The cliché “time flies” is a hackneyed phrase for good reason—it’s true. This summer I was determined to dedicate myself to reflection and thought. What happened, however, turned out to be so much more. I am nearly unable to remember certain weeks, which has as much to do with the accelerating sense of time as it does the shocking events that tugged at my heart and upended my thinking.
On July 30th this summer, my beloved older sister Anne died unexpectedly in New York City. After a two-year COVID hiatus, I was fortunate to have dinner with her two weeks before her passing.
The deep bonds between us were perhaps stronger since we suffered from none of the rivalry that makes some sibling relationships complicated. We loved and admired each other. I was astonished by her New York chic, and her acclaimed design talent. I was also moved by her kindness to others and her unflagging loyalty to family, friends, and co-workers.
And on her part, she used to tell me that she was in awe of me for my willingness to stay in Washington DC and involve myself in hard-nosed issues related to our country’s uncertain future and the threats to our national security. For whatever reasons, she looked to me to play the public role of managing “the family matters.” She also encouraged me to pursue audacious plans and always had my back.
Anne was one of a kind—and I still wonder who I am going to call several times a week for our regular “reality checks” and “you wouldn’t believe it” updates.
On the international scene this summer, Mikhail Gorbachev—former president of the Soviet Union—died on August 30, after years of illness. He presided over the end of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the USSR. He stepped back from using the USSR’s considerable force when a less courageous man might have instigated civil war. He was convinced that the world had changed and that “new Russia” and the “Commonwealth of Independent States” (the former USSR) would be welcomed into the international community and what he would call: “our common European home.” Over the years, I met the Soviet leader as many as twelve times, sometimes in small settings. A handful of years after Gorbachev relinquished power in 1991, I also interviewed him, one-on-one, on NATO expansion and other international security questions.
Gorbachev’s death represents the passing of a Russian voice that seemed to speak to many in the West. Though a controversial figure at home, he was for many old Cold Warriors a symbol of a new era—one that has now collapsed.
And not long after Labor day, the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, died peacefully on the 8th of September. Last month, I shared with you the interview I gave to Sky News on this sad development. She stood for things that seem to be ebbing away—like duty, commitment, and tradition. The Queen’s remarkable life also represents the end of the old order.
Set against these events has been the increasingly frustrating and dangerous war between Russia and Ukraine—a thoroughly modern conflict that has been allowed to commence with little or no US diplomatic effort to stop it. It is evident we have few people in our government who know the Russian and Ukrainian cultures, and the real history of how the Soviet Union came to an end. Furthermore, there are not enough policymakers who seem to understand the existential crisis that could emerge, not just between these two combatants, but for the world. (Too many of our “talking heads” seem to toss off the potential of a nuclear strike, as if it could never happen to us, accidentally or otherwise.)
If our government took these existential dangers seriously, we would have a more robust presence in Moscow, and government officials at the critical levels would be in contact with their counterparts. We would be feverishly working to manage a situation that could become considerably worse than it is right now. Not only are such contacts no longer taking place, we do not even have an ambassador in Russia—a country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Since I am not sure I will be writing on this in the future, please take some time to read about the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the long-held secret on how it was eventually resolved. All sides understood that the presence of strategic nuclear weapons changed how war and diplomacy had to be conducted if we are to avoid risking the annihilation of civilization itself.
As painful and bewildering as these times have been, they will, by definition, lead to transition and change—as well as new beginnings. But it will take time—and perhaps contentious dialogue and missteps before we fully understand how interconnected the world really is.
Though these figures are gone, especially one who was personally very dear to me, I am inspired by what they stood for and comforted to know that they, at least, can rest peacefully.