You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Did Obama Concede Too Much To Russia?

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason and the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989).

Barack Obama's fairly unremarkable trip to Moscow has already sparked a small outburst of conservative outrage over arms-control concessions that supposedly undercut American security. Yesterday Liz Cheney, the vice president's daughter and former deputy assistant secretary of state (and possible congressional candidate), joined the chorus with a Wall Street Journal op-ed accusing Obama of "rewriting Cold War history" to America's detriment in his Moscow speech.

Cheney's column opens with a dramatic indictment: "There are two different versions of the story of the end of the Cold War: the Russian version, and the truth. President Barack Obama endorsed the Russian version in Moscow last week." Here is the incriminating passage from Obama's address at Moscow's New Economic School:

"The American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight. The ideological trenches of the last century were roughly in place. Competition in everything from astrophysics to athletics was treated as a zero-sum game. If one person won, then the other person had to lose. And then within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful."

In Cheney's view, Obama's narrative robs the United States of our hard-earned glory: "America was an unmatched force for good in the world during the Cold War. The Soviets were not. The Cold War ended not because the Soviets decided it should but because they were no match for the forces of freedom and the commitment of free nations to defend liberty and defeat Communism."

First of all, Obama did not quite say that the Soviets decided to end the Cold War; he credited "the people of Russia and Eastern Europe." Secondly, while Western and particularly American pressure had certainly played a key role in the collapse of the Soviet empire, it is also "the truth" that this empire's remarkably bloodless end was due largely to (1) Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to launch far-reaching reforms, (2) the fact that these reforms spun out of control and turned into revolution when the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did stand up and demand freedom, and (3) Gorbachev's choice not to put down these revolutions by force.

Indeed, Gorbachev's vital role in these events is praised by Joshua Muravchik, certainly no lefty, in a recent essay in World Affairs magazine (summed up here).

Cheney's argument also reveals a startling ignorance of present-day Russia. The really troubling "Russian version" of the Cold War's end is not that we all won and we all deserve a pat on the back. It's that the fall of the Soviet juggernaut was, in Vladimir Putin's infamous words, "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century" rather than a triumph of freedom. In recent years, Kremlin propaganda--such as the TV documentary "The Empire of Good", shown on February 2008 on RTR, the Russian government channel--has increasingly promoted the notion that the Soviet Union's defeat was deliberately engineered by the U.S., not in the cause of freedom but to further its own quest for world domination.  This American strategy is also depicted as targeting Russia, not Communism.

Even Russians who don't buy this quasi-official version of history tend to chafe at America's perceived triumphalism over its Cold War victory. So, to the extent that Obama had any chance to win hearts and minds--not of the Kremlin regime, but of ordinary Russians who have been force-fed anti-American paranoia for several years--his emphasis on the role of the people of Russia and Eastern Europe in bringing down the old order was exactly the right choice.

Yes, Obama probably should have added that in the Cold War standoff, America was the Soviet Union's adversary but a friend to freedom in Soviet-bloc countries. And Cheney makes a good point about his failure to acknowledge that Soviet communism was a brutal tyranny, not just the West's rival in science, sports, and weapons. Overall, however, Obama's Moscow speech hit most of the right notes. It included a scathing critique of Putinite ideological obsessions--from "spheres of influence" to the notion that it's in America's interest to keep Russia weak--and an unapologetic defense of the U.S. commitment to freedom and democratic government everywhere. The idea that it would have been better for the American president to stand before a Russian audience and claim the end of the Cold War as a single-handed victory of "us" over "them" would have been not only politically myopic but, as it happens, also historically inaccurate.

--Cathy Young