Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Mr. Bush and the Riga Axioms


OpinionNews Analysis

Mr. Bush and the Riga axioms

Siddharth Varadarajan

His attack on Yalta shows the U.S. is not interested in cooperative security.

HISTORIANS OF the Cold War will not have missed the significance of President George W. Bush choosing Riga as the venue for his speech on Saturday repudiating the 1945 Yalta Agreement.

Before the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933, it was the American legation in the Latvian capital that served as the State Department’s observation post on Moscow. The three Baltic republics were independent from 1921 until their absorption into the Soviet Union in 1940 following the rapid collapse of the Low Countries and France and the fear in Moscow that Hitler would soon turn his attention eastward.

In the 1920s, Riga was where Kremlin watchers like Loy Henderson and George F. Kennan cut their teeth. Other members of this group, which drove U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet Union in the pre-war period, were James Forrestal, the Dulles brothers, and William Bullitt. Deeply suspicious of Stalin, they advocated the creation of a cordon sanitaire around the USSR. And despite the imminent threat posed to Europe and the world by Hitler, they ruled out the possibility of cooperating with the socialist state in dealing with the Nazi menace. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the U.S. was forced to come out in support of Moscow. This support was grudging and tactical; elements of the influential Riga group thought it would be better to let Hitler and the Soviet Union destroy each other and it was perhaps this thinking that led to the unconscionable delay in the Western Allies opening up the Second Front.

Notwithstanding Washington’s desire to limit the scope of Russia’s influence in Europe, the fact that the Red Army played a decisive role in smashing the Third Reich and liberating a dozen countries meant the “Riga axioms” gradually gave way to a more realistic assessment of the Soviet Union and the position it occupied in the world as a Great Power. This realism reached its apogee at Yalta, a small town in Crimea where Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met from February 4 to 11, 1945, to discuss the post-war scenario.

The Yalta axioms envisaged a cooperative security framework in which the three Great Powers agreed to work together to destroy the last vestiges of Nazism and Fascism by demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany and ensuring its leadership was prosecuted for war crimes. They also undertook to enable the liberated peoples of Europe to create democratic institutions of their own choice and enshrined the principle of unanimity amongst the Great Powers (i.e. the veto) as a procedure for the smooth functioning of the proposed United Nations and its Security Council. Finally, Yalta was where it was decided that the USSR would enter the war against Japan three months after Germany,s surrender and that the U.S. and Russia would jointly occupy Korea below and above the 38th parallel respectively.

Soon after Yalta, the big three reached an impasse over the fate of Poland with the U.S. and Britain going back on their commitment that the pro-communist government already in place in that country need not be disbanded but merely made more representative. Twelve months later, Kennan sent his famous Long Telegram from Moscow and Churchill made his Fulton, Missouri speech on the Iron Curtain. The Riga axioms, as the historian Daniel Yergin points out in Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State, were back in business.

But when Mr. Bush said in Riga that Yalta was “one of the greatest wrongs of history” because it traded the freedom of small nations for the goal of stability in Europe, he was not merely echoing Cold War dogma. He was also sending out a message to the world — and particularly to Great Powers like Russia and China — that the era of collective security established at Yalta and later, at the United Nations, is decisively over. And that if the restraints placed by this system ever come in the way of U.S. national interests, they will be brushed aside. “We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations — appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” Mr. Bush declared.

Spirit of Yalta

Speaking to a joint session of Congress on March 1, 1945, Roosevelt hailed the spirit of Yalta. “The Crimea Conference was a successful effort by the three leading Nations to find a common ground for peace. It ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the spheres of influence, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries — and have always failed. We propose to substitute for all these, a universal organisation in which all peace-loving nations will finally have a choice to join.”

That universal organisation, of course, was the U.N. Sixty years later, Mr. Bush has little time for universal organisations. Instead, he believes in unilateral action. At Riga, he has served notice to the world that he is ready to take the good fight against “tyranny” beyond Iraq. Stability be damned.

© Copyright 2000 – 2005 The Hindu

8 comments on “Mr. Bush and the Riga Axioms

  1. ideaworks
    December 10, 2008

    Mr. Bush and the Riga axioms thanks so much for this write up because it just bailed me out of a huge mistake.bobbyropson

  2. Anonymous
    April 25, 2007

    I would like to ask you, whether or not you think it a contradiction that Bush after condemning the Yalta Conference (sacking freedom for stability)advocates a policy of stability in Israel, ignoring the Palestinian independance movement. For someone who lives in the region this “bridge” of thought seems all to obvious, i would like to raise some awareness for the policy of the US in Israel and their neglect of the Palestinian people.

  3. Anonymous
    March 12, 2007

    Anonymous 1 said: I guess you consider stability to be present when the world lives in fear of nuclear war.I really cannot see, what American foreign policy in the last years has done to prevent nuclear proliferation. When America is not held by russia or international law, it is seen as a bully. And everyone who does not want to have their policies dictated by the US, better get an A-Bomb ASAP.Also I do not believe the American Missile Shield makes this world or the US a safer place to live.You would think that the US and the European Union would be natural allies on these issues. But by “raisin picking”, “old europe – new europe rethoric”, and especially by loosing any moral credibility (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo) George Bush’s administration has destroyed all trust and weakened both our positions in this global conflict.The US is no longer a super-power it is tied-down in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is on the retreat.George Bush’s Administration has to be considered the absolute low-point of American Leadership and I really wish that you will get more lucky with his successor.

  4. Anonymous
    March 31, 2006

    Anonymous 1 has missed some key facts that would makes his theory laughable. Hitler had a similar idea, he felt that he could march into Russia and gain a quick victory any normal leader may have relented after the early onslaught they suffered. But stalin was no ordinary leader, he was heartless and unrelenting, in other words the prefect war leader. His message was fight to the death and or surrender and be killed and it was the Russians who halted Germany’s dominace of the second world war. Any American attempt on Russia would have been (at the time) unjustified (like Iraq). Having said that i do believe (and i am pained to say this as an Englishman) Bush has point. At Yalta the smaller european nations had been sold out to peserve “stability” and that wasnt right. However if Anonymous 1 believes that Bush is a better leader than Teddy Roosevelt than i believe you are sadly mistaken.

  5. Morninggloryseed
    February 28, 2006

    Anonymous#1 and Anonymous#2 both make interesting points. However, I am on the side of Anonymous#1 and Dieter Grether.“Stability” is a relative term. Ask those who lived under the Stalinist regime and its satellite states if their lives in gear were “stable.”In an ideal world, everyone would get along and tiptoe through the tulips. Nevertheless, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live the human existence…and humans have not yet evolved to the point of moving beyond cultural, national, and religious differences.To say the decisions that lead to the “cold war” was the right way to go is either naive or stupid. We can’t go back and change the past, but we can recognize out mistakes. In addition, regardless of any political intent, Mr. Bush may have had with his statement, I agree with his words and fail to see how any rational person could not.

  6. Dieter Grether
    February 13, 2006

    FDR won WWII but allmost lost the peace. In Yalta he turned Easten Europe over to Stalin. He signed off on the Morgenthau Plan the most inhumane plan imposed on any Nation. Yalta was the beginning of the cold war.HST prevented the Soviets from invading and occupying Japan by dropping the atomic bomb. For the Japanese, the lesser of two evils!HST in Europe, he abandoned the Morgenthau Plan with the well known Marshal Plan and in turn foiled Stalins take-over the rest of Europe.From my personal experience I have to agree with Bush.

  7. Anonymous
    January 21, 2006

    It is enlightening to hear the thoughts of someone who actually advocates war and destruction opposed to cooperation. As a Cold War teacher and an American it is plain that removing the Soviet Union from the map was an absolute impossibility without resorting to the A-bomb and then the naked and unprovoked aggression necessary would certainly have been villified by a world engulfed by war for the previous six years. To advocate invasion of Poland and ultimately Russia is to make the exact same mistake as Napoleon and Hitler and worse, this time the land would have been not just burned and deserted but actually cursed by the heavy conflict on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Europeans were not yet disenchanted with the Soviets in 1945 like they were in 1955 and the general population would clearly have been mystified and confused about trusting the intentions of an America that violates its own alliance. Stalin is the most horrible tyrant of the 20th century along with Mao and Hitler but his removal is a rightwing ideological revision to the actual situation in postwar central and eastern Europe. That the discussion ever happens to defend a policy of cooperation is quite indicative of current neo-con historical perspective. Our grandfathers wanted to come home and our allies wanted to see their families as well. Morale would have plummetted to the lowest level in American history had the army marched beyond central Germany. Roosevelt could have and should have drawn the line with much more clarity about elections and Allied withdrawl from all occupied nations except for Germany but that would have meant removing American forces from Western Europe too. He was rightly not willing to risk the security void that would result in war-torn lands ripe for Communist aggitation. Preservation of America’s closest allies was perferable to the perception of abandonment of the West by the West. WWI taught the folly of isolation and that was not repeated. FDR improved on this score and I will refer you to Schlesinger’s Time Magazine’s article (100 Most Infuential) from 1999 which clearly outlines the fruition and flexibility of his vision for our modern world. Politics and compromise got us here in one piece instead of reckless action attached to a righteous ideology. That reckless application of ideology to policy ignores facts and leads us all down a slippery slope to unwanted and unnecessary war.

  8. Anonymous
    November 24, 2005

    you my friend are a fool, first you have to define stability. I guess you consider stability 2 regional conflicts, one in korea and another in vietnam. I guess you consider stability to be present when the world lives in fear of nuclear war. I do not know what country you are from but you need to read more history. What should have happened, is that General George S. Patton should have led the allied forces and the remainder of the German Army right to moscow, and then Stalin should have been hung from a lampost like mussolini, or considered suicide like Hitler. If Roosevelt had been a leader and not a politician the fear that presided for the next 50 years may have never happned. It is also possible that the collapse of the Soviet Union right after the second world war may have led to a democratic China. None the less unilateral action if more desirable than no action at all, stability is just another form of conformity, who wants to be stable when you’re not free to voice your opinion as we just have. I think you should do some more research on the topic of yalta and maybe reconsider your definition of stability.

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This entry was posted on May 9, 2005 by in International Security.



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