Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
‘Our adversary.’ This is how Hillary Clinton described Russia in the second presidential debate on Sunday night. So routine has distrust and recrimination between the two countries become that nobody batted an eyelid. After all, earlier in the campaign, some of Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination more-or-less promised the voters nuclear war if they were elected.
In the debate, Secretary Clinton made concrete points about Russian interference in the American elections. Less concretely but more emphatically, she also blamed Russia (not President Assad) for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
No doubt, Clinton was burnishing her national security credentials. But she was also pursuing a moral point. Last month, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, spoke of Russian ‘barbarism’ in Syria. ‘Instead of helping get lifesaving aid to civilians,’ Power said, ‘Russia and Assad are bombing the humanitarian convoys, hospitals and first responders who are desperately trying to keep people alive.’
Back in 2002, Samantha Power made the case for American liberal interventionism, for using American power to stop mass violence against civilians, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell. The book speaks to a moral agenda for foreign policy. It has always been difficult for the American foreign policy establishment to frame a programme in credibly moral terms — indeed Power’s book shows how difficult it is — but it seems preposterous after the war in Iraq. These are easy rhetorical balls for the Russians to bat back.
By contrast, as Secretary of State, Clinton pursued a famously pragmatic foreign policy. She struck compromises and made concessions, not least in her ‘Russian reset’ in 2009, but more widely too. Overt moral poses tended to be reserved for favoured causes, such as women’s rights, where pragmatism had little point.
But in this election, the pragmatic approach to Russia is left to Donald J. Trump, author of The Art of the Deal. The Russians might be bombing Aleppo at will, but calling them barbarians is unlikely to make them stop — and some of their targets are not inconsistent with American goals. In making his point, he casually dismissed the more conventional views of his running mate.
It’s surely unlikely that Trump has an instinctive sympathy for Vladimir Putin (though he’s susceptible to flattery from Moscow), or an ideological preference for ‘Putinism’ (anyway impossible to define), or that he’s part of a global conspiracy directed from the Kremlin (though we haven’t seen his tax returns). Instead, Trump seems to look at Russia and Putin in the way that he looks at a rival business and fellow-tycoon. He argues that a foreign policy deal is feasible between two sides which possess different interests but have some common goals.
Plainly, diplomacy is not business. But the two activities share certain requirements. Samantha Power herself is no stranger to these. A Hillary-backer in 2016, she famously called her ‘a monster’ back in 2008, declaring that ‘she is stooping to anything’.
Electoral politics force experienced candidates to describe Russia and Putin in the darkest colours. But history offers lessons about how to debate a Russia policy that secures objectives rather than satisfies voters or ameliorates conscience. See my next post.