Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News
Bronner writes: "Russia is no longer the country of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost, just as the United States is no longer the country of Obama."
onald Trump’s presidency and the legitimacy of American elections have both been compromised by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Hacking in 21 states by Russian nationals (using diplomatic cover) and attempted interference by the former Soviet Union in French and German elections facilitate the vision of a broad strategy with the goal of subverting Western democratic processes. Coupled with Russia’s increasing military involvement in Syria and the still potentially explosive conflict in Ukraine, deep-seated fears are reinforcing the emergence of a new cold-war mentality in the United States.
Whether the actual misconduct of Trump’s team has been exaggerated or not, which has been suggested by some legitimate publications, post-communist anti-communism now increasingly serves as a point of reference for foreign policy. That is not only the case for neo-conservative Republicans fearful of an erratic Trump like Senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who demand a more “muscular” foreign policy. It is also true for liberal hawks like Hillary Clinton and Senator Chuck Schumer. The Democratic Party’s preoccupation with leveling tougher sanctions against Russia and taking a hard line on Putin’s policies in Ukraine and the Middle East is intimately connected with exploiting the scandals of the Trump administration, denying the party’s stunning electoral defeat in 2016, and creating the enemy that the national security state needs.
Russia is no longer the country of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, just as the United States is no longer the country of Obama. Putin is not some innocent enmeshed in the media uproar over hacking and alleged attempts to buy political influence. That response is disingenuous. The idea that Russia would never attempt a cyber-attack on American electoral institutions is as absurd as the idea that the United States would not (or has not) done exactly the same thing in Iran and elsewhere. There is also a way in which the American and Russian presidents are mirror images of one another. The presidents of both states seem intent upon uncovering non-existent conspiracies, attacking “fake news,” aligning with genocidal dictators, and pursuing the dream of making their country “great again.”
Character bleeds into politics. Untrammeled egoism is the tie that binds Trump and Putin, and there is danger in what Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.” Each believes that he can outwit the other, yet exhibits a peculiar form of comradeship combined with neurotic feelings of inferiority that fuel potentially catastrophic forms of competition between them. Their relationship is strangely reminiscent of that between the two fascist leaders Hynkel and Napoloni in Charlie Chaplin’s unsurpassable The Great Dictator (1940). Indeed, Trump and Putin both identify national interests with their own.
Meaningful foreign policy initiatives call for breaking that supposed connection. Russia is neither a “friend” nor an “enemy.” The choice is not simply between Trump and his critics. There is another alternative. American foreign policy should treat Russia in a professional rather than an ad hoc emotional manner: coldly on some matters (electoral intervention anywhere), warily on others (Ukraine and Crimea), and with the prospect of cooperation on still others (Afghanistan and Syria, Iran, and the fight against ISIS).
The Manichean idea of being “friends” or “enemies” is not only simplistic, and an old song for a new time, but obscures the need for nuance in judging conflicts of interest. Neither the United States nor Russia currently has much to recommend it with regard to respect for human rights or national self-determination. Those are the concerns that should guide progressive judgments, not blind allegiance to one side or the other. Meaningful foreign policy initiatives require nuance and nuance requires distinctions. Not photo-ops but sustained negotiations on developing a differentiated agenda are necessary. Since the election of Donald Trump, however, we have witnessed much of the former and little of the latter. That is what needs to change.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His most recent books are The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists and The Bitter Taste of Hope: Ideals, Ideologies, and Interests in the Age of Obama
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