Nearly four years into the Trump administration, Russia looms larger than ever in the minds of many of the president’s critics. With the impeachment trial in the rearview mirror, blaming even complex, deeply rooted domestic issues on Russian interference remains commonplace among a vocal section of US liberals and Democratic Party-aligned voters. Now, unsurprisingly, the same theory is cropping up on social and news media as leaders blame “outside agitators” for inciting violence in this week’s protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd. In this moment, when the consequences of the US’ long history of racist policing is tearing the country apart, it’s long past time to own up to the fact that the United States’ political situation — including the election of Donald Trump — is first and foremost its own fault.
There’s certainly a long history of the US and the Soviet Union, and later Russia, exploiting domestic affairs to further their damning critiques of the other team. Overtly and covertly, both sides have sought to influence domestic opinion and the outcome of political disputes, including elections, often by enlisting the help of prominent individuals who vocally oppose their government’s actions. Racism in the United States in particular provided plenty of fodder for Soviet condemnations of capitalism, the United States, and the west as a whole.
When Russia is the secretive, impossibly subtle enemy lurking behind every difference of opinion and act of dissent, every protest movement and every attempt at reform becomes suspicious.
But a lot has changed since the Cold War. The US and Russia, both capitalist countries, cannot be said to represent two competing world systems in the way that the Soviet Union and the United States did during the Cold War. Aside from the odd character actor, there are relatively few high-profile cases of “defection” between Russia and the west. Yet here as elsewhere, the impulse remains to explain US-Russia relations in Cold War-era terms — including the geopolitical implications of internal dissent. In the absence of an ideologically defined external enemy, left and progressive organizing in the US is still habitually branded “un-American.” Dissent is dismissed as fundamentally rooted in malign foreign influence that threatens the core of the American system.
The effects of this tendency today are no less insidious than they were during the Cold War. When Russia is the secretive, impossibly subtle enemy lurking behind every difference of opinion and act of dissent, every protest movement and every attempt at reform becomes suspicious. On an international level, this perspective on US-Russia relations forces a view of domestic politics as a zero-sum game, where “divisiveness” can only serve the enemy. If you have hope for a world that can overcome large-scale challenges like nuclear weapons or climate change, that’s very bad news.
This isn’t to deny that covert influence initiatives between the two countries are ongoing. But to refuse to contend with the deep social and political conflicts that characterize the US in 2020 is to refuse one of the basic tasks of politics: understanding the conditions and priorities of other people whose fate is tied up with yours. The impulse to blame everything on an external, all-powerful, mysterious, threatening force is itself a troubling symptom of what’s ailing the United States. It betrays a preference for totalizing fantasy over the hard work of developing a political program over shared interests, of holding leaders accountable for their clear and very public violations of the law and the public’s trust. It’s also tremendously dismissive of the protestors and organizers who risk their lives to take to the streets against police violence.
This argument is not new. But I’m making it here, in a venue read by many younger foreign policy specialists, because it’s so consequential for the future of US foreign policy. Traditionally, that policy is shaped by a fairly small group of experts. The public rarely has the opportunity to fully understand, let alone influence, these decisions. We’re seeing now how that lack of understanding can feed into paranoia, encouraged by those who would deflect attention from their own activities and the systems they benefit from, sustained by those who lack the courage or capacity to see the US as it is. We can’t let the future of foreign policy fall into this same trap. If our goal is to change the world for the better, we must prioritize transparency and responsibility, at home and abroad.
Emma Claire Foley is a Program Associate at Global Zero. She maintains a crowdsourced collection of dreams about Russia and the Former Soviet Union at idreamofblini.tumblr.com.