Max Hastings, journalist: ‘All our politicians are very bad at telling electorates unpopular things’

The British journalist and historian talks to EL PAÍS about his book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, its parallels with the war in Ukraine and why Brexit was ‘insane’

Rafa de Miguel
Max Hastings in London on May 19.
Max Hastings in London on May 19.Ione Saizar

Max Hastings, 77, has the courage, authority and wisdom to say what he wants, even if many do not like it. He covered the Vietnam War as a BBC war correspondent, was editor-in-chief of emblematic newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph — which he managed to lead to a centrist conservatism — and the Evening Standard, and is the author of more than 30 military history books that are as entertaining as they are rigorous. His latest book, Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962, analyzes a moment in history when intelligence prevailed over instinct and humanity was spared from a nuclear disaster. Hastings draws parallels and lessons from the current crisis in Ukraine. And he is not shy about attacking Brexit or expressing his contempt for former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who worked for him at The Daily Telegraph.

Question. You say that the older you get, the more convinced you are of the fallibility of intelligence services. The Missile Crisis was a good example.

Answer. What is scary about the Missile Crisis is that you’ve got this event that brought the world to the brink of a cataclysm, and yet all along, both sides were completely misunderstanding each other. And the Americans, they were always looking for complex motives, and complexities in Russian behavior, which didn’t exist. What the Russians did was as stupid as it looks, but sitting around the table in the White House, they talked and argued for days about what the Russian game might be. And the idea that the Russians were really stupid enough to think they could conceal these missiles onto palm trees in Cuba was almost unbelievable.

Q. The Americans, and the Soviets, miscalculated.

A. We know that the Russians at every stage were misreading American behavior. At the last stage, the reason they rushed to withdraw their missiles was because they absolutely believed that the Americans were on the brink of launching an invasion of Cuba, which actually wasn’t true. The Americans were nowhere near launching that. It’s very sobering to consider that even to this day, great decisions are being made with extraordinary limited knowledge of what was going on.

Q. Are there lessons from the Missile Crisis that can be applied to the crisis in Ukraine?

A. Russia is different from the Soviet Union of the past Europe, and in some ways it’s a more dangerous country because the old Soviet Union was managed differently. Khrushchev was unquestionably the leader of the Soviet Union, but there was a Politburo to whom he had to answer. And the Politburo did have opinions and did express opinions. And today, as far as we know, there is no Politburo in the Kremlin. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin appears able to make all manner of decisions entirely alone. Sometimes I read articles by the conservative press that Putin is bluffing with his nuclear threats. Well, probably he is, but is that a risk we can safely take? After the Missile Crisis, it was clear that in the nuclear age, it’s very doubtful whether you can ever again talk about absolute victory. In the end, most conflicts end in a very unsatisfactory way.

Q. You have been criticized for expressing reservations about the consensus on what happened in Ukraine.

A. We all share the same hopes. We want to see Putin humiliated. Russian behavior may be awful. But again, Russia is a fact and Russia has opinions. We don’t have to defer to all Russian views, especially about Ukraine, where Ukraine belongs in the world, but neither can we pretend that Russia does not exist. And at the end of this conflict, when some kind of agreement is reached, I’d be very surprised if it proves possible to have any sort of deal that includes Ukraine joining NATO.

Q. The U.K. has probably been the most vocal supporter of defending Ukraine to the end.

A. I think a lot of it is empty rhetoric, because I think the British people if they’re asked to suffer beyond a certain point for Ukraine, they’re going to start getting pretty sore about this. I personally believe that Boris Johnson embraced [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, because he has no personal morality at all. He’s probably the most selfish human being I’ve ever known. I don’t believe he cared sixpence for Ukraine. But I believe he embraced Zelenskiy at a time when he learned political fortunes were in a bad way. And he found this was popular, and he stuck with it.

Q. But U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hasn’t toned down the rhetoric.

A. All our politicians are very bad these days at telling electorates unpopular or difficult things. Successive British leaders have said, ‘the Russians have got to be expelled from the Donbas or Crimea.’ And I thought they should choose their words. I believe they should have stuck to the formula of saying we support Ukraine totally, without specifying any geographical limit. It was completely irresponsible.

Q. You ask for the voices of countries that do not back the pro-Ukraine consensus to be heard.

A. We’re living in a world that is going three ways. There is the G-7 view; China, Russia and the autocracies, and also a huge slice of the world, what they loosely call the Global South, although it’s not really the south, which just refuses to take sides.

Q. Isn’t that the Non-Aligned Movement of the last century?

A. Yes, but in the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were both so powerful, and other nations so weak, that they could more or less force other countries to take sides whether they wanted to or not. That is no longer true. Now those countries feel able to say we won’t play. And it’s no good saying this is wrong or trying to convince them that what the West defends is morally correct. If you want to understand foreign affairs, it’s vital to be capable of not only accepting the other side’s logic, but also of understanding how very different their logic may be. And this is a very tough lesson to learn. And to this day, a lot of our leaders are not good at understanding this

Q. Do you share the view, expressed by many outside and within the country, that the U.K. is in decline?

A. I believe that the root of all Britain’s modern struggles is a grossly exaggerated sense of self-importance. I love this country, I don’t wish to live anywhere else. But I have a very clear vision: we’re quite a large economy, but we’re not important anymore. Before Brexit, supporters of leaving the EU had this extraordinary idea that the Americans were going to welcome us into a new trade deal. It’s not that Americans don’t like us, they’re just completely uninterested in us. They like coming here to do a little shopping and to go to the theater, but not much else.

Q. Or that Brexit is the source of many of the country’s ills?

A. I’m a left-wing conservative. I’ve always been politically at the center, but the center has been almost wiped out of politics in most countries. At our house, we take a very tough line. And since 2016, we don’t have people in our house who we know supported Brexit. I’m a passionate European. I’m a passionate internationalist. I believe, first, that our destiny had to lie with Europe. Nobody in British politics dares at the moment to say that Brexit was a catastrophe [Hastings does not count the populist Nigel Farage, who said so two weeks ago]. Nobody in the House of Commons has the courage to say Brexit was insane.

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