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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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Americas

Minor Successes And The Coronavirus Disaster: Is Trump A Dead Duck?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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That reminder from the Bible, ‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ may give us pause — but not journalists who by all appearances assume exemption.  And the stones certainly bruise.

Evidence for the bruises lies in the latest poll numbers.  Overall, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 50 to 43 percent, a margin that has continued to increase since January.  It is also considerably wider than the few points lead Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago.  It gets worse for Trump. 

In the industrial states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump in 2016 won by razor thin margins, he is losing by over 4 percent.  Also key to his victory was Wisconsin where, despite his success in getting dairy products into Canada, he is behind by a substantial 7 percent.  Key states Ohio and Florida are also going for the Democrats.

Trump was not doing so badly until the coronavirus struck and during the course of his news conferences he displayed an uncaring persona larded with incompetence.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man he fired for correcting Trumpian exaggerations became a hero and Trump the bully.

If that bullying nature won him small rewards with allies, he hit an impasse with China and Iran … while bringing the two closer to each other.  Then there is the border wall, a sore point for our southern neighbor Mexico.  President Lopez Obrador made sure the subject never came up at the July meeting with Trump,   Thus Mexico is not paying for it so far and will not be in the foreseeable future.

The United Arab Emirates, a conglomeration of what used to be the Trucial States under British hegemony. have agreed to formalize its already fairly close relations with Israel.  In return, Israel has postponed plans to annex the West Bank.  Whether or not it is in Israel’s long term interest to do so is a debatable question because it provides much more powerful ammunition to its critics who already accuse it of becoming an apartheid regime.  However, it had become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sop to the right wing who will have to wait.  Of course, the reality is that Israel is already the de facto ruler.

If Mr. Trump was crowing about the agreement signed on September 15, although it is akin to someone signing an agreement with Puerto Rico while the United States remains aloof.  As a postscript, the little island of Bahrain also signed a peace deal with Israel.  Bahrain has had its own problems in that a Sunni sheikh rules a Shia populace.  When the Shia had had enough, Saudi and UAE troops were used to end the rebellion.  Bahrain is thus indebted to the UAE.

How many among voters will know the real value of these historic (according to Trump) deals particularly when he starts twittering his accomplishments as the election nears?

There things stand.  As they say, there is nothing worse than peaking too early.  Bettors are still favoring Trump with their money.  The longer anyone has been in politics the more there is to mine, and for an opponent to use to his/her advantage.  Time it seems is on Trump’s side.  

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Americas

U.S. Elections: Trump’s Strategy of “Peace” might help

Sojla Sahar

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Presidential elections in the United States are around the corner and campaigns by the presidential candidates are in full swing in whole of the United States. The Republicans have nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate whereas the Democrats have chosen the seasoned politician Joe Biden who has also served as the vice president under the Obama administrations. Over here, a fact shouldn’t be forgotten that the so-called Democrats have also imposed an unnecessary war and burden of foreign intervention on the people of America. Let it US intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria this has imposed huge financial burden on the American people that is being pay by their taxes. United States has around 200,000 troops scattered in the world. There are around 38,000 in Japan, 34,000 in Germany, 24,000 in Korea, 5,000 Bahrain, 5,000 in Iraq, 3,000 in Spain and 12,000 in Afghanistan. Under the Trump administration, much needed decision was taken by the administration for pulling out of troops from all the unwanted and unwelcomed foreign interventions. This has cost huge monetary burden and heavy taxes on the people of US. These interventions were a gift by Democrats to its people that led American to nothing.

Under Trump administration, US decided to withdrawal its troops from Northern Syria. US have around 1,000 troops positioned in the Northern Syria for deterring Iranian influence and countering ISIS expansion in the country. They have decided only to leave special operations force in Syria and will pull out the rest from the conflict zone. It is not the task that will come to an end in days it will take years and huge budget to relocate the troops. This decision might be a breath of fresh air for the Americans but it might weaken the US military positions in front of the Russian military on the globe. United States also has American military troop’s presence in Germany as well. Trump administration is willing to reduce the troops in Germany by around 25%. There is around 11,900 troop’s present in Germany for securing Europe’s security. The Trump administration is focused on relocation and strategic repositioning of the US troops in the world. For this, the Trump administration has decided to pull out its 6,400 troops from Germany as they whole burden is on the US shoulders for costs maintaining alliance and Germany is not paying its share in the defense budget of NATO putting all the burden on the US citizens. Trump administration also slammed the European countries of not paying their due share in NATO defense budget. Italy spends about 1.22% from its budget and Belgium spends around 0.93% from its GDP on the NATO defense budget.

In addition, the Trump administration has shown that they do not want war and conflict. They have also retreated themselves from the foreign intervention drama that has led to damage to the peace of the world. Trump has given an impression that he aims to bring peace in the world not by arms but through negotiations with the conflict actors. Its example is US negotiations with Taliban’s for ending the endless war fruitless war that brought destruction for Afghanistan and brutally damaged the standing of US in the world.

There are around 12,000 American troops in Afghanistan that are now reduced to 8,600 troops. The rest are sent home and some are being settled in Italy and Belgium. The Trump administration has declared to reduce the number of troop in Afghanistan by 5,000 by November and will reach 4,000 by June 2021. They are aiming to completely withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months if a concrete peace deal is signed between Taliban’s and United States.

There were more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan that went there to fight war on terror but are coming back empty handed. But still in even in these circumstances it will benefit the American people and their issues will be addressed in a better way. Not just this, Trump administration has also decided to withdraw its troops from Iraq that has been there for more than 19 years now putting a burden on American shoulders.

 All of this decision by the Trump administration shows that under Trump USA will go for the isolationist impulses that will help them to rebuild domestically and resolve the problem of its people who are indulged in unemployment, poverty, crumbling health system particularly after the outbreak of COVID-19. The health system of United States has proven to be fragile. Despite of being the wealthiest country, its health system crumbled within days leaving thousands of people to die in waiting for their appointment. Many of the people had severe financial crisis that refrained them to go to the hospital and get them treated.

According to some sources many hospitals in New York were running out of financial and had to send people on leave because they were unable to pay them. This led to massive unemployment during such desperate times of the year. Developing countries like Pakistan coped with the virus in a better way despite of having poor health facilities.

Under Trump, USA is moving towards “American First” strategy that will lead towards massive shrinkage in the defense budget of US military. The strategy of retrenchment and aversion of foreign intervention might help Trump in winning the next elections because right now United States has more domestic issues than international problems. The flag of truce in the hand of Trump and aim of brining peace in the world might bring him back in the oval office. It seems like Trump will make USA resign from its self-proclaimed post of “world policemen” that will benefit the world and the people of USA.

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Mistrust between Russia and the United States Has Reached an All-Time High

Igor Ivanov

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In August 2020, Politico magazine published three letters outlining their authors’ views of the ways the United States, and the West in general, should build relations with Russia. The first, published on August 5 and signed by over 100 prominent American politicians, diplomats and military leaders, states that Washington’s present policy towards Moscow “isn’t working” and that it is time that the United States “rethink” it. The gist of the proposals is that the United States “must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be, fully utilizing our strengths but open to diplomacy.”

This letter prompted a response, first from another group of former American ambassadors and political scientists (Politico, August 11) and then from several eminent politicians from Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (August 13). Both groups agree that now is not the time to reconsider policies toward Russia.

I am well acquainted with many of the signatories to these three statements. I worked closely with some of them during my tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and met some of them during negotiations. I still keep in touch with several of them, as we participate in various informal international projects. Since most parties to the emerging discussion are both highly experienced professionals and public figures, their stances on Russia are well known. The list of signatories under each statement hardly came as a surprise to anyone.

I do not think it makes sense to dwell in too much detail on the arguments presented by the parties. At the same time, proceeding from my own experience of U.S.–Russia relations, I would think that I have the right to put forward some considerations of my own.

First of all, on whether a “new reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow is either possible or desirable. One gets the impression that the authors of the letters see the “old reset” spearheaded by the Obama administration as a kind of bonus or advance offered by the United States to Russia in the hope that the latter would “behave” properly. The debate focuses on whether or not Russia has justified this “advance,” and whether or not it deserves a new bonus. Personally, I cannot recall a single instance where the United States (during Barack Obama’s presidency or under any other administration) gave Russia a “bonus” or “advance” of any kind, made a unilateral concession or indeed did anything that was not in the interests of the United States.

As I see it, the “reset” fully met the long-term interests of both states, particularly in security. Only a very biased observer would claim that the New START Treaty constituted a unilateral concession to Moscow on the part of Washington. Similarly, NATO’s call at the 2010 Lisbon Summit for a true strategic partnership with Russia can hardly be viewed as a unilateral concession. In both instances, the interests of both parties were taken into account, as were the interests of international security in general.

Russia and the United States remain the world’s leading nuclear powers, boasting the largest strategic weapons capabilities. Moscow and Washington have been engaged in mutual deterrence for decades now. However, an objective analysis of the challenges and threats to Russian and U.S. security shows that the very real dangers that do exist emanate not from the two countries themselves, but rather from processes and trends that lie outside the bilateral relations. Accordingly, any predictions about the possible and desirable prospects for interaction between the two states will be incomplete at the very least if they are taken out of the overall context of the development of the international system.

We have to admit that mistrust between Russia and the United States has reached an all-time high. It will take years, maybe even decades, to rectify this situation. However, I am confident that, sooner or later, we will have to start moving in that direction, not because one party will “wear” the other down, forcing it to make unilateral concessions or even throw itself at the mercy of the winner. First, each side has a large safety margin and is willing to continue the confrontation for many years to come. Second, history shows us that peace achieved through unilateral concession rarely lasts.

Life itself, by which I mean each side understanding the long-term need of its own security, will force the United States and Russia to resume progress towards cooperation. Such an understanding, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the elections in the two countries, or with the opportunistic calculations of individual political forces. Regardless of these calculations, the world is rapidly moving towards the line beyond which a global disaster looms with increasing clarity. Once we take a peek beyond this line, the entire world, primarily its leading states, which bear special responsibility for the fate of the world, will have to make decisions that go beyond their own immediate interests.

As for the debates on when and with whom the United States should enter into a dialogue with Russia, I believe such discussions have zero practical value. It would be extremely unreasonable and even irresponsible to defer talks in the hope that more convenient or more accommodating interlocutors will appear in the partner country or, alternatively, that a more favourable general political situation for negotiations will appear.

I would like to refer to my own experience. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I constantly kept in touch with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and then with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. That was in the late 1990s–early 2000s. The bombings of Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, the Middle Eastern crisis, the expansion of NATO and many, many other events objectively made the U.S.–Russia dialogue more difficult. Obviously, our views on many issues differed greatly. But we never broke off our dialogue, not for a day, no matter how difficult it was. Strictly speaking, this is the art of diplomacy: conducting a dialogue with a difficult partner, achieving agreements where the stances of the parties veer widely and the chances of reaching a comprise appear minimal.

Critics will hasten to say that the U.S.–Russia dialogue in the early 21st century failed to prevent many conflicts and wars, and that is true. But it also helped prevent far graver consequences and, where possible, even led to the signing of important mutually acceptable agreements (New START, etc.). The experience of global diplomacy tells us that the only way to find solutions is through dialogue. The sooner our leading politicians realize it, the faster we will step away from mutual public accusations and destructive information wars waged with cutting-edge technologies and move towards earnest talks on the crucial issues of the 21st-century agenda.

Giving general advice is easy. It is even easier to take the high horse, insisting on staying faithful to one’s values and principles. It is much more difficult for those who have been accorded the requisite powers to make specific decisions. As the great American economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” All we can do is hope that politicians in Russia and the United States will prefer the unpalatable to the disastrous.

From our partner RIAC

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