West Wing How Dangerous Is America?

Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor who initiated the US arms buildup against the Soviet Union during his term in office, considers today's Russia to be less dangerous than the United States. This is as surprising as it is provocative.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington, D.C.

Who's more dangerous? George W. Bush will soon disappear from the political stage, but Putin is expected to stay on the scene.

Who's more dangerous? George W. Bush will soon disappear from the political stage, but Putin is expected to stay on the scene.

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.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: Putin is an "enlightened potentate."

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: Putin is an "enlightened potentate."

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.

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