Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of many facets of President Obama’s foreign policy. But the past eight years have seen serious circumstances capable of dragging the U.S. into dangerous conflicts with other global actors, including Russia. The president’s measured approach to international policy is one factor that has helped the U.S. to steer clear of turning local conflicts in Ukraine and Syria in wider, global war.
But we are not out of the woods yet.
We are seeing the reemergence of rhetoric in the United States that seems intent on placing our country on a collision course with Russia. Traditionally, it was the Republican Party that was home to those advocating a hardline approach to relations with Russia. Now, thanks to Donald Trump’s bizarre embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is Democrats who are rushing to castigate Russia and its leader as the source of every global ill.
Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian regime that enriches an oligarchy while foreclosing opportunities for dissent. Democrats are right to observe that Donald Trump shares many of these characteristics or aspirations. Trump advocates an economic policy designed to shift wealth towards those who are already extraordinarily wealthy. Trump has mused about supporters shooting his opponent, his ability to persecute journalists, and the bloodbath that his advisors think should ensue if he can’t triumph in a democratic election. His convention speech was defined by its draconian “law and order” drumbeat.
My own worry is that the way in which Democrats are capitalizing on this moment—which has the benefit of highlighting Trump’s authoritarian leanings—might wind up creating a set of narratives and conditions from which we find it difficult to retreat.
One feature of the global Cold War that influenced developments around the world from the 1940s to the 1990s was the constant effort on the part of the United States to overstate the threat posed by the Soviet Union in military, propaganda, and economic terms. Doing so led policymakers in the United States to see every action, anywhere in the world, that seemed to work at cross-purposes with U.S. interests, as being propelled by the hand of Moscow.
Whether in Chile, Congo, South Africa, Vietnam, Guatemala, or Iran, no local figure could speak an unkind word about capitalism, colonialism, or U.S. meddling without allegedly being prompted by sinister figures in the Kremlin. New states in Africa and Asia, and older states attempting to reinvigorate their democracies in the Americas and elsewhere, were seen as incapable of thinking for themselves, and so foreign policy “experts” assumed that any time such states expressed independent thoughts those represented the work of Soviet propagandists.
The almost cartoonish view of politics and society, and of human agency aside, this had serious consequences for our world.
Because the United States cast Russia as an omnipotent evil empire responsible for all the world’s evils, it consistently misattributed motives to other states, misdiagnosed the source of global challenges and changes, and acted in ways that ultimately proved contrary to the public interest in the U.S. and which caused great and entirely needless instability and suffering for people in other countries around the world.
A recent article in the Guardian suggested that “almost everyone gets Russia wrong—apart from Obama.” The author’s thesis was that there is a growing, bipartisan consensus about the need to confront Russia, which is portrayed by the Clinton campaign, the national security state, and the Republican Party alike as being run by an “11th dimensional chess grandmaster, who is behind every world event.” The President, in contrast, stays calm.
However wrongheaded Donald Trump is in his admiration of Putin and everything the authoritarian leader represents, we should be careful about how much we allow this moment to run away with how we deal with reality.
It might be convenient for election season to bash Trump, Putin, and the pernicious nature of Russian influence, but if we go too far with this—as we did during the Cold War—we will create a public fear and a public narrative that will seize control of our policymaking, distort our analysis of causation and consequence in global events, and will prevent us from using diplomatic tools that can yield better and safer results.
Many Democrats might feel it is worthwhile to stir up anti-Russian sentiment if it means denying Trump the White House. But they should be careful, because even if Hillary Clinton becomes president in January, which seems likely to be the case, we have to deal with the consequences of the extent to which their narrative has developed the ability to drive policy.
Where President Obama has been able and willing to resist the blandishments of the national security establishment (including those populating his cabinet), he has done a respectable job of managing a dangerous world, even if he has shown a disinclination to change the terms of global engagement or to come to grips with the ramifications of decades of bad international policymaking.
I think that in very different ways, Obama and Clinton’s struggle with foreign policy has to do with their capacity to understand other actors’ perspectives. In the President’s case, he can clearly appreciate how history and culture shape other state’s interests, but occasionally fails to understand that not everyone shares his commitment to measured, careful debate and decision-making.
Nor do all actors—both those from smaller states or those from beleaguered civil society as with the Arab Spring—have the leisure of his approach to international policy. Virtually every negotiation the President undertakes is asymmetrical, with weaker actors with less leverage, and he seems to struggle to see how this can shape the expression of interests and the process of negotiation.
In Clinton’s case, the difficulty seems to stem from a broadly well-meaning but fatal arrogance that has long defined much U.S. policymaking, along with the multicultural illiteracy that plagues a nation isolated by its hubris and sense of exceptionalism. Exceptional nations, the idea goes, stand apart from the norms and historical processes that affect other states and people.
In spite of this, I appreciate the President’s measured approach to international policy, and his disinclination to bluster. Clinton doesn’t share those characteristics—partly because she is under more pressure than most male politicians to prove her ‘toughness’ and ability to do and say stupid and short-sighted things. And if an experienced diplomat who knows the consequences of such actions can be drawn back into a kind of Cold War framing, that doesn’t bode well for our international policy.
Clinton’s preferred practice of policy, combined with the temptation to use the threat from a resurgent Russia to whack Donald Trump, could have serious ramifications. We should recognize the nature of Putin’s regime and criticize its aggression and human rights violations. But we shouldn’t allow that to govern our policy, to overstate Russia’s influence on global events, or to recuse ourselves from the introspection about our own behavior that is necessary to reshape our international relations.