Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Ukraine a lesson for the West

By Tom Plate (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-16 08:00

'Ukraine Isn't Armageddon." Now, how bold and direct is that?

This is the banner headline splashed over the most incisive piece of journalism I have read on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the crisis in Crimea. It led the April edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, the sharp monthly news magazine published in Paris.

You won't find anything like its analysis in the mostly war-baiting US media. Being left-leaning, the Paris magazine is not even remotely interested in defending Putin. And being French, it is determined to be contrarian.

But on the Putin-Crimea issue, the French paper is persuasive. "Media treatment of recent events in Ukraine," reads the analysis by Olivier Zajec of France's Institut de Strategie Comparee, "confirms that some in the West see international crises as Armageddons, conflicts between good and evil where the meaning of history is enacted, rather than as signs of differences of interest and perception between parties open to reason."

In the juvenile Manichean dialectic found in the main media outlets Americans read, see or listen to, Russia is the bad guy in the black hat and the West is the good guy. And sometimes - as we know - the good guy in the white cowboy hat simply has to pull out his six-shooter (if he is any kind of real man) and blow away the evil.

Le Monde Diplomatique writes: "The cliches of the Western press - not just since the start of the Ukrainian crisis but over the last 15 years - may be all that most readers know of Russia's current foreign policy. This negative view, verging on caricature, is a well-established tradition, based partly on analyses that emphasize the totalitarian and 'insincere' compulsions of Russian culture, and partly on the supposed continuity from (Josef) Stalin to Putin - a favorite theme of French columnists and US neo-con think tanks."

Whoever Putin may be and whatever he is, he is no Stalin. "It may be time," suggests Le Monde Diplomatique, "to banish the words 'Cold War' from articles on Russia. This historically inappropriate shorthand explains the repeated expression of old fantasies."

Reverting to foggy Cold War cliches not only blurs a sharper sense of the historic Russian interest in keeping Ukraine as a bridge to the West - and not permit it to become a NATO ally; it also tends to cloud our understanding of Asia-Pacific dynamics, where some in the West demonize China and de-colorize the entire Asian canvas into a childish diorama of black and white.

Implicit in this fearful assumption is the suggestion that if only the United States were more forceful against Russia, less "bad things" around the world would happen. This is fantasy. It is calculations of national interests (and often pent-up domestic pressure) that drive such decisions. On the contrary, US caution and restraint can contribute to stability: that is, there is no world clock ticking, as if you had better "do it" before someone (and who else might that be?) stops you.

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