Russia's invasion of Georgia has brought lovers of historical comparisons out of the woodwork. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, for one, compared Vladimir Putin with Hitler. And former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski felt reminded of Stalin's treatment of Finland.
But these analogies have more to say about the West's mood than about Putin. Although it may sound bold at first, and although the Americans won't like hearing it, the Vladimir Putin the world has experienced in recent days bears the strongest resemblance to former US President John F. Kennedy in the years 1961 and 1962.
First, the youthful Kennedy was seen as the embodiment of a new America, just as the wiry Putin represents Russia's revival. Kennedy was and Putin is deeply popular among his own citizens.
Second, even Kennedy drew a distinction between first-class and second-class sovereign states. He assumed that residents of the main house ought to have something to say in the backyard, as in Cuba, for example. Putin shares the same view, in the case of Georgia, for example. In America's case we call such behavior dominant, and in Russia's case aggressive. But we mean the same thing.
Third, thinking in terms of spheres of influence had military consequences for Kennedy, as it does for Putin. In Cuba, Kennedy even took things a step further than the Russian prime minister has done in Georgia. In April 1961, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported the landing of Cuban exiles in Playa Girón on Cuba's Bay of Pigs. Kennedy wanted to bring about regime change in Havana by force, a step Putin stopped short of in Georgia. Nevertheless, his desire to evict the Georgian president from the seat of government was undoubtedly as great as Kennedy's interest in overthrowing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
The effort to bring about regime change in Havana failed, but Kennedy refused to recognized Cuba's sovereignty. When the Soviet Union began stationing nuclear warheads in Cuba, the US president threatened war. In October 1962, the world held its breath until Russia recognized America's claim to its own backyard and then Premier Nikita Khrushchev, on Sunday, Oct. 28, ordered the withdrawal of the missiles.
Now US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her president, George W. Bush, say that other laws apply today than in the 20th century. It sounds plausible, but it isn't true, as is clearly evident in the case of Cuba.
America still treats the Caribbean island, with its Stone Age communism, as a public enemy. American citizens can neither visit Cuba, a country with a gross domestic product a fraction the size of the US's, nor can they trade with it. Cuban cigars are considered contraband, and any American who smokes them is regarded as an enemy of state.
But the comforting message for Russians and Americans alike is this: The two nations are not as different as they would like to think. They think similarly, they act similarly and they even speak the same language -- namely that of power politics.
Europe's task is to prevent the current situation from escalating. At the present time, NATO expansion into Russia's front yard does not increase security -- it merely serves to heighten tensions in Europe. The Cuba crisis was followed by another 10 years of Cold War before a policy of détente came to prevail. Perhaps that road can be shortened this time around.
And what happens to Georgia? Respecting Russia's interests doesn't mean betraying democracy. Georgia's national integrity is not up for debate, but it would do the country good to tone down its pro-American rhetoric a bit.
A look to the Caribbean can also be comforting for the Georgian president. Kennedy is dead, but communism lives on.