It happened today - June 29, 2015

Flight patchSo here’s a great pseudo-event in world history. Or if you prefer out-of-this-world history. On June 29 1995, exactly 20 years ago, the American space shuttle Atlantis docked at Russia’s Mir space station to form the largest artificial satellite ever to orbit Earth.

It was technically impressive, of course. Space exploration always is; the margin of error is very small and the energy required to get things into space means you can’t take a bunch of spare stuff to fix problems even if you get time. But that’s not the point.

The point here is that a propaganda stunt is just that. It was done to show how warm and cuddly everyone was feeling, even though not everyone was feeling that way, because those who were and those who weren’t both found the image useful.

The problem is, they didn’t find it useful in similar ways. Western politicians were busy spending the “peace dividend” from the unexpected end of the Cold War so they rather needed peace to be the normal condition in international affairs, the past few thousand years since writing was invented a regrettable but temporary exception, and harmony the rule.

Everyone else needed the West to let down its guard so they could regroup. As too often, there’s a curious temporary converge in the short-run aims of liberal politicians in democracies and illiberal ones in non-democracies. But there’s no long-run convergence and we should beware of the temporary ones, because for separate reasons both wish to deny that the latter are actively plotting against the former.

True, when Atlantis met Mir Vladimir Putin had not yet risen to supreme power in Russia. But his rise did not take place in a vacuum and despite the genuinely well-meaning Boris Yeltsin, much of Russia’s political class was, and remains, profoundly anti-Western. And the fact that American and Russian engineers can bring two spaceships together when the politicians want them do doesn’t mean the two societies and cultures are converging in ways that make such events happen spontaneously as an expression of their common bond.

It’s like those hockey series we used to stage so we (Canadians) could show friendship and they (the Soviets) could crush us to prove the superiority of their system. We weren’t so much being played for suckers as playing ourselves for suckers. And that never ends well.

It is of course an old-fashioned view. But then, the Gods of the Copybook Headings lie in wait for those who abandon old-fashioned views.

Incidentally I'm so old-fashioned I still prefer Earth’s natural satellite, and am sorry a space station is frequently now the brightest object in the night sky. And I don’t believe stunts contribute to world peace, or space peace.