Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Persistent Russian Threat

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both have grown unnoticed, and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place among the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time. ... The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

With those famous words, the illustrious 19th-century student of American society and politics, Alexis deTocqueville (1805-1859) concluded his 1st Volume of his classic, Democracy in America, in 1835. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Cold War, deTocqueville correctly anticipated the eventual domination of post-World War II global politics by two great superpowers, the United States and (as it then was) the Soviet Union, the former oriented toward freedom, the latter to its opposite. The end of the Cold War destroyed the Soviet Union (itself just a more powerful reincarnation of the Tsarist Russian Empire that Tocqueville had known). Apart from its continued possession of nuclear weapons, a somewhat reduced Russia quickly lost much of its claim to serious superpower status. Quite unsurprisingly, therefore, the 21st century has witnessed a resentful Russia seeking to restore some her lost luster - under the leadership of its elected Tsar, former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. While Putin's national ambitions and his aggressive policies may not be in themselves surprising, the American response has been surprisingly poorly attuned to the persistent character of this threat. And in just 10 more days, the United States will have the most pro-Russian president in American history.

There used to be a bi-partisan, foreign-policy  consensus supporting the containment of the Soviet Union (now Russia). Until 2016, not just the neo-cons but most mainstream Republicans could be counted on to recognize Russia's threat and fully to support this foreign-policy consensus. Then in 2016 the Republican party nominated the most pro-Russian presidential candidate since Henry Wallace broke with the Democrats to run independently on the Progressive party ticket in 1948. Not only did the Republican candidate (now President-elect) praise Putin personally - more than sufficiently amazing in itself - he appeared critical of the NATO alliance, intimated a willingness to recognize Russia's recent annexation of Crimea, and publicly invited the Russians to hack his electoral opponent's emails! Since winning the Presidency, he has publicly doubted the consensus in the US intelligence community about Russian interference in the election and has criticized the very same intelligence community on which he will soon have to rely!

Even more amazingly, he seems to be bringing others in his formerly pro-defense Republican party with him. Some have even taken to praising Julian Assange and Wikileaks, which a year ago they would all almost certainly have recognized as pernicious dangers. An openness to rethinking American policy toward Russia is one thing. Under the right circumstances, it might represent a principled policy proposal. Praising Wikileaks, however, appears to be pure political opportunism - praising an obvious enemy of the United States because it also happens to be opposed to the other political party in an American election!  Surely, an enemy of the United States - be it Russia or Wikileaks - remains an enemy of the United States even when one of our political parties benefits from its antics. Indeed, the very fact of its attempt to benefit one political party in an American election only further confirms its status as an enemy of the United States!

And why would Russia - and Wikileaks - oppose the Democrats and favor the Republicans? One must conclude that they recognize the Democrats as more likely to hold the line against Russia!

Communism - the depraved ideology that replaced traditional Russian imperial ambition and Russian Orthodoxy as the Russian state's official belief system after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - is thankfully gone. And in Communism's place, traditional Russian imperial ambition and Russian Orthodoxy have now returned to prominence. We are back where deTocqueville left us. His prediction remains as relevant as ever. But is the United States still exceptional enough to be the civilizational bulwark deTocqueville anticipated?

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