Blame Russia for Russian aggression

By ROBERT WHITCOMB (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com)

Some denounce the United States for Russia’s reversion to brutal expansionism into its “Near Abroad” because we encouraged certain Central and Eastern European countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The argument is that NATO’s expansion led “Holy Russia” to fear that it was being “encircled.” (A brief look at a map of Eurasia would suggest the imprecision of that word.)

In other words, it’s all our fault. If we had just kept the aforementioned victims of past Russian and Soviet expansionism out of the Western Alliance, Russia wouldn’t have, for example, attacked Georgia and Ukraine. If only everyone had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and decided to trust him.

Really? Russia has had authoritarian or totalitarian expansionist regimes for hundreds of years, with only a few years’ break. How could we have necessarily done anything to end this tradition for all time after the collapse of the Soviet iteration of Russian imperialism? And should we blame Russia’s closest European neighbors for trying to protect themselves from being menaced again by their gigantic and traditionally aggressive neighbor to the east? Russia, an oriental despotism, is the author of current Russian imperialism.

Some of the Blame America rhetoric in the U.S. in the Ukraine crisis can be attributed to U.S. narcissism: the idea that everything that happens in the world is because of us. But Earth is a big, messy place with nations and cultures whose actions stem from deep history and habits that have little or nothing to do with big, self-absorbed, inward-looking America and its 5 percent of the world population. Americans' ignorance about the rest of the planet -- even about Canada! -- is staggering, especially for a "developed nation''.

And we tend to think that “personal diplomacy” and American enthusiasm and friendliness can persuade foreign leaders to be nice. Thus Franklin Roosevelt thought that he could handle “Joe Stalin” and George W. Bush could be pals with another dictator (albeit much milder) Vladimir Putin. They would, our leaders thought, be brought around by our goodwill (real or feigned).

But as a friend used to say when friends told him to “have a nice day”: “I have other plans.”

With the fall of the Soviet Empire, there was wishful thinking that the Russian Empire (of which the Soviet Empire was a version with more globalist aims) would not reappear. But Russian xenophobia, autocracy, anger and aggressiveness never went away.

Other than occupying Russia, as we did Japan and Western Germany after World War II, there wasn’t much we could do to make Russia overcome its worst impulses. (And Germany, and even Japan, had far more experience with parliamentary democracy than Russia had.) The empire ruled from the Kremlin is too big, too old, too culturally reactionary and too insular to be changed quickly into a peaceable and permanent democracy. (Yes, America is insular, too, but in different ways.)

There’s also that old American “can-do” impatience — the idea that every problem is amenable to a quick solution. For some reason, I well remember that two days after Hurricane Andrew blew through Dade County, Fla., in 1992, complaints rose to a chorus that President George H.W. Bush had not yet cleaned up most of the mess. How American!

And of course, we’re all in the centers of our own universes. Consider public speaking, which terrifies many people. We can bring to it extreme self-consciousness. But as a TV colleague once reminded me, most of the people in the audience are not fixated on you the speaker but on their own thoughts, such as on what to have for dinner that night. “And the only thing they might remember about you is the color of the tie you’re wearing.”

We Americans could use a little more fatalism about other countries.


James V. Wyman, a retired executive editor of The Providence Journal, was, except for his relentless devotion to getting good stories into the newspaper, the opposite of the hard-bitten newspaper editor portrayed in movies, usually barking out orders to terrified young reporters. Rather he was a kindly, thoughtful and soft-spoken (except for a booming laugh) gentleman with a capacious work ethic and powerful memory.

He died Friday at 90, another loss for the "legacy news media.''


My friend and former colleague George Borts died last weekend. He was a model professor — intellectually rigorous, kindly and accessible. As an economist at Brown University for 63 years (!) and as managing editor of the American Economic Review, he brought memorable scholarship and an often entertaining skepticism to his work. And he was a droll expert on the law of unintended consequences.

George wasn’t a cosseted citizen of an ivory tower. He did a lot of consulting for businesses, especially using his huge knowledge of, among other things, transportation and regulatory economics, and wrote widely for a general audience through frequent op-ed pieces. He was the sort of (unpretentious) “public intellectual” that we could use a lot more of.


I just read Philip K. Howard’s “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government.” I urge all citizens to read this mortifying, entertaining and prescriptive book about how our extreme legalism and bureaucracy imperil our future. I’ll write more about the book in this space.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a former editor of The Providence Journal's editorial pages, is a Providence-based writer and editor, former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and a partner and senior adviser at Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a consultancy for health systems, and a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.

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Of factories, Florida and Alzheimer's


Many citizens wonder what to do with 19 acres of Providence land that have been made available for development by moving Route 195. What a huge opportunity!

The property is in the middle of New England’s second-largest city; alongside the East Coast’s “Main Street” — Route 95 — whose intersection with 195 created one of the East's big crossroads; next to internationally known academic institutions; spectacularly situated at the head of a great bay, and near a large hospital complex. And just down the road is Green Airport, which is being expanded to allow nonstop flights to the West Coast and Western Europe.

What to put on the property? Offices and academic facilities, especially those connected with medically related activities; design businesses (Rhode Island School of Design spinoffs?), restaurants, hotels and stores. But let’s not ignore manufacturing.

This would not be the “dark satanic mills” of yore, emitting thick pollutants into the air and water. Most American manufacturing is much, much cleaner these days. It also employs fewer people, as foreign factories and robotic systems here have taken over much of the work, though the factory workers we have are generally well paid. To make such high-end stuff as pharmaceuticals in plants on the 195 land is just common sense. Consider that the proximity of Routes 195 and 95 and Narragansett Bay’s ports makes shipping manufacturing materials into and finished products out of this part of Providence remarkably easy. And there’s lots of engineering expertise in the region.

And if you think that a factory can’t co-exist attractively with a thickly settled area, consider Genzyme’s plant in the Allston section of Boston.

But the area needs more and better mass transit to serve the neighborhood, whose warren of confusing streets could scare away car-based people. Eventually a couple of trolley lines (real ones, with rails) should run through the newly developed area to connect the old downtown, the medical complex to the south and College Hill. But let development be dense; sociological and other studies associate density with lower crime and higher urban energy. Planners for the land should keep out windswept parking lots.

All in all, the 195 land offers the biggest opportunity to raise the profile and thus the prosperity of Providence since the rivers were moved.


We just got back from Naples, Fla., where I worked and we saw relatives in one of the most demure parts of the peninsula. The overloaded airline system makes travel to and from the Sunshine State increasingly difficult. And the urbanization and suburbanization of much of Florida have tattered much of its semi-tropical beauty. Still, the warmth, the greenery and the ease of strolling compared with walking on New England’s icy streets, narrowed by inadequate snowplowing, made it seem paradisiacal. And the quiet was addictive; the sound of wind through the palms and the surf were the main background sounds as I typed in my brother-in-law’s office.

It brought back memories of a quiet, lush Florida from my childhood. I remember the smell of the orange groves, the roadside juice stands and the long stretches of unbuilt-on beach backed only with palmettos and dune grass. My first memory is of an old man throwing bread to pelicans on the beach in Siesta Key, near Sarasota. Later ones include discovering Key lime pie and stone crab, drinking from a coconut and enjoying the best roadside kitsch in America.

Parts of my family had been going to Florida for part of the winter since around World War I. Naturally they complained about its over-development. Of course, they helped start the problem. (However, they never took part in the sort of crazy land speculation immortalized in the Marx Brothers’ 1929 film “The Cocoanuts,” in which Groucho’s character keeps trying to unload swampland on unsuspecting investors. Not much has changed since then!)

When there’s something nice, we overuse it, which is what happened to Florida, especially after air-conditioning, interstate highways and jet travel made getting and staying there so much easier. The Florida that I briefly revisited the other week, just before its high season, evoked in me balmy nostalgia for a time before Florida became a mega-state.


Kudos to Cape Cod-based writer/editor/publisher Greg O’Brien, 64, who has been writing (as self-therapy) about Alzheimer’s disease since he was diagnosed with it, in 2009. One of his projects is his book “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s.” Then there’s my friend Berna Huebner, whose movie and book, “I Remember Better When I Paint,” describe how her mother, a successful Chicago-based painter, regained some of her skills and energy after she was persuaded to return to painting after Alzheimer’s seemed to doom her to a life of, by turns, agitation and depressed passivity. We’d better be looking for many routes for relief for dementia victims — and their families -- as the number of victims swells in the next two decades.

(In 2010, I wrote a magazine piece about this.)

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com), a former editor of The Providence Journal's Commentary pages,  is a Providence-based writer and editor and the overseer of  www.newenglanddiary.com. He is also a director of Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com).