THE BLOG
05/19/2014 12:09 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

Blame Russia for Russian aggression

Some denounce the United States for Russia's reversion to brutal expansionism into its "Near Abroad'' because we encouraged certain Central and Eastern European countries to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The argument is that NATO's expansion led ''Holy Russia'' to fear that it was being "encircled.'' (A brief look at a map of Eurasia would suggest the imprecision of that word.)

In other words, it's all our fault. If we had just kept the aforementioned victims of past Russian and Soviet expansionism out of the Western Alliance, Russia wouldn't have, for example, attacked Georgia and Ukraine. If only everyone had looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and decided to trust him...

Really? Russia has had authoritarian or totalitarian expansionist regimes for hundreds of years, with only a few years' break. How could we have necessarily done anything to end this tradition for all time after the collapse of the Soviet iteration of Russian imperialism? And should we blame Russia's closest European neighbors for trying to protect themselves from being menaced again by their gigantic and traditionally aggressive neighbor to the east? Russia, an oriental despotism, is the author of current Russian imperialism.

Some of the "Blame America" rhetoric in the U.S. in the Ukraine crisis can be attributed to U.S. narcissism: the idea that everything that happens in the world is because of us. But Earth is a big, messy place with nations and cultures whose actions stem from deep history and habits that have little or nothing to do with big, self-absorbed, inward-looking America and its five percent of the world population.

And we tend to think that "personal diplomacy'' and American enthusiasm and friendliness can persuade foreign leaders to be nice. Thus Franklin Roosevelt thought that he could handle "Joe Stalin'' and George W. Bush could be pals with another dictator (albeit much milder) Vladimir Putin. They would, our leaders thought, be brought around by our goodwill (real or feigned).

But as a friend used to say when friends told him to "have a nice day'':

"I have other plans.''

With the fall of the Soviet Empire, there was wishful thinking that the Russian Empire (of which the Soviet Empire was a version with more globalist aims) would not reappear. But Russian xenophobia, autocracy, anger and aggressiveness never went away.

Other than occupying Russia as we did Japan and western Germany after World War II, there wasn't much we could do to make Russia overcome its worst impulses. (And Germany, and even Japan, had far more some experience with parliamentary democracy than Russia had.) The empire ruled from the Kremlin is too big, too old and too insular to be changed quickly into a peaceable and permanent democracy.

There's also that old American ''can-do'' impatience -- the idea that every problem is amenable to a quick solution. For some reason, I well remember that two days after Hurricane Andrew blew through Dade County, Fla., in 1992, complaints rose to a chorus that President George H.W. Bush had not yet cleaned up most of the mess. How American!

And of course, we're all in the centers of our own universes. Consider public speaking, which terrifies many people. We can bring to it extreme self-consciousness. But as a TV colleague once reminded me, most of the people in the audience are not fixated on you the speaker but on their own thoughts, such as on what to have for dinner that night. "And the only thing they might remember about you is the color of the tie you're wearing.''

The grumpy writer John O'Hara advised his daughter to remember that "everyone is at the center of his own universe.''

We Americans could use a little more fatalism about other countries.