As a boy I had two role models. One was an Englishman, John Lennon. The other was a Russian, also a huge rock star of the time -- albeit of a different kind: Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut. I never got to meet or even see John Lennon live. But not only did I get to see Gagarin, I got to shake hands with him, stand next to him, and get a big hug from him. That hug has shaped my balanced view of Russia and the Russians. I relentlessly rejected the Soviet regime, as I vehemently reject Putin's authoritarian system, but I have always held the people of Russia and its culture in high esteem. The photograph of my sister and me standing next to Gagarin hangs in my office, opposite the November 5, 1956 issue of the Baltimore Sun, carrying pictures of the Russian invasion of my country a day earlier.
When we contemplate the tactical and strategic decisions on Russia, we need to keep in mind the conflict we have always had of how to push back on an illiberal regime, while at the same time send a message of friendship and even love to the Russian people. Our Center has been working on the difficult issue of power for a while. We have long argued that the West, as it were, should take a more differentiated view on power. We have also suggested that hard and soft power go hand-in-hand, but in the end they are mutually complementary and both constitute elements in the complicated spectrum of power. (As a result, the expression "spectral power" was coined.)
Vladimir Putin has been preparing for the present confrontation with the West for a long time. One piece of proof is RT, the Russian-sponsored English-speaking propaganda tool broadcasting the Kremlin's positions 24/7 globally. It is so modern, so sophisticated and so English-speaking that the average American viewer has no idea he or she is watching Kremlin propaganda. He didn't invent it three weeks ago. The Bolshoi Ballet will perform at the Kennedy Center in May. He uses his propaganda/soft power machine well.
President Obama did a good job in Brussels sending a tough message to Vladimir Putin and spelling out the difference between our way of life and the one he imposes upon his people. Perhaps missing from his speech were a few emotionally loaded sentences to the Russian people. A message of respect and appreciation. It is okay to appeal to the emotions of peoples, distancing them from their leaders. It would have given hope to millions of Russians, those who think like us, who are too scared to state their real views, and it could have influenced those who are swayed by Putin, as a result of their humiliation and fear of being left behind as a nation.
A message from the U.S. president makes a huge difference. He is the one the whole world listens to. He is the global voice. Every country and leader, even Putin, in fact is looking for his stamp of approval in order to matter in this world. Obama should have told the Russian people that we look at them as talented, creative people, and we wish they were part of the solution and not the problem. Tell them we could be partners to unleash their enormous force for the good of the Russian people themselves.
Where is rock and roll now, which, during the Cold War, was a powerful messenger of freedom, which got those of us behind the Iron Curtain to tune into Radio Free Europe, Voice of America or Radio Luxembourg? Think of rock and roll as a metaphor for people-to-people contact, a tool that touches the heart first and then moves the mind. Look at it as a powerful means to convey our love for peoples being beaten, harassed, mislead and poisoned by nationalism. Reinvent the language of rock and roll.
It is heartwarming for me (as an official citizen of Colbert Nation), that my President, President Stephen Colbert at least gets it. When he brought on the Report the terrific rockers, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokina of Pussy Riot and their charming interpreter Anja, he did exactly what I am talking about: he sent a message of love from America to the Russians.
On a different note: If President Colbert ever decides to move on from his present job and run again for President of the United States or the European Union (or Hungary), or if he decides to compete in the Eurovision Contest, I want to be on his side as his national security advisor. Or perhaps his interpreter. Or perhaps his musical backup. Now that would scare the hell out of Vladimir!
Mr. President, will you please consider?