Who's more dangerous? George W. Bush will soon disappear from the political stage, but Putin is expected to stay on the scene.Foto: AP
Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to refer to journalists derisively as "highwaymen." There is a certain cruel irony in the fact that Schmidt himself is a journalist today, although members of the profession might be inclined to interpret this as a sign of its irresistibility. A man with his range of experience -- as a soldier, a cabinet minister and chancellor for almost eight years -- can expect that people will listen when he speaks. Of course, listening to Schmidt doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with him, at least not automatically. Even former chancellors can be wrong or guilty of exaggeration, especially when they address us as journalists. And being wrong or exaggerating isn't exactly unheard of in journalism.
"I do not believe that someone who disagrees with me should be criticized for that reason alone," Schmidt said at a ceremony to celebrate his 85th birthday in 2003. And he added: "But he must be criticized if he states an opinion that is not real." Let us subject the various opinions to a reality test. Schmidt says: "Russia poses far less of a threat to world peace today than, for example, the United States. You can go ahead and print that." These were the words Schmidt uttered in an interview with his own paper, the weekly Die Zeit. He also said that, although he does not view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a flawless democrat, he does consider him an "enlightened potentate."
But why are the Americans more dangerous than the Russians? Why should we be more afraid of the cradle of democracy than of a potentate, no matter how "enlightened" Schmidt says he is? And is it even relevant whether the censor is educated, disadvantaged, harsh or amiable? What is important, however, is that the censor engages in censorship, while the potentate gives arbitrariness free rein.
Isn't precisely the opposite of what Schmidt says true? That the experienced American democracy is fundamentally less dangerous than Russia, which, after surviving czarism and communism, has experienced only a few years of Putin-style democracy? Even the loud and sometimes insufferable America of President George W. Bush is already significantly less dangerous than it was when he came into office. Today Bush is a dog that barks but can no longer bite. He is limited by four factors, which, in their absoluteness, are foreign to Putin: his own people, the US Constitution, the independent judiciary and the free press. All four factors lend legitimacy to the United States -- and withdraw it again. This is precisely the beauty of a democracy: the people have the first and last word.
Bush will soon disappear into obscurity, never to be seen again. Putin, on the other hand, might stay on the scene, only wearing a different hat, perhaps as an oligarch, as the head of Russian energy giant Gazprom or even as prime minister. Even Schmidt agrees that the Russian president's future is wide open and that, unlike Bush, a constitution, the people, a free press or a constitutional court won't be standing in his way. This may be typically Russian, but it is sinister nonetheless.
Russia today is a country adrift. Since former President Mikhail Gorbachev gave up the Soviet empire, Russia has been lurching like an anchor ripped from the ground. At times it wants to be part of Europe, which explains Putin's efforts to convince Germany and France to join him in a pact against America in the run-up to the Iraq war. And at times the Russians seem more drawn to Asia, where Putin has long been pushing for an expansion of Russia's regional alliance with the Chinese into a military alliance. As if to demonstrate that they are indeed moving in this direction, the two countries recently held joint maneuvers.
According to Helmut Schmidt, the Russian military has not entered any foreign territory since Gorbachev came into power. The Russians, says Schmidt, have not engaged in any aggressive acts, even allowing Ukraine and Belarus to break away from the former czarist empire. And this was done without so much as a civil war, which, in Schmidt's view, is an astonishing achievement.
Putin, the Reluctant Pacifist
It certainly is an astonishing achievement, but one that stems from an astonishing weakness. Moscow today must content itself with the proper treatment of Russian minorities in its former satellite republics. Experts in the West are convinced that the Russian military is in a sorry state, making Putin a reluctant pacifist. Of course, this assessment doesn't take the bloody war in Chechnya into account.
Today Russia, still a huge country, is being humiliated wherever it turns. The president of Iran has co-opted Moscow's former role as America's adversary. A country with a gross domestic product about the size of Connecticut's now plays the role that Stalin and his successors had in fact reserved for Russia.
Economically speaking, the Chinese are well ahead of the Russians. The neighboring country, which is already unable to satisfy its own thirst for natural resources with its own reserves, is rapidly shooting to the top echelon of the world's economic powers. In doing so, the Chinese are not shutting off anyone's natural gas supply or withdrawing any flyover rights. Instead, they have used hard work to supply products to their customers worldwide and cunning to develop into a "soft power." The Russians, on the other hand, still resort to stomping their boots impatiently whenever something isn't quite to their liking.
Russia has oil and natural gas, diamonds, copper and lumber, and yet it has failed to establish a truly impressive industrial empire on the basis of its riches. Despite Putin's efforts to restructure the economy, the country's fortunes rise and fall with the price of oil. The current president may be an oil-and-gas baron, but he is not the leader of a modern industrialized nation. These many weaknesses make today's Russia unpredictable and dangerous. The best antidote to internal disintegration and humiliation from abroad is a dose of megalomania. And while it may not eliminate the pain, at least it diminishes it.
America has isolated itself internationally
And now to America. The superpower is experiencing a difficult phase not unlike the period in the early 1970s, when the Vietnam War was approaching its inglorious end. The country senses that no one is impressed by its tough talk on the so-called "clash of civilizations" and the "war on terror," as long as success remains elusive on the real war fronts. The Taliban in Afghanistan are confident again, thriving within the population like fish in water. Iraq remains a constant challenge, refusing to be pacified. The United States has isolated itself internationally. No one on the planet, not even in its remotest corners, is currently sending Bush the message that the world wants more of America.
The domestic mood is by no means gung-ho when it comes to the war in Iraq. The Americans are defiant. They don't want to lose the war, and yet their support for it is waning. The strategy of aggression, of launching attacks based on suspicion alone and the doctrine of the preemptive strike are now seen as military and political failures.
Schmidt rightfully characterizes the Iraq war as "a war of choice, not a war of necessity." But even this choice is no longer available to the outgoing president. Another ground war is no longer an option. Even the military is tired of war. "We are overstretched," the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff recently said. Preparations are already underway for a partial withdrawal from Iraq. The man in the White House may be gritting his teeth, but he is bringing the first troops home -- reluctantly and gruffly -- but bringing them home he is.
Bush would be truly dangerous if he could do as he wished. But he can't. This is precisely the difference. In a democracy, the will of the individual is answerable to the people, and not the other way around. I, in any case, prefer narrow-minded democrats over enlightened potentates any day. Of course, enlightened democrats -- the kind of person Helmut Schmidt once was and will hopefully remain for a long time -- are the best thing for the country.