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How American Presidential Contenders Talk About Russia

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Can American politicians talk sensibly about Russia? Major statements in the last year by leading contenders for the next presidential election in 2020 are not encouraging: they have presented severely distorted views of Russia and grossly exaggerated threats from the Kremlin. However, some influential politicians in the United States do have more realistic and balanced perspectives on Russia. Observers who wish for improved American-Russian relations should therefore be patient and not abandon all hope.

A year ago former Vice President Joe Biden published one of the longest statements, an article in Foreign Affairs that outlined “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.” To his credit, Biden was relatively level-headed about Russian interference in the 2016 election: in contrast to those who hyperbolically likened it to the Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks, he treated Russian efforts to influence foreign elections as a problem to be managed, not an existential threat. However, Biden also presented a nightmarish view of “tyranny” in a Russia allegedly facing drastic demographic and economic decline. Popular support for Putin’s “kleptocracy” is so shallow, Biden claimed, that it would quickly disappear if the regime did not maintain “a chokehold on society.”

That kind of caricature, which encourages notions that Washington does not need to think seriously about how to engage with Russia, was soon challenged by a high turnout election in March 2018, when more than 70 percent of voters marked their ballots for President Vladimir Putin. Many American commentators dismissed the election as a sham because of the Kremlin’s domination of television coverage and its exclusion of some potential challengers. But the election result basically reflected genuine popular approval of Putin (ranging between 60 and 80 percent), which is rooted in beliefs that he is a strong leader who restored stability after the chaos of the 1990s and revived Russian national pride. The stereotypical notion of Russia as a backward land of totalitarian repression was also contradicted in June, when more than 80,000 Americans who visited for the World Cup saw for themselves Russian cities that are clean, modern, friendly, and lively. Many American politicians, including Biden, have wished for years that Putin was not the leader of Russia. But the reality US policymakers must face is that he will be President until 2024.

What to do? Biden’s recommendation boils down to long-term containment, deterrence, and vigilance. Although he recognizes a need to “keep talking to Moscow,” the sole purpose he indicates is to avoid dangerous miscalculations. Thus, Biden’s grim vision offers little hope for any improvement in the future from the present tense stalemate.

Much like Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders envisions standing up to and telling off Putin. In Where We Go from Here, published in November 2018, Sanders combined a pacific vision of the future with a militant policy in the present. He is rightly critical of how “the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction” and he dreams of a world in which swords will be beaten into plowshares. At the same time, Sanders vows “to work in solidarity with supporters of democracy around the globe, including in Russia,” and in an aggressively Wilsonian vein he declares that “in the struggle of democracy versus authoritarianism, we intend to win.”

The trouble with that combative stance is that it disregards how crusades under the banner of democracy against autocracy have led to catastrophic wars from Iraq to Libya and have had counterproductive effects in Russia. As former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s vivid recent memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace, amply shows, his confrontational championing of democracy failed: while antagonizing Putin, it made it easier for the Kremlin to depict the small minority of Russian liberals as clients of America and led some prominent Russian democrats to distance themselves from the emotional and ideological ambassador. (During McFaul’s 2012-2014 ambassadorship the percentage of Russians with positive views of America fell from 52 to 23.)

The flourishing democracy McFaul and Sanders would like to see in Russia is not likely to spring up in the harsh glare of foreign denunciation and exhortation; it is more likely to grow in the softer light of reduced international tension. Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratization of the USSR began after summit meetings with Ronald Reagan eased Soviet fears and warmed superpower relations. Aware of that precedent, McFaul recognized at the start of the Obama administration in 2009 that “a more benign international environment for the Russian government would create better conditions for democratic change internally.” Unfortunately, McFaul later forgot his insight that “confrontation with the Kremlin would impede democratization.”

The most effective way to advance democracy around the world is not to grandstand about support for democrats in countries where the US has very little credibility but to make American democracy at home truly a model others will want to emulate. That will require facing problems such as racism, inequality, police brutality, and paralyzing partisanship that plagued America long before the 2016 election. Pugnacious preoccupation with Putin is a distraction from that goal, not a way to pursue it.

Although Sanders recognizes that “the global war on terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” he champions a different kind of war, a global battle against “oligarchy and authoritarianism.” To mobilize support for that fight, Sanders makes Putin a symbol of all the “demagogues” and “kleptocrats” who “use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.” While Kremlin officials and loyalists have indeed indulged in self-aggrandizement, that began in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, whom Americans lionized as a great democratic reformer while tycoons pillaged the economy. Loudly calling for a worldwide struggle against oligarchy and making Putin the locus of that evil, as Sanders does, will make it much more difficult to engage in quiet and effective diplomacy – a lesson Ronald Reagan learned in the 1980s. It also will complicate the quest to turn spears into pruning hooks that Sanders extolls.

One of Sanders’ major rivals on the left wing of the Democratic Party is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who formally announced her candidacy in February. Warren set out her vision of “A Foreign Policy for All” in the January/February 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs. While her sharp criticism of how American post-Cold War foreign policy has served the interests of large corporations is bold and vigorous, her alarmist depiction of Russia is ill informed and unwise.

According to Warren, “Russia became belligerent and resurgent” in response to the US promotion of rapid privatization and a wild form of capitalism in the 1990s. That inaccurate statement disregards how, in his first years as President of Russia at the start of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin eagerly pursued a strategic and economic partnership with the United States as he sought to revive Russia after the deep depression of the 1990s. When terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to call the White House to offer support. He then ordered the Russian military and intelligence services to provide important assistance to the American war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. When the George W. Bush administration announced withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2001 and then encouraged NATO expansion into the Baltic states that had been part of the former Soviet Union, Putin expressed only mild opposition because he still prioritized a partnership with Washington.

Politicians and journalists who vilify Putin ignore that history because it contradicts their claims that he is innately anti-American and aggressive. The truth is that Russia gradually reacted to U.S. policies that repeatedly threatened its interests and security, including the war against Iraq in 2003, the drive to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and the placement of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. If Warren and other prospective presidential candidates are to develop a sound strategy toward Russia they must first have an accurate understanding of the origins of contemporary Russian foreign policies and attitudes toward the United States, which have been strongly affected by US military interventions from Kosovo and Iraq to Syria and Libya.

Warren’s foreign policy vision is disappointing in several other ways. Although her desire to reduce defense spending to “sustainable levels” will be welcomed by many progressive Americans, she does not appear to have thought through how she will be able to do that after stoking fears of “a revanchist Russia that threatens Europe” (a view that disregards how key European leaders have continued to see Russia as a partner in dealing with issues such as the maintenance of the nuclear agreement with Iran). Warren declares that Washington should “impose strong, targeted penalties on Russia” as if that had not already been done, repeatedly, with no positive effect. She categorizes Putin as one of the dictators who remain in power “because they hold unwilling populations under brutal control” – disregarding how surveys of Russian public opinion have shown persistent high support for Putin and conveying a terribly distorted view of Russia as if it were one of the “captive nations” of the Cold War.

The Senator from Massachusetts invokes the memory of President John F. Kennedy in connection with her vision of how to “project American strength and values throughout the world,” but she appears to have forgotten Kennedy’s speech at American University in June 1963. In that courageous address, delivered less than eight months after the Cuban missile crisis brought the United States and the USSR to the edge of nuclear war, Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine their attitudes toward the Communist Soviet Union. Making a dramatic shift from his earlier posture as a militant Cold Warrior, Kennedy implored Americans “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side” and he reminded them that “history teaches us that enmities between nations … do not last forever.” Instead of demonizing the Soviets, Kennedy argued, Americans should focus on promoting a gradual evolution toward peaceful relations and problem solving. Kennedy’s farsighted speech helped to clear the way for a limited test ban treaty that he hoped would help to “check the spiraling arms race.” By the fall of 1963, when Kennedy authorized the sale of wheat to the Soviet Union, US relations with the USSR were more hopeful than almost anyone could have anticipated a year earlier. Warren and other prospective presidential candidates should remember Kennedy’s wise leadership on relations with Russia in the last months of his life as a model of the kind of thoughtful, articulate president we need in the third decade of the twenty-first century.

In contrast to Kennedy, Biden, Sanders, and Warren have portrayed Russia as a perpetual enemy, distorted its people’s attitudes, and exaggerated the threats it poses. They also have failed to consider how constructive dialogue with Russian leaders could promote common interests such as curbing costly spending on the modernization of nuclear arsenals, countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and combating Islamist terrorism. While Kennedy envisioned the possibility of moving beyond Cold War confrontation, the three senior prospective Democratic candidates have embraced establishment perspectives that are holdovers from the Cold War.

Even some of the younger presidential aspirants have been unable to resist the temptation to attack President Donald Trump by linking him to Russia. When Senator Kamala Harris of California announced her campaign for the presidency at the beginning of February, she claimed that foreign powers are “infecting the White House like malware.” She also asserted that in 2016 Russia not only interfered in the presidential election but also attacked “our very American identity.”

An even younger Democratic candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has sharply criticized US interventions for “regime change” around the world, is likely to face intense criticism of any statements that can be construed as “soft” on Russia. On February 1, NBC News claimed that social media experts had detected “stirrings of a possible campaign of support” for Gabbard by online accounts associated with Russia. An NBC reporter went so far as to assert that “The Kremlin already has a crush on Tulsi Gabbard.”

Although it will therefore be difficult for presidential candidates to talk reasonably about Russia, some prominent American politicians do realize the need for better relations between the two countries. For example, California Governor Jerry Brown recognized that common interests, such as avoiding nuclear war, addressing climate change and promoting mutually beneficial economic development, are much more important for the long term than the political conflicts that have marred relations in the last few years. Other politicians with sober and thoughtful perspectives on Russia include Democratic Representative Ro Khanna of California and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

If major incidents that inflame hostilities can be avoided in the next two years, there is reason to hope that eventually more American political leaders will recognize the need to move beyond the recent futile efforts to isolate, punish, and demonize Russia. During the McCarthyist hysteria of the early 1950s, when Republicans accused Democratic officials of being soft on communism or even of being traitorous agents of the Kremlin, respectful dialogue between Washington and Moscow was almost unthinkable. Yet by the summer of 1955 the McCarthyist fever broke and Eisenhower and Khrushchev met at Geneva. The resumption of discussions between top American and Soviet leaders would culminate – after some unfortunate and dangerous interruptions – in the test ban treaty and the partial détente of 1963. If leaders in Moscow and Washington show patience and restraint in the coming years, it is possible to hope for a similar improvement in relations, particularly after the presidential election in November 2020.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

David Foglesong is a professor of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of “ The American Mission and the “Evil Empire": The Crusade for a "Free Russia" Since 1881 (Cambridge University Press); and “America's Secret War Against Bolshevism”: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920 (The University of North Carolina Press).

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U.S. has a vital interest in avoiding going to war for a lie

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Photo: Bundesregierung/Denzel

Last time, it was a U.S. president, George W. Bush, who dishonestly took America into a conflict, but that at least was against a weak Third World nation. The consequences were still disastrous: thousands dead and tens of thousands of wounded Americans and hundreds of thousands dead Iraqi civilians, trillions of dollars wasted, and a Middle East in flames.

But what Zelensky would do is much more serious, writes “The American Conservative”. He called the Poland strike “a really significant escalation” requiring a response, even though the issue would have nothing to do with Ukraine had the missile been launched by Russia.

In this case, entry into the war could trigger a major conventional conflict highlighted by use of tactical nuclear weapons, or even the use of strategic nuclear strikes around the globe, from Russia to Europe to the U.S. That would be a catastrophic result for all concerned, including Ukraine.

But the missile was not from Russia, and the U.S. has a vital interest in avoiding going to war for a lie. Upbraiding Zelensky, as Biden apparently did, isn’t enough.

This isn’t the first unsettling surprise by Ukraine for Washington. While the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge was legitimate, it could escalate the conflict in dangerous ways for the U.S. So too could strikes in border Russian regions near Belgorod, and the assassination of Daria Dugina, a Russian propagandist, not combatant.

If Ukraine were operating entirely on its own, such actions would be its business. However, it has succeeded beyond any expectation only because of allied, and especially U.S., support for the Ukrainian military.

Washington also should further open diplomatic channels with Moscow, as appears to be happening, at least to some degree, given reports of CIA Director Bill Burns meeting with his Russian counterpart last week. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have also engaged with Russia, but such conversations need to be broadened to discuss possible political accommodations.

The U.S. also needs to address the Europeans, especially its most fervent hawks, who tend to be among the most lightly armed.

For instance, the Baltic states — small nations with minimal armed forces and niggardly defense efforts for governments claiming to be under imminent threat of conquest — are regarded as the most likely to engage in “freelancing,” as when Lithuania sought to block traffic between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia. Everyone knew who would be ultimately stuck fighting the war that might result if Moscow’s forces had decided to shoot their way through, and it wasn’t Vilnius.

It is easy to sacrifice someone else’s lives and money, which is essentially what most U.S. “allies” believe is their role in both bilateral and multilateral security partnerships. Washington submissively agrees to defend them, as is its duty; they generously agree to be defended, as is their right. That relationship is no longer sustainable.

America’s foreign aid should be tailored to American interests, and Washington should rethink what has become an increasingly dangerous almost “all-in” proxy war against Russia.

The U.S. should scale back military aid to Kiev, and especially Europe.

Operating as Europe’s patsy is a serious problem, even in peace.

The time for the Europeans to take their defense seriously is long overdue. But that will happen only when Washington stops doing everything for them. America’s military remain busy around the world. The Europeans should secure their own continent, relieving the U.S. of at least one needless military responsibility.

Zelensky’s misleading missile gambit reinforces the necessity of a change in course for Washington.

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Thanksgiving, The World Cup and Sports Celebrities

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Forty-six million turkeys surrender their lives so Americans can celebrate Thanksgiving.  It is an occasion where traditionally families gather together for a scrumptious meal of turkey and trimmings, numerous side dishes and pumpkin pie, followed by … college football on TV — that is American football, a game somewhat similar to rugby. 

The holiday is meant to commemorate the first Thanksgiving when the pilgrims who ventured to America gave thanks for a good harvest.  It was a time when a poor harvest could have meant famine in winter.  Never now in our sophisticated world where we import grapes from the southern hemisphere (Chile) for consumption in winter and many fruits are available year round.

This year there is the added entertainment of the soccer World Cup in Qatar, being played out in eight  purpose-built stadiums, seven new and one refurbished.  Most will be converted for other uses after the event, a change from the past.  

The US now has a team that held England, where the game was invented, to a draw.  The favorites remain  the Latin American powerhouses like Brazil and Argentina but the Europeans can on occasion pull off a surprise.

Why certain games are popular in one country and not another is difficult to explain.  India and China, the world’s most populous countries, are absent at the World Cup.  On the other hand, India is a powerhouse in another British game: cricket.  And China remains a top performer at the Olympics.

The crowd turning out for cricket matches, particularly between arch rivals India and Pakistan remain unmatched by other sports played there, even field hockey where the two countries have also been fairly successful. 

Leveraging sports celebrity into a political career is also possible but success on the cricket pitch may not always be transferred to administrative competence.  Imran Khan’s innings as prime minister led to members of his own party defecting, and ended when he lost his parliamentary majority.

Still attracting large crowds of supporters who are entertained at his rallies before he himself appears, he is asking his supporters to march to the capital — echoes of another leader this time in the US, Donald Trump, who has just announced a bid for re-election.

Meanwhile, Imran Khan has been secretly recorded planning illegal tactics and barred from holding political office by the courts in Pakistan.  Exactly how he plans to rule if his party or coalition were to win is not clear — by proxy perhaps.

If all this is not enough, he has become notorious for doing U-turns on policy leaving his party members and supporters scrambling in his wake — a reminder if ever there was of the old Chinese curse:  “May you live in interesting times.”

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Ron Paul: Biden Administration accept that it has a “Zelensky problem”

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Last week the world stood on the very edge of a nuclear war, as Ukraine’s US-funded president, Vladimir Zelensky, urged NATO military action over a missile that landed on Polish soil.”

This is a comment from the prominent American political leader Ronald Ernest Paul was for many years the member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas. Three times he sought the Presidency of the United States: once as the Libertarian Party nominee and twice as a candidate for the Republican Party. He continues in his comment:

“But there was a problem. The missile was fired from Ukraine – likely an accident in the fog of war. Was it actually a Russian missile, of course, that might mean World War III.

‘While Zelensky has been treated as a saint by the US media, the Biden Administration, and both parties in Congress, something unprecedented happened this time: the Biden Administration pushed back. According to press reports, several Zelensky calls to Biden or senior Biden Staff went unanswered.

‘The Biden Administration went on to publicly dispute Zelensky’s continued insistence that Russia shot missiles into NATO-Member Poland. After two days of Washington opposition to his claims, Zelensky finally, sort of, backed down.

‘We’ve heard rumors of President Biden’s frustration over Zelensky’s endless begging and ingratitude for the 60 or so billion dollars doled out to him by the US government, but this is the clearest public example of the Biden Administration’s acceptance that it has a “Zelensky problem.”

‘Zelensky must have understood that Washington and Brussels knew it was not a Russian missile.

‘Considering the vast intelligence capabilities of the US in that war zone, it is likely the US government knew in real time that the missiles were not Russian. For Zelensky to claim otherwise seemed almost unhinged. And for what seems like the first time, Washington noticed.

‘As a result, there has been a minor – but hopefully growing – revolt among conservatives in Washington over this dangerous episode. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene introduced legislation demanding an audit of the tens of billions of dollars shipped to Ukraine – with perhaps $50 billion more in the pipeline.

‘When the Ukraine war hysteria finally dies down – as the Covid hysteria died down before it – it will become obvious to vastly more Americans what an absolute fiasco this whole thing has been,” writes Ron Paul.

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