There is a fatal flaw in how Russia and its foreign policy goals are understood in the West. Largely, this is the fault of a mass media that lifts its talking points directly from government reports and press releases without the slightest bit of healthy skepticism.
Western officials and the analysts who appear on major TV networks most frequently to talk about Russia fail to understand that Russian officials see the world through an entirely different lens. This is not because the Russians are inherently “evil” or are plotting to take over the world, as is frequently and stupidly suggested. It is simply because their worldview is informed by a different set of geographical and historical circumstances. Our inability in the West, to see or even acknowledge the validity of this second perspective, is at the root of the current conflict.
The general consensus in the West is that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an expansionist power. The common progression from there in Western analysis is that Putin desires, as part of some ideological plot, to destroy Western society. The reality, which those who study Russia more carefully will understand, is that Putin is quite the opposite of ideological — at least in the sense that he shows very little interest in exporting any specific ideology beyond Russia’s borders. He is generally speaking a pragmatist, not an idealist. In other words, he is the opposite of many Western leaders who feel it their duty to export Western liberal democracy worldwide.
It is that clash between idealism and realism that has led to what we now call a new Cold War. This Cold War 2.0 is not about ideology in terms of systems of government, the goodness of Capitalism versus the ‘evil’ of Communism. Both the U.S. and Russia are now capitalist and deeply corrupt, so there is nothing to fight over in that regard. So, if it’s not a simple battle for ideological supremacy between the U.S. and Russia, what is this new Cold War actually about?
There is a tendency for Western analysts to explain all of this in hugely simplified terms. Most seem to bypass this question in favor an interpretation which borders on xenophobia: Russians are not like us, Putin is inherently barbaric and bad, they would do us harm, and so we must beat them and keep them down. A recent and very widely-praised piece in Politico dedicated nearly 4,000 words to essentially the above argument.
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The war of words between the West and Russia is actually a battle between two global visions: Will we live in a unipolar world where terms are dictated by the United States alone, or will we live in a multipolar world where one power does not wield outsized and dangerous levels of unchecked influence? While the U.S. fights to be global hegemon, Russia has hedged its bets on a multipolar world. Its global vision is therefore far less dark and macabre than is commonly suggested.
To suggest that Moscow aims for global domination as part of an evil plot is to misunderstand Russia fundamentally. Moscow is not aiming to replace the U.S. as global arbiter of right and wrong. The Kremlin knows its limits. Russia won’t aim to be sole global superpower because it does not have the military or economic capacity to be that.
These facts, along with a long history of foreign invasions, also make the average Russian far more tuned into global affairs than their American and Western counterparts. Their so-called paranoia about outside enemies is not conjured up from figments of the imagination. It’s their history. This is why NATO build-ups on the Russian border are regarded as threatening and why it is reckless to dismiss their concerns out of hand.
Russia does not have the luxury that the U.S. has been blessed with to be insulated on both sides by open ocean and to be separated from its neighbor in the north by dense forests and lakes and its neighbor in the south by huge swathes of desert. Not to mention the fact that regardless of what separates them, there are no major or insurmountable security threats to the U.S. from either Canada or Mexico. What’s more, Russia is not attempting to stir up trouble in Canada and Mexico — and nor is it trying to drag those countries out of the U.S.’s orbit and into a Russian-led military alliance, which is what the U.S. has been up to in Russia’s neighborhood, particularly Ukraine and Georgia.
So no, Russia does not desire world domination or the destruction of Western civilization. The U.S. on the other hand, appears to favor sacrificing order and peace for hegemony at all turns.
With U.S. President-elect Donald Trump about to take office, the U.S. finds itself at a fork in the foreign policy road. Will the US under Trump accept that multipolarity is the safer of two courses and the most beneficial for a greater number of the world’s inhabitants? Or will it pursue its same course of sacrificing world stability in a desperate attempt to hold onto its own waning power?
Trump’s choices will determine whether this new Cold War begins to heat up or cool down. There is some indication that he will pursue a less ideological and interventionist policy; that he will opt for cooperation and deal-making over belligerence and militarism. On Russia in particular he has promised improved relations — but he has also flipped-flopped. He has been for sanctions on Russia and he has been against them. He has been for doing more to “help” Ukraine and he has been against it. He has been both a NATO fan and detractor. Just last week, Trump’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway made sharp criticisms of Russia on CNN and said that Trump would be tougher on Putin than Obama has been. That was a break from the more recent “let’s all get along” rhetoric.
If Trump can understand the benefits of multipolarity and global cooperation, not just to countries like Russia, but to the stability and security of the U.S. itself, then 2017 may become a turning point for the better in U.S. foreign policy. If he can’t shed the shackles of “American Exceptionalism” which keeps the world on a violent and unstable trajectory and ensures the continued growth of threats to the security of all nations, then he will be no different than his predecessors.
His sheer unpredictability leaves us in uncharted, but sure to be suspenseful, territory.