On this day, which marks three months of war in Ukraine, we publish an excerpt from Adrift by Amin Maalouf

From Adrift by Amin Maalouf:


Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, had resolved to commit his country to a path of economic and political liberalization, and seemed prepared to give up the vast Eastern European empire carved out by Stalin after the Second World War. Faced with an unexpected situation, one that exceeded its wildest hopes, the United States had a choice: either it could support Gorbachev’s plan, offer him the economic and political support he needed to facilitate the difficult and courageous transition on which he had embarked; or it could exploit the weakness of the rival superpower in order to crush it.

For the United States, this was a thorny dilemma. It had spent forty years waging proxy wars around the globe against a formidable adversary whose military arsenal represented a lethal threat. Now that the Soviet Union was down, should the USA help it get back on its feet? Or take advantage of the situation to rid itself of a bitter rival once and for all? The latter option seemed the most pragmatic, and is the one they adopted. The United States did nothing to save Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was allowed to collapse and was then dismembered. Several of its former republics were integrated into NATO, despite vehement protests from Moscow.

In Washington, a few lone voices spoke up to say that this was a mistake. The most notable of these was George F. Kennan, a widely respected elder statesman, who at the time was almost a living legend. It was he who, in the 1940s, had warned America not to place too much trust in its Soviet ally, that a long and bitter clash would take place between the two world powers; it was he who first stressed the need for a policy of “containment” to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding—militarily, politically, ideologically. Kennan was universally acknowledged as having played a decisive role in winning the Cold War, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He was celebrated as one of the chief architects of the strategy, and a model of clear-sightedness and determination.

Now that the victory he had fought to achieve had been won, Kennan’s essential message to his countrymen, and especially to those policymakers who consulted him, might be summed up: Let us not forget why we fought! We wanted democracy to triumph over dictatorship, and we have succeeded. We must now draw the necessary conclusions. We cannot continue to treat former enemies as though they will be enemies forever! What exemplified the veteran diplomat was that his passionate loathing for the Soviet system was matched by a deep love for the Russian people, their culture, and their literature—particularly Chekhov.

But although he insisted over and over that humiliating the Russians would merely encourage the rise of nationalist and militarist movements, and slow any progress towards democracy, no one was prepared to listen. As happens all too often, sadly, in moments of triumph, the magnanimity Kennan advocated was perceived as weakness and naivety. The view that prevailed was that the United States should press its advantage, without hesitation, and not allow itself to be mollified by moral scruples or intellectual qualms. In 1997, when President Clinton asked one of his advisors whether he should have listened to Kennan’s warnings, he was told that the veteran diplomat was mistaken, that the Russians would eventually accept everything the United States imposed, because they had no choice.

Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way
is published by World Editions and available here.


Amin Maalouf was born in Beirut. He studied economics and sociology and then worked as an international reporter until the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975. Maalouf and his family decided to leave their country and settled in Paris in 1976, where he became editor in chief for the newspaper Jeune Afrique. He published his first book, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, in 1983. In 1993, The Rock of Tanios, his fifth novel, won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France. Maalouf is a member of the Académie Française and in 2010 was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature for his entire oeuvre. His work has been translated into fifty languages and his most recent bestselling novel to be published in English is The Disoriented.