Forecast: cloudy with a chance of mushrooms


Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, says that the American-Russian relations are at the worst point in more than 40 years, since around the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

I won’t argue with Churkin; he’s old enough to remember the Yom Kippur war whereas I was only one-year-old, making gaga sounds and blissfully unaware of the nuclear superpower tensions that could have ended my short life in a blinding flash of light, suddenly and without warning. Reading the news these days I often wish I could go back to making gaga sounds and being blissfully unaware. Alas.

Coincidentally, I was thinking about the same international relations question this sunny early spring Brisbane morning. Australia is so far away from the rest of the world in a physical sense, and so often seems so remote from world’s problems, but if you are, like me, a Slavic-Catholic pessimist (but I’m repeating myself), there is no escaping everything going to hell in a handbasket in the northern hemisphere, no matter how blue the sky and how chirpy the Queensland birds.

My uneducated conclusion was that the American-Russian relations are at their worst point since the early to mid-1980s – circa 1983 to 1985 – the time of the short tenures of Andropov and Cherenkov, and before the advent of Gorbie and the initially slow but eventually great thaw. These two or three years, when I was entering my teenagehood, and so I can remember them better than 1973, were one of the hottest and most dangerous periods of the Cold War – Afghanistan, Grenada, Lebanon, the shooting down of the Korean airliner, NATO exercised Able Archer in 1983, which the Soviet leadership by all accounts genuinely believed would be a cover for a surprise nuclear attack on the communist bloc. It was a close call.

Many of my younger readers will have no memory and no concept of living every day of your life in the constant shadow of a potential nuclear holocaust, whether accidental or intentional. Similarly, my Australian readers will relate to this less than my European or American ones – once again, the northern hemisphere would have been the centre of the inferno, whereas Australia would have likely survived, even if only as a Mad Max sort of a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Nuclear war is not something you think about all the time, else you might go mad with worry, but it is like living under a volcano, which once in a while rumbles and lets off some smoke to remind you it’s always there.

I don’t think there are many people who believe that we have escaped nuclear war for four and a half decades of the Cold War only to catch up with it now, despite all of Russia’s recent nuclear posturing. Posturing it most likely is, but nevertheless still worrying and dangerous. This is in part because things can go wrong by accident or a mistake, but also, on another level, because the United States is in the weakest military and strategic position it has been for decades.

Note this: Russia and China are now for all practical purposes in an alliance directed against their respective opponents and competitors, of which the United States is the only one in common. All the assorted authoritarians, strongmen and trouble-makers, whether secular or Islamic, radical or conservative, are gravitating towards the Moscow-Beijing axis, which they see as the counterpoint and counterbalance to the declining but still dangerous America. Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines are the two most recent ones. In an homage to the economic BRICs, I call this broad grouping PRICKs: Petrocracies, Russia, Iran, China and (North) Korea. Not much unites them except a broadly anti-American and anti-Western disposition and hostility to open, liberal democracy.

This is what it looks like when the grapes of wrath matured over the eight years of the Obama presidency come up for harvest. What’s worse is that the next four years is likely to be even more dispiriting and dangerous, with both presidential candidates eminently unsuited to confront these challenges, including the resurgent Russia. Donald Trump actually thinks that Putin is an OK guy, a fellow no-nonsense alpha, and should be allowed to rampage around his own backyard in Europe and the Middle East. Hillary Clinton, she of the “reset button”, is sick, weak and compromised. Even without the Russian interference in the presidential election (WikiLeaks etc.) it is pretty obvious that Putin positively welcomes a Trump presidency and does not in any way fear a Clinton one.

I was seventeen and a half when the Berlin Wall came down, and by the time I have entered by third decade the Soviet Union was no more. So was the spectre of the Third – and final – World War. As the aforementioned Slavic-Catholic pessimist I should have expected that good times would not last, and in many ways I didn’t, but I did not exactly foresee the superpower déjà vu of America versus Russia, so – historically – soon after the first contest.

I guess we’ve had it good while it lasted.