Only We Can Stop the Cold War

Москва, 10.09.2008

I’m writing this in my rented studio apartment in Moscow. It’s a sunny day in early September. My husband, a former member of the Soviet Special Forces who works as a repairman these days, is having lunch with friends from the Caucasus. My stepdaughter is in Stavropol’ enjoying her last day of freedom before she starts a particularly grueling year of college prep school. My parents and grandparents are at home in Phoenix, sweating out the last month of summer; my brother is working in Palo Alto and waiting for his fiancée to get back from seeing her parents in Vietnam. I’m looking forward to next week, when I’ll celebrate my 33rd birthday, first here with my husband and then in Denver with Russian and American friends. 

It sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it? To read what I just wrote, you would think that all is right with the world – or at least, that things are no more wrong than usual. 

Of course, as everyone who has turned on the news in the last month knows, that’s not true. 

I’m not going to get into the politics and historical details of the events that (ostensibly) started with Georgia and its breakaway republics and very quickly expanded to include my native country and my adopted homeland as well as a good chunk of the rest of the world; there are countless journalists and analysts who have done that better than I ever could. I would just like to recount something I heard Dmitriy Medvedev say on the news last night. I don’t have the text in front of me, so I’m not quoting directly here, but the gist was, “How would the Americans feel if Russia started maintaining a military presence in the Caribbean (the way the US is doing in the Black Sea)?” 

I thought that, if nothing else, the point was nicely made: there are still plenty of people around who remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again, I’m not going to comment directly on all the implications of the steps Russia actually took the next day in that direction. I’ll leave it to the pundits. What I will say is that at that moment, the President of Russia reminded me of my mother (which is not something that happens very often), and this sudden, brief synchronicity started me on a short trip down Memory Lane. 

My mother had a four-homily method of setting our moral compasses when we were children:

  1. How would you feel if that person did to you what you just did to him?
  2. Don’t hit; use your words.
  3. Do what you know is right. Not what anyone has taught you, but what you know, inside of you.
  4. If you did something that wasn’t right, go back and fix it and say you’re sorry. If that’s hard or it takes a long time, then that’s the way it has to be.

I don’t think it can be said any more plainly than that, and I’m sure that my mother wasn’t the first to come up with these maxims. In fact, I suspect that millions of parents and guardians all over the world say similar things to their children, which is why most people agree on what having a conscience is about. 

Let’s return now from the fuzzy glow of our childhoods to the sharp focus of the present. We know that what is happening right now is bad. We know that when people stop talking to each other, everybody loses. We know that when we would rather shut down embassies and strut and show off our muscles than sit down and look each other in the eyes and use our words, our minds, and our compassion to figure things out, we’ve automatically made ourselves weak. Striking out physically, or even just threatening to, is for quitters – people on both sides of a conflict who aren’t patient and mature enough to stubbornly refuse to stop talking, no matter how the insults pile up, no matter what the misunderstanding or case of mismatched ambitions might be. And people who pick fights usually do so in an attempt to distract their audiences from something else. No one has to tell us these things; we know them all by ourselves, in the core of our being, which is the part that we should be listening to. 

How many times have we heard that we live in a globalized world, that the world is getting smaller and smaller and everything we do affects someone else and, ultimately, us again? Step on my toes and I have to step on someone else’s – not because I want to, but because I’ve lost my balance and I don’t have room to stagger – and five minutes later, everyone’s feet are sore. Cut the connection between Georgia and Russia and you sever thousands, if not millions, of people from their loved ones and livelihoods, making the world just that much more miserable a place to live in. Put up those old, tired Cold War barriers again and many of us will have to choose: this side of the ocean or that? 

So what do we do? Do we just keep stumbling on, doing whatever we did before, dancing that same broken dance? Or could we decide to break out of the rut and get creative?  

Some people are comforted by the thought of another cold war, in the same way that some people are comforted by a two-party system or the same choice of fish or chicken every night for dinner. There’s a certain mentality that likes that constant bipolar, monochromatic tension. It feels nice and familiar. It’s what most Americans and Russians of my parents’ and my generations grew up with. And in the safety of that paradigm, we can be “right” (i.e., on our side) or “wrong” (on their side), and we can enjoy the shared celebrity of the two strongest bullies on the playground duking it out in the sandbox with everyone watching and worrying about what we’re going to smash when we fall.  

The thing is that most of the world – including all the Americans and Russians I know – wants to move on. We can see this in the economic, political, and social development of any number of countries. Frankly, most of the world is sick of hearing about, or dealing with the fallout from, the constant epic battle between America and Russia. They have other (and dare I say more important?) things to worry about: the environment, the food supply, homelessness, poverty, ignorance, disease. A lot of them, especially the smaller countries, have long since realized that we go forward together or not at all, and have been busy making alliances on all levels to make sure they are not left behind in the race toward a better life. And don’t get me wrong – many of them would love to have America and Russia as partners. But here’s the rub: they want equal partnership, or as close to it as they can get. They want cooperation, not domination. And who can blame them?  

It’s not too late to stop this backward spiral into yesterday’s news. It doesn’t matter who’s “right” or “wrong”, even if such a thing is truly possible. All we have to do is stop posturing and start talking and not give up, but we all have to do it together, or it won’t work. In political circles, this is called diplomacy. At the beginning stages of the “Georgia problem”, some countries’ politicians even started to take a few steps in the direction of dragging Russia and America (with Georgia in tow) to the negotiation table (good for them!)…only to back down not long after (bad for us – all of us). 

So I’m afraid we all know what this means. That’s right: we need to say something. The people have to talk to the politicians, and not just through voting. So many people think politicians don’t care about anything we want, but I can’t help believing that a constant background level of discontent with one specific policy cannot fail to influence them. Otherwise, what are public opinion polls for? 

What do we have to lose by opening our mouths? Because I don’t live there, I can’t vouch personally for the situations in other countries, but I know that in America and Russia today, no one is going to come disappear us in the middle of the night if we write or say the following, in whatever form: 

Dear [name of government official]: 

We do not want a return of the Cold War, or for that matter, any war at all, between Russia and America. Please, please do whatever you can to make sure that diplomatic relations between all countries are continued or resumed and that no one gives up until everyone has agreed to a compromise. We don’t care if this means years of talking, as long as talking is all that is going on. This is something we will support for as long as it takes. 

Sincerely,

[Our names] 

This little letter sounds incredibly simplistic. I’ve read it over several times now, trying to think of something to add, but I keep coming up with nothing. It’s fine the way it is, but if I say it alone – even if I yell – it won’t change anything. It needs a chorus of millions, or better yet, billions, all of us singing, “Don’t hit! Use your words! Go back and fix it and say you’re sorry!”  

This song needs your voice in order to be heard. Sing it with me and my family and friends, in any language you please, to any tune you can come up with – even if you think no one’s listening. Sing it for the well-being of everyone you know and everyone you don’t know. Sing it as long as you can, and teach it to other people, especially to children. Sing it to help the world move on to something new and different – whatever that ends up being – even if it scares you. 

Just don’t keep quiet.

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