In the aftermath of World War Two, George Kennan enunciated his containment policy toward the Soviet Union that set the course of U.S. foreign policy for the Cold War ahead. Now Jeffrey Sachs, a leading U.S. economist, offers his appraisal of U.S. foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He believes it’s a record of broken promises and missed opportunities that has led to the current impasse of two heavily armed nuclear powers on the razor edge of a conflict that can threaten the globe, a crisis unnecessarily contrived. It did not have to be.

In a two and a half hour interview with Tucker Carlson, Sachs makes clear his close observation of the Russian rival. He recalls the day he was face to face with newly elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin who informed him that the Soviet Union was no more. Imploringly, Yeltsin said Russia now wanted to be a normal nation, a dramatic climb down from imperial pretensions. As a young economist sent to help post-communist Russia, Sachs wondered who could ask for anything more? He pitched in with some well intended, if controversial policy recommendations that were soon overtaken by Americans with a far different approach.

Once Russian President Gorbachev permitted the reunification of the two Germanys that characterized the Cold War, U.S. leaders pledged that the NATO alliance would not move one inch eastward toward Moscow. The confrontation was over. Yet within a few short years, the Clinton Administration announced that three East European nations formerly under Soviet control would join NATO. More were added in the years ahead much to Russian consternation, a promise of geopolitical implication rather casually broken. How did that happen?

By human agency, says Sachs, and a very peculiar kind of humanity. A small group of political zealots called neoconservatives decided their time had come. They had dreamed of the U.S exercising global hegemony. With the collapse of the Soviet Union it could now be achieved. Who could say no to the one remaining super power? Starting with the Clinton administration, they seized control of U.S. foreign policy under a series of inexperienced, rather ineffectual U.S. Presidents who weren’t sure what they wanted while the neocons had no doubts.  There followed numerous wars that had no clear purpose other than to display American might. None were won while one was clearly lost to Afghanistan’s Taliban.

The neocons reached their apogee of success in the current Biden administration. Nothing would demonstrate U.S. hegemony more than undermining or even causing the collapse of Russia. Ukraine would lead the way. Sachs notes the U.S. Government said Russia, “unprovoked,” started the war in Ukraine. No, says Sachs. The U.S. started the war in 2014 by provoking Russia. It engineered a coup in Ukraine that replaced a leader favorable to Russia with one obedient to the West. On top of that the U.S said Ukraine would join NATO, which Sachs says is akin to putting foreign forces in Mexico. With that threat Russian troops invaded Ukraine. It was, he says, a defensive act, not an offensive.

Since then, the two sides have not spoken. President Biden has not made a single call to Russian President Putin which could bring an end to the conflict and start negotiations. Diplomacy, says Sachs, is dead. The U.S. has got in the habit of using the military to solve its problems abroad.  Why not? As the sole super power we can do as we please. Lesser powers cannot and must make some accommodation with an enemy. Thus we engage in one war after another despite the dubious outcomes. “We’re the country of perpetual war.”

We must learn to talk again, says Sachs, not just to our enemies but even to ourselves. The U. S. Government doesn’t talk to the American people, just provides meaningless announcements disguising the truth. He recalls how he was put off the air by saying the U.S. had destroyed the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. That was the truth, but he had contradicted the U.S. that the Russians had destroyed their own pipeline.

George Kennan had advised a certain realism about our policies toward Russia, not to demand too much while upholding our own values. He warned that expanding NATO was a tragic mistake, but his words had no resonance in the neocon hubris making policy. Whether Sach’s words will have the same impact as Kennan’s at an equally perilous time remains to be seen, but they have a similar eloquence and persuasion. 

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