NAIROBI – Now that Russia has occupied the Crimea Peninsula, the blame game has begun. US President Barack Obama has allowed yet another “red line” to be crossed, critics say. And everywhere there is loose talk of a “new Cold War” and the “price” to be paid by the Russian aggressors. But, in this fraught environment, we would do well to recall two historical precedents.
Twenty-five years ago, this month, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth traveled to Moscow to seek Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s blessing for a radical experiment. Nemeth, barely 40, had been appointed by the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party only four months earlier. He was seen as a naïve young technocrat, charged with reforming the ailing Hungarian economy. He was expected to fail. Then he and his “reforms” could be blamed for the country’s troubles.
Nemeth, however, was anything but naïve. And he had a secret aim: to take Hungary out of the Soviet bloc and steer it to the West. His weapon of choice was democracy. Within a few months, he planned to hold Hungary’s first free election. What would happen, I asked him at the time, if the communists lost? “We would step down,” Nemeth replied, “as in any other civilized democracy.”
In communist Eastern Europe, that was apostasy. And Gorbachev, hearing of the young Hungarian’s plans, was outraged. Communist leadership in Hungary was not something for the mere people to decide, he spluttered. A full, free, and fair election? It would set a terrible example for the rest of the Soviet bloc.
Nemeth saw his reforms failing and an uncertain future for himself. Then Gorbachev abruptly ended his lecture. But of course, he said, “this is for you to decide.”
Almost not believing his good fortune, Nemeth asked the million-dollar question. If Hungary were to hold a genuinely democratic election, and if the communists lost, would Moscow intervene, as in 1956? “Nyet,” said Gorbachev, and then added a caveat. “At least, not as long as I sit in this chair.”
This nyet was of fundamental importance. With it, Nemeth was able to return to Budapest and proceed with the election, marking a turning point in the tumultuous events that would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet empire.
Fast forward to the present, and contrast Nemeth’s deft diplomacy with what we see in Kyiv. Instead of recognizing (and dealing with) Russia’s inevitably outsize role in the region, Ukraine’s revolutionary government defied it. Instead of speaking reasonably of finding solutions to the country’s problems that would accommodate the needs and interests of all of its citizens, the new government abolished Russian as eastern Ukraine’s official second language and intimated that it would soon eliminate its traditional autonomy as well.
It should surprise no one that Russia has intervened. If Nemeth had handled matters as badly in 1989, the map of Europe might look very different today.
Consider another historical echo. President Jimmy Carter spent New Year’s Eve, 1979, phoning Democratic Party leaders in rural Iowa. Carter was facing re-election, and he enjoyed a comfortable lead over rival Ronald Reagan. But, just days earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Neither the United States nor anyone else was in a position to stop it. What to do?
So Carter worked the phones, trying to persuade Iowa’s farmers to endorse an embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union. It would deliver a financial body blow to the Midwest’s economy, Carter feared, and jeopardize his prospects for a second term. Along the way, an embargo might well accomplish nothing except to deepen Cold War animosities.
And that is exactly what happened. Carter lost the 1980 election, and the Soviet Union barely felt the embargo. Instead, the US found another way to penalize Soviet aggression: arming the Afghan mujahedeen. A decade later, the Red Army had withdrawn its forces, the US packed up and went home, and Al Qaeda set down roots.
Today, we are at another historical turning point. Once again, Western leaders face a challenge for which there is no good response. Once again, they feel they must do something, anything – even if they have no sense of the ultimate consequences.
Rather than react blindly, as Carter did, it would be better to follow Nemeth’s lead and think strategically about aims and means. In the face of passion and pressure, cool heads must prevail and force the firebrands in Kyiv to think carefully about Ukraine’s future and negotiate solutions for all of its citizens.
Now is the moment for dispassion. We know from past experience that the law of unintended consequences can be harsh.