How the World Has Changed, Part 1

Has the world really changed over the past 10 days? Instinctively, I want to answer, like Mike Kinsley, “no,” for in the most profound sense possible, it hasn’t. The stock market has reopened, New Yorkers and Washingtonians have gone back to work, daily life remains much the same for those not directly affected by the tragedy. I flew on an international flight a few days ago, and nothing happened. Going through security clearance, I watched as a surprised businessman in a pinstriped suit had his nail scissors confiscated, but other than that everyone behaved as they always do. When the stewardess made the routine flight-safety announcements, no one listened.

Nevertheless, in the diplomatic world, which isn’t quite the same thing as the real world, everything is very, very different indeed. Although the situation is still evolving, there are a number of places, even aside from the obvious (America, Afghanistan, Iraq), whose domestic and international position has been radically altered by the terrorist attacks in New York. What follows is the first in a series of articles looking at the changed situation. First, Russia.

As a friend of mine in Moscow put it, “The events of last week are so advantageous to the Russian government, you might think they did it themselves.” While this view is too conspiratorial and counterintuitive even for me, it is true that a number of Russia’s more ambitious foreign policy goals do suddenly appear within reach. For one, the creation of a missile-defense shield, which the Russians oppose, has now been neatly eliminated from the main agenda. True, in the United States, there will be a nasty argument about whether Sept. 11 means that missile defense is now needed more than ever, or whether Sept. 11 means missile defense is now totally pointless (Slate’s Robert Wright has already weighed in). But either way, we can all safely agree that missile defense is, at least temporarily, extremely uninteresting. I was due to attend a conference on missile defense next weekend. It has been canceled.

The same is just as true of the further expansion of NATO to include the Baltic states, which Russia has also opposed. Until Sept. 11, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was widely thought to have become a sort of comfort club for Eastern Europeans, the institution they were all trying to join as a stopgap on their way to becoming members of the (far more serious) European Union. Now that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty has been invoked—this declares that an attack on one NATO member must be defended by all—quite a lot of people have suddenly remembered that NATO is actually a military alliance. All its institutional energy will now be thrown into the fight against Afghanistan and probably Iraq, leaving the absorption of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, as well as Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, for another day. I was just invited to a conference on NATO expansion. I’m not going.

More importantly, there is almost nothing that will suit the Russians better than to join an international coalition against terrorism. They have long claimed that their war in Chechnya is an anti-terrorist war and that the Chechens are backed by none other than Osama Bin Laden. Now they will have an excuse to strengthen their (already large) influence over the former-Soviet Central Asian states and beef up their presence on the Afghan borders, possibly with American help. Best of all, they can continue to prosecute the Chechen war without much fear of any further international criticism. Who is going to beat up on the Russians for beating up on the Chechens now?

At the same time, Russia will suddenly find itself playing the role it prefers most of all: an equal partner of the United States in the war against terrorism. If Afghanistan is to be the main target, the American government will certainly need Russian military and intelligence cooperation, in exchange for which a lot of very nice things are going to be said about President Vladimir Putin. Joint Russian-NATO statements have already been issued. The Russian government’s Web site has already speculated that Russia’s entry into the WTO will be eased in exchange for cooperation. One leading Russian parliamentarian, Andrey Kokoshin, has called for a permanent anti-terrorist body to be created within the U.N., led, of course, by America and Russia.

Strange, isn’t it, how things worked out: For years and years, the Clinton administration labored and labored to integrate Russia into international institutions, with mixed success. Now, with a minimum of fuss, it may happen—and on Russia’s terms, not ours.