De-Demonizing Vladimir The Hateable

Russophobia has been the basic assumption underlying our dealings with that country ever since the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago.

Last week a meeting was held between President Trump and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov, requested by President Putin, to discuss a new plan for ending the slaughter in Syria and dealing with Bashar al-Assad. A number of members of the foreign policy establishment were opposed to the meeting on the grounds that it was merely a PR ploy by Putin to show that he was as important as Trump in the global scheme of things. For these Kremlinologists and other foreign “experts,” it is difficult to imagine what might count as evidence that Putin might genuinely want a lasting peace. The negative spin makes sense only against a background of intense hostility to things Russian, as described, for example, by Steve Hall, former CIA Director of Russian Operations: Putin’s “major goal is to undermine Western liberal democracies.”

The current hysteria about Russia from our Congress, pundits and standard media is not new: Russophobia has been the basic assumption underlying our dealings with that country ever since the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago, differing now only in its intensity and shrillness. Trump has been denounced far and wide for several statements implying President Putin is a full member of the human race, as are the Russian peoples he serves, and that it would be “nice if we all got along better with the Russians.”

But how do people concerned with morality and justice negotiate with someone like Putin? He has variously been described as someone who “thinks like Hitler” at times (Hillary Clinton); or who “cannot be trusted” (Barack Obama); is a “thug” (ditto); who leads a nation whose citizens “are not our friends” (Mitch McConnell); who is very probably a “war criminal” (Marco Rubio and other senators); and who “poses a serious threat to our country’s democracy” (Patrick Leahy).

These are strong condemnations, but we find relatively little evidence of evildoing on the part of Putin and his government to support them, or others of the same ilk. The standard media describes Russia’s entry into Crimea/Ukraine as an “invasion,” whereas the preponderance of the evidence gathered thus far seems to suggest nothing of the kind. Other evidence is conflicting, and still other evidence provides accounts of actions the U.S. has also engaged in with great frequency. If Putin and his minions are moral monsters, don’t we, too, have to suffer equally the wrath of the righteous?  

This latter question goes far beyond a charge of hypocrisy. The U.S. has interfered in the democratic affairs of other sovereign nations dozens of times just since World War II, beginning early on in Greece and Italy, thence to other areas of Europe and extending to the middle East, Asia and Latin America, continuing to the plotting of the Ukrainian coup in 2014 (as the now-public telephone call from the State Department’s Victoria Nuland makes clear).

Thus, absent a great deal more evidence, it is not any sense of Realpolitik but ideology that insists the Russians are not just more or less tawdry versions of ourselves when it comes to foreign policy. We must believe Putin and his minions are up to no good, as is obvious from considering what we would think if the DNC was really hacked by the Germans; wouldn’t the whole affair fade from our screens fairly quickly? (Think also of U.S. support for Boris Yeltsin).

The importance of this Russophobia must be emphasized. It underlies much of our sclerotic foreign policy. How much of it is due simply to a residual anti-communism, how much to justifying an obscene defense budget, and/or how much to the financial drooling that must accompany contemplating the vast natural resources of the world’s largest land mass, we do not know and perhaps never will. Probably some of the Russophobes really did mean well by their words and deeds. But whatever the reasons, this ideology does not serve our country well, and should be abandoned in favor of a more productive background for our negotiating efforts, with more attention given to trust-building. No longer should we begin gathering, analyzing and evaluating Russian materials believing that they pose a major “threat to our democracy,” to quote Leahy again.

Perhaps all of the charges raised against Putin by our establishment will turn out to be true, and we must therefore continue to take a hard line in our diplomacy. If so, so be it. But in the absence of such evidence, we might want to contemplate the advice of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. When writing his memoirs, he thought long and hard of how Roosevelt and Churchill had dealt with Stalin. Stimson had no illusions about the latter – claiming that he broke many of his promises made during the several summit negotiations – but also noted that Stalin had kept many of his promises, too, and following the recent horrors of the Nazi invasion had good reason to fear Western encroachment of any kind on or near the Motherland. In the end, Stimson went along with the two leaders and took a hard line on Stalin. But he later had regrets and the regrets remained, encapsulated in Stimson’s well-known quote qua folk wisdom: “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.”

And the first Cold War began.