George Bush is not always right. Last week, there was a strange event. For once, the European Nato leaders displayed greater geopolitical wisdom than the American President. Mr Bush wanted to press ahead with Nato membership for the Ukraine and Georgia. The Europeans objected, and rightly.
It is surprising that the President should have made such a misjudgement. Normally his diplomacy is influenced, almost excessively, by his personal relations with foreign leaders, and he has always got on well with Mr Putin. Indeed, he is now at Sochi, the Russian President's summer residence on the Black Sea. This is a farewell visit; the last time the two men will meet as heads of state. That the invitation should have been extended testifies to a mutual respect which rises above arguments. But in this argument, the US was wrong.
Nato was formed, as Julian Amery put it "to keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out". Over time, that mission altered in response to events. Germany, the defeated foe, became an ally. The Americans showed an admirable willingness to stay in, for which they never received sufficient thanks. Under their leadership, Nato became the West's shield in the Cold War. For four decades, the organisation was an anti-Russian alliance, and necessarily so. But the world has changed, fundamentally. The West won the Cold War. Today, we have no unmanageable conflict of interest with the Russians, and it is now Russia's turn to receive insufficient gratitude.
Think back 20 years. If anyone had predicted in those days that within a decade, the Soviet empire would have disappeared and with it, the Soviet economic system, he would have qualified for free accommodation in a lunatic asylum. Because much of it was imposed on peoples at an advanced stage of development, who were ready for freedom and democracy, the Russian empire cannot claim the same legitimacy as the British one. Even so, the dissolution of the Russian Imperium was achieved with far fewer casualties.
So the Russians are entitled to a bit of credit and it is understandable that they should be exasperated when it is not forthcoming. These days, there are not many Russians in public life who would defend their country's record in the Cold War. Russians understand why we needed Nato in the days when the Bear was perpetually threatening to break out of its cave and fall upon the West's sheepfolds. Now, however, we appear to want to march into the cave and throw stones at the Bear. No wonder it emits the occasional growl.
Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, was also the capital of the first Russia. Imagine what we would feel if Kent was an independent state with Canterbury as its capital. Yet the Russians are learning to live with these new realities. We should also hope that the Russians do not renounce all their imperialist past.
Although it is to be hoped that the Stans and Ghizes in the former Soviet central Asia develop peacefully, there are no guarantees of that.
At some stage, we could be grateful for Russian intervention in some failing state. In view of the global challenges which so rapidly overwhelmed George Bush Senior's new world order, we need a new system of global security arrangements, which would include Russia.
This does not mean that Nato should be dissolved. No one knows, least of all the Russians, what will happen in that great but troubled country over the next 20 years. This is no time to scrap our weapons systems. But we should decommission our Cold War concepts. We need to think hard about Russia, in the light of new circumstances.
The political Right is usually much better at foreign policy than the Left because the Right approaches diplomacy in a spirit of unillusioned, tough-minded realism. The Right's mentors are Castlereagh, Metternich, Bismarck, Salisbury, Kissinger – not Palmerston or Woodrow Wilson. Conservatives understand that the world is not perfectible, that civilisation is nothing more than a collective dream; that realpolitik is almost always a better compass than idealism.
Yet in recent years we have seen the emergence of what ought to be an oxymoron: Right-wing idealism, largely under the influence of the neo-cons. Some of them, who did vital service as pamphleteers during the Cold War, are reluctant to relinquish the romantic simplicities of that era. They are preserving their Cold War bonds just as earlier generations hung on to Tsarist railway bonds.
It is time to turn those bonds into wallpaper, for it is silly to look at Russia through Cold War spectacles. Too much has changed. Certainly, the outcome is far from perfect; who but a fantasist ever thought that it would be otherwise? After all, it is only 15 years since Mrs Thatcher, her eloquence given a keener edge by the frustration of exile from power, was castigating Western leaders for not doing enough to help Russia through the chaos of the Yeltsin era. She warned that in a few years time, we would all be asking the accusatory question "who lost Russia?''. But Russia was not lost.
There are problems, many of them arising from the disposal of state assets to the oligarchs and their political clients.No arrangements could have been better devised to encourage corruption on the vastest of scales. Yet the Russian economy is developing and civil society has not been thrust back into the deep freeze. I am told that at every dinner and drinks party in Moscow, the Russians spend hours telling the Westerners that people no longer dare speak their minds.It was inevitable that Russia would emerge from the Soviet ethos along a bumpy track, not a straight road. Just because Mr Putin is not Thomas Jefferson, this does not mean that he is Joseph Stalin.
A couple of days ago, Mr Putin said that there were no longer ideological conflicts in Europe. He was only partly right. A new threat to British freedom has emerged. It uses many of the same tactics which the Warsaw Pact employed during the Cold War: fellow travellers, agents of influence, a covert and dishonest campaign to undermine British values and to soften up our people for foreign rule.
These new enemies have even manipulated a democratic election in this country. Europhile politicians made pledges in order to influence the outcome, and then reneged on them once they had won. We would know how to denounce that behaviour if it occurred in Russia. The European Union has replaced the Soviet Union as the principal threat to our freedom and our rule of law.
No doubt we will have further quarrels with Russia. It is to be hoped that no more spies on the run are fed polonium sushi in a London restaurant. But there is every reason to hope that over the next few years, it will come to seem quite as absurd to regard Nato as an anti-Russian alliance as it would be to revive that other initial role, an anti-German one.
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