Russia’s place in American politics used to be (relatively) simple. The further right you stood, the more you feared Ivan and his Slavic wiles. The further left, the more you likely thought the Red Menace was mostly just a scare story.
Now things are more complicated. In just 15 years, the Republican Party has had a president who famously claimed a soul-to-soul relationship with Vladimir Putin … followed by two consecutive nominees who took a starkly hawkish stance on Russia … and now a presidential candidate in Donald Trump who has a palpable man-crush on Putin and promises closer ties with his regime.
Over the same period, Democrats have gone from mocking George W. Bush’s naivete about Putin … to mocking Mitt Romney for describing Russia as America’s main geopolitical foe … to spinning theories about Trump being an agent of Russian influence that seem ripped from a right-wing periodical circa 1955.
The ideologues, too, have lost the plot. Sean Hannity is hosting the Russian cat’s-paw Julian Assange because he might have dirt on Hillary. The Nation is defending Donald Trump against what it calls the “neo-McCarthyism” of mainstream liberalism. Team-player conservatives are tying themselves in knots explaining or defending Trump’s Putin crush; liberal pundits are trying to memory-hole everything they wrote about Romney and Russia in 2012.
At the root of this uncertainty is the fact that neither the United States nor Russia seems certain exactly what kind of power it intends to be.
During the Cold War, we were (mostly) a status quo power — practicing containment, building intricate alliance networks, propping up bad actors for fear of something worse — and the Russians were the revisionists, promoting socialist revolution from Havana to Hanoi. Then in the early 2000s we seemed to have changed places: Under George W. Bush, America was a revolutionary power, preaching the messianic faith of liberalism and democracy, while Moscow was a friend of strongmen, stability and the Saddam-era status quo.
But now it’s a muddle. In the Middle East, throughout the Arab Spring and its aftermath, Washington has remained revisionist while Moscow has labored at realpolitik, seeking to protect the devils that it knows.
The trajectory of events in the Middle East, where American grand strategy has mostly come to grief and we face a shifting array of foes and rivals, suggests the limits of a “new Cold War” lens. Our primary interest in Syria and elsewhere is not, as it was decades ago, containing Russian expansion. It’s containing jihadi terrorism, ending the refugee crisis, restoring some kind of basic order — and in all these tasks we need a way to work with Moscow.
Which gets at the underlying question here, one that both parties ought to be debating: Just how right was Romney? Russia certainly looks more like a more dangerous geopolitical rival today than it did four years ago. But is Putin’s regime and its revanchist ambitions the biggest potential danger that we face? Bigger than al-Qaida and ISIS and their epigones? Bigger than the far-richer, far-stronger, and equally authoritarian People’s Republic of China?
If the last four years really are a Cold War 2.0 overture, then our approach to the Middle East and Asia needs to be refashioned with an eye toward winning a new twilight war with Moscow.
But if Beijing is, in the long run, a more important rival than Moscow — if China’s capacities and ambitions are more dangerous than Putin’s bold play of a weak hand — then we may need a path to de-escalation and wary cooperation with the Russian regime.
Donald Trump, with his grotesque embrace of Putin’s thuggishness, is not the man for that task or any other. But as has often been true in this election, in the midst of his folly you can see the questions that the next generation of leaders needs to ask.