Thursday, March 2, 2017

The lost art of political speechifying for peace and balance of interests

     There has been an unmistakable degradation of political discourse in the years since the United States became habituated to unilateral “humanitarian” interventions. The military complex now sees demons everywhere and international law and the interests of other nations are an afterthought. The pursuit of balancing interests among world powers is seen to be “destabilizing,” which is code for being a threat to the status quo of unipolar domination. The first pushback came in 2007 when Vladimir Putin made his famous speech in Munich where he publicly denounced Western leaders for no longer not even being embarrassed to say that NATO and EU are legitimate bodies for deciding to settle international disputes by force:

... either I did not understand what our colleague, the Italian Defense Minister, just said or what he said was inexact. In any case, I understood that [he said] the use of force can only be legitimate when the decision is taken by NATO, the EU, or the UN. If he really does think so, then we have different points of view. Or I didn’t hear correctly. The use of force can only be considered legitimate if the decision is sanctioned by the UN. And we do not need to substitute NATO or the EU for the UN. When the UN truly unites the forces of the international community and can really react to events in various countries, when we leave behind this disdain for international law, then the situation will be able to change. Otherwise the situation will simply result in a dead end, and the number of serious mistakes will be multiplied.

Unfortunately, serious mistakes were multiplied, and in fact Putin’s speech probably provoked more of them. The next year, the United States manipulated Georgia into attacking ethnic Russian separatists, which brought the intended Russian response that would allow the US to accuse Russia of aggression. A similar but more large-scale situation played out in Ukraine in 2014, which provoked the predictable Russian response. The US would accuse Russia of breaking international law by annexing Crimea after it chose to join Russia by referendum, but the US could not do this without the world community seeing the obvious hypocrisy toward previous cases in the Golan Heights, Cyprus and Kosovo, where the fixed borders of the post-WWII order were broken with no protest from the US. Considering Russia’s historical claims to Crimea, the popular will of Crimeans to join Russia, and the dubious legitimacy of the secret Russian-Belorussian-Ukrainian plot to break up the USSR, Russia has a good case for saying Crimea is part of Russia.
Inside America, political discourse about Russia and international relations in general has got so bad that a top-rated news journalist can say “Putin is a killer,” and the president just shrugs in response, “A lot of killers out there.” Trump had previously made inarticulate remarks such as “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get along with Russia?” but not even such vague aspirations have much currency or support, and there is no one who is capable of articulating an inspirational message about building a cooperative community of nations.
Long ago, during even the darkest days of the Cold War, it was common for leaders on both sides to understand that one had to be diplomatic, show respect for adversaries, and stay focused on the important stuff like not igniting a nuclear conflagration, and not on things like whether the women in Pussy Riot are comparable to Andrei Sakharov and have had their human rights violated by a president who is referred to as “a thug.” US presidents didn’t spend their last weeks in power making petty declarations that the other great powers in the world “don’t innovate” and “don’t make anything.” While in the old days there were always rabid ideologues and red-baiters (and their Soviet counterparts), and hawks itching for war, there were also leaders who sought peace and knew how to say something more inspiring than “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get along?” The three very abridged excerpts below are taken from speeches given by Soviet and American leaders at various times between 1940 and 1990. Names and identifying information have been deleted in order to highlight the common themes among them.
Who said what? Try the quiz, then see the answers below. The links to the full speeches will reveal the sad decline in the knowledge and powers of expression of current leaders. Putin’s 2007 speech was provocative, but uninspiring. Obama lost his magic as soon as he arrived at the White House, and it’s doubtful that Trump would even know how to recruit a talented speech writer to help him look semi-informed about history and world affairs.
One could always say that these were fine words but these men didn’t achieve their vision. Their homework was always eaten by the dogs of war. But at least they chose a side and spoke up for it.

1.
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not... enforced on the world by.... weapons of war... peace for all men and women--not merely peace in our time but peace for all time... “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Yet it is sad... to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning--a warning... not to fall into the same trap... not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats... No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue... Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.

2.
The inheritance and the inertia of the past are continuing to operate. Profound contradictions and the roots of many conflicts have not disappeared. The fundamental fact remains too that the formation of the peaceful period will take place in conditions of the existence and rivalry of various socio-economic and political systems. However, the meaning of our international efforts... is precisely to impart to this rivalry the quality of sensible competition in conditions of respect for freedom of choice and a balance of interests. In this case it will become even useful and productive from the viewpoint of general world development. Otherwise, if the main component remains the arms race, as it has been until now, rivalry will be fatal. Indeed an ever greater number of people throughout the world, from the man in the street to leaders, are beginning to understand this.

3.
I say that the century... must be the century of the common man... Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. No nation will have the... right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. The methods of the nineteenth century will not work in the people’s century which is now about to begin. India, China, and Latin America have a tremendous stake in the people’s century… Russian ideas of social-economic justice are going to govern nearly a third of the world... ideas of free enterprise democracy will govern much of the rest. The two ideas will endeavor to prove which can deliver the most satisfaction to the common man in their respective areas of political dominance. But by mutual agreement, this competition should be put on a friendly basis... Let the results of the two systems speak for themselves…

Under friendly peaceful competition the Russian world and the American world will gradually become more alike... will be forced to grant more and more of the personal freedoms; and... shall become more and more absorbed with the problems of social-economic justice.

Emerson Lake and Palmer perform Fanfare for the Common Man in Montreal in 1977.
Which politician inspired Aaron Copland to compose Fanfare for the Common Man?

1.       John F. Kennedy, 1963, president of the United States 1961-1963
2.       Mikhail Gorbachev, 1988, president of the USSR, 1985-1991
3.       Henry Wallace, 1942 and 1948, vice president of the United States, 1941-1945

Longer excerpts. Full texts at the links below:

1. John F. Kennedy, 1963. Speech at American University, June 10, 1963. Five months before his death, seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children--not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women--not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.

I speak of peace because of the new face of war. Total war makes no sense in an age when great powers can maintain large and relatively invulnerable nuclear forces and refuse to surrender without resort to those forces. It makes no sense in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn…

…Truly, as it was written long ago: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Yet it is sad to read these Soviet statements--to realize the extent of the gulf between us. But it is also a warning--a warning to the American people not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue... Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.

As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements--in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage.


2. Mikhail Gorbachev, December 7, 1988. Speech to the United Nations assembly.


Times Square, 1988/12/07. New York welcomes Mikhail Gorbachev
We are not inclined to oversimplify the situation in the world. Yes, the tendency toward disarmament has received a strong impetus, and this process is gaining its own momentum, but it has not become irreversible. Yes, the striving to give up confrontation in favor of dialogue and cooperation has made itself strongly felt, but it has by no means secured its position forever in the practice of international relations. Yes, the movement toward a nuclear-free and nonviolent world is capable of fundamentally transforming the political and spiritual face of the planet, but only the very first steps have been taken. Moreover, in certain influential circles, they have been greeted with mistrust, and they are meeting resistance.

The inheritance of inertia of the past are continuing to operate. Profound contradictions and the roots of many conflicts have not disappeared. The fundamental fact remains that the formation of the peaceful period will take place in conditions of the existence and rivalry of various socioeconomic and political systems. However, the meaning of our international efforts, and one of the key tenets of the new thinking, is precisely to impart to this rivalry the quality of sensible competition in conditions of respect for freedom of choice and a balance of interests. In this case it will even become useful and productive from the viewpoint of general world development; otherwise; if the main component remains the arms race, as it has been till now, rivalry will be fatal. Indeed, an ever greater number of people throughout the world, from the man in the street to leaders, are beginning to understand this.

Esteemed Mr. Chairman, esteemed delegates: I finish my first speech at the United Nations with the same feeling with which I began it: a feeling of responsibility to my own people and to the world community. We have met at the end of a year that has been so significant for the United Nations, and on the threshold of a year from which all of us expect so much. One would like to believe that our joint efforts to put an end to the era of wars, confrontation and regional conflicts, aggression against nature, the terror of hunger and poverty, as well as political terrorism, will be comparable with our hopes. This is our common goal, and it is only by acting together that we may attain it. Indeed an ever greater number of people throughout the world, from the man in the street to leaders, are beginning to understand this.

3. Henry Wallace, 1942, 1948. The “Common Man” speech. Vice president during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lost the vice presidential nomination to Harry Truman in 1944 due to the undemocratic manipulations of Democratic Party bosses who favored a right-wing post-war policy.

Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come out of this war — can be and must be the century of the common man. Perhaps it will be America’s opportunity to suggest that Freedoms and duties by which the common man must live. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands is a practical fashion. Everywhere the common man must learn to increase his productivity so that he and his children can eventually pay to the world community all that they have received. No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. The methods of the nineteenth century will not work in the people’s century which is now about to begin. India, China, and Latin America have a tremendous stake in the people’s century…

Russian ideas of social-economic justice are going to govern nearly a third of the world. Our ideas of free enterprise democracy will govern much of the rest. The two ideas will endeavor to prove which can deliver the most satisfaction to the common man in their respective areas of political dominance. But by mutual agreement, this competition should be put on a friendly basis and the Russians should stop conniving against us in certain areas of the world just as we should stop scheming against them in other parts of the world. Let the results of the two systems speak for themselves…

Under friendly peaceful competition the Russian world and the American world will gradually become more alike. The Russians will be forced to grant more and more of the personal freedoms; and we shall become more and more absorbed with the problems of social-economic justice.


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