James Thurber's Lesson for Power-Talking to Americans Which President Vladimir Putin Hasn't Learned, Yet
by John Helmer - Dances with Bears
July 31, 2017
Moscow - President Vladimir Putin doesn’t know how to talk to Americans. He thinks forbearance is the trick.
The advisors Putin listens to, like Dmitry Peskov the mouthpiece and Alexei Kudrin the wannabe premier, know even less. Peskov thinks giving large sums of money to a Hollywood hack is the trick. Kudrin thinks taking big promissory notes from oligarchs is the trick.
None of them has read the greatest American comic writer of the 20th century, James Thurber. His tale, “The Tiger Who Would Be King” (lead image), first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1927, and turns 90 years old in September.
Not knowing it is a handicap Putin shares. The military junta now in charge in Washington – click for more about them — also haven’t read the tale. That’s because they lack the sangfroid and irony required by Thurber’s sense of humour. The reason President Donald Trump hasn’t is because he can’t — he is witless.
Thurber’s moral is: “You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.”
Unconsciously, Putin cribbed Thurber’s idea of appearing to be speaking to children when he has something important to say.
Last week in Sochi, in a session with children at a school for exceptional talents, a young man asked the president: “how do you handle aggression directed towards you? Do you allow yourself to be aggressive towards other people?”
Putin replied with a revelation of how little he has learned from the Russian oligarchs, and with a mistake about the animal kingdom.
“Aggression has been part of our make-up since prehistoric times, when our ancestors were in an animal or semi-animal state. However, the more intelligent and the more educated people are, the less aggressive they are. In any case, they are much better at controlling it. Of course, I constantly run into stressful or semi-stressful situations, I do not like many things, but I learned to restrain myself. I am not sure how it looks from the outside, but I think that I am good at it. Moreover, I believe that this is a great advantage in dealing with people, especially ones who cannot control these emotions. I may fly off the handle occasionally, which is extremely rare, and, frankly, I get very angry with myself when it happens, because I believe that the manifestation of aggression in today’s world, in today’s society, in relations between people is a manifestation of weakness. I do not like this. When there are no arguments left to make, a person begins to behave aggressively.”
A few days later, when Putin was in Finland, he was asked by a CNN reporter how Russia responds to the new US sanctions against Russia. Putin replied:
“As for the transnational character of US legislation, I have been talking about this for a long time, since 2007 (I think I spoke in Munich about this). It is exactly as I said. This practice is unacceptable – it is destroying international relations and international law. We have never accepted it and will not accept it. As for the reaction of other states of the world, it depends on the extent of their sovereignty and readiness to defend their own national interests.
“If the same happens in this case, it will cause particular regret because these actions will have aggravating factors. I would call them particularly cynical because they amount to an obvious attempt to use one’s geopolitical advantages in the competitive struggle in order to protect one’s economic interests at the expense of one’s allies, as in this case.
“We have not seen the final version yet and we do not have a final opinion on this matter. But we see that for a long period of time, there have been ongoing attempts to provoke us – many Russian diplomats were expelled with no explanation of the reason and diplomatic property was seized, which is beyond comprehension as it violates fundamental norms of international law regarding diplomatic relations. The sanctions are absolutely illegal from the perspective of international law and they violate the principles of international trade and World Trade Organisation rules. As you know, we are being very restrained and patient, but at some point we will have to respond. We cannot tolerate this loutish behaviour towards our country forever. But how we respond will depend on the final version of the bill that is being debated in the US Senate. In any case, we believe that whatever happens in the immediate future, in the long term we will certainly reach some strategic level of cooperation and agreement.”
Restraint, patience, “but at some point we will have to respond” – this is what Putin thinks is good for the new Russian generation to hear, and what he says he means. It’s the strategy of FORBEARANCE.
Putin wasn’t asked, so he didn’t explain how much time he’s thinking of before “we will have to respond”. He does say he’s been trying forbearance since 2007. No-one asked, so Putin didn’t say what practical good his forbearance strategy has achieved in this decade.
A year ago, Putin appeared to be suggesting a different strategy – he called it then the RED LINE AND CROSS-HAIRS strategy. Putin was speaking at the prime ministry in Athens on May 27. Referring to US and European Union attacks on the Russian economy, particularly exports of energy, Putin said:
“Now we are planning to implement the Nord Stream 2 project. I hope nobody is going to impede us here. However, that does not mean we are no longer willing to work in southern Europe. Just recently, and this has also been mentioned here, an Italian-French company, a Greek company and Gazprom have signed a memorandum. The partners are now evaluating the prospects.”
“What is the impact of security-related issues on economic cooperation, in particular, the commissioning of the US anti-missile defence deployment area in Romania? What is the impact? The impact is negative, and it cannot be otherwise. Because some time ago the United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Missile Defence Treaty and started what amounts to undermining the fundamentals of international security. Yet another step has been made now.
“Since the early 2000s, we have been persistently repeating the same thing, like a mantra: we will have to respond to it in some way. Nobody listens to us, nobody is willing to have talks with us, we do not hear anything but platitudes, and those platitudes mainly boil down to the fact that this is not directed against Russia and does not threaten Russia’s security.
“Let me remind you that initially there was talk about thwarting a threat from Iran, it was all about the Iranian nuclear programme. Where is the Iranian nuclear programme now? It no longer exists. The Unites States themselves initiated the signing of the treaty with Iran. The Iranian nuclear threat does not exist, while the US anti-missile deployment area is being created and was commissioned in Romania.
“What is this? These are launch pads and radar stations. Today, 500-kilometre range Iskander land-based missiles are being deployed; in a few years they will be 1000-kilometre range missiles. We even know the approximate date when such missiles will be deployed. How can this not be a threat to us? It is a clear threat to our nuclear forces.
“However, there is something else that is even worse: these compact launch pads can accommodate assault missiles with a 2,400-kilometre range, and replacing the missiles is no problem, one only has to change the software, and nobody is going to notice anything, even the Romanians. Isn’t it a threat to us? It certainly is.
“That is the reason we have to respond now, and if yesterday some areas in Romania did not know what it is like to be a target, today we will have to take action to ensure our security. Let me repeat, these are response measures, a response only. We were not the first to take such steps.
“The same will be done with regard to Poland. We will wait for certain actions to be taken in Poland. We are not going to do anything until we see missiles on the neighbouring territory. And we have the necessary resources. You saw, the whole world saw our capabilities in terms of medium-range sea and air based missiles. We are not violating anything, but the Iskander land-based missile systems have a brilliant record.
“Incidentally, the fact that launch pads are deployed that may be charged with medium-range missiles is nothing short of erosion of the medium and short range missile treaty by our American partners. I think it is an obvious matter that requires the most careful consideration, and undoubtedly, the involvement of the parties concerned in detailed and substantial talks on these issues.”
Actually, the Kremlin translation into English changed the meaning of what Putin had said in Russian. What he really said was:
“If yesterday in those areas of Romania people simply did not know what it means to be in the cross-hairs [быть под прицелом], then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security. It will be the same case with Poland.”
For the details, read this.
Time, patience and forbearance had all run out for everybody in Romania and Poland, he was saying, because a red line was crossed once the US missile bases became operational. That done, they, plus their Romanian and Polish hosts, were in the cross-hairs of Russian missiles and bombers. Already.
In retrospect, Putin’s forbearing hope of 2016 that the US would not attack the Nord Stream-2 pipeline has been tested; the hope eliminated; and the American attack expanded to all Russian pipelines, plus every other form of oil and gas transportation including shipping. But that is just one target, and a relatively minor one in the cross-hairs of the new US sanctions law. For more details, click to read. Last Thursday Putin was still forbearing with “we do not have a final opinion on the matter”.
He could have told the Americans what he had warned the Romanians and Poles a year earlier – enact the law, and you have crossed the red line. You are in the cross-hairs.
But Putin hasn’t said this. The passage of time — ten years since the Munich warning of 2007; fourteen months since the Athens warning; four weeks since the US Senate passed the new sanctions bill — allows Putin to claim credit for “being very restrained and patient”. Since that’s not a credit extended to him by those who cast votes in the US Congress, who was Putin thinking of persuading? Who else matters?
Had Putin read Thurber’s Tiger tale he might not be promising to spend more time, nor would he be expressing fresh hope that “that whatever happens in the immediate future, in the long term we will certainly reach some strategic level of cooperation and agreement.”
Instead, Putin might assemble another school room; read Thurber’s tale aloud; explain to the children they won’t have a long term, and demonstrate the military specifics of what the moral means to warn when “you can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any”. Thurber’s lesson comes after the action is done, and almost everyone is dead. Putin has done nothing to show who will be dead by “certain measures to ensure our security”. Ergo, he’s been doing no more than giving his enemies the courage of their convictions and provoking escalation of their attacks.
So now Putin has Thurber’s TIGER v. LION choice. He can demonstrate it to Americans but he will be obliged to do more than read a story aloud to a roomful of children. If he doesn’t do more, the military junta in Washington will understand that Putin is a PAPER TIGER and they are the KING OF BEASTS. Time has run out on FORBEARANCE.
NOTE: Read the Tiger tale here. Only one translation into Russian has been found – by Vladimir Kozarovetsky (Kozarev) in 1991. The book is out of print. But it can be downloaded from the internet for a fee.