Nothing in the Wikileaks saga has been more typically American than the search for a good-news angle on the whole depressing story. Merely keeping a stiff upper lip is not enough, it seems. We need to assure ourselves that what looks like a disaster is really a victory. There may eventually be a revisionist backlash, but two weeks into the affair the dominant trend among commentators has been what you might call Wiki-triumphalism. Here’s the argument that’s taking hold.
As Halloween approaches, here is a title to consider: Theories of International Relations and Zombies. It’s a funny new book by Daniel Drezner, a scholar of international political economy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. In it he asks, mock-seriously, how leading academic interpreters of war and diplomacy might respond to a completely novel problem—like the threat to global security posed by the “undead.” In writing about flesh-eating zombies, Drezner has, believe it or not, plenty of company these days.
Tired of the famous Churchillian formula about how hard it is to understand what goes on in the Kremlin (it’s a riddle, a mystery, an enigma, etc.), the American diplomat Chip Bohlen reportedly once joked, “No, it’s not—it’s a secret.” A crucial distinction, confirmed by President Medvedev’s dramatic firing of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov on Tuesday. It would be nice, of course, to know whether the decision really put Medvedev at odds with his predecessor and patron, When Putin said in August that those who demonstrate without a permit deserve a good beating, he was explicitly backing Luzhkov.
This is the summer we began calling Afghanistan “America’s longest war.” The new label has produced a dissent or two, since it assumes that the Vietnam war didn’t even start until Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 (at which point American soldiers had been dying in Vietnam for at least three years). But the “longest war” designation isn’t intended to resolve nitpicky historical arguments. Its real point is to get both wars—Afghanistan and Vietnam alike—firmly categorized in our minds as long, hard, unwinnable slogs.
It’s been a long time since foreign leaders arrived on our shores saying that America is the future—so long, in fact, that when it does happen, we don’t know what to make of it. For me this was the most interesting subtext of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to the States last month. He and Barack Obama had a familiar discussion of shared national interests, from arms control to ethnic peace in Kyrgyzstan. Their lunch outing to an Arlington burger joint reflected the search for good visuals that we often see when a summit itself isn’t generating much real news.
It’s a shock to see one of the pillars of American foreign policy start to disintegrate before our very eyes. That’s what seems to be happening to the relationship between the United States and Turkey, which policymakers in both countries have taken for granted for decades. I know it’s often said that formal alliances are losing their central place in international politics. If so, maybe the bad blood between Ankara and Washington is just part of a trend, something we wearily adjust to.