Nestled amid the green Crimean hills, lapped by the Black Sea’s languid waves, Yalta’s battle-scarred appearance in February 1945 prompted Winston Churchill to call it “the Riviera of Hades.” It still has the faint aura of a seaside resort for secret policemen.
Today, of course, the Soviet system is a (slowly) fading memory, and the organizers of this year’s Yalta European Strategy conference could even make fun of Stalin in a specially commissioned cartoon. Yet Stalin’s ghost is not so easily exorcised. Although nearly 70 years have passed since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a reluctant Churchill handed Eastern Europe over to the Soviet dictator, the old ogre still seems to haunt the Livadia Palace.
After President Barack Obama’s fumbling over Syria, Russia is once again flexing its muscles — not just in the Middle East, where President Vladimir Putin is bidding for the role of power broker, but also in his own backyard. At Yalta in 1945 it was above all the fate of Poland that was at stake; this year it was the turn of Ukraine itself.
The choice was made crystal clear in the course of the conference last month: on one side, the European Union; on the other, Russia.
“The most beautiful flowers often grow on the edge of the precipice,” said the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, during a debate about Ukraine’s European dilemma. Ever since the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” in 2004, Kiev has been edging toward closer integration with Europe. This was the case under the now-jailed Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, but also under her jailer, President Viktor Yanukovich. In large part thanks to Poland’s initiative, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership has become an antechamber for potential new members, covering not only Ukraine but a number of other “frontier” markets in the neighborhood, including Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Ukraine is the first of the Eastern Partnership countries to take the next step: an Association Agreement with the European Union. This is scheduled to be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov. 28. An Association Agreement matters because it implies a free trade agreement and also paves the way to a formal application for E.U. membership.
In Sikorski’s words: “We’ve done it, so can you.”
The stark alternative is Russia’s proposal for a Eurasian Customs Union proposal. Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club last month, Putin firmly denied that Russia was bullying Ukraine, Moldova and other nations to join his Eurasian union. But he noted that Russia was the main market for Moldovan wine and Ukrainian products. It was only honest, he said, to point out what they might lose by turning westward to the European Union.
Putin’s chief economic adviser, Sergei Y. Glazyev, was at the Yalta conference and made the same kind of argument. Recent Russian trade restrictions on Ukrainian products — notably the ban on Roshen confectionary — were a warning against the “suicidal” step of signing the E.U. Association Agreement. In the course of an astonishingly undiplomatic debate between Glazyev and Petro Poroshenko, a Ukrainian member of Parliament and businessman, a member of the audience asked Glazyev: “We have chosen Russia in the past over Europe, and where did it take us?”
One stumbling block to a deal at Vilnius remains Tymoshenko’s continued imprisonment. Yanukovich is under intense E.U. pressure to release Tymoshenko, who has been in jail since 2011 on corruption charges relating to a deal reached with Gazprom when she was prime minister (she was also briefly charged with murder earlier this year). According to both the Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe, her rights have been violated.
But the real obstacle to Ukraine’s European future may yet prove to be the country’s chronic economic weakness. In this respect, Ukraine is indeed Hades to Yalta’s Riviera. The country’s foreign reserves are running out. Russia accounts for a quarter of Ukraine’s exports and the trade restrictions imposed this summer could cost up to $2.5 billion in the second half of the year. Cheap foreign finance has disappeared. Since May, Ukrainian bonds have plummeted.
At the Yalta conference, the Russian taunt to the European Union was simple: “Are you ready to bail out Ukraine, too?” The answer to that question might in fact be yes, if in return Ukraine is willing to commit to meaningful reforms, both economic and political.
For the European Union, this is another opportunity to do what it is best at: expanding. Those who have heaped scorn on European policy makers of the past three years tend to forget that, despite their strictures, the process of expansion has continued. Two new countries have joined the monetary union since the financial crisis began; a third will join in January.
As for Kiev, if the choice is between following Poland’s lead or reverting to dependency on Moscow, like Belarus, surely the Ukrainians will choose the former. Not only do they have Poland’s example before them. There are the reassuring cases of Bulgaria and Romania, which are not a thousand miles behind Ukraine in terms of institutional development but which have been E.U. members since 2007. Croatia joined this year.
Recall, too, that — as the Hungarian example underscores — the European Union is far better at pushing change in nonmembers (during the accession process) than after membership is achieved. It will take time for Ukraine to raise its standards to the level required of E.U. members. It will not be easy. But if the alternative is to be drawn back into the historic death embrace of a reborn Russian empire, Europe suddenly looks worth these sacrifices.
We look forward eagerly to Ukraine’s first step toward E.U. membership. We also look forward to Yalta’s imminent rebranding as the Riviera of Purgatory.
Not for the first time, human rights violations by a Middle Eastern tyrant pose a dilemma for leftists on both sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, they don't like reading about people being gassed. On the other, they are deeply reluctant to will the means to end the killing, for fear of acknowledging that western – meaning, in practice, American – military power can be a force for good.
Ever since the 1990s, when the United States finally bestirred itself to end the post-Yugoslav violence in the Balkans, I have made three arguments that the left cannot abide. The first is that American military power is the best available means of preventing crimes against humanity. The second is that, unfortunately, the US is a reluctant "liberal empire" because of three deficits: of manpower, money and attention. And the third is that, when it retreats from global hegemony, we shall see more not less violence.
More recently, almost exactly year ago, I was lambasted for arguing that Barack Obama's principal weaknesses were a tendency to defer difficult decisions to Congress and a lack of coherent strategy in the Middle East. Events have confirmed the predictive power of all this analysis.
To the isolationists on both left and right, Obama's addiction to half- and quarter-measures is just fine – anything rather than risk "another Iraq". But such complacency (not to say callousness) understates the danger of the dynamics at work in the Middle East today. Just because the US is being led by the geopolitical equivalent of Hamlet doesn't mean stasis on the global stage. On the contrary, the less the US does, the more rapidly the region changes, as the various actors jostle for position in a post-American Middle East.
Syria today is in the process of being partitioned. Note that something similar has already happened in Iraq. What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Middle East of the 1970s. This could be the end of the Middle East of the 1920s. The borders of today, as is well known, can be traced back to the work of British and French diplomats during the first world war. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 was the first of a series of steps that led to the breakup of the Ottoman empire and the creation of the states we know today as Syria and Iraq, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, there is no obvious reason why these states should all survive in their present form.
It is tempting to think of this as a re-Ottomanisation process, as the region reverts to its pre-1914 borders. But it may be more accurate to see this as a second Yugoslavia, with sectarian conflict leading to "ethnic cleansing" and a permanent redrawing of the maps. In the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, it took another Democrat US president an agonisingly long time to face up to the need for intervention. But he eventually did. I would not be surprised to see a repeat performance if that president's wife should end up succeeding Obama in the White House. After all, there is strong evidence to suggest Obama agreed to the original chemical weapons "red line" only under pressure from Hillary Clinton's state department.
Yet the president may not be able to sustain his brand of minimalist interventionism until 2016. While all eyes are focused on chemical weapons in Syria, the mullahs in Iran continue with their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The latest IAEA report on this subject makes for disturbing reading. I find it hard to believe that even the pusillanimous Obama would be able to ignore evidence that Tehran had crossed that red line, even if it was drawn by the Israeli prime minister rather than by him.
The Iranian factor is one of a number of key differences between the break up of Yugoslavia and the breakup of countries like Syria and Iraq.
The Middle East is not the Balkans. The population is larger, younger, poorer and less educated. The forces of radical Islam are far more powerful. It is impossible to identify a single "bad guy" in the way that Slobodan Milosevic became the west's bete noire. And there are multiple regional players – Iran, Turkey, the Saudis, as well as the Russians – with deep pockets and serious military capabilities. All in all, the end of pan-Arabism is a much scarier process than the end of pan-Slavism. And the longer the US dithers, the bigger the sectarian conflicts in the region are likely to become.
The proponents of non-intervention – or, indeed, of ineffectual intervention – need to face a simple reality. Inaction is a policy that also has consequences measurable in terms of human life. The assumption that there is nothing worse in the world than American empire is an article of leftwing faith. It is not supported by the historical record.
Defeat can be habit-forming. Ask any Democrat. They lost three presidential elections in a row in the 1920s and 1980s, four in a row between 1896 and 1908, and a record six in a row between 1860 and 1880. Only in one period in modern American history have Republicans suffered such a string of defeats: between 1932 and 1948, when Franklin Roosevelt won four and Harry Truman made it five.
I know what it feels like. The British Tories were out of power for 13 years between 1997 and 2010. Last night was my second defeat since I moved to the United States in 2002 and became a Republican supporter. (Actually, it was my third, since I endorsed John Kerry in 2004 in a fit of frustration about the Bush administration’s mishandling of Iraq and the Republican Party’s fiscal irresponsibility.)
To break the losing habit, Republicans must resist the temptation to make excuses. We should dismiss the following thoughts from our minds: it was Hurricane Sandy’s fault; it was Chris Christie’s fault; the mainstream media gave Obama a pass on Benghazi; a Mormon can never be president; a private-equity guy can never be president; the Tea Party went too far; the Dems’ ground game was better in Ohio.
Forget all that. These are just ways of denying the deeper causes of Mitt Romney’s defeat. Until we face up to these, we will keep on losing. Indeed, I predict now that we will lose in 2016, even when faced with a less ruthlessly effective campaigner than President Obama.
First, the Democrats understand the new world of Internet-savvy, data-driven marketing better than the Republicans do. My own experience of being piranha-attacked by liberal bloggers taught me that. And this was just a minuscule bit of vilification compared with the character-assassination campaign against Romney during the summer.
Second, demographic trends doom any Republican campaign that appeals more to white males than to any other voter group. According to exit polls, Romney won 60 percent of the white vote, compared with Obama’s 38 percent. But Hispanics voted Democratic in even larger numbers than four years ago. The Hispanic share of the population is set to rise from 16 percent in 2010 to nearly 30 percent by 2050. Non-Hispanic whites, meanwhile—who made up two thirds of the population the last time Republicans won a presidential election—will be down below half by midcentury.
Third, running on the economy doesn’t work if people remember your own party’s role in screwing it up and think improvement is in sight. According to the latest IMF projections, U.S. growth will be higher over the next four years than that of any of the other major developed economies. Unemployment will come down faster. Driving recovery will be the bonanza of cheap energy represented by shale gas.
Finally, and most important, the Democrats have figured out what European Social Democrats long ago understood: the more entitlements you create, the more voters you can depend on. Let me put it very simply: given the choice between higher taxes on the 1 percent and cuts in entitlement for the 47 percent, voters went for the former. Surprise!
True, we now are in for an unpleasant bout of brinksmanship as the reelected president takes the still-Republican House to the edge of the fiscal cliff. But the Grover Norquist argument that the debt can be brought under control without any new taxes is no longer credible, if it ever was. Even staunch supporters of Paul Ryan like Devin Nunes acknowledge this.
Again, the historical trend is not the Republican Party’s friend: since 1960, welfare spending (mainly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) has risen inexorably from 2 percent of GDP to above 10 percent; the Congressional Budget Office sees it nearing 20 percent by 2059. With every passing year, the share of the population receiving some form of government transfer rises.
Of course, the rising cost of “benefits for the boys (and girls)” cannot be met solely by taxing the rich and cutting defense. At some point, the Democrats will be forced to admit that. And at some point, too, the geopolitical consequences of allowing the United States to proceed down this European road will become clear. Middle-class taxes will go up. And Iran will go nuclear. At which point, we Republicans will cry: “We told you so!”
But will that be an election-winning slogan? I doubt it.
The character of Selina Meyer—the fictional vice president in Armando Iannucci’s comedy series, Veep—reminds us that Americans usually don’t take the job of deputy commander in chief too seriously. Whereas presidents elicit respect even from their political opponents, veeps and would-be veeps have been providing gag writers with material for generations.
Current veep Joe Biden certainly sought to play last Thursday’s vice-presidential debate for laughs. Embarrassingly for Democrats, the laughs were mainly his own. Guffawing, chortling—all but slapping his thighs and wiping away the tears—Biden might equally well have been arguing about the relative merits of whiskey and poteen in a hostelry with a name like “The Shamrock.”
This was old-school Irish-American politics. If Biden had passed around a hat at the end to raise money for famished nuns in County Cork, it would not have seemed out place.
His opponent, by contrast, was more like the earnest young parish priest who has been sent to coax wicked Uncle Joe out of the pub and into the church. Father Paul did his best, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. I lost count of the number of times Biden interrupted his Republican rival. Paul Ryan’s patience was more than priestly; at times, it was almost saintly.
It was predictable that Biden would bring up Mitt Romney’s now notorious reference at a fundraiser to the “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it ... [and] who pay no income tax.” Biden added a jab at Paul Ryan, accusing him of having said in a speech that “30 percent of the American people are takers.”
“These people are my mom and dad,” fulminated the vice president, “the people I grew up with, my neighbors ... They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now ...”
Last year, in the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, it was all about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. But now Democrats want to make membership of the 47 percent a badge of honor.
This language of percentiles strikes me as transitional. Americans have never been comfortable with the language of class—hence the strange phenomenon that all candidates, including both Biden and Ryan, now claim to represent the middle class. But the voters have absorbed the idea of politics as a zero-sum game, in which resources are redistributed through the systems of taxation and welfare—hence all the percents.
Yet the reality is that the real distributional issue the country faces is not between percentiles but between generations. As Paul Ryan put it in a powerful peroration, which temporarily silenced the ranting to his right, “A debt crisis is coming. We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have.”
You don’t need to take this from Paul Ryan. In its latest “World Economic Outlook,” the International Monetary Fund points out that the U.S. public debt now exceeds 100 percent of GDP. The last time debt was this high, the IMF shows, the results were an “unexpected burst of inflation” and policies of “financial repression.” But that combination doesn’t look likely today—which means the debt is going to be around for years to come. More importantly, in the absence of the kind of reforms of Medicare, Social Security, and the tax system that Paul Ryan has long advocated, it’s going to keep on growing.
Already a staggering $16 trillion, the debt represents nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren.
Pressed for a clear answer on what he and President Obama intend to do about the debt crisis, Biden responded with what the Irish call blarney. “The president and I,” he declared, “are not going to rest until ... they [presumably the universal middle class to which everyone belongs] can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK.’”
What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics. If Laughing Uncle Joe—who turns 70 this year—has nothing better to offer than “It’s going to be OK,” then I suspect a surprisingly large number of younger voters will turn instead to young Father—and future veep—Paul Ryan.