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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

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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