The Wages of Democracy
Veterans of the Old Cold War: Meet the New Cold War. Vladimir Putin, channeling the scaremongering and scapegoating techniques of the best Western politicians, has found himself pressed by a legitimate opposition. In need of a rallying cry and without a serious domestic agenda that doesn’t remind people of corruption and repression, he has turned to that old favorite: Patriotic self-assertion in the face of a largely invented foreign evil.
North Korea is expert at this game, as is Iran of post-1979 vintage. The world-is-collapsing strain of absolutist neocon-ism in the United States shares much of the DNA of this worldview. It’s steeped in nostalgia, talk of our great people’s ills being the responsibility of the conspiring outsiders, and breathless demands to re-arm in the face of some imminent danger.
So Putin is hitching his wagon to the blame-the-west crusade, calling for redoubled defense spending, a hard line abroad, and all the rest. True Russians, rally to me, he implies. Which is, again, pretty standard issue election-year demagoguery—except for the risk of what his rhetoric will do to the national security establishment here, in demanding a response.
It’s not difficult to imagine how this all plays out, especially because some actual dust-ups serve Putin’s interests by appearing to sustain his argument. He lashes out repeatedly, and provokes an American response. He condemns the response, and makes a threat. The conservative commentariat in Washington, dragging much of the conventional wisdom crowd behind it, will begin talking about the need to “deter further Russian belligerence” and so forth, and begin arguing that Ukraine and Georgia are the places to draw the line. Putin will provoke, we will answer.
And thus will his rhetoric be confirmed—exactly as, after 9/11, much of the twisted, paranoid worldview of the militant extremists seemed suddenly to be validated, in the eyes of many in Muslim-majority states, by the actions of a runaway American hunt for vengeance.
It’s apparently unpatriotic to talk about “blowback,” but the fact is that we are reaping a bit of what we sowed in Russia. Russia hands and other sensible types will tell you we extended a dozen hands of friendship, talked with Russia about a version of NATO observership, took actions X and Y to hasten investment, and so forth. But we also shoved through NATO enlargement, one of the most provocative and insulting political-military actions we could have taken after the Cold War. We accelerated work on a missile defense plan Russia could only see as a threat. And so on, adding up to a portrait that looks, to a sensitive and humiliated people, like stepping on their necks when they were down.
Many thoughtful and educated Russians know better—but the initial reactions to Putin’s call for nearly a trillion in added defense spending suggest that even parts of “cosmopolitan Russia” are happy to see a little bulk added to Russia’s national posture.
Putin, we are told in a recent extended profile, is a natural brawler, someone who is more likely to respond to a threat with a fist in your face than by backing down. So there are personality reasons, as well as political ones, to fear an explosive potential in the relationship.
The right posture is of course long-term, and patient. General trends in Russia—a growing voice for a middle class determined to expand its political participation—alongside the broad pragmatism of its leadership to this point suggest that, absent really out-of-left-field adventures by Putin, we need to just let him shout into the wind while we undertake fifteen new initiatives to befriend Russia. Send our Secretary of State, not to shout back in his face, but just to smile and say, “We continue to desire Russia as a full member of the global community, and for these reasons …”
Unfortunately, having a new U.S. ambassador apparently determined to press a pro-democracy agenda will complicate things. America must lend moral support to those protesting for greater rights, it’s true; but an activist U.S. diplomat in the middle of the Putin Storm is an invitation to trouble. Putin’s staff must be licking their chops at the sort of “nefarious Yankee conspiracies to meddle in our democracy” that they’ll be able to invent—ahem, uncover—in coming weeks.
Part of the danger is that once a new tone of suspicion, mutual accusation, and generalized paranoia has been firmly implanted in a certain proportion of the people, it becomes very difficult to drain it out. (Again, look no further than America, circa 2001-2010, for a recent example.) So as important as weathering the Putin Storm will be setting ourselves up for a return to more normal emotions when the storm begins to subside.
All of which boils down to this. We’re very likely to begin seeing op-eds and articles demanding that the Obama administration “lay down the law” with Putin, “get tough,” and all that traditional rhetoric. We can expect some of the more fire-breathing GOP candidates to spout such foolishness—and then for Mitt Romney to take it up in full force, as an effort to protect his flank.
The risk will become very severe of a relationship spiraling out of control—not to conflict, precisely, but to a new post-1989 nadir that makes cooperation on a host of issues, from cyber to terror to whatever else, far more difficult. Putin is a calculating type, it seems, and he’s not likely to intend an outcome that utterly destroys his relations with the West. But once events are in the saddle, all bets are off—and what we’ll need in Washington in coming weeks and months, as much as anything, are contrary voices, urging calm and patience and a contrarian strategy of “killing paranoia with kindness.” It’s an approach that Washington will have to become expert at using in a coming era of identity politics and rising nationalism.