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Will Bush soften rhetoric or grow more shrill?

DIPLOMACY CONSISTS in the capacity to see things from the point of view of the other party. The triumphs and failures of US diplomacy across two generations define this truth, especially in relationship to Moscow. George W. Bush has begun his second term by declaring himself a proselytizer for American-style "freedom," and one wonders how this ambition falls on the ears of those on the far side of Europe? Especially so when practically the first headline Bush's new secretary of state drew was "Rice chides Russia." What does it mean that the first signal that Condoleezza Rice has sent to Vladimir Putin is a kind of scold?

Secretary Rice is famously an expert on Russia, but does she know the history of the tone of voice? Scholars debate the origins of the Cold War, but there is no question that the World War II alliance between Moscow and Washington first ran off the track within days of the death of Franklin Roosevelt, when Harry S. Truman gave, as he put it, "a straight one-two to the jaw" of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. "I have never been talked to like that in my life," Molotov complained. "Carry out your agreements," Truman replied, "and you won't be talked to like that."

Looked at from Moscow's point of view -- from the point of view, that is, of an ally whose "agreements kept" were embodied in the astronomical number of casualties it was even then suffering in the war against Hitler -- Truman's scolding represented a breach from which there would be no recovering. John F. Kennedy came into office as a tribune of "freedom," too. Bush's second inaugural address seemed a deliberate, if partial, echo of Kennedy's inaugural. But the great diplomatic triumph of the Kennedy administration came only when the young president changed his tone of voice entirely in a speech at American University in June 1963. Instead of an American moral superiority based on "freedom," Kennedy acknowledged his own nation's part in "a vicious dangerous cycle." Traditional American finger-wagging was gone. Instead, Kennedy spoke from the heart of "our most basic common link.. . . We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Within days of this speech, Moscow and Washington accomplished the long unachieved Partial Test Ban Treaty, and the Cold War took its most fateful turn toward peace. As George W. Bush would after him, Ronald Reagan built his first term around a rhetoric of "evil," and relations between Washington and Moscow went back into the freezer. But something new happened with Reagan's second term. The shift was clear in a new tone of voice coming from Washington and heard quite clearly by new Soviet leadership. "It was evil," Reagan would say, referring to the Soviet Union and then to Mikhail Gorbachev, "until he -- until this one man made all the difference."

The breakthrough in relations that Gorbachev and Reagan achieved together, and that enabled the Soviet Union's peaceful demise, was built on the mutual abandonment of the scolding voice. America's triumphal assumption that it had "won" the Cold War defined the diplomacy of George H.W. Bush.

After World War II, the Soviet Union's massive sacrifices suffered at the hands of Hitler went unappreciated in the West, and after the Cold War, the savage economic and cultural dislocations that Russia willingly underwent as the price for a peaceful dismantling of its side of the conflict went unappreciated again. With Bill Clinton, the United States glibly declared itself the "indispensable nation" while dispensing -- for example, on the question of NATO expansion -- with any need to see Moscow's point of view. The arms control regime, including what Russia regarded as the sacrosanct ABM Treaty, was abandoned by Washington, and promised aid for post-Soviet economic recovery and especially for nuclear safety never fully materialized. Now Moscow finds itself with its old adversary intruding into territories once firmly inside a Russian sphere of influence; its old adversary embarked on open-ended military campaigns in the name of "freedom" defined as a rebuke to Russian realities; its old adversary in pursuit of a next generation of nuclear and space-based weapons systems; its old adversary presuming to "chide."

Bush will meet this month with Putin at a summit in the Slovak capital of Bratislava. It could be a pivotal moment, like those in the past, but will the shift be for good or for ill? Will Bush, from the pinnacle of his moral and martial dominance, have any idea of how things look -- or sound -- from the other side?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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