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By Coleman Hopkins
Since the Vietnam War, Americans could largely count on Democrats, particularly those in Congress, to be voices for moderation in international relations. Their support for debate before action provided calming introspection in deliberation on foreign affairs discourse in government. Oftentimes, they were the few domestic critics of adventurism overseas and of the escalation of tensions with obstinate but non-threatening despots in the East. Following America’s debacles in the Iraq and Afghanistan, it appeared that Democrats were vindicated in their cautioning of restraint and their mindfulness of long-term, secondary, and tertiary effects of an aggressive interventionist approach to world politics.
Regrettably, Democrats have abandoned those principles during the Trump Presidency. Where the party was once circumspect about militaristic policies and interventionism as a guiding political value, it is now uncritical and even supportive of reckless US belligerence abroad so long as the target is sufficiently ‘bad’. Today, one such target that has earned that distinction is Russia on account of its government’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Because of Russian activities against the party’s nominee, Democrats have all but given up on their admirable presumption of skepticism on US involvement in foreign lands as it relates to Russia.
It is not news that, for over five years now, US-Russia relations have been deteriorating. What many do not grasp, however, is the significance of that disintegration, as it is understated and misrepresented by mainstream journalists. If one follows popular American media outlets, the friction between America and its former Cold War nemesis is of concern, but only insofar as it relates to the strength of US democratic institutions and practices. Critically, in this telling, Russia is the actor most responsible for these rising animosities, because it is an opponent of liberalism and of democracy. Thus, the worst that could happen between the US and Russia is that the latter could undermine the political institutions of the former.
This view is inaccurate and so too is the theory that Russia is an active opponent of the US. Furthermore, to contend that the worst case scenario for poor relations between America and Russia is A) only going to unfold if the US fails to be vigilant (i.e., adhere to interventionist policies) and B) would be limited to the exacerbation of already high domestic political mistrust gravely understates the threat to American security that could follow from its cavalier attitude and actions towards Russia. The failure to account for the real possibility of Russia retaliating for America’s actions in its sphere is a blunder that Democrats, only a few years ago, could have been relied on to point out. Today, they largely urge more provocations while ignoring the real potential for unintended but predictable blowback.
It should be noted that the main driver of this rapidly worsening relationship between Moscow and Washington is domestic American politics, but not in the way many might think. On the surface, some might assume that the breakdown of US relations with Russia, inasmuch as America is to blame, is attributable to the fallout from the scandals involving and surrounding the 2016 presidential election. For liberals on both sides of the political aisle, those events inspired reasonable, necessary, and perhaps insufficiently harsh criticism of and action against Russia. Hence, the president is at fault for not dealing more harshly with Putin. But this is not so — at least not exactly.
Rather, the factors that are leading to the escalation of the tensions between these two powers are intense hawkishness on the side of the Trump Administration and thoughtlessly aggressive posturing by Democrats against all things Putin; Democrats’ recent and general movement away from restraint in foreign affairs is significant as well. Taken together, these elements are increasing the potential for violence. And because Democrats are unwilling to set aside their distaste for Putin in order to think about the effects of President Trump’s actions against Russia, the already high potential for conflict is multiplied many times over.
To expand on the point above, that American liberals on the left dislike Russia is common knowledge. Tuning into all of five minutes of any cable network news show demonstrates that truth. But what is less known is that the Trump Administration is pursuing an aggressive and potentially dangerous foreign policy strategy towards Russia that is in substance perhaps more belligerent than the rhetoric of Democrats who assert a connection between the American president and his Russian counterpart, and characterize the Russian president as an existential threat to the republic. Far from appeasing or cooperating with Russia and its much-hated president, President Trump has taken a hardline and abrasive stance on several fronts that could generate problems for American security. Despite this, Democrats have not taken issue with the White House’s policies in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Whatever the cause of Democrats’ new hawkishness on Russia, the effect is the same: the US is engaged in an untenable and escalating conflict with a nuclear power that does not serve the national interest, and that the party that usually acts as a check on American imperialism is mostly supportive of this development.
Although many may take issue with the description of President Trump’s government being anti-Putin, the truth in this proposition is evident if one separates the president’s actions from his rhetoric, because while he has been complimentary of the Russian president, he has also been intensely committed to thwarting Putin’s goals.
First, the Trump Administration is funding paramilitary organizations in Ukraine so that they can fight the Russian forces stationed in Crimea, land now effectively under Russian jurisdiction. This funding has taken the form of both weapons transfers and other types of aid, and that assistance, as well as the US Defense Budget, has increased in the past two years. These are not the actions an administration takes to prepare for diplomacy; they are a prelude to a different, and more militaristic kind of engagement.
While there are legitimate questions and positions surrounding the proper response to the now five years-old referendum that brought Crimea into Russia, the policy of the Trump administration in response to that decision has been overly belligerent. To be clear, the president’s policies are giving Ukrainian nationalist forces weapons to contribute to their violent re-litigation of Crimea’s departure from Ukraine, a move that is viewed as unacceptable by Moscow, to put it lightly.
The border war President Trump is abetting is not going to end in Russian withdrawal; it will not endear the US to Putin, either. As such, the worry should be that arming extremist rebels will engender a large-scale Russian ‘peacekeeping’ mission — one that may extend beyond Crimea —that will, at a minimum, expand the conflict in the short-term. Uncle Sam’s involvement could lead to future problems for the US if Russia decides to ‘thank’ America for its interference in a regional dispute., e.g., possibly by getting involved with US elections or assisting America’s adversaries. Picking sides in this distant conflict with no tangible connection to US interests threatens to undermine American security. Regrettably, Congressional Democrats have failed to articulate this worry to the White House.
The absence of a serious response by elected Democrats to the Trump Administration’s intervention into a bitter regional disagreement is worrisome because such actions could jeopardize US security and its interests. This is the case for several reasons. For starters, the example of Afghanistan ought to give advocates of arming ‘moderate rebels’ pause for considerations about the future and unintended use of those weapons. To restate an earlier point, there has also been no discussion about what response these policies might provoke from Russia. Might it begin arming forces hostile to the US along or inside their borders? Due to the scope of US involvement around the globe, this is a concern that deserves more attention.
Second, and more worrying is the fact that Russia is a nuclear power with deep concerns about its security, especially with respect to great powers to its west. This anxiety has characterized Russia’s foreign policy calculus for centuries. To that point, recent history in Georgia and Chechnya illustrates that Russia under Putin is willing to use force to protect its territorial integrity and its primacy in the region. If the US thinks that it can challenge Russia’s security without paying a price, then it is taking an ill-advised gamble that it will likely lose on.
For the Democratic Party, which has historically been skeptical of interventions abroad, to cheer on growing US military and political involvement in Eastern Europe reminds one of Marx’s aphorism about the repetition of history. Put bluntly, the burgeoning second Cold War is a farce in that it is avoidable has parallels to the first conflict; it also has serious national security implications that Congressional Democrats seem at best to be ignorant of. While there is a dark irony in this development given the party’s foresight about the first Cold War and US adventurism in the Middle East, there is nothing funny about Democrats’ insouciance about President Trump’s misguided policy in Ukraine.
In involving itself with a distant and disconnected conflict so far beyond its own borders and so detached from its immediate interests, the Trump Administration runs the risk of jeopardizing American security. The lack of pushback by prominent Democrats to this strategy is an avoidable blunder as well as a departure from past practices. As noted above, Democrats have historically acted as a moderating force on the hawks in Congress and the White House. Republican hawkishness on Russia is to be expected; what is sad is that Democratic cheerleading is not.
That Democrats have relinquished their invaluable role as a moderating force on foreign policy debates on Capitol Hill offers another reason to believe that the US’s policy in Eastern Europe could prove costly. This is because the lack of a realist perspective in Congress — and in Washington more broadly — means that there will be fewer voices to point out obvious problems with the Trump Administration’s liberal internationalist strategy.
Arming ultranationalists aside, the move by President Trump and his advisors in the State Department to exit a decades-old weapons agreement at a time when relations are fraying between Moscow and Washington is another, perhaps equally worrisome development in US-Russian relations.
Given that this is the second such US-initiated cancellation of a weapons treaty with Russia, one must consider how President Putin views this move. If it is seen in conjunction with the US action in Crimea (which it likely is), then it is reasonable to assume that Russia’s president is anxious, angry, or both. States led by suspicious and/or scared leaders can become violent because some states that provoke them fail to realize that their actions are viewed as aggressive and do not correct themselves until it is too late. Without perspective, discourse, and critical self-reflection, it is all too easy for states like the US to adhere to policies and practices that have the effect of inspiring resentment, feelings of insecurity, and even retaliation.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is the annexation of Crimea. After years of watching NATO inch closer to Russia, Putin saw (or thought he saw) US involvement in the Euromaidan Protests and decided to act first and negotiate later. Had the US and its allies stopped to think about Putin’s statements about NATO, they might have been able to work out an agreement acceptable to all parties. But they did not. One is left to imagine what a comparable response would be in terms of voiding missile treaties as opposed to updating or replacing existing agreements. Will Putin see the US’s exit from these treaties a preemptive move to a military strike? If he does, then how will he react?
The great significance of Democrats abandoning their role as the Devil’s Advocate in foreign policy debates is not only that their arguments were persuasive and in large part correct, but that they forced Republicans and the more interventionist elements in their own party to confront opposing viewpoints, such as those of the Vietnamese, that would otherwise go unconsidered. By bringing the negative effects of US foreign policy into the public discourse and by giving a voice to those on the receiving end of American intervention, Democrats challenged the principle of American Exceptionalism, Republicans’ North Star for setting foreign policy; they also forced hawks to defend unnecessary wars and to justify their awful effects.
The intellectual opposition to liberal internationalism did not always translate into substantive achievements for the Democrats or for the country, but it was nonetheless valuable, and it will be missed, especially as the US and Russia continue butting heads.
Though there are still some Democrats that caution about escalating the conflict with Russia — Tulsi Gabbard (HI) and Bernie Sanders (VT) come to mind — they are already marginalized and, to varying degrees, reviled by those in their own party, meaning their voices are limited. Plus, given the political narrative in Washington, any dissent from the anti-Russia zeitgeist is interpreted as evidence of an affinity for Russia or worse. The upshot is that Congressional Democrats’ protests provoking Russia will likely go unheeded. Similarly, the few voices on the GOP side that oppose confronting Russia, such as Rand Paul (KY) and Thomas Massie (KY), are also sufficiently outside of the mainstream for their respective party that their views will have little impact on the policies adopted by the Congress.
In closing, the Democratic Party’s movement away from moderation on Russia, whatever its cause(s), ought to be lamented, particularly at a time when the two countries are in the process of drawing back further from a position of uneasy mutual understanding. One must hope that Democrats rediscover their realist tendencies quickly before the Trump Administration’s foreign policy gurus take more steps to ‘counter and confront Russian aggression’ in Ukraine and elsewhere. And if they fail to correct themselves on Russia until America’s security is harmed, they should be held accountable along with the Republicans for their endorsement of an ill-conceived strategy. Indeed, they may be uniquely guilty in that they do and should know better.
Coleman Hopkins is graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in Philosophy and Political Science. He intends to enroll in law school next year to focus on environmental and/or appellate law. At some point in the future Coleman would like to teach.