From Russia with Euphemisms
Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe the galling normalcy of Nazi mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann. Covering his trial in Jerusalem, she described Eichmann as less a cartoonish villain than a dull, remorseless, paper-pushing functionary just “doing his job.”
The phrase “banality of evil” was instantly controversial, largely because it was misunderstood. Arendt was not trying to minimize Nazism’s evil but to capture its enormity. The staggering moral horror of the Holocaust was that it made complicity “normal.” Liquidating the Jews was not just the stuff of mobs and demagogues but of bureaucracies and bureaucrats.
“To read Anne Applebaum’s magisterial Gulag: A History is to subject yourself to relentless tales of unimaginable barbarity…”
Now consider the stunted and ritualistic conversation (“controversy” is too vibrant a word for the mundane Internet chatter) about the Soviet Union sparked by the Winter Olympics. The humdrum shrugging at the overwhelming evil of Soviet Communism leaves me nostalgic for the Eichmann controversy. At least Arendt and her critics agreed that evil itself was in the dock; they merely haggled over the best words to put in the indictment.
What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union?
Anne Applebaum writes: Every time I say anything to anyone anywhere about Russia nowadays, that’s what I’m asked. And there is a clear answer: No. This is not a new Cold War. Neither the United States nor Europe is locked in a deadly, apocalyptic competition with Russia, China or anyone else. We are not fighting proxy wars. The world has not been divided into two Orwellian halves, democrats vs. communists.
But although we are not fighting a new Cold War, the tactics of the old Cold War are now, at the dawn of 2014, suddenly being deployed in a manner not seen since the early 1980s. We in the United States may not believe that we are engaged in an ideological struggle with anybody, but other people are engaged in an ideological struggle with us. We in the United States may not believe that there is any real threat to our longtime alliance structures in Europe and Asia, but other people think those alliances are vulnerable and have set out to undermine them.
Sometimes these gestures are quite open. China’s recent, unilateral declaration of anew air defense zone in the East China Sea was a clear attempt to warn its neighbors that its navy is preparing to compete with the U.S. fleet. The Chinese naval ship that recently cut in front of a U.S. destroyer, forcing it to change course, sent a similar message. Neither of these incidents signals the start of a cold, hot or any other kind of war. But they do mean that China intends to chip away at the status quo, to undermine the faith of U.S. allies — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines — in American power and force them to think twice, at the very least, about their old economic, military and trade agreements.
Over the past year, Russia has been playing the same kind of games with NATO: no open threats, just hints. Last spring, the Russian air force staged a mock attack on Sweden, came perilously close to Swedish air space and buzzed Gotland Island. The Swedish air force failed to react — it was after midnight on Good Friday — though eventually two Danish planes scrambled to follow the Russian planes back across the Baltic. Russian officials have also made veiled (and not so veiled) threats to Finland, selectively boycotted industries in the Baltic states and dropped hints that Russia intends to put, or might already have put, longer-range missiles on its Western border — missiles designed to hit Germany.
I repeat: Russia does not intend to start a war. Russia, rather, intends in the short term to undermine regional confidence in NATO, in U.S. military guarantees, in West European solidarity. In the longer term, Russia wants Scandinavia, the Baltic states and eventually all of Europe to accept Russian policies in other spheres.