WASHINGTON, March 22, 2014 — Returning home last week from Poland and Germany, as part of a United States and European Union transatlantic policymaker conversation on the crisis in Ukraine, Crimea and Russia, as well as other salient U.S.-E.U. issues like trade, climate change and income inequality, I found myself more frightened than ever that the West was yet again on a drumbeat to war. And if not an immediate military war, then another economic war was beginning.
With the exception of the Germans — who, in general, were cautious about escalating the conflict, due in part to their 6,000-strong business ties with Russia and energy reliance — the rhetoric readied and rallied North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces and bolstered any bullying policy possible. We were very much back in the paralyzed pocket of Cold War pontificating. The chest thumping on both sides of the Ukrainian camp was insufferable.
How is Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to kowtow to caustic encounters of a Western kind? Meeting irrational rhetoric with more irrational rhetoric is only going to fill the room with a non-negotiable noise. There is now little remaining white space for a quiet conversation that may make face-saving possible and deal-making probable.
The West is going to find it remarkably difficult to back down from heavy-handed sanctions (see Iran), a NATO scale-up, any military reinforcements of former Soviet bloc countries and disengagement from the very diplomatic ties that would, in any other situation, be essential for transforming and deescalating a crisis.
America should have, instead, taken a lesson from every successful diplomatic effort that the U.S. ever engaged in — whether it was President Richard Nixon with China or President John F. Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev. Those required a willingness to either negotiate face-to-face or negotiate more flexibly and responsively.
Besides, we still need Russia in our diplomatic dealings with Iran and Syria and our collective leadership in nuclear nonproliferation. It would be foolish to unfurl the very necessary fetters that have kept us coming back to the table to talk.
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Now should be the time when Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama aggressively propose confidence-building measures, not mete out more military muster. This will get us nowhere fast.
Western politicians will never get through to Moscow at this rate. Lessons learned form Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters play couldn’t be more relevant here, which is why after the transatlantic chat in Warsaw and Berlin, I returned stateside this weekend for New York-based HiveMind Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s fitting tribute to the impossible trek to Moscow.
The White House could learn a thing or two from HiveMind’s Harlem-based production, which was beyond brilliant by every theatrical measure and eloquently captured the quintessential core of Chekhovian comedy and melancholy. The answer lies in the production’s dramaturgical notes which explicate further why Chekhov’s sisters wanted so desperately to leave the provinces, calling up cultural critic Virginia Postrel’s work on the power of glamour and its “sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration and aspiration.”
Herein lies the root of what’s happening in Crimea (and throughout Ukraine and Russia for that matter): The longing and aspiration for something bigger than ourselves, for something greater. This conflict is as much about national identity as it is about a nation’s ability to meet the basic human needs of its constituents. It is as basic as ensuring gainful employment for everyone who wants to work — whether in Crimean or Chekhovian culture.
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The answer, then, will not be found in a Chekhovian duel that leaves, however unwittingly, one party dead. Nor will the answer be found in the caucusing (or affairs, in Chekhov’s world) that leaves anyone out of the diplomatic loop. It will only be found in ferreting out the mess that mucks up a Moscow mission.
America and her E.U. counterparts, not unlike Chekhov’s Three Sisters impatiently opined in Harlem this weekend, must go to Moscow — and quick, before another soldier foolishly fires another shot. All the world may be a stage, but this political play is too costly to read any cue incorrectly.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Associate Director for Legislative Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Shank is also senior fellow at the JustJobs Network, the French American Global Forum, and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict.