But before he was running for president, Bloomberg spoke about foreign policy off the cuff in interviews. The comments he made show a different side of the former New York mayor’s worldview — specifically, sympathy and understanding for authoritarian leaders and their aggressive or repressive actions. Bloomberg has already received significant criticism for saying that Xi Jinping “is not a dictator” in a September interview with PBS’s “Firing Line.” He also described the Chinese leader as “responsive” to the democratic wishes of his people.
Now another interview has surfaced. In remarks Bloomberg gave at the Aspen Institute in February 2015, he described Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and hostility to the West as not only understandable but also equivalent to actions the United States has taken over its 200-plus-year history.
“I was talking to somebody the other day about Russia, and nobody thinks that Russia should be in the Ukraine and trying to take land in an independent sovereign country,” he told moderator Jennifer Bradley. “Except, if you really think about it, what would America do if we had a contiguous country where a lot of people in that country wanted to be Americans. Texas and California ring a bell? We just went and took it. I’m not suggesting that Putin’s doing a good thing or that it should be allowed. But we did this. That was 200 years ago, but we did it.”
It doesn’t appear to occur to Bloomberg that there are several important differences between Russia sending little green men into Crimea to steal part of Ukraine’s democracy in 2014 vs. the United States annexing California after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. For one thing, American expansion in the 19th century fit (sadly) international norms of behavior at the time. By contrast, Russia’s attack on Ukraine represented a stark departure from an international order that had remained intact since the end of World War II.
Bloomberg’s penchant for false equivalence didn’t stop there. He also compared the Russian takeover of Crimea to the United States’ possession of a military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“And you want a warm water port? Guantanamo Bay ring a bell? Someplace. We kept that,” Bloomberg said.
The United States has many warm-water ports, and the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay was founded in a 1903 treaty with the Cuban government, not a military invasion by unmarked special forces troops. Also, U.S. military bases abroad are meant to project stability, while the Russian occupation of Ukrainian land is meant to ensure that Ukraine never becomes a stable, Western-facing democracy.
Bloomberg then explained that Putin has good reason to be aggressive in Europe because, according to Bloomberg, the West provoked him by expanding NATO.
“One of the reasons that Putin has reacted the way he did is there was a movement to have NATO be right along the Russian border,” he said. “If you read Russian history, they have always been invaded, and so they know this meant they had a mentality that the world was out to get them.”
This is an accurate-enough assessment of Putin’s perspective. But it failed to acknowledge the reason NATO expansion was pursued — namely, because the countries of Eastern and Central Europe were desperate to escape Russian control, which brought with it political, religious and economic repression.
Bloomberg then went on to suggest that the United States was guilty of hypocrisy because it led an expansion of Western power and influence up to Russia’s borders while objecting to the Soviet Union’s attempts to place strategic weapons in the Western Hemisphere in the 1960s.
“And we did the same thing that he insisted on, not letting another country come near us with their weapons when we stopped Russia from putting missiles in Cuba,” he said.
Bloomberg then counseled against viewing relations with Moscow simplistically. “We'll never be able to stop Iran from being a nuclear power” unless we have Russia “as an ally,” he said. “I'm just pointing out that all these things are complex,” he added.
He was right about that. Foreign policy is indeed complex, especially when it comes to dealing with Russia. That’s why Bloomberg’s misunderstanding of history, false equivalence and sympathy for Putin’s perspective is troubling as he now vies to be the leader of the free world.