James Carden, a journalist, analyst and former Russia Adviser in the Obama State Department, discussed foreign policy thinking at Foggy Bottom and in the Democratic Party in an email exchange with me earlier this week. His full biography appears at the end of the interview.
NB: How did you gain your expertise on Russia? How did you come to be a Russia adviser in the State Department in 2011?
Carden: I came to be a Russia adviser at State via the Franklin Fellowship, a program for people in mid-career who wanted to make a contribution to the US. I had just gotten back from a post graduate semester (after having received my master’s at Johns Hopkins SAIS) at the equivalent institution in Moscow, where I took courses on Russian language and other courses on Russian foreign policy. It was eye-opening. I was in the foreigners program, only one other American was with me and it was clear there was something a bit “off” from the start. The only other American in the class, a fellow student – and Russian-fluent, unlike me – from Columbia, told me that the dean or associate dean – took her aside and informed her, to our great amusement – that they “knew” she and I were CIA.
My response was basically “I wish, having a salary and health care would be nice.”
NB: Your service in the State Department was under Hillary Clinton – at least, in the beginning. What was the attitude toward Russia and Ukraine at that time and what was your experience like?
Carden: I actually thought that for the most part (with one important exception) that the FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] were, well, many of them were neutral toward Russia. The political appointees were okay -or at least the ones I ran into. But I began to wonder: why this lack of any real thought as to the country [assignment]. Or countries – after all, the Russia desk shared a suite of offices with the desks that covered a number of former Soviet states. The answer was that, with the exception of the desk head, these people didn’t know a thing about Russia either. Not their fault. But that’s how the foreign service is set up. You have expertise in, say, China? You will spend the a lot of your working life in, say, Latin America. It makes no sense.
NB: Were you able to ascertain if then Vice President Joe Biden had any special knowledge of or interest in Ukraine that would explain why he became the administration’s point person after the Ukraine Crisis broke out?
Carden: No. I had left by then. I think it actually is reflective of Obama’s deep disinterest in European affairs that he had appointed Biden as his point man on such a pivotal issue as Ukraine. It seemed to me then that Obama had outsourced his policy on the Ukrainian crisis to his assistant secretary of state Toria [Victoria] Nuland and the then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, with disastrous results.
NB: With respect to the impeachment process we’ve been watching unfold, it seems that the Democratic Party establishment is emphasizing a Cold War framing regarding Ukraine and Russia. What are your thoughts on this?
Carden: I’m not particularly surprised. Part of the problem is personnel, many of the people advising these politicians working on the Hill or in the DNC can’t even reach back, try as they might, to 1989. What does 1989 mean to you and me? Well, obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. What does 1989 mean to the average staffer? They have no memory of the first Cold War and consequently no conception of how the current one might be even more fraught with danger.
Part of it of course is the old adage ‘where you sit is where you stand,’ So take Adam Schiff, Schiff has defense industry interests in his district, gets campaign cash from them and consequently – as a very good article in Jacobin laid out recently – has never met a war he didn’t like.
The underlying reason for the party’s embrace of the cold war mentality though has, of course to do with the 2016 election. Had it gone the other way – as it could have had the Clinton campaign bothered to make a few more trips to Michigan and Wisconsin – we wouldn’t have heard much more about the much vaunted Russian intervention. But she lost and her team took the issue of Russian interference (which, I’m sorry, was negligible) blew it up and ran with it in order to deflect blame from themselves. Now Robbie Mook runs a ‘disinformation’ course up at Harvard. What a world.
NB: What do you think is the biggest obstacle within the government to the improvement of US-Russia relations? What role do the following factors play:
a. poorly trained “Russia experts”?
b. ideology – particularly, Neocon and Humanitarian Intervention?
c. influence of the military-industrial complex
Carden: If this is a multiple choice I would say “d” – all of the above. ‘
NB: You wrote a very interesting article recently that was published at the American Conservative called “Meet the Cold War Liberals”. In it, you discuss some of the leading Democratic candidates – who are considered progressive, including Bernie Sanders – and their foreign policy ideas as they’ve publicly discussed them. There seems to be a common theme emerging of the U.S. and democracies of the world in a struggle against an axis of “authoritarian” governments. This is problematic on a lot of levels. For example, it continues the deeply ingrained idea that we have to have a bogeyman to fight and to reinforce our moral superiority over. Although this framing of democrats vs. authoritarians may play better to those who consider themselves to be liberal, it partly has its roots in neoconservative ideology. Influential Neocon writer Robert Kagan also said we needed to shift focus to the “newly confident” authoritarian governments of the world – referencing Russia and China – in a 2008 interview with Peter Beaumont of The Observer. Neocons have now insidiously embedded themselves in both major parties. In this same interview, Kagan stated his support of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy and claimed that he wanted to be called a “Liberal interventionist” rather than a Neocon. What are your thoughts on this?
Carden: Well. Between the neocons and liberal hawks – it’s a distinction without a difference. And you see that the two war-happy wings of both parties have shaped our politics in the Trump era: the neocons see in their mirror image liberal hawks like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, and, above all, Hillary Clinton. They’re simply different sides of the same coin. But since the day Trump took office, liberals have really taken to heart the old (and wondrously wrong) adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But you would have to be pretty silly to actually believe something like that. And yet, mainstream Democrats, unable to get over the fact that Hillary lost the election, have become what they have long claimed to despise.
NB: Though Sanders says some laudable things in his Westminster address (e.g. budget priorities, addressing our internal problems, expanding diplomacy), why does he seem to be embracing this framework of us against the authoritarians? Do you think it portends a Sanders administration possibly being lulled into a regime change intervention if it’s framed as “supporting democratic forces” against authoritarians? Supporting “democratic forces” in other countries that we deem insufficiently democratic will no doubt be construed by the target country as interference in its internal affairs. It is also seems to be right out of the playbook of the CIA and NED in terms of facilitating coups. What do you think?
Carden: I can’t names names here but I’ll tell you this: last year I was on Capitol Hill and ran into one of my sources, a very, very pro-Bernie kind of person. We got to talking about the upcoming presidential race and Bernie came up. I was quite surprised when this person told me, without much pushing, that they thought, whatever Bernie’s merits as a person, as a Congressman, as a potential president, that Bernie would quickly and easily be captured by what President Obama called “the Blob.” That has stayed with me. Nevertheless, I will happily vote for Mr. Sanders in the general, as I did when I wrote him in on Election Day 2016.
I think part of the reason Sanders has embraced the us vs them mindset is because of his advisors who come out of progressive activism and right now, as we have seen, its very in vogue among that set to say, “well, we’re not for regime change wars but we will take a hard line against the global authoritarians like Putin, Orban and Xi because they don’t share our enlightened politics.” It kind of a way to look ‘serious’ in front of the entrenched foreign policy establishment of which, of course, they desperately want to be a part but will never admit to their peers on Twitter. I would say it is this that worries me most about a potential Sanders presidency. It’s a way that will allow the liberal hawks to enter through the back door.
NB: Sanders regularly reinforces the Russiagate framework, calls Putin a “brutal dictator” and doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of contemporary Russia – the world’s other nuclear superpower. He has, however, called for arms control diplomacy. What do you think a Sanders administration might be like in terms of U.S.-Russia relations?
Carden: Better on arms control but pretty bad elsewhere. It’s nice that Bernie’s campaign makes the right noises now and again, but really, running around and taking selfies with Pussy Riot is a pretty bad sign. What next: Ambassador William Browder? Spare me.
It seems like he could use a tutorial from someone like Stephen F. Cohen. Barring that, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of progress in US-Russian relations until (if?) Putin leaves the stage. But then, of course, we’ll make the same mistakes we always do: we’ll over-personalize/idealize the new Russian leader as ‘our kind of guy’ and then be inevitably disappointed when it turns out he actually doesn’t want American troops on his borders and pursues geopolitical interests that conflict with ours. Then the downward spiral of demonization and cold war will renew itself. Sanders will make a lot of noise about Russia’s kleptocrats and oligarchs but probably not push the issue of NATO expansion or missile defense, so on that score, he will be far superior than someone like Biden or Klobuchar.
NB: A recent article by Joe Biden in Foreign Affairs, seems to suggest that he would generally continue the Bush-Obama policies. Of course, he played a key role in legitimizing the 2014 coup in Ukraine and has been a big supporter of Russiagate. What do you think a Biden administration would be like for U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S.-Russia relations in particular?
Carden: Disaster – on both counts. Biden will toe a much harder line on Russia, he will ratchet up tensions between Kiev and Moscow and likely push the issue of NATO expansion which is currently a dead letter – at least among the Europeans.
He’ll take a tougher line on NATO expansion and will likely allow our policies to be dictated out of Kiev, Warsaw and Riga. There will be a lot of disingenuous talk about the glories of the Revolution of Dignity [a reference to the western spin on the 2014 coup in Ukraine], lots about Russian information warfare and not too much about how to identify areas of cooperation – after all, how can you cooperate with a criminal like Putin anyway? This, by the way, will likely be the policy of any of the Democrats except for Sanders or by some miracle, Gabbard.
NB: As an alternative guideline for a more constructive foreign policy, you bring up FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” involving the UN and its original vision of the equality of all nations whose sovereignty would be respected. Can you explain a bit more about this policy, its historical context, and why it might be good to look to this now as a way out of our destructive interventionist foreign policy?
Carden: It was spelled out by FDR in his 1933 inaugural address and then his secretary of state Cordell Hull gave it the further imprimatur of official US policy toward Latin America at the Montevideo Conference later that year which produced the so-called Montevideo Convention which, among other things, pledged that the signatories not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. Seems to me to be an eminently sensible way out of our current predicament. I would argue that it is informed by the best traditions of US foreign policy going back to John Quincy Adams and George Washington.
NB: Putin has made public comments recently about the five permanent security council members of the UN coming together and working cooperatively on peace and other pressing global issues. He also referenced the original spirit of the UN. Do you think there would be receptivity in Moscow to a Good Neighbor type policy as a possible foundation for improved U.S.-Russia relations?
Carden: I think the Good Neighbor policy is premised on the validity of Westphalia, so yes, I think it would be welcomed by both Russia and China. If you look at the public statements of Sergey Lavrov, for instance, you see broad outlines – or echoes – of that rather sensible policy of non-interference. It would be a nice change to hear an American politician recall that tradition rather than bleat on about the ‘liberal international order’ which of course is not liberal, international or orderly.
James W. Carden served as an adviser on Russia policy at the US State Department. A contributing writer at The Nation, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, The American Conservative and The National Interest. He is executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. He serves on the Board of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.