

It passed almost unnoticed last week when former Defense Secretary William Perry told the Defense Writers Group that the deterioration of US-Russia relations since 1992 was as much the fault of the Americans as the Russians. He mentioned NATO expansion in particular. “And it began when I was secretary.”

Unnoticed, that is, except by readers of The Hill, where Rebecca Kheel reported the story, and by subscribers to Johnson’s Russia List, where I read it, the 27th of 49 items, in the December 4 email, the 235th such compendium of the year.

I’ve written about JRL before. It is indispensable to anyone interested in US foreign policy, cheap and easy to use.

Here’s how it works. Four or five times most weeks, an email arrives containing a list of headlines and links to the full text of articles and editorials about Russia and US-Russia relation that have been deemed relevant by David Johnson. I pay $50 a year to receive it.

I scan JRL when it arrives and most days move on quickly, except when something in the news, in this case the admission of the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, makes me decide to write about Russia. Then I look back a dozen or so editions, and read what seems relevant to my concern.

Johnson, a Quaker whose father worked for the American Friends Service Committee, first travelled to the Soviet Union in 1962 as a high school student. After college at Brandeis University and graduate studies at Harvard, he moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Center for Defense Information (now the World Security Institute) when it opened for business in 1972. He started JRL in the spring of 1996.

Having followed the economic policies of the Clinton administration as columnist for The Boston Globe, I became professionally interested in its foreign policy because of the Harvard-Russia scandal and the Treasury Department’s involvement in it under Secretary Robert Rubin.

As a secondary matter, I became puzzled by the extent to which the Globe, which I left for the Web in 2002, and its corporate parent, the New York Times Co., laid off the story. When I reviewed Rubin’s book with Jacob Weisberg, In an Uncertain World, for the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times in 2003, I mentioned the affair. It had not discernible effect.

Especially since February 2014, when then-president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after he suspended Ukraine’s plans to join the European Union and, at some later date, NATO, I have become convinced the US went dangerously off course in 1992.

That was when the Clinton administration began planning the extension of NATO membership to eastern European nations, repudiating a oral promise believed by the Russians to have been communicated by President George H.W Bush.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, over Russian opposition. A second wave of invitations was issued in 2002, after 9/11; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined in 2004.  Albania and Croatia were admitted in 2009.

But a third group of invitations made during the George W. Bush administration – to Bosnia and Herzogovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro, precipitated a little-noticed short Russian war against Georgia in August 2008. And the ouster of the recently re-elected Yanukovych prompted Russia’s seizure of Crimea and a festering Ukrainian civil war.

Even before Georgia, Russian president Vladimir Putin could scarcely have been clearer: Russia would tolerate no more eastward expansion of NATO. Since then, sanctions imposed by the West (and falling commodity prices) have driven Russia into a deep recession.

It has been 55 years since Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell address as president, warned against the growing influence in the councils of government of a military-industrial complex. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

In those days relatively early days of the Cold War, Eisenhower had in mind the influence of the arms industry the United States alone – “every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” Since then the weapons industry has been reborn in Europe. In those days, too, a degree of realism was assured by the balance of terror; anti-Cold War, pro-detente movements existed both in the United States (and Europe) and in the Soviet Union.

After 1991, an unmistakable triumphalism has taken over in the United States, pervasive not just in politics but among the staffs of its major mediaThe New York Times produced three specimens last week, two of them tendentious front-page accounts by veteran newsmen: Steven Erlanger, on Russian “fury” over the admission of Montenegro to NATO; and Neil MacFarquhar, on a strike by truckers that he views as “the first sign that Russia’s economic woes may be eroding the broad support for President Vladimir V. Putin’s government”; plus an editorial ridiculing Russian objections to NATO expansion to Montenegro.

An even more striking example was a Washington Post editorial last month disparaging Putin’s offer to cooperate against ISIS. Teaming Up with Russia in Syria Could Be a Dangerous False Step for the U.S. This prompted Gordon Hahn, an expert on Russian affairs in the Caucasus, to offer a pungent critique on his blog, as well as a follow-up essay on the sources of Putin’s support – precisely the sorts of things one finds on JRL, along with the Post’s editorials.

I can’t keep track of these developments, except through occasional columns.  I’m a reporter, not an aggregator, and I concentrate on evolving economic theory and policy. I feel a certain kinship with Johnson. We are each, in our ways, keeping track of things, illuminating corners that would otherwise remain dark, offering independent perspectives on worlds traditionally mediated almost entirely by newspapers and magazines.

I mention it here because this is the week when I ask subscribers to Economic Principals’ bulldog edition to renew their $50 annual subscriptions. For that they receive an email edition eighteen hours before it goes up on the Web (often with small emendations suggested by bulldog subscribers), plus quarterly reports from behind the scenes.

If you appreciate EP on the Web, why not try the bulldog? You’ll be supporting a survivor among the relative handful of newspaper columns about economics. And you’ll always know when it Sunday morning.

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