David Warsh: On Russia, Trump hoisted on the Democrats' petard

A few months after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, in 2014, Foreign Affairs conducted an illuminating exchange of views. It is as good a place as any to begin to retrace the steps that brought us to the present day “Russia crisis.” It is always a good idea to go back to the beginning when you are lost.

John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, wrote “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin.  Michael McFaul, advisor to President Barack Obama, back at Stanford after a two-year stint as ambassador to Moscow, argued that the takeover had been “Moscow’s Choice: Who Started the Ukraine Crisis.”  Alexander Lukin, vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described “What the Kremlin Is Thinking: Putin’s Vision for Eurasia.” (Foreign Affairs allows non-subscribers only one free article a month, so choose your link carefully.)

Mearsheimer, 69, the leading expositor (after Henry Kissinger, 94) of what is commonly called the realist view in international affairs, described a triple package of encroachment:  NATO enlargement, European Union expansion, and aggressive democracy promotion.  Of these, NATO was the “taproot” of the trouble. Putin’s actions should be easy to comprehend, he wrote, especially for those who remembered Russian experiences with Napoleonic France (in 1812), imperial Germany (in World War I) and Nazi Germany (in World War II). He continued,

No Russian leader would tolerate [NATO], a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently, moving into Ukraine. Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West…. After all, the United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders. Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it.''

McFaul, 53, an expositor of the liberal view of foreign affairs, responded in the next issue. If Russia was really opposed to NATO expansion, why didn’t it raise  a stink after 1999, when NATO expansion began?  Hadn’t Russian president Dimitri Mededev permitted the U.S. to continue to operate its airbase in Kyrgyzstan?  Hadn’t he tacitly acquiesced to NATO intervention in Libya?

"In the five years that I served in the Obama administration, I attended almost every meeting Obama held with Putin and Medvedev, and, for three of those years, while working at the While House, I listened in on every phone conversation, and I cannot remember NATO expansion ever coming up.''

The real reason for the annexation, McFaul wrote, had to do with internal Russian politics. Putin needed to cast the US as an enemy in order to discredit those who opposed his election to a third presidential term.  He feared a “color revolution,” like the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, might force him from power.

Mearsheimer wasn’t impressed:  And to argue that Russian opposition was based on “resentment,” as had former Bill Clinton adviser Stephen Sestanovich, 67, in a companion piece, “How the West Has Won,”  was to miss the point.  Russia was worried about its border.

"Great powers always worry about the balance of power in their neighborhoods and push back when other great powers march up to their doorstep. This is why the United States adopted the Monroe Doctrine in the early nineteenth century and why it has repeatedly used military force and covert action to shape political events in the Western Hemisphere.''

Meanwhile, Lukin, the Kremlin insider, had already reminded readers of the gauzy view of Russia that had taken hold in America after 1993.  Gradually Russia would embrace Western-style democracy at home and cease to pose a threat to the security of its former satellites. It would accept Western leadership in economic affairs.  And it would recognize that various tough treatment of its one-time allies – Serbia, Libya, Iraq, and Iran – was the legitimate exercise of Western leadership in global affairs. Lukin wrote:

"The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has finally put an end to this fantasy.   In annexing Crimea, Moscow decisively rejected the West’s rules and in the process shattered many flawed Western assumptions about its motivations.  US and European officials need a new paradigm for how to think about Russian foreign policy – and if they want to resolve the Ukraine crisis and prevent similar ones from occurring in the future, they need to get better at putting themselves in Moscow’s shoes.''

What Putin had in mind, Lukin wrote, was the formation of a Eurasian Union, similar to the European Union but not particularly a rival to it, linking the economies of Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

"The concept of a Eurasian space or identity first arose among Russian philosophers and historians who emigrated from communist Russia to Western Europe in  the 1920s. Like Russian Slavophiles before them, advocates of Eurasianism spoke of the special nature of Russian civilization and its differences from European society; but they gazed in a different direction. Whereas earlier Slavophiles emphasized Slavic unity and contrasted European individualism with the collectivism of Russian peasant communities, the Eurasians linked the Russian people to the Turkic-speaking people, or 'Turanians,' of the Central Asian Steppe.''

The differences of opinion had been clearly set out.

That was three years ago. You know the rest. Escalating sanctions on Russia from the West, especially the US.  From Russia, increasing bellicosity.

Since he was elected, Donald Trump has been hoist on a petard largely of the Democratic Party’s making, going back to Bill Clinton’s decision to press for NATO expansion in 1994. Enlargement was forcefully opposed by other Democrats in 1996, but to no avail.  Clinton went ahead. George W. Bush and Obama continued in the same groove.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say a kind word about Trump.  He first came by his views of Russia from well-heeled Russian customers for his real estate developments.  And I am only mildly sympathetic to Putin’s problems.  We have enough of our own.

The good news is that Trump has appointed two sensible realists who know a thing or two about Russia:  Rex Tillerson Secretary of State and, the other week, Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Russia.  It is the beginning of a long journey back to common sense.

David Warsh is proprietor of, where this first ran. He is a long-time columnist and economic historian.

David Warsh: The wellsprings of Russian hacking

This passage leapt out at me last week as I read Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, 2017), by Samuel Charnap and Timothy Colton, a slim and well-balanced recounting of events at the center of the present low state of U.S.-Russia relations.

“Unless Putin changes course, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the current nationalistic fever will break in Russia. When it does, it will give way to a sweaty and harsh realization of the economic costs. Then… Russia’s citizens will ask: What have we really achieved? Instead of funding schools, hospitals, science and prosperity at home in Russia, we have squandered our national wealth on adventurism, interventionism and the ambitions of a leader who cares more about empire than his own citizens.’’

The speaker is Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the Obama administration. She was testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in May 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Crimea.

Many in the Russian elite took Nuland’s remark as “a de facto declaration of political war,” according to Sergei Karaganov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a letter to the authors. A sanctions slugfest followed the Crimean takeover, intensifying after pro-Russian rebel or Russian forces in eastern Ukraine brought down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet on July 17, 2014. “Regime change,” an objective of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Libya and Syria, the Russians concluded, apparently extended to their country as well.  

The Ukraine affair and its consequences seem worth remembering after a week when Putin, speaking to reporters at a meeting in St. Petersburg, conceded that private Russian hackers may well have been involved in probing U.S. polling machinery and leaking emails during our elections last year. So might others around the world have been involved.

“Hackers are free-spirited people, like artists,” said Putin. “If artists wake up in the morning in a good mood, they paint all day. Hackers are the same. If they wake up, read about something going on in relations between nations, and have patriotic leanings, they may try to add their contribution to the fight against those who speak badly about Russia.” His government hadn’t been doing the work, Putin asserted.  He doubted that any amount of hacking could much influence the electoral outcome in another country.

Andrew Higgins, of The New York Times, wrote from Moscow,

“The evolution of Russia’s position on possible meddling in the American election is similar to the way Mr. Putin repeatedly shifted his account of Russia’s role in the 2014 annexation of Crimea and in armed rebellions in eastern Ukraine.  He began by denying that Russian troops had taken part before acknowledging, months later, that the Russian military was ‘of course’ involved.’’

Thus did the attribution problem finally turn into a question of military and industrial organization in Russia’s rapidly growing computer establishment, broadly defined. It seems a safe bet that many, perhaps most, of the hacks detected by U.S. intelligence services during 2016 were of Russian origin, though that doesn’t mean that Putin directed them or even authorized them with any precision. Clearly the level of Russian antipathy towards Clinton was high.     

Already in her first presidential campaign, in 2008, Clinton had scorned Putin.  George W. Bush might have claimed he had looked into Putin’s eyes and gotten “a sense of his soul,” but she knew better. “He was a KGB agent – he doesn’t have a soul,” she told a fund-raising crowd. As secretary of state, she harshly reproached Russia for fraud and intimidation after the parliamentary elections of 2012 – on the eve of Putin’s campaign for a third presidential term.

“Putin was livid,” wrote reporter Mark Lander, White House correspondent for The New York Times, in Alter Egos:  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power. (Random House, 2016). Clinton had sent “a signal” to “some actors in our country,” Putin claimed. Protesters took to the streets in Russia’s first major demonstrations since the 1990s. U.S. cheerleaders hopefully dubbed it “the Snow Revolution.”

As it happened, Clinton’s spokesperson in those days was Nuland. Born in 1961, a 1983 graduate of Brown University, is daughter of surgeon-author Sherwin Nuland, wife of neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan. She entered government service as chief of staff to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott during the Clinton administration.  She became Vice President Dick Cheney’s national-security adviser on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and afterwards served four years as ambassador to NATO. Nuland faced sharp questions about her role as Clinton’s press aide in the wake of the Benghazi attack, but was confirmed as an assistant secretary of state in September 2013 – just in time for the Ukrainian crisis.

After she turned up passing out cookies to Ukrainian demonstrators in Kiev, Nuland was the victim of the very first notable Russia hack, recorded and posted on YouTube, discussing with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt who should serve in the Ukrainian leadership following the flight of president Viktor Yanukovych to Moscow. “Fuck the E.U.,” she famously said, referring to the suggestion that the European Union, rather than the United Nations, should serve as a mediator in Ukraine.

Nuland, and her former mentor Talbott, were high up in the plans for a Clinton administration in 2016.  Last week Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategy and commercial diplomacy firm, announced she would become a senior counselor. The Russians, like nearly everyone else, had been preparing for President Clinton. Instead they got President Trump.

Everyone Loses is an excellent summary of the mess that ensued after massive street protests drove a pro-Russian democratically elected president from office in February 2014.  Charap, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Colton, professor of government at Harvard and author of Yeltsin: A Life (Basic, 2008), are eager to propose a set of precondition-free talks.

“The West needs to cease holding out for Russia to surrender and accept its terms. Russia must stop pining for the good old days of great-power politics, be it the Big Three of 1945  {the U.S., Soviet Union and Britain} or the Concert of Europe 1815-1914, and accept that its neighbors will have a say in any agreement that affects them.  The neighbors should stop seeking national salvation from without, and recognize that it will be up to them, first and foremost, to bring about their countries’ security and well-being.’’

But then Everyone Loses was written before the U.S. election.  In order to focus narrowly on the fate of the so-called In-Betweens (Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and the Central Asian nations along the Russian periphery (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), the authors left everything out of their book that didn’t “bear directly” on the lose-lose situation that grew out of the crisis in Ukraine. That includes NATO expansion, divergences over Russia’s wars in Chechnya, matters of ballistic-missile defense, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the civil war in Syria and U.S. intervention in Libya.  

That is, of course, no way to understand the larger situation.  The Russians are no angels.  But it is the U.S. that has been on a bender since 1989. A complicated rethinking of U.S.foreign policy is in store.  The largely accidental election of Donald Trump has confused the issue.  But that leaves plenty of time for the retracing of steps before the next election.

 David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist on economic, political and media matters, is proprietor of, where this first ran.


Llewellyn King: Trump's foreign policy: Punish friends, reward enemies


The Great Rift Valley extends from Syria down through east Africa to Mozambique. It is a huge depression with volcanic action, lakes and steep-sided gorges. Think of the Grand Canyon and start multiplying.

When contemplating President Trump’s foreign policy, I think of the Great Rift Valley: the largest gash in the Earth’s surface.

The president, in the incoherence of his foreign policy, is creating great gashes between traditional allies that will leave scars down through history. He also appears to be set on empowering our putative enemies, Russia and China.

Many of us White House watchers think that  it is quite possible that some of those around the president had questionable relations with the Russians both during the campaign and after the election. Their motivation remains unclear. Also unclear is why Trump is so pro-Russian.

Russia’s motivation is known: It wants the United States to lift the sanctions imposed after Russia invaded Crimea and started a surrogate war in eastern Ukraine.

It is also clear that Russia has an interest in destabilizing Europe, whether it is by manipulating its energy supply or interfering in its elections, as it tried to do most recently in France. Russia has a policy and it is hostile to European and North American interests from the Arctic to the Balkan states.

Trump could end the whole Russian business very quickly by finding out — if he doesn’t already know — who in his immediate circle did what, why and when. He could tell us himself of his involvement.

China is another Trumpian riddle. He campaigned against China for job snatching, currency manipulation, the trade deficit and its incursions into the South China Sea.

In a classic East meets West scenario, Trump, the self-styled dealmaker, was going to sit opposite Chinese President Xi Jinping and negotiate. But when they met at the White House, all points of contention evaporated; even freedom-of-navigation operations by U.S. warships in international waters near contested reefs in the South China Sea were curtailed. Either there was no negotiation, or Trump folded.

There is a Potemkin village quality to Trump’s claims to have opened opportunities for U.S. firms in China. China has not abridged its local participation laws, so U.S. companies doing business there still have to have a Chinese partner, which must have equity control. It is a system the Chinese use to steal U.S. expertise and technology. As to Trump’s claim of Chinese currency manipulation, it has disappeared — maybe it was a dubious issue all along.

If all of this is in the hope that China might stop North Korea building nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them. Well, that has been a vain hope of other presidents. China has no interest in curbing Kim Jong-un for its own reasons and because of the leverage, paradoxically, it gives China with the United States.

But what history might judge as the more egregious Trumpian folly in Asia is his abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a carefully crafted deal to keep the economies of United States and 11 other Pacific nations growing without China, which would not have been a partner. Now the gap left by the United States is being filled by China, as are other gaps. Europe, deeply disturbed by U.S. softness to Russia, climate-change policies, protectionist rhetoric, and vitiation of past practices and agreements, is looking reluctantly to China for stability in a crumbling world order.

The goals of Trump’s foreign policy are obtuse, subject to stimuli known only to him — examples include his unexplained enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia, and his complete hostility to everything done by President  Obama, including the Cuba opening. The results, though, are not in doubt: gladness in Moscow and Beijing and sadness and confusion in London, Paris, Berlin and among our  other (former?) friends worldwide.

So far Trump’s exploits are not only capricious, but also very dangerous, slamming those countries that share U.S. values and encouraging those who oppose our interests. These rifts will not heal quickly. Once a nation is labeled untrustworthy, it is distrusted long after the creator of the distrust has left the field. The rifts remain, great gashes in global confidence.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. 

David Warsh; Trump is no Putin



One thing you should know about Vladimir Putin:  He gives a good speech.  Probably you don’t know that he does. Here are three brief excerpts, from occasions that presumably most Russians remembers, more vividly than snippets in translation can convey.


In September 2004, after the Beslan massacre, in which 334 hostages were killed by Chechen terrorists, 186 of them children:


“Today we are living in conditions formed after the disintegration of a huge great country, the country which unfortunately turned out to be nonviable in the conditions of a rapidly changing world…. [D]espite all the difficulties,  we managed to preserve the nucleus of that giant, the Soviet Union. We called the new country the Russian Federation.  We all expected changes, changes for the better, but found ourselves absolutely unprepared for much that changed in our lives.… We live in conditions of aggravated internal conflicts and ethnic conflicts that before were harshly suppressed by the governing ideology.  We stopped paying attention to issues of defense and security…. [O]ur country which once had one of the mightiest systems of protecting its borders, suddenly found itself unprotected from either West or East.’’


In February 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, after the American invasion of Iraq (which he, the Germans, and French had opposed) erupted in sectarian violence, sending an estimated 2 million Iraqis out of the country:


“The unipolar world that had been proposed after the Cold War did not take place…However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision-making.  It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within….’’


‘’Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. … [I]ndependent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly close to one state’s legal system….First and foremost, the United State has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural, and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes that?’’


In 2008, Russia briefly went to war with Georgia, in order to discourage Georgian ambitions to join the NATO alliance. In 2011, NATO launched airstrikes in Libya to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from attacking insurgents in eastern Libya, greatly irritating the Russian government. In 2013, the U.S. nearly went to war with Syria, before Putin persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender some ofSyria’s stocks of chemical weapons. 


And in March 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, not long after the flight to Moscow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, following three months of demonstrations joined by, among others, U.S.S Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and Sen. John McCain:


“They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.


“After all, they were fully aware that there are millions of Russians living in Ukraine and in Crimea. They must have really lacked political instinct and common sense not to foresee all the consequences of their actions. Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.’’

I spent

week re-reading The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf, 2015), by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times correspondent in Moscow for seven years during the period that the Russian president consolidated his power.  It is a superb book, knowledgeable, thorough, candid, readable, and well-organized. It provides an incisive account of Putin’s youth in Leningrad; his years as a young officer in the KGB, the Soviet security service; his riseto power as a junior member of reform clique that Boris Yeltsin recruited from the re-christened St. Petersburg. 


It treats all the familiar domestic stories of the Putin years: his fierce conduct of the second Chechen War; his surprising elevation by Yeltsin; his gradual suppression of private media; the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk; the Khodorkovsky trials; the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia; the Alexandr Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov murders; the Sochi Olympics and the trial of the Pussy Riot punk rock band. It gives a brief but even-handed account of Putin’s successful economic reforms.  Like all good books, it has a narrative structure and a point of view, and that view is conveyed by the cover photograph, Putin looking haughty, powerful and sinister. 


As Putin prepares to run for afourth term next year, Myers concludes: 


“After returning to power in 2012 with no clear purpose other than the exercise of power for its own sake, Putin now found the unifying factor for a large, diverse nation still in search of one.  He found a millenarian purpose for the power that he held one that shaped his country greater than any other leader had thus far in the twenty-first century. He had restored neither the Soviet Union nor the tsarist empire, but a new Russia with the characteristics and instincts of both, with himself as secretary general and sovereign, as indispensable as the country was exceptional. … He had unified the country behind the only leader anyone could now imagine because he was, as in 2008 and 2012, unwilling to allow any alternative to emerge. ‘’ 


There is only a fleeting examination of the fundamental issue that has shaped Putin’s view of the U.S. over the past twenty-five years – not American interventions abroad, not its arms placements, not even its enthusiasm for regime change in Russia, but rather the enlargement of NATO over increasingly strong Russian objections, undertaken by the Clinton administration in 1993, and pursued under presidents George W. Bush and Obama. Myers writes, axiomatically, “Most American and European officials accepted as an article of faith that NATO’s expansion would strengthen the security of the continent by forging a defensive collective of democracies, just as the European Union had buried many of the nationalistic urges that had caused so much conflict in previous centuries.” 


Why is this The New Tsar’s default view?  The Times has habitually viewed itself as an extension of the U.S.  State Department in matters large and small, and in this case, the logic of NATO enlargement has been asserted by three presidents whose service has spanned 24 years. Of course, U.S. foreign policy hasn’t always worked out well. TheTimes editorial page supported U.S. intervention in South Vietnam in the early 1960s, and, with aggressive reporting, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In each case, subsequent events provoked editors to undertake an extensive retracing of their steps. No such soul-searching has yet begun in the matter of NATO enlargement.


Which brings us to the current situation. The Trump-Putin equivalence that is currently all the rage –it was the cover story in The Economist earlier this month – is profoundly misleading.  Putin, with consistently high approval ratings, is headed for a fourth term as president. Despite having overplayed his hand in the hacking business, he has a case to make: the US has treated Russia much too casually in the years since the Soviet empire collapsed.  Like it or not, we live in a multi-polar world.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail, hoping to salvage his first term. He has a case for better relations to make, too, but, for reasons of temperament, intellect, and his business interests, he is profoundly unsuited to make it.  The U.S. debate about U.S.-Russian relations should go forward without equating the leaders of the two countries.

David Warsh is a veteran  business and political columnist and economic historian. He is proprietor of, where this first ran.


David Warsh: The gapping Clinton-Obama differences on policy toward an aggressive Russia


Blue nations are in NATO .

Blue nations are in NATO.


Given the high degree of partisan divide following the U.S. election, a discomfiting fact is that Donald Trump is likely to espouse many responsible positions in his role as president, even if he can’t make the case for them himself. This confusing state of affairs has not become obvious yet. But it is inevitable, and we will get used to it.  A case in point is the current confusion about Russia.

Trump campaigned throughout the last year and a half on a promise to roll back the Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Putin government in Ukraine in 2014. He never mentioned the much larger issue that lies behind it, the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia’s southern borders, but that is likely what he meant.

In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton was equally clear throughout that she intended to increase the pressure on the Russian Federation.  She now blames Putin (and FBI Director James Comey) for her loss.


As it happens, Mark Landler, White House correspondent of The New York Times, earlier this year gave us a very good account of her foreign policy views. Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle over American Power (Random House 2016) was written when Clinton was concerned to burnish her credentials as a hawk in anticipation of the general election.


The climax of the book is worth quoting at length. It  comes in September 2014, when Obama invites a dozen foreign-policy experts to a dinner at the White House that has been “planned down to the minute”: an hour of discussion on the Islamic State; another on Russia, and, in particular, the proposal to supply Javelin antitank missiles to Ukrainian troops then fighting the Russian army. Mr. Landler writes:

“As the second hour began, Obama threw down a startling gauntlet.

“’Will somebody tell me, What’s the American stake in Ukraine?’ he asked his guests.

“Strobe Talbott [Deputy Secretary of State for seven years under President Clinton], who spent much of his professional life studying the Soviet threat during the Cold War, was slack-jawed. Preserving the territorial integrity of states liberated from the Soviet Union was an article in faith in Washington, at least for those of Clinton’s generation, who had watched the Soviets invade Hungary in 1956.  Talbott argued that the West couldn’t simply stand by while Russia had its way with one of its neighbors. Stephen Hadley, who had been George W. Bush’s national adviser, echoed him. ‘Well, I see it somewhat differently than you do,’ Obama replied. ‘My concern is it will be a provocation and it’ll trigger a Russian escalation that we’re not prepared to match.’ That was a legitimate concern, Talbott granted, but not a reason to give Russia a free pass. ‘Having known Hillary for a long time,’ he told me [Landler wrote],’ I’m pretty sure she would have seen the invasion of Ukraine in a different way, mainly as a threat to the peace of Europe.”’

‘’A year and a day after that dinner, Talbott’s assumption was borne out. Standing on a stage of the Brookings Institution, of which he is president, Talbott introduced Clinton for the first major foreign policy speech of her 2016 presidential campaign. During a question-and-answer period afterward, she was asked how the West could put more pressure on Vladimir Putin. The United States, Clinton said, needed to dial up the sanctions and bring other pressure to bear. Though she didn’t specify it that day, her aides said that would include providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainians…

‘’Clinton wasn’t just talking about guns and butter. Washington, she said, urgently needed a new mindset to deal with an adversary that was going to plague the United States for years to come.  It wasn’t so much new as back to the future: The White House would have to recruit old Soviet specialists –‘and I’m looking right at you, Strobe Talbott,’ she said – to dust off their playbooks and devise new policies for fighting Russian aggression. Like the Soviets, the Russians planned ‘to stymie and confront and to undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.”’

On this and many other issues, Landler writes, Obama and Clinton were the product of the experiences of their very different childhoods. She grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, the daughter of a conservative Methodist businessman.  Obama grew up in Hawaii, the son of a single mother who moved with him to Indonesia in fourth grade. That, and his “Kenyan roots,” created “a carapace of suspicion,” Landler writes. “Clinton viewed her country from the inside out; Obama from the outside in.” Maybe so, but Trump, who is mentioned twice, fleetingly, in the book, is president-elect.

Obama’s own instincts have served him well enough in foreign policy – in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But the two secretaries of state he appointed, both of them frustrated presidential candidates, have gone on pursuing the agenda of an enlarged NATO military alliance as devised by Bill Clinton, which they inherited intact from George W. Bush.  This is, of course, the deepest source of Russia’s grievance at the United States –Russian leaders thought they had received assurances from James Baker, secretary of state to George H. W. Bush, that there would be no expansion east if Germany was permitted to re-unite under the NATO banner.  But the enlargement of the alliance that began in 1997 with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic admitted to membership, that precipitated a short war in Georgia in 2008, and another in Ukraine in 2014,  is still going forward, zombie-like, in the present day.

NATO enlargement never became an issue in the presidential campaign.  In a 10-part “Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia,” national security expert Graham Allison, former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, goes as far as he dares.  “NATO is the greatest alliance in history and played an essential role in America’s Cold War victory. But today it stands in need of substantial reform.” Its expansion is not mentioned.

Leaders of the United States are henceforth going to have to become accustomed once again to living in a multi-polar world.  That won’t be easy to explain, but Trump is going to have to try.  Here is Graham Allison again, this time on the likelihood of war with China, from his article last year in The Atlantic, “The Thucydides Trap” (soon to be a book). He is reflecting on the vision of China’s role in the world that President Xi Jinping presented to a meeting of its political and military leadership in 2014:

“The display of self-confidence bordered on hubris. Xi began by offering an essentially Hegelian conception of the major historical trends toward multi-polarity (i.e. not U.S. unipolarity) and the transformation of the international system (i.e., not the current U.S.-led system). In his words, a rejuvenated Chinese nation will build a ‘new type of international relations through a ‘protracted’ struggle over the nature of the international order. In the end, he assured his audience that ‘the growing trend toward a multipolar world will not change.’’’

The nerve of those guys!

Obama is preparing to give a farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10.  Here’s hoping the explainer-in-chief leads with foreign affairs. As good an overall job as he has done in the the past eight years, he still has a lot of explaining to do.

David Warsh, a longtime economic historian and business journalist, in proprietor of, where this first ran.



Llewellyn King: Internet is a cesspool of crime, war and mischief

Via Inside Sources

The big news coming out of the G7 meeting in Japan will not be about establishing international norms for cybersecurity. That will only get an honorable mention at best. But maybe it should get greater attention: The threat is real and growing.

Consider just these four events of the recent past:

The electric grid in Ukraine was brought down last Dec. 23 by, it is believed, the Russians. Because of its older design, operators were able to restore power with manual overrides of the computer-controlled system.

The Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles was ransomed. This crime takes place when a hacker encrypts your data and demands a ransom, often in untraceable bitcoin, to unlock it. The hospital paid $17,000 rather than risk patients and its ability to operate.

While these ransom attacks are fairly common, this is the first one believed to have been launched against a hospital. Previously, hospitals had thought patient records and payment details were what hackers would want, not control of the operating systems. Some of the ransoms are as low as $3,000, with the criminals clearly betting that the victims would lose much more by not settling immediately, as did the medical center. The extortionists first asked for $3.6 million.

In a blockbuster heist on the Internet, the Bangladesh central bank was robbed of $81 million. The crooks were able to authorize the Federal Reserve of New York to release the money held in an account there. They would have got away with another $860 million, if it were not for a typing mistake. In this case, the money was wired to fraudulent accounts in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Target, the giant retailer, lost millions of customer records, including credit-card details, to an attack in February 2014. Since then, these attacks on retailers to get data have become common. Hackers sell credit card details on what is known as the “black web” to other criminals for big money.Often the finger is pointed at China, which will not be at the G7. While it may be a perpetrator, it also has victim concerns. There is no reason to think that Chinese commerce is not as vulnerable as that in the West.

China, with the help of the Red Army, is blamed in many attacks, particularly on U.S. government departments. But little is known of attacks Chinese institutions sustain.

Governments want to police the Internet and protect their commerce and citizens, but they are also interested in using it in cyberwar. Additionally, they freely use it in the collection of intelligence and as a tool of war or persuasion. Witness U.S. attempts to impede the operation of the centrifuges in Iran and its acknowledged attacks on the computers of ISIS.

As the Net’s guerilla war intensifies, the U.S. electric utility industry, and those of other countries, is a major source of concern, especially since the Ukraine attack. Scott Aaronson, who heads up the cybersecurity efforts of the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for private utilities, says the government’s role is essential and the electric companies work closely with the government in bracing their own cyber defenses.

Still, opinions differ dramatically about the vulnerability of the electric grid.

These contrasting opinions were on view at a meeting in Boston last month, when two of the top experts on cybersecurity took opposing views of utility vulnerability. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security who now teaches emergency management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said she believed the threat to the electric grid was not severe. But Mourad Debbabi, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who also has had a career in private industry, thinks the grid is vulnerable -- and that vulnerability goes all the way down to new "smart meters."

The fact is that the grid is the battleground for what Aaronson calls “asymmetrical war” where the enemy is varied in skill, purpose and location, while the victims are the equivalent of a standing army, vigilant and vulnerable. No amount of government collaboration will stop criminals and rogue non-state players from hacking out of greed, or malice, or just plain hacker adventurism.

Governments have double standards, exempting themselves when it suits from the norms they are trying to institutionalize. Cyber mischief and defending against it are both big businesses, and the existential threat is always there. 

Llewellyn King is a longtime publisher, columnist and international business consultant. He is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS.

Editor's note: See for coverage of  international cybersecurity issues.


Robert Whitcomb: Where we can win; childlessness; water wars

  The metastasizing Mideast chaos and violence have shown yet again the limitations of American power there. We’re backing and opposing groups in a fluctuating toxic religious, ethnic, tribal and national stew and frequently contradicting ourselves as we do.

Some neo-cons want us to go in with massive military intervention. We tried that. Now consider that the Sunni fanatics called ISIS use American weaponry captured from the Iraqi “army’’ to attack “Iraq’’ -- whatever that is -- an ally of longtime U.S. enemy Iran, which has joined in the melee against ISIS, even as Sunni Saudi Arabia fights its long-time foe and fellow dictatorship Shiite Iran in Yemen. And in Libya and Syria, the civil wars go on and on in permutations and combinations.

The U.S. must occasionally act quickly in the Mideast to rescue its compatriots and to protect the region’s only real democracy – Israel. But after all this time, we should know that the Mideast has so much confusion, fanaticism and corruption that a heavier U.S. role won’t make things better. The best we can do is to marginalize the region as much as possible, such as by reducing the importance of Mideast fossil fuel by turning more to renewable energy in America and Europe, while, yes, fracking for more gas and oil.

We must focus more on Europe, where a scary situation is much clearer. Our Mideast projects have dangerously diverted resources from countering the far greater threat to our interests posed by Vladimir Putin’s mobster Russian regime.

Now that it has seized Crimea from Ukraine and occupied a big slice of the eastern part of that large democracy, Putin’s fascist police state is firing off yet more threats to “protect’’ ethnic Russians in what he calls “The Russian World’’ (i.e., the old Soviet Empire) from bogus “persecution’’ by the majority population in the Baltic States and Poland -- NATO members and democracies. Latvia is coming under particularly hard Russian pressure now. Hitler used the same strategy against Czechoslovakia with the Sudeten Germans. It’s past time to re-energize NATO to thwart Russian aggressio


Regarding an April 4 New York Times story headlined “No Kids for Me, Thanks’’:

My mysterious father used to say ruefully that “your friends you can pick, your family you’re stuck with.’’ He had five children.

From observing my childless friends, I’d say that contrary to an old social cliché, they are generally happier than those who have children – so far. A simple reason: They have more money, time and freedom to do what they want.

Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University who’s co-authored a study comparing childless adults’ happiness and those with kids told CNN: “They {parents} have higher highs. They have more joy in their lives, but also they have more stress and negative emotions as well.’’

CNN said he found “little difference" between “the life satisfaction of parents and people without kids, once other factors -- such as income, education, religion and health -- were factored out.’’ Yes, but how do you ‘’factor out’’ income? Paying for children causes a lot of anxiety.

People tend to be more self-absorbed these days, and so less enthusiastic about sacrificing so much for, say, children. But this presents a problem that some childless Baby Boomers are already experiencing: Who will take care of them when they get really old? If they think that younger friends will feel as compelled to squire them through old age as their children, they’re in Fantasyland.


The California dream of always-green lawns in McMansion developments in the desert is being revised as drought deepens. (Probably global warming.) The land of Silicon Valley, Cal Tech and Hollywood has more than enough intellectual firepower to address the conservation challenge. (“Dehydrated water – just add water’’?) However, don’t expect many new L.A. Basin golf courses. Californians will see more cactus and less lawn. Meanwhile, places with lots of fresh water -- e.g., New England and the Pacific Northwest – may now be in a better competitive position.

Regarding Golden State water-wars, see the movie “Chinatown’’.


Robert Whitcomb  ( oversees New England Diary. He's a partner at Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy, a  Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, a former editorial-page editor and a vice president at The Providence Journal and a former editor at The Wall Street Journal. 


West still in Fantasyland over Putin?

  Has the West really comes to grips with the implications of the Russian police state's invasion and dismemberment of a major democracy -- Ukraine?

And would the Western press apply a little skepticism, please, to "polls'' showing an alleged 84 percent approval rating for Vladimir Putin? His regime controls ever more of  the media in his country, and uses propaganda  for domestic consumption with the skill of a  Stalin and a Hitler.

The fact is that we don't really know how popular Putin is. We do know, however, that he is feared. People who oppose him can  end up dead in "accidents.''

David Warsh: 'The Putin Show' is scarier than you think


The confrontation with Russia is becoming more alarming. Kathrin Hille, reporting from Moscow for the Financial Times, describes how cellphone operators are offering free ringtones of patriotic war songs, intended to evoke the defense of Moscow in 1941.

"The government-led drive, named Hurray for Victory!, comes as Moscow enters the homestretch in an impassioned and increasingly shrill campaign to commemorate the end of the Second World War.''

Meanwhile, The New York Times, as part of the rollout of its redesigned magazine, commissioned Soviet-born Russian novelist Gary Shteyngart to hole up for seven days at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan with the main Russian television networks on three screens. In “‘Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth:’ What I learned from watching a week of Russian TV ‘” Shteyngart concludes,

''When you watch the Putin Show, you live in a superpower. You are a rebel in Ukraine bravely leveling the once-state-of-the-art Donetsk airport with Russian-supplied weaponry. You are a Russian-speaking grandmother standing by her destroyed home in Lugansk shouting at the fascist Nazis, much as her mother probably did when the Germans invaded more than 70 years ago. You are a priest sprinkling blessings on a photogenic convoy of Russian humanitarian aid headed for the front line. To suffer and to survive: This must be the meaning of being Russian. It was in the past and will be forever. This is the fantasy being served up each night on Channel 1, on Rossiya 1, on NTV.''

And The Wall Street Journal has an essay by Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, an aide in various capacities in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Weiss writes,

''[T]he Ukraine showdown is even scarier than you think: Mr. Putin is making it up as he goes along….  Almost single-handedly, [he] seems to be dragging much of the West into a New Cold War.  He’s winging it, and when things get difficult, he tends to double down.''

Weiss describes an “extreme personalization of power” following Putin’s return as president, in 2012. As the Ukraine crisis intensified in late 2013 and 2014, Putin narrowed his circle of advisers and placed them on a war-footing, valuing loyalty over worldliness.

Blindsided when events in Kiev spun out of control last February and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow, Weiss says, Putin had only himself to blame for having backed a leader who simply panicked when the going got tough.”  So, on the “spur-of-the-moment,” Putin annexed Crimea.

''Why on earth would Moscow want to take over a money pit like Crimea at a time of slowing economic growth and plunging oil prices?  On the fly, Kremlin propagandists came up with a mantra that they invoke to this day: the new authorities who replaced Mr. Yanukovych in Kiev were illegitimate because they had staged a coup d’état with Western backing,''

Putin followed his invasion – “the most audacious land-grab since World War II” – with a “sham popular referendum” and formal annexation. Then came more “damn-the-consequences, trial-and-error improvisation” to sow unrest in  southeastern Ukraine: seizures of government buildings by Russian-speaking separatists, led by Russian “facilitators.” And after the situation escalated to outright war, Putin sought a ceasefire, obtained it on advantageous terms, and then violated it with an unexpected surge of fighting around Donetsk and Lugansk.

''Mr. Putin’s highly personalized, profoundly erratic approach to government tmay be even more dangerous than most Western governments are comfortable admitting.  How can the Ukrainians or dogged western leaders such as {German Chancellor Angela} Merkel possibly search for a diplomatic solution if they are dealing with a leader who is making it all up on the fly?  … Kiev doesn’t know what Mr. Putin wants; even Mr. Putin doesn’t know what he wants.''

Notice anything funny about this narrative? Putin is always the impulsive actor, never the one who is acted upon.  He is never reacting to anything that NATO or the Americans do.

There is nothing here about NATO expansion. Nothing about the brief 2008 war with Georgia. Nothing about the continuing controversy about who fired the shots on Kiev’s  Maidan Square, nothing about the phone call by U.S.  Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, taped by the Russians at the height of the crisis; nothing about the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea.  Nothing about the sanctions imposed on the Russians since the crisis began. Nothing about the Ukrainian army offensives in the southeast. Nothing about the Ukrainian vote to join NATO that may have triggered the January offensive. Nothing to note that all this is happening on Russia’s doorstep.  Is it any wonder Putin is “doubling down”?

The scariest thing of all is that it may be Putin who has been telling the fundamental truth all along:  NATO expansion in Georgia Ukraine is unacceptable to him and Russia is willing to go to war to rule it out. He’s been improvising, all right, but often in response to probes – Ukrainian, European, U.S.  For a fuller argument along these lines, see Gordon Hahn’s illuminating commentary on ''The American Education of Vladimir Putin, ''by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill, which appears in The Atlantic for February.

Meanwhile, a friend, who knows the territory well, writes,

''I think it was Napoleon who said your adversary gets a vote in all battles. Putin is a complex, dangerous, possibly paranoid man. We in the West act in ways consciously or unconsciously that can affect his actions. Could he still be winging it? At times, he could.  I agree with Weiss that Yanukovich surprised, possibly astounded, Putin when he caved. I also think the oil price collapse and ruble meltdown caught him completely unaware. His finance people were not prepared and he fired them. Same for many of his agricultural  folks. Was that winging it or just having to react to tough times? We in the US did not have to fire Bernanke to right the ship in 2009.  There seems to be a purge mentality in Putin that comes from “Soviet man.”

Whoever started it, Putin is now thoroughly buttoned-up in a defensive posture. What’s more dangerous than a Russian bear?  A wounded Russian bear.


David Warsh, a long-time economic historian and business columnist, is proprietor of

David Warsh: Ukraine and 'Planning Armageddon'


So German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande succeeded.   They traveled to Moscow and persuaded Vladimir Putin to pledge to pause and perhaps eventually end Russia’s military support for the Russian-speakers in the Ukrainian civil war – more than 5,000 dead and 1 million refugees so far.

So the pressure on President Obama from U.S.  hawks to begin a proxy war with Russia by supplying weapons to the Ukrainians will ease, at least not now. For a sensible opinion, see Bloomberg View in the days before the bargain

''[T[he law that president Petro Poroshenko signed in December  to end Ukraine’s neutral status and set a course for membership in NATO has created a diplomatic obstacle to peace.  The US and its allies should make clear to Ukraine that its NATO ambitions are unrealistic.  Right or wrong, the alliance doesn’t want Ukraine, and Russia sees its membership in NATO as a red line.''

The Washington Post afterwards took a more pugnacious view

''[T]he deal brokered by German and French leaders with Russia’s Vladimir Putin does little to restrain his ambition to create a puppet state in eastern Ukraine that could be used to sabotage the rest of the country…. By going along with the Europeans’ desperate diplomatic gambit, [Mr. Putin] ensured that not even minor sanctions would be adopted at a European Union summit Thursday. He also provided President Obama with reason to overrule those in his administration seeking to supply arms to Ukraine. Mr. Putin can resume military aggression at will, while the push for new sanctions or weapons could take weeks or months to regain momentum.''

So did the The Wall Street Journal:

''[W]hat better time for Vladimir Putin to agree to another cease-fire that consolidates his military gains, extracts additional political concessions from Kiev, puts off further Western sanctions, and gives President Obama another diplomatic alibi not to supply Ukraine’s demoralized and ill-equipped military with desperately needed defensive weapons?… Mr. Putin will consolidate his latest victory, survey the European landscape for weak spots, and make another move before America gets a new President who might do more to resist his conquests.''

But it was The Economist, in its first major outing under new editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes, that went over the top. On the cover, a sinister Putin manipulates strings attached to gullible European marionettes, figures who are not shown. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande?  No, only Europe’s emergent populist parties, including Syriza in Greece, at least if you believe the sidebar. The editorial, “The View from the Kremlin: Russia’s War on the West,” begins:

''He is ridiculed for his mendacity and ostracized by his peers. He presides over a free-falling currency and a rapidly shrinking economy. International sanctions stop his kleptocratic friends from holidaying in their ill-gotten Mediterranean villas. Judged against the objectives Vladimir Putin purported to set on inheriting Russia’s presidency 15 years ago – prosperity, the rule of law, westward integration – regarding him as a success might seem bleakly comical.  But those are no longer his goals, if they ever really were. Look at the world from his perspective, and Mr. Putin is winning….His overarching aim is to divide and neuter that alliance [NATO], fracture its collective approach to security, and resist and roll back its advances.''

Then in a long essay, “What Russia Wants:  From Cold War to Hot War.”

''Nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West faces a greater threat from the East than at any point during the cold war. Even during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Soviet leaders were constrained by the Politburo and memories of the Second World War. Now, according to Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, even a decision about the use of nuclear arms 'will be taken personally by Mr Putin, who has the undoubted support of the Russian people'. Bluff or not, this reflects the Russian elite’s perception of the West as a threat to the very existence of the Russian state

''In this view Russia did not start the war in Ukraine, but responded to Western aggression. The Maiden uprising and ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president were engineered by American special services to move NATO closer to Russia’s borders. Once Mr Yanukovych had gone, American envoys offered Ukraine’s interim government $25 billion to place missile defenses on the Russian border, in order to shift the balance of nuclear power towards America. Russia had no choice but to accept.''

In fact, many sophisticated Europeans and Americans share the basic Russian view of the situation.  They see the campaign to expand NATO to Russia’s southern borders as the fundamental cause of Ukrainian civil war.  Essentially this seems to be the Bloomberg View. Subsequent editorials (you have to know where to look)  here, here, and here take a sterner but still sensible view. )

Whence the dissonance between Bloomberg and The Economist?

As it happens, I have been reading Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War, by Nicholas A Lambert (Harvard, 2012). Towards the end of the book, an idea tumbled out.

Planning Armageddon has been making the rounds in national security circles since it appeared, for obvious reasons:  If plans for an economic blitzkrieg were first developed a hundred years ago, based on British recognition that that international trade had become so important it might be possible to cripple and collapse as rival’s financial system by a series of swift moves in the event off war, how much greater must be the field for mischief in the present age?

It turns out such plans were developed – and even put into action.  Historians have long known that all sides expected a war in 1914 to end quickly.  Lambert shows why.  The Germans had their Schlieffen Plan, led off by a quick march through the neutral Low Countries to capture Paris, based on Prussia’s earlier triumph in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870.  The Brits, it turns out, had the Desart Committee’s plan for all-out economic war.

Worked out in considerable detail by the Admiralty between 1905 and 1908, the British plan involved using all possible means to disrupt Germany’s trade, chiefly its  food supply, including instigating a banking panic.  A Committee on Imperial Defense refined the plan.  In 1913, the government approved it.  And on Aug. 4,  1914, two weeks after Austrian government  made  an unprecedented threat to government of Serbia, it was put into action.

Immediately the economic war plan began to crumble, The panic touched off by the news that was imminent was worse than had been expected.  The ban on trading with the enemy affected not just but neutral nations, especially the United States, but powerful groups in Britain, too.  The British Board of Trade and the Foreign Office turned immediately against the government’s plan.

By the end of August the British cabinet had begun to dilute it in favor of a very different policy they called “blockade” – and sent an expeditionary force to the Continent instead.

Protected by wartime censorship and secrecy until official histories could render it all but invisibility, the aborted economic blitzkrieg disappeared from view – until Lambert, with access to previously secret archival materials, brought it to modern attention.    Here are three expert reviews of his book, and a response from the author.  It’s as good a story as Erskine Childers’s 1903 classic novel, The Riddle of the Sands, with the added virtue that it’s true.  .

One thing I took away from Planning Armageddon is that military strategists in capitals around the world can be counted on to be doing with computers and present-day financial communication systems what their Edwardian counterparts were doing a hundred years ago – laying plans to disrupt their foes’ economies as thoroughly as possible if it comes to war,.  When Russia’s Kiselev says Putin  will use nuclear weapons if the existence of the Russian state is threatened, economic Armageddon is the kind of thing he’s got in mind – an all-out attempt to starve the Russian government into submission.

The other thing I took away is that, just as market interests swamped the British plan for all-out economic war in 1914, probably they will disrupt the clamor for U.S.  proxy war with Russia in 2015.  There’s a reason that Bloomberg View takes a calmer stance towards the Russian bullying of Ukraine than does The Economist. Its subscribers have more skin in the game.

David Warsh, a long-time financial journalist and economic historian, is proprietor of

Promises, promises

  In 1997 the Communist dictatorship in Bejing promised the people of Hong Kong that they'd have local autonomy, including electing their own officials, after the British colony was forced to rejoin China. In 1994, Russia, then a corrupt democracy and now a corrupt dictatorship, promised not to use force or threaten to use force against Ukraine in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons.

We know how both these promises worked out. You can bet that no country is going to give up its nuclear weapons. any time soon. And Taiwan is even more unlikely than before to join  China on the basis of the promise that Beijing would allow the people of Taiwan their own democracy.

Dictators think promises are a joke.



Robert Whitcomb: Trying to corner time

As our electronic “communication” devices spin us around, we sometimes feel that we’re losing what little grasp we had of our individual pasts as they recede ever more rapidly behind us. The attention-deficit disorder intensified by mobile devices, wishful thinking about multitasking and our fear of what self-reflection can dredge up have led to a growing feeling that we’re going through life in a daze, with less and less understanding of how we came to be the people we are. (And psychoanalysis is far too expensive.)

Life is brief enough without so much of it disappearing into a false-urgency fog of text messages, and we too often confuse mere activity with achievement and progress.

In the early 20th century, Marcel Proust, in a fraught but much slower era than ours, strove to recapture, through literature, emotions, sensory perceptions and thoughts as they were experienced in the past. It was a way of justifying his life and fending off a sense of waste. It wasn’t exactly a search for immortality, but a first cousin.

And consider the new movie “Boyhood,” by director Richard Linklater, filmed in “real time” from when a boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is 6 until he’s 18. The movie is about how time changes and doesn’t change us.

Then there’s Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s long autobiographical novel “My Struggle” (“Min Kamp” in Norwegian). As Simon Prosser wrote in The Guardian, Mr. Knausgaard’s book collapses “the wall between author and writer as you live his life alongside him” since his youth. He is trying to corral the horses of memory before they run off and disappear. After all, we are our memories. (That “My Struggle” is also the English name of Hitler’s hideous book, “Mein Kampf,” has aroused anger; Mr. Knausgaard seems to have merely sought to grab readers’ attention with the title.)

Another notable attempt to recapture time is the work of W.G. Sebald, the late German writer, with its eerily oblique references to World War II and the Holocaust.

Are many people pushing back against the accelerating speed and hyper-complication of modern life as they feel their histories evaporating? Will they try to live more fully in the present moment so that they have richer pasts to remember? Text me your answer ... .

A new book called “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” by Greg McKeown, might help us push back.


“You have been given the choice between war and dishonor. You have chosen dishonor, and you will have war.”

So said Winston Churchill, in 1938, referring to British and French attempts to appease Hitler at the Munich Conference.

The West may finally be seriously confronting revanchist Russia, run by a brutal, cynical and kleptocratic dictator. Vladimir Putin, by seizing Crimea — part of Ukraine, a large and sovereign European nation! — and continuing to attack this neighbor, has even more clearly shown himself to be a duplicitous tyrant. Ignore his regime’s Joseph Goebbels-style propaganda.

Myopic and rather decadent Western Europe, tied far too tightly to Russia’s largest industry, fossil fuel, would suffer a bit (though far less than the Kremlin) by taking strong measures against Russian aggression. But it would suffer much more if it continued its appeasement, based to no small degree on wishful thinking.

Slash trade with Russia and give all practical military and intelligence aid to Ukraine (no, not troops on the ground) so it can properly defend itself. Or wait until Putin starts terrorizing Poland and the Baltic Republics.

I’ll bet Ukrainians wish they had joined NATO.


The suburban office parks that started to go up in the 1950s in the golden age of the automobile and cheap gasoline, are, like suburban malls and big-box stores, generally boring and sterile places, with forgettable knock-off Modernist or Post-Modernist architecture and vast parking lots. Most have not aged well.

But as part of a growing desire, especially among young adults and Baby Boomers, to live in places with a greater sense of community and more convenience than suburban tracts, developers are turning some old office parks into mixed-used complexes with housing, retail, office and even (in few places) light manufacturing. In other words, turning them into new villages. I thought of this when driving around the Boston area lately and reading Jay Fitzgerald’s July 27 Boston Globe story, “Developers take steps to reinvent suburban office parks.”

Some of the office parks’ buildings can be fairly easily retrofitted for new uses, and some of the parking lots replaced by buildings and green space. Much of the success of this reinvention will depend on getting more public transportation, more space for bikes — and golf carts.

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.

'On a darkling plain'

A friend of mine traveling on the Black Sea today sent me this famous 19th Century poem after learning that Putin's people in eastern Ukraine had shot down the Malaysian airliner. I have not read this poem for 40 years.

-- Robert Whitcomb


Dover Beach


The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Blame Russia for Russian aggression


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 (, 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 (, a consultancy for health systems, and a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.

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Layers of reminders


 "#14 Swimmers'' (painted wood sculpture), by MARK LITTLEHALES, at Ann Coleman Gallery, Wilmington, Vt.

I swim most mornings, usually early, It would seem to be boring going back and forth staring at the lane lines below. But repetitive motion in 84-degree water is remarkably soothing. The paradox of exercise is that up to a point, it gives you more energy than it subtracts. And you get into a kind of Zen state.  I find the idea of sweating in a gym with a lot of other people (with whom you might have to talk) off-putting. Running is better in that you're outside, with plenty to look at, especially the changing seasons, getting vitamin D from the sun and so on. But the knees go. (I was quite a runner in school and so had a head start in the knee-destruction business.)

It's one of those mornings that reminds us of weather's energy in New England. Yesterday it was warm and tropically humid. This morning  snow and ice lay on the ground, and I had to  pour windshield-wiper fluid on  car windows to speed my exit. Here we are, close to the Gulf Stream but wide open to the winds from Hudson's Bay.

But the buds and blossoms are still  swelling, and out of the wind, the sun warms your face.  The flowers seem to be thriving this morning; indeed the thin layer of snow may have protected them from being flash-frozen. And the layer of moisture can only help them once it warms up a bit.

But our little rescue dog from San Antonio,  whose genes probably include those of Brittany spaniels (he has freckles), wanted his  man-made coat back on, as a Manhattan dog would.

Meanwhile, in  eastern Ukraine, the Russians continue their invasion, reminding us that dreams that dictators in Europe would no longer cross borders are dead, as if Putin hadn't already given plenty of warning that he would try to reestablish a variant of the Soviet empire that murdered so many people. But then, he has said the end of that empire was a "catastrophe''. And this former KGB  counter-espionage officer  himself has ensured that political foes' life expectancy is below the average.

Then there's the phenom of countries getting smaller. There's an outside chance that might happen in the United Kingdom. David Speedie, a Scottish native, gave a talk last Thursday at the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations speculating that there's about 45 percent chance that the Scots will vote to split off from  the U.K. in a referendum later this year. He also suggested that Scotland would do very well economically by itself, in part because of North  Sea oil and gas and f its growing tech sector. ("Silicon Glen'').

That seems unlikely to me, given the wealth creation based in the Home Counties around London. That wealth, I'd guess, would be less available to Scotland if it were independent and most Scots know that. Still, the romanticism of the Scots is feeding the independence movement, as is, of course, resentment about English arrogance, real and perceived. Romanticism is something I'm well aware of from my own crazy (and often drunk) Scottish relatives. They read too much Robert Burns and believed in many conspiracies. One curious one was  that the Pope and Stalin were allies.

Still, when you enter Scotland, you pick up their sense of nationhood, which makes the expression "the Scottish nation'' plausible. I remember when there a bit of a sense of that when you'd enter Quebec, back in the '60s. You'd feel more that you were entering Quebec than entering Canada.  Of course in those days it was as easy to drive into Quebec as it was to drive from New Hampshire across a Connecticut River bridge into Vermont.

With all the information technology we have these days, with all the ability to transport ourselves via electrons, in many ways we seem more constrained.  A good side, I supposed, is that we are harshly denounced for engaging in such bad habits as smoking (which seems to be one of the few pleasures left to the unemployed poor, whatever the vast cost of cigarettes), drinking while driving and so on. But travel has gotten tougher and the very same information technology that permits such time wasters as Facebook threatens to eliminate most jobs, and a lot sooner than many might think.


Moment of truth for the West

russianart At the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Mass., in the show "The Tsars' Cabinet,'' which highlights 200 years of decorative arts under the Romanov dynasty. Russian oligarchs around Vladimir Putin also love to collect these items.

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In September 1938, at the Munich Conference, Adolf Hitler promised French and British leaders, who felt compelled to appease him, that Czechoslovakia’s mostly German-speaking Sudetenland region would be ”my last territorial demand in Europe.’’ Within a few months, of course, the Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland.

Vladimir Putin is a power-mad political mobster of extreme cynicism and considerable paranoia, albeit not the world-historical sociopath that Hitler was. I have little doubt that the Russian dictator  plans to try to seize more land in eastern Europe, perhaps part of Moldova and all of Ukraine and not just the eastern part, where, he and his associates like to say, they might need to “rescue’’ Russian speakers from virtually nonexistent “mistreatment’’.  In the same way, Hitler often cited the need to “rescue’’ German speakers who lived in countries that Hitler wanted to seize in the pursuit of his “Thousand Year Reich’’.

Putin, like Hitler, seems obsessed with “encirclement’’ by perceived foes. Of course, most people in neighboring nations, who see close-up what goes on in Putin’s kleptocratic police state, would certainly not want to be absorbed by it. Meanwhile, why don’t more journalists and others note that Russia is far and away the largest country by square mileage.  Without the powerful vector of Russian imperialism (which includes Soviet imperialism), it might seem passing strange that Russia would want/need to get even bigger.

But for a thug, no power or money or acreage is enough. Thus former KGB official Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.’’ He’s talking about a regime that murdered tens of millions of people and that for a couple of years was a Nazi ally.

But a regime as nasty as Putin’s is not exactly good for business investment, and so Russia, for all its size, remains remarkably weak, if aggressive. Of course, the Chinese regime is also corrupt and brutal, but China has an entrepreneurial and disciplined people who have made the country an economic powerhouse anyway. The Russians, burdened by bad government and the associated alcoholism, despair and fatalism, and thus without a vibrant, diversified entrepreneurial culture, don’t have it. Without copious supplies of oil and gas, they would hardly have an economy at all.

Those fossil fuels give Russia a lot of power to get temporizing Europeans to tolerate Russian imperialism. It’s yet another reason to move faster to home-grown renewable energy – and gas exports from the U.S. What will it take to get the Germans, etc., to accept some short-term pain in return for the long-term security that would come from the demise of Putin’s dictatorship? That short-term European pain could include a cutoff of Russian gas supplies in response to sanctions on the Putin regime.

Many of Putin’s cronies and maybe the dictator himself have Riviera real estate, bank accounts, money-laundering operations and other assets in the West. Indeed, something that the West has going for it now that it didn’t have in Soviet days is that the Russian regime and the former Soviet functionaries who stole state assets under the drunken Boris Yeltsin have so much property abroad.  And Russian oligarchs like to travel in and indeed live in the West. They should be squeezed very hard.

The Russians have far more to fear from tough Western sanctions than the West has to fear from the Putin regime. The question is whether the West has gone too soft and complacent to act firmly.

The sanctions by the Obama administration to squeeze some of Putin’s fellow mobsters are a start but far from enough.  And the Europeans have not yet shown much backbone. Rhetoric is cheap. Western security demands that everything possible be done to weaken Putin’s regime. Now.

When George W. Bush did little when the Russians invaded  tiny Georgia, a democracy, and stole some of its land,  it emboldened Putin, who, like most bullies, is quick to sense weakness. He probably laughed his cynical laugh when Bush said early in his presidency that he had “looked into his {Putin’s} soul’’ and saw a man he could trust.

NATO must step up its military assistance to members Poland and the Baltic Republics and provide arms, air-defense technology, military intelligence and other defensive military support to Ukraine to make Putin think twice before marching on Kiev.

In 1956, President Eisenhower did virtually nothing when the Russians moved in to quash the Hungarian Revolution, killing tens of thousands of people. In 1968, President Johnson did nothing when the Russians quashed Czech attempts to wrest themselves from Soviet/Russian dictatorship. In 2008 President G.W. Bush did virtually nothing when the Russians invaded Georgia and stole some of that democracy's land. But these days, we do have potent weapons to discourage further Russian expansionism. But they require our will and patience.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainian leaders must profoundly regret that their nation gave up its nuclear arms in 1994 in return for security guarantees from the U.S., Britain and Russia. The hope then was that Russia would not go back to its traditional oriental despotism. One of Russia’s fellow tyrannies, Iran, which is hurrying to make nuclear bombs, will take a lesson from the Ukrainian crisis.

Robert Whitcomb ( is a former editor of these pages and a Providence-based editor and writer. He runs the site. He is a former editor at the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.



Tough flowers; facing Putin's fascist mobocracy

March 22, 2014

The ground is mostly open, if brown, except for some old clumps of dirty snow. Last year's oak leaves crinkle in the big old ugly trees, waiting to be pushed out by the new crop. Anyway, if we get two days of 60 degrees, the greenery on the ground will explode. The stuff higher up will take longer, of course.

It never ceases to amaze me that even with it below freezing at night, the green shoots of bulb flowers keep pushing up. On a south-facing slope two weeks ago, I saw crocuses starting to bloom  even though it had been 10 above a couple of nights before.

The older I get, the more I like walking in the very early morning, not long after dawn. It's so quiet and unpeopled that the direction of one's life and even the world in general suddenly becomes clearer.

I think about geo-politics, and these days about how the Cold War never really went away (not that I thought it did) -- and that some countries, such as Russia, are run by gangsters who make plans with the assumption that nations that should be their forthright foes will put off a strong response to the gangsters with the always doomed hope that they can be satisfied.  For gangster leaders, no  quantity of power and money is ever enough.

More attention should have been  paid to Putin's statement a few years back that the collapse of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.'' The Soviet Union was responsible for killing tens of millions of people. But then, there's little indication that former KGB man Putin has anything against killing, whatever the retention of power requires.

With Putin's promises not to invade more countries, I think of Hitler's vow at Munich in September 1938, as the British and French were giving him Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland -- "This is my last territorial demand in Europe.'' He marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia a few months  later and invaded Poland in September 1939.

Of course, as with Putin "rescuing Russians'' who didn't previously seem to need rescuing by  the mobster Russian regime, Hitler had to "rescue'' the German speakers in the Sudetenland and put them under the "protection'' of his psychopathic regime. Putin is eyeing the rest of the Ukraine and the Baltic Republics for similar rescues.

Because of  his vast narcissism, cynicism and power drive, Eastern Europe has much cause to be worried unless the soft European Union shows some backbone. But there is one thing that the current Kremlin has much more to fear from than the Soviet regime did. The Russian government and the billionaire oligarchs (but I repeat myself!) have far more investments in the West than the Soviets had.  And despite the oligarchs' claims of being Russian (or at least Putin) patriots (claims necessary to avoid being brought down, or even dumped in the river, by Putin's boys) they'd much rather have their money  in the vibrant West than under the current cold Russian fascist dictatorship where policies are set by the whim of Putin and his associates. Russian businessmen and pols (and they are often the same thing) can be squeezed hard if the West has the will to do so.

I also think that the Russian aggression should help pull European heads out of the sand on renewable energy. The Europeans import far too much gas and oil from Russia, which is so corrupt and inefficient, and so lacking in the rule of law, that extractive industry comprises most of  the profits in its economy. It is less and less an attractive place to do business.  Loyalty to Putin, not creativity, is what counts.

So the  more Western and Central European renewable energy the weaker the mobsters in Moscow.


The granny pod in the backyard


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Real-estate trends say a lot about America’s wider economy and society — about citizens’ ambitions and insecurities and their evolving sense of place in our hurly-burly nation. So I read with great interest the Jan. 26 New York Times stories “The Gadfly of Greenwich Real Estate: Amid dozens of unsold mega-mansions, a real estate agent sees a glut of greed” and “Big Is Back (and Don’t Forget the Extras).”

The stories reminded me of how much more showy house ownership is now among the rich and near-rich than, say, 50 years ago. What mix of insecurity, exhibitionism, “irrational exuberance,” love of place, healthy confidence and speculation in all this? (Reminder: A real-estate boom caused the Crash of 2008.)

Billionaire Warren Buffett, by the way, lives in a modest house in Omaha.

But what really caught my eye was a Times story that ran back on May 1, 2012 headlined, “In the Backyard, Grandma’s New Apartment.” It’s about a mini-house called the MEDCottage — a prefab 12-by-24-foot, one-floor “bedroom-bathroom-kitchenette unit that can be set up as a free-standing structure.”

Given the aging of the population, we might be seeing far more of these dwellings than McMansions in the next couple of decades. They’re a fine idea, letting old people retain a sense of independence (albeit partly bogus) while not encumbering them with the duty of taking care of a “real” house.

But it’s doubtful that many residents of these tiny houses will build the powerful memories associated with childhood homes. For one thing, their ability to remember is fading.

Some of mine might be too, but my recollections of the house “I grew up in” on a hill near Massachusetts Bay remain powerful. The smell of the cedar closet, the dusty heat of the third floor in summer, the freezing drafts in the west-facing rooms in the winter, the troubling sound of glasses being clinked downstairs. My parents owned the house for about 20 years but because a young person’s sense of time passing is much slower than an adult’s — more of that below — it seems to me that I spent half my 66 years there. A childhood home has a powerful personality, creating a haunting and lifelong sense of place.

But now, jettisoning most of our stuff and moving into something like the MEDCottage has a growing attraction. I wonder if the buyers of our modest house would mind if we bought a corner of the (albeit small) backyard and put one of these tiny dwellings there to move into. We like the neighborhood.


The demonstrations in Ukraine against dictatorial and (with his family) kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych, pal and/or lackey of Russia’s quasi-fascist dictator Vladimir Putin, recall that given honest information, most people would choose to live in Western-style liberal democracies. While such potentates as Putin strive to ever expand their power and to quash their opposition, most Ukrainians look west for hope. The thuggery of a Putin or the Taliban can only suppress for a time people’s drive to live in the sort of society whose fullest expression is in nations dominated by Western ideals.

That’s because those ideals when implemented, however incompletely, address the deepest desires of people for dignity, for protection from arbitrary, larcenous and violent rule and for self- and civic improvement. The brute force of authoritarian regimes cannot work forever to block these desires.

Most Ukrainians want to be part of “Europe” (which really means Western and Central Europe) and not an autocratic empire — even one run by fellow Slavs.


We’ve had a tough winter in the Northeast so far this year. The jet stream has been screwed up, bringing us extended deep freezes, and Out West, including Alaska, record warmth.

When you’re a kid, snowstorm predictions bring joy; you don’t worry about going outside without a hat, nor about your dog not wearing a coat. (We thought that dogs were impervious to the extremes of nature.) But as you age, the inconveniences of snow and ice look more daunting; indeed, new snow can seem a layer of death. You feel the cold more and (rightly) anthropomorphize the dog’s feelings.

Still, as I wrote in my blog during last Saturday’s morning-long “January thaw,” how adults process time helps get them through winter. We know far better than the young how fast the seasons come and go. A happy reminder comes when you have the habit of walking the dog early in the morning and sometime in the middle of January you start to really notice it getting brighter earlier. Rejoice! Rejoice! However, with the caution and empathy of age, you make sure that you’re wearing a hat and the dog a coat.

Robert Whitcomb ( and is a Providence-based writer and editor and a former editor of The Providence Journal's Commentary pages.