The Risk of Humiliating Adversaries

While many factors propelled the rise of Hitler and Nazism, humiliating Germany at the end of World War I played a major role. Hitler even forced the French to surrender in the same railway car –  in the exact same spot –  that had witnessed Germany’s earlier capitulation. Because of the risk involved in humiliating an adversary, I have been concerned by the belittlement Russia has experienced in recent years. Just as the ending of World War I played a major role in the start of World War II, let’s not have the ending of the Cold War lead to World War III.

The most recent evidence of this risk surfaced in yesterday’s edition of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (Global Public Square) on CNN. Zakaria asked Henry Kissinger:

Henry, you’ve met with Vladimir Putin probably more often than any … senior American official. You’ve had something like 20 odd one-on-one meetings with him. What do you think of Vladimir Putin? … Is he a thug? Is he a modernizer? Is he … pro-Western, anti-Western?

To which Kissinger replied:

He is, above all, a Russian patriot who feels humiliated by the experience of the 1990s, which were in the most formative period of his career. He is not anti-western. When I first met him, he was very anxious to have a kind of strategic partnership with the United States. He is very resentful of what he interprets as intervention in Russian domestic affairs and even more, of course, in what he may interpret and does interpret as some American tendencies to support his political opponents in order to encourage his overthrow, … but I believe that a dialogue is possible and on specific issues he can turn out to be a constructive partner.

Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan blames our humiliation of Russia as being partly responsible for the Georgian War of 2008. In a column entitled Blowback from Bear Baiting, he wrote:

But is not Russian anger understandable? For years the West has rubbed Russia’s nose in her Cold War defeat and treated her like Weimar Germany. … For a decade, some of us have warned about the folly of getting into Russia’s space and getting into Russia’s face.

Speaking of the Georgian War, Buchanan also noted that “American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight — Russia finished it.” Wrongly placing all blame for that war on Russia – as is consistently done in our media – adds to Russia’s feeling wrongly humiliated.

Along similar lines, in 2007, former Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser, head of the policy and planning staff in the German Ministry of Defense from 1992 to 1998, wrote:

Moscow also feels provoked by the behavior of a number of newer NATO member states in central and Eastern Europe. Poland and the Baltic states use every opportunity to make provocative digs at Russia; they feel themselves protected by NATO and backed by the U.S.

Humiliating an opponent may have short term, egotistical benefits. But are they worth the long term risk to our survival?

Martin Hellman

For Further Reading: Actions that add to Putin’s concerns about America supporting his overthrow are treated in my blog post from last December and a January 2012 article on our new ambassador almost immediately meeting with Putin’s political opposition.

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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3 Responses to The Risk of Humiliating Adversaries

  1. amir says:

    The same is true for smaller countries like Iran. As an Iranian (who likes western culture) I have to say that double standards and the whole way west behave against us will not help a friendly relationship in the future (even long after Islamic Regime gone.) and you should know though we are not a threat like Russia or China but who know about the future? West should try to make more friends not more enemies.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Amir makes a good point, and my post was not meant to apply solely to Russia. In my Stanford seminar, “Nuclear Weapons, Risk, and Hope,” I have a handout that discusses Iran and North Korea and makes some of the points that I imagine Amir is thinking of:
    http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/sts152_02/handout05.pdf
    All handouts for that seminar are available at
    http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/courses.html
    Martin Hellman

  3. ltraubman says:

    Hellman is accurate and congruent with contemporary social science and human experience. War – very last-century, cannabilistic, and obsolete as it is – is both prevented and ended not by harming, defeating, and humiliating the “enemy,” but by dignifying. This will be the preferred human function from today into the distnant future.

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