THE people of what used to be the Soviet Union, especially the people of Russia, are suffering hardships this winter such as they have not endured since the terrible days of World War II. In addition to the rigors of the Russian climate, there are shortages of everything except the worthless ruble. This is the result of 75 years of political dictatorship, topsy-turvy economics, and resource allocation skewed by the priorities of the cold war.
Is this any business of the United States? One wouldn't think so to look at and listen to the US government. Washington's message to Moscow these days seems to be that if you organize yourselves according to Adam Smith instead of Karl Marx, we'll talk about helping you; in the meantime, we'll send some symbolic plane loads of food and medicine.
That may be all the US can do right now. The government does not have any money; it has a $3 trillion debt growing by $400 billion a year. Nor does the government seem to have the political will even if it could somehow find the money. People are justifiably fed up with foreign aid that has long since degenerated into a mindless program with a momentum of its own. Russia's needs could absorb aid like a sponge.
The Bush administration is ideologically predisposed to rely on private investment to stimulate economic development overseas. This is good, but it is not going to happen in Russia until the administration clears away some of the legal restrictions left from the cold war. Examples are credit limitations and prohibitions on investment insurance.
Maybe prosaic things like this are all we can do. Maybe we are paying the price of the spending excesses of the 1980s and the mental combat fatigue of the longer period of the cold war.
If so, these constraints are the ingredients of potential tragedy. "There is a tide in the affairs of men," wrote Shakespeare, "which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries."
It matters to the US what happens in Russia. Some may argue that, with nuclear weapons dismantled or controlled, this is no longer so; that the Russian economy is too feeble to mount a credible threat. But the Russian economy is not going to stay weak forever; its resources are too abundant and its people too capable for this. The Russian economy was feeble in 1918, too - so feeble that Russia left World War I on the terms Germany dictated in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. From this chaos, emerged the Stal in dictatorship; from the Stalin era came the cold war that just recently ended. In 1932, Germany was in a shambles, but 10 years later Hitler was laying waste to most of Europe.
After the devastation of World War II, the US took the lead in rehabilitating Europe, where the victors suffered along with the vanquished, though not so much. The US rehabilitated Japan, too. The US was the only country that could have done this. It was the only country that emerged from the war with its economy not only unscathed but its industrial capacity expanded.
AFTER two or three years of interim relief, the capstone of this effort was the Marshall Plan.
The further these events recede into the past, the more they are portrayed as examples of American compassion and generosity. These qualities were a part of American policy in the late 1940s. But at the heart of that policy was hard-headed self-interest: It mattered to the US what happened in Western Europe, where the US fought two wars in 25 years. What built enormous political support for that policy was concern about communism and the Soviet Union; we had to strengthen Western Europe to keep the Sovie ts from overrunning it.
What happens in Eastern Europe now matters as much as what happened in Western Europe mattered then. But almost everything else is different. Then we had full employment and a booming economy. Now we have a recession and hard times. Then we had a sense of purpose. Now we see no communist threat and President Bush's "new world order" of only a year ago is largely forgotten.
When the Marshall Plan was authorized in 1948, there was a Republican Congress and a Democratic president who was widely expected to be defeated later that year. President Truman was attacked in his own party from both the left (Henry Wallace and the Progressives) and the right (Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats). He was reelected.
It has been aptly said that Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy. George Bush is no Harry Truman, either, and that is maybe the biggest change in our circumstances since 1948.