Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

It is great to reach out to adversaries and open a dialogue even with enemies, but in our zeal to make friends of those who have never much liked us, let’s not forget the ones who have stood with us in the past.  Good relationships also require maintenance.  When it is all said and done and when our overtures & concessions to those who don’t like us have produced what results they will, I hope we don’t look around and find we have fewer dependable good friends left.

On the left is a monument to the children of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.  Stalin encouraged the uprising, but then paused to give the Nazis time to destroy the Polish resistance.  The Soviets also interfered with relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and other allies.  As many as 200,000 were killed and 700,000 expelled or escaped, many moving through the sewer system to avoid Nazi patrols. The Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw in retaliation.

I am upset about a little thing.  I got an email from a Polish friend about an obscure museum in rural Virginia is installing a bust of Joseph Stalin in a place of honor along with those of Churchill & Roosevelt in the D-day Monument.   Friends in Poland have noticed.  It might not matter much … usually, but it comes on top of some recent events and missteps on our part. 

In September, we announced we were backing out of our agreement on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic.   Presumably, this would help with outreach to the always sentimental Vladimir Putin and the decision is justifiable on many grounds.   But we announced it on the very day – the 60th anniversary of the day – when Soviet Armies invaded Poland in 1939.  The next month, it was announced that President Obama would not attend ceremonies marking the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although that took place in Germany, the fall of the Wall was a big deal for Poland and Poles feel justifiable pride in what they did to hasten the destruction of the Iron Curtain.  The fact that the President travels so frequently to foreign destinations made the absence in Berlin seem more calculated than it was in fact. Below are pieces of the Berlin Wall.  I got them when I was in Berlin in 1990.  Of course, they could have been any clunks of concrete, but I got them near the Wall and there seem to have been lots of chunks from the Wall available so I figure it was real enough.

Then a couple days before the Obama-free Wall ceremonies, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Poland would not be eligible for the visa waiver program any time soon.   This is a bigger deal in Poland than it would seem to us. I would hasten to add that Napolitano’s decision is sound by the criteria of the program, but if you are looking at this sequence of events from Warsaw or Krakow, it might seem like your old American friends are turning their backs.

That is why the little Stalin thing is so big.  Stalin was indeed a truly odious man.  He was our ally only because Hitler attacked him – reneging on a deal the two dictators made to jointly rape Eastern Europe. While there can be no doubt that we could not have defeated Hitler w/o the Russians, it is also true that w/o our material aid and the second front, the Nazis could have conquered the Soviet Union.   Stalin gave no more than he had to protect his own power and at the end of the conflict he gobbled up as much as he could and imposed a tyranny on Eastern Europe that long outlived him.  The murderer of tens of millions and the architect of a nefarious system that subjugated almost half the world for almost fifty years is not just another interesting and important historical figure.

This is a case where public diplomacy and the perception of events makes as much differences as the events themselves.  Objectively, our decisions were sound and need not have engendered any practical problems.  The perceptions were different.

I have been Poland-centric in this post, but I have seen similar patterns with other old friends.

“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold” That is a rhyme I learned in second or third grade.  

It is easy to be beguiled by the possibilities of new relationships.  But dealing with countries is not the same as kids making new friends on the playground.  For one thing, there are no “new kids”.   Every relationship already has a history, usually going back generations.   There may well be a good reason why we don’t get along well.  Sometimes we have conflicting goals.   Often our aspirations do not mesh.   Sometimes it is an identity problem.   There are leaders in the world who derive much of their personality and power from their stance of being opposed to the U.S.   If they couldn’t blame us for their troubles, the blame might fall on them.

Above is the King’s Palace In Warsaw.  The Nazis destroyed it and all of Warsaw in 1944.  The Poles rebuilt.  It was in front of this Palace that President Clinton in 1997 announced our support of Polish NATO membership. Poland formally became a NATO member in 1999.

On the other hand, we have shared interests and shared identities with many countries.   Our allies in Europe, for example, remain our strongest cultural, security, trading and investment partners.   Things generally proceed so smoothly among us that we pay little attention.   Remember our good friends the Japanese and recall when we were not so good friends.   It is a lot better now, isn’t it?  How about our border with Canada?  Good thing on both sides that it is secure and peaceful.  I could make a longer list, but I would inevitably leave somebody out and feel bad about it.  But as I said up top, good relationships do not maintain themselves.  It is a lot less exciting and you cannot do something unprecedented by maintaining the familiar paths, but you often have to pay MORE attention to your friends than your foes. 

It is sort of like the unglamorous job of maintaining underground infrastructure.  It doesn’t seem very important until the water main breaks washing away your car and drowning your cat.

Another childhood story pops to mind.   Remember the Aesop fable about a dog holding a bone in his mouth?  He sees his refection in a pond and thinks there is another dog down there with a bone as big as his own.  He wants that bone too.  So he jumps into the water to take it, only to lose what he had and just come out boneless, frustrated and all wet.