08 August 2016

Russophobia and "neo-McCarthyism"

When I saw the "Against Neo-McCarthyism" headline over the lead editorial in the latest issue of The Nation, I assumed that the progressive weekly was going after Donald Trump for his alleged questioning of the loyalty of certain groups of Americans. Instead, the editorial was a defense of Trump --admittedly held at arms length -- against the charge that he is Vladimir Putin's favorite in the presidential campaign, if not Putin's pawn. The editorial, presumably reflecting the viewpoint of editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuval and her husband, Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, deplores efforts by Democrats to vilify Trump merely for appearing to espouse a more pro-Russian foreign policy. For anyone familiar with The Nation, it should be obvious that the editorial is more a defense of Russia than it is a defense of Trump. Cohen has emerged over the last decade as the leading (and himself most vilified) critic of American Russophobia. For his trouble he is called an apologist for Putin, no matter how often he acknowledges the Russian's domestic misdeeds, but his fundamental position is that there is no good reason for a new Cold War with Russia, or anything hotter. And for that some probably call him a coward and an appeaser, though those labels are meaningless if, like Cohen, you don't think that Putin represents a strategic threat that the U.S. is obliged to confront.

Even more than a defense of Russia, "Against Neo-McCarthyism" is a defense of Cohen and vanden Heuval's anti-Russophobic position against all smears. Whether it's Stephen F. Cohen or Donald Trump, an American ought to be able to propose friendlier relations with Russia without having his character impugned. The problem, of course, as is most obvious in Trump's case, is that if you don't see Putin as the Devil himself, you're presumed to be soft on authoritarianism, and thus a sort of moral coward, if not a budding authoritarian yourself. The neoconsensus of our time is that authoritarianism is never an acceptable style of government for any people in any place at any time of history. With that belief comes a moral imperative to denounce authoritarians wherever they are found, and a corollary imperative to deter and contain them, whether on a piecemeal basis or on the assumption that there is some global alliance of authoritarians to guarantee their prerogative to grind their subjects under heel. For many this seems to be a risk-free imperative that comes with no obligation to weigh costs and benefits for the national interest. The American imperative to tell the world what we think of it without caring what they think trumps (no pun intended, I think) all other considerations, but Cohen is sadly right to warn of the practical dangers of this approach.

At this point in history there is more benefit to be had from the U.S. working with Russia than in opposing Putin's every move on principle, even if you agree that it probably sucks to be a dissident in Russia, or to be one of its immediate neighbors. If Putin is not Stalin, as I think everyone will concede, than there should be fewer scruples over cooperating with him (and, yes, his Syrian client) to crush the self-styled Islamic State and similar movements than there were over an alliance with Stalin against Hitler. That doesn't mean that Russia is a natural or inevitable ally at all times. Some may see Russia that way because they see both Russia and the U.S. as part of "Christendom," but if your first loyalty is to "the West" as a distinct culture founded on "freedom," Russia is always going to be something of a stranger to you. But that doesn't mean there's an irrepressible conflict between Russia and the West, as many in our political establishment seem to think. If they think there is such a conflict, it's more a creation of their own minds than anything that follows automatically from Russia's culture and history. It's also a byproduct of excess compassion for all the people Russia does oppress, both within its own borders and in its near abroad. I can't say those people don't deserve compassion, but it can't outweigh the American foreign policy establishment's obligation to consider the interests of the American nation and people above all. A middle ground must be found between an utterly amoral indifference to how a ruler behaves within his borders (or his sphere of influence) and a moralizing approach that takes too much interest for our own good. This requires a discipline of which Russophobia is incapable, but it's also unclear whether Donald Trump is capable of discipline of any sort. Maybe if we heard from the third parties on foreign policy at this point they might improve their chances.

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