Two interesting pieces have been published in the past week that conclude the Russian political class truly believes that the US-led west is hostile to the point of posing an actual threat to both its security interests on the world stage and its domestic stability. We can debate the degree to which these conclusions may be true in objective reality, but the larger point is that there is evidence that the Russian leadership actually does believe this and is acting accordingly.
The first piece is, “Russia’s targeting of some opposition groups & media seems to be about links to hostile foreign states, not their support at home”, by historian and Russia expert Paul Robinson, published here. In this article, Robinson states that, unlike previous claims of Russia under Putin becoming overly repressive – claims that have often reflected hyperbole – recent actions against foreign-funded opposition and their media and NGO’s indicate a stepped up level of activity by the state against them:
Opposition supporters claim that the Russian “regime” is running scared. They point to the relatively low rating of the pro-Putin United Russia party and argue that the government is afraid of performing poorly in this September’s parliamentary elections. Great claims are also made of Navalny’s “smart voting” scheme, that encourages voters to cast their ballots for the candidate most likely to defeat that of United Russia. The new round of alleged state repression is said to reflect the authorities’ understanding that they can no longer rule by consent.
This explanation doesn’t fit well with the facts. Putin’s personal rating remains very high, and United Russia is still far ahead of its main electoral rivals – the Communists and the mis-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Given Russia’s electoral system, United Russia will almost certainly win a majority in this year’s parliamentary elections. Electorally speaking, it has little to fear from the likes of Navalny.
As for “smart voting,” it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In last year’s local elections, it had next to no effect on the results. Thus, It is unlikely that the Kremlin is seriously scared of it at all.
A somewhat better explanation, therefore, may have to do with the way that some oppositionists have targeted senior officials with accusations of corruption. Navalny is a case in point, as too is Proekt media.
There may be something to this, but at the same time, this is nothing new. Navalny did corruption exposés for years, including one attacking former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, without him being imprisoned or his foundation getting banned. Something has changed.
Recent state actions seem to be focused against those who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be acting on behalf of foreign interests or in some other way (such as defending alleged ‘traitors’ in court) as contrary to the interests of state security. This suggests that the key variable that has changed is the international situation. As this has gotten worse, a perception has hardened in official circles that the West is seeking to destabilize Russia with the help of collaborators within the country.
Robinson goes on to point out the fact that other liberal opposition parties and their support network – such as Yabloko – have not been affected by the crackdown, which reinforces his conclusion.
The second piece, “Is Russia playing the victim, or is the sense of impending siege justified?”, is by historian and Russia expert Geoffrey Roberts, published here. Roberts provides a summary and analysis of Russia’s most recent National Security Strategy document:
Having sown the wind, the West will now reap the whirlwind. Two decades of failure to see Russia’s point of view or to understand why Moscow feels so threatened have helped to create not just a rival but an adversary, a state whose main mission is to isolate itself from Western power and influence at any cost.
Moscow’s current view is that external dangers to Russia have only multiplied and intensified in recent years. Accordingly, the National Security Strategy asserts that Russia and its citizens are under attack. A number of foreign states identify Russia as a threat or, worse, a military opponent. These same states strive to isolate Russia internationally and to interfere in its domestic affairs. Amid a tough global struggle for spheres of influence, the use of force to resolve international problems has become increasingly common. There is a moral vacuum at the global leadership level. The liberal democratic model is in crisis and Western states are attempting to solve their domestic problems at Russia’s expense.
Strategically, Russia will respond to this unstable and threatening situation by strengthening its military, enhancing its internal security, and reducing its dependence on foreign trade, finances, and technologies.
Equally, the document lays out Russia’s commitment to a unified international order based on legal norms and respectful, trust-based relations between states. It wants to strengthen international institutions, especially the United Nations Security Council, which it sees as the foundation of global order. It aspires to reduce the threat of war, curtail renewed arms races and develop new mechanisms to safeguard strategic stability in the nuclear sphere. Politics, diplomacy and peacekeeping are Russia’s preferred foreign policy instruments as it seeks cooperation with other states in relation to nuclear proliferation, climate change, migration, health threats and counterterrorism.
These internationalist commitments are welcome but they are thin gruel compared to past proposals by Moscow for Russo-American strategic partnership and pan-European collective security. As Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin has commented, the new strategy is designed for an era defined by an “increasingly intense confrontation with the United States and its allies.”
This sorry state of affairs is not seen as Russia’s doing, but the result of strident efforts by Western states to preserve their hegemony in an increasingly multipolar international system at a time of fierce all-around competition to control markets and financial resources.
…The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, surveyed two thousand registered voters in late March on a range of issues. The poll showed that issues like jobs, immigration and climate change dominated voters’ foreign policy thinking, while establishment concerns like confronting enemies and spreading democracy were a low priority.
Asked what their top three priorities for foreign policy are, the largest number of respondents overall — 47 percent — chose “protecting jobs for American workers,” followed by 42 percent of respondents who chose “reducing illegal immigration,” 28 percent who chose “combating global climate change,” and 28 percent who said “improving relationships with allies” was a top priority.
Respondents were split along party lines on a variety of issues. The top priority for Republican respondents was reducing illegal immigration, while the top priority for Democratic respondents was combatting global climate change.
But voters appear to be united on the need to stop intervening in Middle Eastern wars. A quarter of respondents — including a similar proportion of Democrats, Republicans, independents — chose “ending U.S. involvement in wars in the Middle East” as one of their top priorities….
It’s predictable at this point that any mainstream media outlet in the U.S. is going to paint Alexey Navalny in a positive light. Furthermore, a feature article typically allows the writer to write lengthy pieces that might indicate some sympathy for a person or issue being discussed in-depth. But the Vanity Fairpiece published for the September issue doesn’t even count as a normal feature article, it’s a hagiography – and a very schlocky one at that.
The article is in the style of what is known as personal journalism – something akin to a personal essay with journalism incorporated into it. These kinds of pieces can be done different ways and the degree of the personal narrative versus the journalism can vary. But these types of articles are still supposed to adhere to facts.
This piece is filled with bias, over-simplification, and is factually anemic – but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it’s written by Julia Ioffe who is not exactly known for grounded reporting on Russia.
The first factually problematic issue is that Navalny is (again) touted as the main opposition to Putin. This is not true: the most popular opposition in Russia is the right-wing nationalist LDPR Party followed by the Communist Party. Meanwhile, Navalny’s trust and approval ratings in general are low.
Another problem is that the narrative put forth by Navalny and his team about what happened to him over the past year is accepted at face value. There is no attempt to delve into any aspects of his story that don’t make sense or are disputed.
I can’t imagine Vanity Fair or any other U.S. mainstream outlet running a feature article on Bernie Sanders and his wife, for example (who had much more support among Americans than Navalny has among Russians), and providing virtually no space to what detractors have to say or any criticisms at all.
Then there is the superhuman manner in which Navalny and his wife, Yulia, are described throughout the article. With respect to Yulia, it’s admittedly nice to see an English-language media outlet cover a Russian woman who is not a sex worker, vampy spy, or vapid eye candy; instead here the reader is treated to an unrealistic (and equally obnoxious) characterization of Yulia as a composite of every literary heroine that ever was: smart, beautiful, brave, loyal, long-suffering, self-contained, strong but sensitive, etc.:
Navalnaya was a revelation. The country saw her living out the worst moment of her life—live. And yet she was strong, she was stoic, she didn’t crumble under pressure and, through the sheer force of her will and the strength of her love, she got the dragon to release her man.
Meanwhile, Alexey seems to be some Russian version of Jimmy Stewart going up against Stalin and the Navalnys’ love seems to be the stuff of golden era Hollywood fairy tales. We are treated to a hyperbolic liberal Russian economist who is a friend and supporter of Navalny describing the saga of the couple in “biblical proportions.” These sorts of comments abound.
I half-expected Ioffe to tell us at some point that the Navalnys have ascended so high on angels’ wings that they now deposit rose petals and wine into the toilet every time they go to the bathroom, complete with a harp playing in the background.
I’m not saying that Navalny and his family didn’t experience a scary ordeal. However, one wonders why Vanity Fair would choose to devote so much space to canonizing Navalny and his wife when they have yet to do a feature article on Julian Assange’s harrowing ordeal at the hands of the U.S. and UK governments, which is much closer to home. There are any number of other dissidents that could be featured but they pick Navalny. Why?
Here’s a link to the article to read for yourself. Just make sure to have some Pepto-Bismol on hand.
As the Biden administration has illegally bombed Syria and Iraq – two countries that pose absolutely no threat whatsoever to the United States or Americans – the familiar policy of militarism has been reinforced by yet another U.S. president. However, it was a previous president who, on his way out of office in 1961, coined the term “military-industrial complex,” and warned of the potential pernicious effects of the increasingly outsized influence of defense contractors over the budget and foreign policy of the United States.
Though the Cold War saw the expansion of an institutional defense industry, the seeds had actually been planted long before and a conscious decision to nurture them further was taken before World War II ended.
The Roots of the Military Industrial Complex
In 1864, President Lincoln expressed profound concern over the rise of corporations that had resulted from the Civil War and what it portended for the political and economic future of the country. Eventually, advancements in industrialization led to more mechanized and phenomenally more destructive warfare in the 20th century, with the outcomes increasingly dependent upon material production and technology. As a result, major corporations would emerge to provide the material of war and, in the process, became incentivized to keep wars and war budgets in place.
In World War I, military officers still played a critical role in the decisions to wage war which were based on previous strategies that were soon rendered outmoded due to a lack of technological expertise and inability to manage the more complicated industrial economics crucial to sustaining modern warfare. For expediency, government allowed responsibility for the war economy to be transferred from the Army to private industrialists who controlled the terms of war organization and procurement through the War Industries Board (WIB), a body composed primarily of corporate executives and bankers.
Once this arrangement was established it was difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Many of the major anti-competitive trusts running the war economy through the WIB had long desired a relationship with the state that would facilitate public subsidy of their interests. The war effort had proven a convenient means to this end.
Between 1918 and 1941, formal patronage was fostered between the War Department and big business for the first time outside the context of an actual war. Drawing on the WIB model, the War Production Board instituted favorable tax and profit standards for major industrialists who again dictated policies within their own economic sectors during World War II, usurping substantial decision-making from state actors.
World War II and the major economic mobilization it necessitated greatly increased the incentives for war industries to maintain a militarist stance by the U.S. As detailed by historian Stephen Wertheim in his book, Tomorrow the World, foreign policy planners in the U.S. – led by members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – were alarmed by the Nazi takeover of France in June of 1942. The idea that Britain could also fall was seriously entertained for the first time. This prompted a major realignment in internationalist thought within the U.S. political class, from a rather restrained hegemony mostly confined to the western hemisphere and support for international law and disarmament, to a world order dominated by U.S. military supremacy. American national security was broadened to incorporate the objective of not allowing the U.S. to be denied action and influence around the world. This included free economic exchange with the acknowledgment that “trade would extend no further than force allowed, but force would be committed as far as trade necessitated.”
The Soviet Union had largely been ignored in these planners’ thinking until the Soviets began turning the tide on the Germans in 1943. It was then recognized that the Soviet Union would emerge from the war as a significant world power that would have to be accommodated to some degree within the new U.S. global order. It was initially accepted that the Soviets would have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. This was permissible as long as enough economic and political openness was afforded to those countries so as not to undermine newly defined U.S. interests. Additionally, anti-Soviet hardliners, such as Leslie Groves and James Byrnes now occupied influential positions within the Truman administration. This set of circumstances increased the likelihood of a Cold War.
Since 1945, the power, reach and ambition of multinational corporations have expanded, including encroachment into areas traditionally considered part of the public interest and outside of its domain.
James Forrestal, a former Wall Street financier who served as Secretary of the Navy during WWII and later as the first Secretary of Defense, had come to the view that policy should be an instrument of maintaining capitalist investment. According to Nikhil Pal Singh’s in depth expose in The Boston Review: “Forrestal framed his own deference for hierarchy in terms of the prerogatives of corporate capitalism—the idea that practical men of business, rather than reformers and intellectuals, had won World War II and needed to be running the world going forward.”
During a tense White House meeting in 1945, Forrestal advocated – against the advice of former Vice President Henry Wallace and then-Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson – the position of not sharing information on the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union. Forrestal persuaded Truman to agree to his view, thereby averting a possible trust-building exercise with the Soviets and encouraging the creation of a Cold War and an arms race.
All too happy to push this new arms race and maintain high military budgets were the executives of defense contractors, such as Lockheed, Northrup and Douglas. Defense spending had increased during WWII by over 13,000 percent and after the war’s end these companies had to scheme to maintain government subsidies for their industries and the huge profits that went along with them. A panel with representatives of the defense industry was created to lobby congress. After hearings that gave voice to defense executives’ gloomy forecasts of how the U.S. could fall behind economically and squander its hard-won position of global military superiority without continued largesse from the federal government, Truman was sympathetic but did not actually agree to significant defense budget increases until the Korean War erupted.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on running foreign policy with the mindset of a businessman – with little accountability – would be encouraged by the national security apparatus created by the 1947 National Security Act and Forrestal’s influence. It would later be exemplified by Robert McNamara, a former executive at Ford Motor Company, who presided over the disastrous Vietnam War as Defense Secretary.
Indeed it was during that conflict that the U.S. government got defense spending up to levels not seen since WWII, which included construction projects and the running of military facilities in Southeast Asia in addition to weapons production.
Toward the end of the Vietnam War in 1973 through the Carter administration, the defense budget dropped to its lowest level since 1951. But it would shoot back up during the Reagan years when the Cold War reached a dangerous level, with the two superpowers coming close to nuclear war in 1983.
The Cold War Ended but the Peace Dividend Never Materialized
As the end of the Cold War finally beckoned in the late 1980s and, along with it, the potential for redirection of resources to improve the living standards of communities across America, Seymour Melman—an expert on the military industrial complex (MIC)—noted that 50 percent of the discretionary federal budget at that time went to the Pentagon. We are spending even more than that today: $989 billion out of a total discretionary budget of $1.4 trillion (FY 2020) is spent on the national security state, including the Pentagon budget, supplemental allocations for our Middle East wars, and supporting institutions of the government. Meanwhile, the percentage of the discretionary budget allotted to “international affairs” (i.e. diplomacy, among other things) is in the single digits, which speaks volumes about our leaders’ priorities and approach to international relations.
What all that needless investment into militarism ultimately translates into is investment not made into the infrastructure for American citizens and their day-to-day needs. To illustrate this point, Melman also discussed the state of American domestic infrastructure by 1990 and how it had suffered from the diversion of resources into the MIC:
The American ruling class, by 1990, has become a state/corporate managerial entity. Together they control the military-industrial complex. . . . The war economy, in the service of extending the decision power and wealth of America’s state and corporate managers, has been consuming the US civilian infrastructure. Roads, bridges, the water supply, waste disposal systems, housing, medical care facilities, schools are in disrepair from coast to coast.
To make matters worse, the service aspect of warfare – things that used to be done by military personnel, such as cleaning and cooking – has now been “outsourced” to Private Military Firms (PMF’s). Of course, the more traditional work of state soldiers, like killing and destruction, is also done by PMF’s that have cropped up. More sophisticated, diversified and structured than historical mercenaries, PMF’s proliferated after the collapse of the Cold War which allegedly left a “security vacuum” in many parts of the globe. One PMF, Executive Outcomes, broke the stalemated civil war in Sierra Leone that had terrorized the population for four years. Another such firm based in Virginia, Military Professional Resources Incorporated, assisted the Croats in their revival against the Serbs in 1995, prodding them into negotiations.
While these feats may sound somewhat commendable on the surface, their winning advantage over the vanquished lies mostly in their higher degree of sophistication and technology. As World War I illustrates, once technological parity is reached between conflicting parties, wars of attrition and protracted destruction develop with disastrous long-term consequences for both civilians and the soldiers involved.
Investing in the Influence of Politicians and Media
Unfortunately, political leaders don’t tend to think well in the long-term, nor do they typically have the patience or vision necessary for solutions based on global justice and cooperation rather than power and money. Giving corporations yet more profit incentives in military matters, along with the minimal public and legal scrutiny that derives from operating under privatization, just makes it easier for political leaders to continue on with the insanity that made the 20th century the bloodiest in history.
The defense industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars through lobbying and/or funding the campaigns of politicians in order to get budget allocations and contracts worth billions. According to an Open Secrets report from February of this year:
Defense companies spend millions every year lobbying politicians and donating to their campaigns. In the past two decades, their extensive network of lobbyists and donors ha[s] directed $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending to influence defense policy. To further these goals they hired more than 200 lobbyists who have worked in the same government that regulates and decides funding for the industry.
The Biden 2020 presidential campaign, for example, received $447,277 from Lockheed Martin and $236,614 from General Dynamics.
In addition to this direct investment in the political system, the defense industry funds numerous think tanks that provide “expertise” in the form of reports and articles that are frequently accepted for publication in major U.S. media outlets. These think tank “experts” are often also used by mainstream media journalists in their reporting on foreign affairs and defense issues. The funders of these think tanks are rarely, if ever, disclosed to consumers in the outlets that publish commentary by their staff. Influencing the range of debate in the U.S. in this way gives the defense industry a major advantage in furthering their agenda. Some of the think tanks that receive the most funding include RAND Corporation, Atlantic Council, Center for a New American Security, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Brookings Institution, New America Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations, and CSIS.
There is also the revolving door of politicians into and out of the defense industry. For example, the current defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, was a member of the board of a Raytheon-connected weapons company before accepting the post as head of the defense department. Secretary of State Antony Blinken co-founded West Exec Advisors in 2017, a consulting firm that facilitates contracts between Silicon Valley tech companies and the Pentagon. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s last gig before joining the Biden administration was at a think tank that gets major funding from both the U.S. military and defense contractors.
Given all the influence that the defense industry has on the media and politicians, it’s no surprise that representatives of the MIC, as reported on by The Intercept in 2016, were stating openly that a Russian “threat” made for good business. All the negative implications of high tensions between the world’s nuclear superpowers for all of humanity were of no concern to these people when it came to fat profits.
Eisenhower was correct about his warning with respect to the potential growth and harm of the military industrial complex on the priorities of U.S. society. Unfortunately, his warning has largely gone unheeded.
Note: I am a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI) and we have been discussing among ourselves a piece published earlier this month by David Phillips, Director of Peacebuilding and Human Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Two members of our board have written to Columbia University regarding this disturbing (though all too predictable) piece that asserts that a dangerous confrontation with Russia and China should be pursued by the U.S. – Natylie
Dear CCI Friends,
On July 8 we received an article by David L. Phillips on “Confronting China and Russia.” Phillips is the Director of Peacebuilding and Human Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. I wrote him immediately and sent the piece to a select group of CCI professionals. They were as puzzled as I how anyone working in Peacebuilding and Human Rights could author this piece.
Our nationally-respected attorney, Sylvia Demarest, took the time to address the totality of this article. Below is her letter to Mr. Phillips including where the U.S. and Russia find themselves today. I asked Sylvia if CCI could send this piece to you… she allowed. You may send it to your networks if you wish.
Sharon Tennison Center for Citizen Initiatives
From Sylvia Demarest:
Dear Mr. Phillips:
It was with growing concern that I read the above article written by you and published in BalkinInsight, allegedly on behalf of a center at Columbia University dedicated to “Peace Building and Human Rights”. I was shocked to see so much warmongering rhetoric coming from a center dedicated to building peace. Could you explain precisely how you think the US should “confront” Russia and China without risking a war that would destroy us all?
On the subject of promoting peace, since you worked in several recent administrations, you are surely aware that the US has an entire infrastructure designed to essentially disrupt the peace and “foment conflicts” namely the National Endowment for Democracy along the the Republican and Democratic Institutes and an entire range of NGO’s and private donors the purpose of which is to disrupt counties the US has targeted for regime change. If you add the security agencies and USAID, it’s quite an infrastructure. Does your center support the disruptive activities of this infrastructure, which some people call “soft power”? On the subject of human rights, what has your center done to confront the tactics used during the “War on Terror” including illegal invasion, bombing, civilian displacement, rendition, waterboarding, and other forms of torture that have been exposed over the years? Rather than point the finger at other countries, why don’t we work to right our own ship of state?
You also seem to be completely unaware of the history of Russian/Chinese relations which has often been one of hostility and conflict, at least until very recently when US policy towards Russia forced Russia into an alliance with China. Rather than re-examine the policies that have resulted in such a catastrophic outcome for US interests, you seem to prefer saying things that appear to be questionable such as: “Russia is a world power in decline.” Let me ask you to test that statement against just a few observations from my reading and travels to Russia; 1) Russia is generations ahead in missile technology and missile defenses and many other high tech military technologies and sports a rebuilt, well trained military; 2) Russia’s Rosatom now builds a majority of the nuclear plants world wide using new and much safer technology, while the US companies can’t seem to construct even one modern nuclear electrical generation facility; 3) Russia builds all of it’s own aircraft, including passenger aircraft—Russia also constructs all it’s own naval vessels including new high tech submarines and autonomous drones that can travel thousands of miles underwater; 4) Russian is way ahead in extreme cold weather arctic technology including facilities and icebreakers. 5) Russian debt is 18% of GDP, they have a budget surplus and a sovereign wealth fund—the US debt increases by trillions every year and the US has to print money to pay current liabilities; 6) When Russia intervenes, as she did in Syria in 2015 at the invitation of the Syrian government, Russia was able to turn the tide of that destructive illegal proxy war the US supported. Compare this record to the “success” of US warmongering since WW2; 7) Russia is essentially self sufficient in food, energy, consumer products, and technology. What would happen to the US if the container ships stopped arriving? I could go on but here’s my point: considering your apparent lack of current knowledge, perhaps you should to travel to Russia and witness current conditions for yourself rather than continuing to endlessly repeat anti-Russian propaganda? Why do I suggest this? Because anyone who understands the issues involved will realize that it is in national security interests of the USA to be friends with Russia—assuming this is still possible given US behavior over the last 30 years.
Of course neither Russia nor China want to confront the US because both realize 1) given current policies, the continuation of US/NATO militarism is unsustainable both politically and economically; and 2) the US would be unable to sustain a conventional war for any length of time thus the world would be at great risk of the US turning to nuclear weapons rather than accept a conventional defeat. This is why both Russia and China are biding their time rather than risk a global nuclear war. Should US/NATO ever decide to direct nuclear weapons at Russia, the Russians have made it quite clear that the next war will not be fought solely on Russian soil, so since US policy includes first use of nuclear weapons such first use would result in a full blown nuclear war including the destruction of the US. Considering reality—I have to ask how are you building peace and human rights by continuing such rhetoric and support for such policies?
I could write an entire thesis on all the inaccuracies, misinformation and disinformation contained in your essay—but let me say a few words about Ukraine and the former USSR. Are you even aware of the fact that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the Russian Federation and the Russian people turned to the US and trusted us to help them create a market economy? That 80% of the Russian people had favorable views of USA? That this was reciprocated with over 70% of US citizens holding a favorable opinion of the Russian people? What an amazing opportunity this presented to put aside militarism, promote peace, and save our own republic? What happened? Look it up!! Russia was looted—it’s people impoverished. Essays were written saying “Russia is finished.” But, as I outlined above, Russia is not finished. We even broke a promise not to expand NATO “one inch eastward”. Instead, US militarism continued and NATO was expanded to Russia’s doorstep. Countries bordering Russia, including Georgia and Ukraine, were hit with color revolutions including the Maidan coup of 2014. Now, thanks to US/NATO policy, Ukraine is essentially a failed state. Meanwhile, the majority Russian population of Crimea decided to protect their own peace, security, and human rights, by voting to join the Russian Federation. For this act of self-preservation the people of Crimea have been sanctioned. Russia didn’t do this. No one who understands the fact would blame Russia for this. US/NATO policy did this. Does a center tasked with promoting peace and human rights support this result?
I can’t know the true motivations behind this anti-Russian rhetoric—but I can say conclusively that it is completely contrary to the long term security interests of the USA. Look around and ask yourself—why be enemies with Russia—especially against China? The same question could be raised about Iran—about Venezuela—about Syria—even about China itself. What happened to diplomacy? I realize there’s a club that runs the USA, and to get jobs, money, and grants you have to be a part of this “club” and that includes joining a serious case of group think. But what if the club has gone off the rails and is now doing much more harm than good? What if the club is on the wrong side of history? What if this club is threatening the very future of the USA? The future of civilization itself? I fear that if enough people in the US, like you, don’t rethink these issues our very future is in jeopardy.
I realize this effort will probably fall on deaf ears—but I thought it was worth a shot.
When I read the commentary of Russian liberals in the English-speaking press, I often wonder at the lack of depth in understanding of the United States that is reflected in their writing. The latest example is a piece by Maxim Trudolyubov from Meduza – a Russian liberal opposition outlet which is based in Latvia.
Trudolyubov implicitly holds up the United States (and the rest of the west) as some kind of paragon of normalcy and democracy:
“Faith in the inevitable democratization of all countries is a thing of the past — even in the West. American political scientists started to suspect a long time ago that they were looking at the world in a simplistic manner and that authoritarian regimes wouldn’t necessarily transform into liberal democracies.”
He goes on to lament how critics of Russia tie themselves in academic and journalistic knots trying to describe the Russian political-economic system since it’s supposedly so alien to any other. Should Russia be called a kleptocracy? A predatorial state? How about a mafia state?
It is asserted at one point, paraphrasing some Hungarian analysts, that none of the terms thrown around quite captures the Russian system because the nature of its corruption, bureaucratic disconnection from the public good, etc. is so profound and stubborn that attempts by supposedly normal and democratic countries to advise Russia and its post-Soviet kin countries on how to address these problems are doomed to failure:
“Based on this thesis, Magyar and Madlovics criticize the Western approach to fighting corruption in the post-communist world. When European countries apply sanctions against mafia states or give them lessons in how to fight corruption, they proceed from the assumptions that politicians in these countries want to resolve this problem but don’t know how to do so correctly. In actual fact, these politicians know how to fight corruption, but only the corruption that’s outside of their control and isn’t orchestrated by them.”
Trudolyubov goes on to suggest that there is a major discrepancy between how the Russian political class officially presents itself to the world and what really goes on behind the scenes:
“In recent years, academic work and investigative journalism have enriched our understanding of what lies behind the country’s official facade significantly. Public discussion about this dichotomy is long overdue. But those who are safer adhering to the official image of power and those who are aware of the magnitude of the gap between the facade and reality have no common space or common language for discussion.”
The implication throughout the article seems to be that the United States (and other western “democracies”) doesn’t have this kind of discrepancy in how it officially presents itself and how it really operates. It’s always understood that the western democracies, particularly the United States, are the standard-bearers of honest and democratic government. I often find myself wanting to ask these writers what information they are basing their assessments of the United States on because it doesn’t have much relationship to reality.
Let’s start with government corruption in the U.S. At the federal level – and to a lesser degree at state and local levels – a system of legalized bribery is how politicians get elected to office. It costs millions, even billions of dollars, to successfully run for federal public office. Most of that money comes from corporations, the wealthy and their PAC’s. Candidates who can’t compete in raising that kind of money don’t get elected and wealthy donors expect something in return for their investment. This system has several legal justifications, starting with the legal idea in 19th century jurisprudence that corporations have the same constitutional rights as human beings. Then in 1976 a Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, equated money with speech. The Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010 reinforced the worst aspects of the money-is-speech and corporations-are-people precedents. The organization opensecrets.org maintains a database of who funds politicians. It isn’t pretty.
As for managed democracy, not only do politicians not get elected if they can’t raise huge war chests full of money, candidates who don’t belong to either of the two major parties (Democrat and Republican) are effectively barred from participating in televised debates for the presidency due to the rules for qualification. When third party candidates can’t participate in debates, then they can’t raise their profiles, leading to a self-reinforcing loop that keeps them from becoming viable.
Scholars from Princeton and Northwestern Universities documented in a 2014 paper that the United States is not a democracy but an oligarchy in which average citizens and organizations representing their interests have little to no influence over policy at the federal level. Instead policy is influenced by the wealthy and corporations – i.e. the donors to the expensive political campaigns mentioned above.
A few more interesting facts that Russian liberals who gush over the United States might want to consider:
Civil asset forfeiture. Think Russian bureaucrats and police are unique in getting money away from the average Ivan or Joe? Think again. Civil asset forfeiture in many states in the U.S. allow law enforcement officials to confiscate a person’s property, possessions, and money by claiming that the seized assets were involved in a crime or were the proceeds from a crime. Even if there is no conviction, it is often extremely difficult to get the money or property back.
Militarization of police. The protests that filled streets in every major American city after the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 were the result of years of increasing militarization of police forces throughout the United States. These militarization policies have been legalized through Supreme Court decisions and facilitated by the federal government’s giving military grade weapons to civilian police departments throughout the country and the Department of Justice’s subsidizing of training exchanges between U.S. police departments and the Israeli Defense Force.
Death penalty. The U.S. is one of a small minority of nations (along with Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, India, Taiwan and China) that still practice the death penalty. In the past year, the federal government and at least one state have been attempting to bring back into practice barbaric methods of execution, including electrocution, gas, and firing squad. Sure to make any liberal feel warm and fuzzy, right?
Incarceration. The U.S. incarcerates more of its population, over 2 million people, than any other nation in the world.
Poverty. In relation to other OECD nations that are comparable in overall wealth, the U.S. has the worst poverty rate.
Russia has many problems and Russian citizens have every right to be concerned about them. However, many of the most prominent Russian liberal writers need to take off their rose-colored glasses about the United States. This may also make it easier to put their own country’s problems in a more realistic perspective.
In this seminar from May 19th, Bruce Allyn applies insight from the fields of negotiation and mediation to define practical steps that both US and Russian sides can take today to realize both individual and shared interests in a relationship that has descended into bitter enmity. We will look at how to “zoom out” to big-picture strategy—realizing what is at stake—and how to “zoom in” to Vladimir Putin the negotiator: his formative years, his heroes, his psychology, his intentions and current aspirations. Allyn will examine practical steps to break the cycle of offense and revenge that has characterized U.S.-Russian relations over the past three decades since the exhilarating days when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War ended. Allyn will suggest how both sides can “go to the balcony” and see what creative options exist today that might elude them in the heat of battle, referencing work laid out in a recent Foreign policy article, What Biden and Putin Can Agree On.SHOW LESS
A recent deepfake video of Tom Cruise has some analysts wondering if such technology has gotten so good that a deepfake video of a world leader could possibly lead to an inadvertent war. Below is an excerpt from one in depth article on the subject that was recently published by ABC Australia. Let me know in the comments below what you think – could this potentially threaten world peace and security or will societies be able to sufficiently rein in this technology in the near future?
It’s a possibility that keeps former CIA officer and disinformation specialist Matt Ferraro up at night.
When deepfake Tom started doing the rounds in Washington DC’s national security and intelligence community, some feared a dystopian future had taken one giant leap closer. Matt was one of them.
“I think that ‘terror’ is probably not too strong a word,” says Ferraro, who worked for America’s top spymaster, the director of National Intelligence, during the Bush and Obama administrations.
“It’s because they realise how dangerous [deepfakes] are. It does seem like it’s really going to be a fundamental challenge to the information environment.”
When Ferraro started writing about deepfakes two years ago, most were easily detected by the naked eye. But that has changed dramatically in the past 18 months, he says. Today’s deepfakes have become “radically good” and now pose an imminent risk to the political system.
Early deepfakes, such as filmmaker and actor Jordan Peele’s 2018 Obama video — in which a synthesised likeness of the former president calls his successor a “total and complete dipshit” and then signs off with the straight-faced salutation “stay woke, bitches” — highlighted the potential for deepfakes to sow political chaos. But the visual sophistication was lacking, Ferraro says.
“It was mostly old video of Barack Obama with only his lips moving. You could tell that was fake. Now with the Tom Cruise deepfakes, it’s getting harder and harder”.
The spectre of a deepfaked political leader has already arisen in Africa, where a video of Gabon’s reclusive president looking odd triggered widespread allegations it was a deepfake. A week later the military attempted a coup.
In the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election, deepfake parody TV commercials of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin were commissioned by non-profit organisation RepresentUs to warn about the fragility of democracy. But RepresentUs says American TV networks refused to run the videos as they were too realistic.
For Ferraro, the nightmare scenario would be a deepfake video of US President Joe Biden declaring war on North Korea, potentially released at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, with hackers posting the video on the White House Twitter account. Ferraro suggests such a video could create mass confusion in a matter of minutes, potentially triggering conflict and even casualties before it could be debunked.
“If the North Koreans are 80 per cent sure it’s him — maybe only 20 per cent sure it’s him — are they willing to just sit back and take a missile strike that will end their regime? Probably not.”
If one person with a computer and an internet connection can make a convincing Tom Cruise, Ferraro fears the risks the technology could pose in the hands of well-resourced actors.
“The great curse of our press in the West is willingness to accept the official narrative. So many people in the American press who write about the world are merely stenographers.” – Stephen Kinzer, author, columnist for Boston Globe and former correspondent for New York Times.
Bartlett’s write-up based on her interview with Kinzer is available here.