From the era of great hopes and expectations generated by the Cold War’s end, the United States and Russia have moved into emotionally bitter conflict of values. Since at least 2012, it has become common to hear American and Russian media accusing leaders of their respective countries of not only violating international law, but also of developing political systems that are based on cynicism, injustice, and disregard for human dignity.
On many occasions, the United States’ officials and members of the political class used the inflammatory rhetoric by comparing president Vladimir Putin’s actions with those of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and portraying the Kremlin’s style of government as deeply corrupt and based on repression of opposition, reward of political cronies, and military invasions abroad. The US media and political circles now hold overwhelmingly negative images of Russia, while presenting American values as those of freedom and democracy. In its turn, Russia sees itself defending its political system and legitimate interests from economic, political, and military interference by the West.
Election of Trump as the U.S. President prompted the liberal media to intensify Russia-related fears and conspiracy theories. The rapidly spreading theory is that Russia’s alleged cyber inteference in the U.S. elections was an act of war, that Putin won the war, and that he is ruling America through his proxies. The theory likely came to the media from Hillary Clinton’s inner circle. As acknowledged by the New Yorker, members of the circle believed that the Obama administration deliberately downplayed the DNC hacking by the Kremlin. “We understand the bind they were in,” one of Clinton’s senior advisers said. “But what if Barack Obama had gone to the Oval Office, or the East Room of the White House, and said, ‘I’m speaking to you tonight to inform you that the United States is under attack … A large majority of Americans would have sat up and taken notice … it is bewildering—it is baffling—it is hard to make sense of why this was not a five-alarm fire in the White House.” Commentators and pundits including those with academic and political credentials developed the theory of the U.S. under enemy’s attack further. The former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in the Washington Post that Russia attacked “our sovereignty” and continues to “watch us do nothing” because of partisan divides. He compared the Kremlin’s actions with those of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 and warned Russia was likely to repeat assaults in 2018 or 2020. The historian Timothy Snyder went even farther by linking the “war” with the election of Trump which Snyder said was the basic aim of the enemy.
Rather than viewing the hacking attacks as interference in domestic affairs, both Democrats and Republicans helped to promote the war theory. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated, "When you attack a country, it's an act of war.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney called Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. election “a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization” that "in some quarters that would be considered an act of war.” Without calling for a military response, a number of Democrats too engaged in the war rhetoric likening the Russia “attack”, as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) did, to the United States’ “political Pearl Harbor.”
The war rhetoric fit into a larger narrative developed by Democrats and liberal media that presented President Trump as compromised by Russia and soft on the Kremlin. During her broadcast on March 9, MSNBC’s host Rachel Maddow questioned whether Trump was actually under the control of Putin. Citing Trump’s views and examples of his associates travelling to Moscow, she told viewers that "we are also starting to see what may be signs of continuing [Russian] influence in our country. Not just during the campaign but during the administration. Basically, signs of what could be a continuing operation." On March 23, another New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a column titled “There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air.” Kristof argued that the FBI investigation into “whether another presidential campaign colluded with a foreign power so as to win an election … would amount to treason.”
There are two sides to the Russia story in the U.S. liberal media – rational and emotional. The rational side has to do with calculations of Clinton-affiliated circles and anti-Russian groups pulling their resources to undermine Trump and his plans to improve relations with Russia. Among others, these resources included dominance within the liberal media and leaks by unidentified members of the intelligence community. The emotional side was revealed by the liberal elites’ ability to engage with fears of Russia within the U.S. political class and the general public. Popular emotions of fear and frustration with Russia already existed in the public space due to the old Cold War memories. In part due to these memories, minority groups such as one associated with Clinton were successful in evoking in public liberal mind what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” or “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Mobilized by liberal media to pressure Trump, these emotions of Russophobia then became an independent factor in the political struggle inside Washington. The public display of fear and frustration with Russia and Trump could only be sustained by constant supply of new “suspicious” developments and their intense discussion by the media.
The new American Russophobia is a reflection of a crisis experienced by the liberal West. The roots of this crisis are in promotion of the unsustainable hegemonic narrative of market democracy’s “victory” in the Cold War over “totalitarian” communism. Rather than building a new pluralist world order after the Cold War, Western elites chose the self-congratulatory vision by gradually alienating the non-Western world and their own population.
Because Russia emerged as the most vocal critic of the hegemonic narrative and because it remains the most powerful nuclear state and the former Cold War rival, the liberal elites in the United States view the Kremlin as the arch enemy. Russia’s traditional pattern of strong state was gradually revived – partly in response to pressures from the West. As previously in its history, Russia’s system of values developed in tensions with and in response to that of Western nations. Ideas of Christianity, communism, and liberal democracy all had their roots in the West, yet each was adapted to fit Russia’s own geopolitical and domestic conditions. Ironically, instead of transforming Russia’s traditional institutions, Western pressures contributed to these institutions’ revival.
The Russia paranoia in the liberal media is symptomatic of America’s declining confidence in its own values. Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the disastrous war in Iraq, and the global financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. and European nations have been searching for ways to adapt in a new, increasingly unstable and regionalized world. Through rejection of difference, the binary “self vs other” presentation assists self in maintaining its moral and psychological confidence. The U.S. narrative of Russia as the threatening neo-Soviet autocracy has been instrumental in confirming the identity of “free” America at home and the leader of “free world” abroad. Russia’s otherness, again, served to distract public attention from failed liberal policies and preserve confidence of the liberal self. As Anatol Lieven wrote, “whipping up fear of Russia allows elites in both the USA and Europe to continue to structure their institutions and strategies around an adversary that is familiar, comfortable and fundamentally safe.”
The described clash of values in U.S.-Russia relations was hardly inevitable in the sense that alternative strategies and ideas existed in both countries. Influential intellectuals, organizations, and members of political class voiced their support for cooperation based on mutual interests in fighting terrorism, regional instability, and weapons proliferation. Yet, each time those advocating exclusive values, rather than inclusive solutions, prevailed.
In addition to being rejected from the outside, the Western liberal narrative was rejected internally. Donald Trump was elected not because of Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections but because American people withdrew their support from liberal policies of military, political, and commercial engagement abroad at the expense of national interests. Trump’s populist message has resonated with workers who fear losing their jobs to global markets, segments within the middle class who saw their pay shrinking as the rich get richer, and army servicemen tired of fighting wars for American hegemony.
In order to prevent further sliding of the world into a nationalist age of extremes, the liberal West must redefine itself as inclusive, bottom-up, and populist. The key to rebuilding its global reputation is the power of example.