Clem Sunter

Russians and Americans

2014-03-06 09:15

Clem Sunter

In 1984, a British singer called Al Stewart produced an album on which there was a memorable song titled Russians and Americans. One of the verses goes as follows: "Russians and Americans driven by the past, the third world moves in the shadows you cast. Russians and Americans could turn the world to dust, so much to live for, so much undiscussed, So much in common and so little trust."

Both nations have the richest of histories and the populations of both countries have enormous national pride. Yet, as the recent events in Ukraine and more specifically Crimea have shown, they have a deep antipathy towards one another. They have different world views, although they agree that the global marketplace has integrated to the point that we are now a global village. Importantly, they are both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons which means that neither side will want to use them for fear of destruction caused by a counter-attack.

The last time they nearly came to blows was in October 1962 when they both were considerably more powerful than they are today. Russia was the Soviet Union and America owned a much bigger chunk of the world's economy. Since then, the wall has come down in Berlin and China and Japan have ascended the economic rankings. The issue in 1962 was the Cuban missile crisis and the real risk - discovered through subsequent research - was that at times each country completely misread the other's position.

That has to be the risk at the moment. You only have to watch CNN and Russia Today on Dstv to realise how the narrative on events so far depends on which channel you listen to. For Russians, it is a coup in Ukraine and they are protecting their naval interests in Crimea as well as Russian-speaking citizens there. For Americans, the new government is perfectly legal and the Russians have invaded a sovereign state. They accuse each other of hypocrisy, the Russians saying that America used military force in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Americans point to the plea Putin made to stop a military strike on Syria intended to send a message on destroying chemical weapons.

As Al Stewart sang later in his song: "Russians and Americans, tell me if it's true. You really believe all the things that you've said. The red-white-and-blue running into the red." Nobody knows how this episode will play out. Economic sanctions by the West are one proposal, but it should be remembered that one quarter of Europe's gas comes from Russia and half of that is pumped through the Ukraine. On the other hand, individual Russian plutocrats will suffer as they have recently bought a greater number of expensive houses in London than any other nationality including the British themselves.

Thus any breaking of economic ties and seizure of assets will be extraordinarily expensive for both sides. It could even temporarily halt the fragile recovery of the world economy. I think William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, is right to call this the biggest crisis of the 21st Century in Europe. Is it a coincidence that it is happening in the year that is commemorating the outbreak of the First World War 100 years ago! Let us hope there is no parallel.


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Read more on:    us  |  russia  |  ukraine  |  ukraine protests
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