07 March 2017

Why Russophobia?

Stephen F. Cohen's latest attack in The Nation magazine on anti-Trump "Kremlin baiting" provoked a lengthy and fascinating comment thread that tends to confirm his diagnosis of three strains of "latter-day McCarthyiste hysteria" on the American left. Cohen attributes Kremlin-baiting to vindictive supporters of Hillary Clinton; American politicians and commentators who are really more scared of Trump than of Russia; and "enemies of Trump’s proposed détente with Russia, who want to discredit both him and Putin." He attempts to refute six distinct allegations of Russian-Trumpite collusion and is most effective when pointing out when many other Americans whose loyalties or integrity are not suspect have had similar dealings with Russian politicians or oligarchs. Cohen is so far against the grain of the American left on this subject that he's willing to give General Flynn, the disgraced former National Security Adviser, credit for reaching out to the Russians to dissuade them from overreacting to President Obama's last round of economic sanctions. Cohen works himself into a righteous fury in closing:

In fact, it is not Putin who is threatening American democracy, but rather these Kremlin-baiting allegations against President Trump. It is not Putin who is endangering US and international security, but rather the high-level political and intelligence enemies of détente. Similarly, it is not Putin who is degrading the US media with “fake news.” Nor is it Putin who is subverting the American political process, but rather the US intelligence leakers who are at war against their own president. 

Of course, Cohen's many critics are accusing Trump, not Putin, of all these things, and blame Putin for abetting him. While two out of three of Cohen's categories of hysterics can be dismissed as frivolous, the hard core of Russophobia lies with the "enemies of détente." Why oppose détente? Different opponents have different reasons. Some, presumably, have a material stake in more open trading with Ukraine and the rest of Russia's "near abroad" than Putin might permit. Others have a sincere ideological grievance against Putin's alleged authoritarianism, while Cohen claims that there's no evidence for the routine charge that Putin is a "killer" of political enemies. Some of those critics fear that Trump may take the U.S. in a more authoritarian direction, mistaking the President's readiness to talk back to the media as a readiness to suppress it, while others have bought into the idea that Putin intends to defend "authoritarian" regimes everywhere as he has defended Syria  (where Russia has its only Mediterranean naval base), thus exacerbating the world's misery. All these strains of Russophobia converge on a point that arguably puts the lie to the portrayal of the reactionary populist movement in Europe as "nationalist."

It's often said that Putin and Trump, and their sympathizers in Europe, are nationalistic in some retrograde, repressive  manner. But "nationalism" doesn't exactly describe what a Russo-American rapprochement orchestrated by Putin and Trump would mean for Europe, or for the rest of the world if Trump applies similar principles globally. Critics of Trump and Putin seem to agree that the fate of Ukraine as a truly independent nation, if not also the future independence of the Baltic states and other former components of the Soviet Union, are at stake in Russo-American negotiations. It's assumed that conceding some degree of Russian hegemony over that region will be the prince Trump pays, however willingly, for greater Russian cooperation against Islamic terrorism or for Middle East peace. If those predictions are correct, then the U.S. and Russia would not be practicing nationalism but the geopolitics of spheres of influence. Ukrainian nationalism, Baltic nationalism, etc. would be sacrificed to Russia in this scenario. At stake, presumably, is a liberal nationalism analogous to the individualism of liberal democracy. As each individual in a liberal democracy should be free as possible to choose his or her identity or destiny, so should each nation in a liberal world order be free to refuse subservience to its largest neighbor. This attitude can be held by people who are most likely hypocritical on the subject of the Monroe Doctrine and people who most likely are not. In their opposition to conceding a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe they're united in a foreign policy that's essentially ideological. For them, the problem with Trump's prospective foreign policy is not that it might express a different ideology, but that it would eschew ideology altogether in favor of a pragmatic pursuit of American interests which, to critics' eternal chagrin, are not now nor perhaps ever identical to the interests of humanity as they define it. Critics of Trump's presumed foreign policy give a damn about other nations and their people in a way his most fervent domestic supporters most likely don't. That doesn't automatically make them un-American or disloyal, since no ideal foreign policy is written in stone or exempt from criticism. But few such critics seem to show consistent loyalty to humanity against other threats than Russian ambition or American selfishness. Until we see greater consistency along that line, as we haven't really since the heyday of Leninism, it's fair to ask how seriously critics of pragmatic foreign policies suited to the times should be taken.

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