Putin’s American echo chambers
Biden’s balanced approach on Ukraine pushes the passionate intensity on the left and right towards the periphery in America’s debate
When Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly accused America of trying to lure Russia into a war earlier this week, he sounded like certain voices on both the right and the left in America’s own domestic debate about U.S. foreign policy.
The toplines of Putin’s remarks have strong similarities to what some self-styled conservatives, progressives, and realists have been saying for a while about U.S. foreign policy for several years now. That’s not surprising – such voices have always existed and played a role in America’s foreign policy deliberations.
Some on the left and right counsel the Biden administration to effectively give in to Moscow’s demands in whole or in part. To bolster their own arguments, many of these voices tacitly accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s false narratives on post-Cold War history and Russian victimhood at the hands of a duplicitous and hubristic United States. Some of them see the current crisis as an opportunity to relitigate foreign policy decisions made long ago such as NATO enlargement or the Iraq war. Others darkly warn that the United States faces a stark choice between giving Moscow most (if not all) of what it wants or all-out war between America and Russia.
This debate over the crisis with Russia has its roots in history: heated national arguments over intervention in the First and Second World Wars and over containment during the early days of the Cold War, as well as the shattering and frequently vitriolic disputes over the Vietnam War on the broad center-left in the 1960s and 1970s. There have always been isolationist currents with significant public and especially elite backing, though strict isolationism often has less public support than many observers imagine either in the heat of debate or in retrospect. Overall, though, these are enduring debates that will not be resolved by outcome of the current crisis.
The end result is the same: a coterie of policy analysts and political pundits who empathize so strongly with the Kremlin that, wittingly or not, they wind up justifying or even outright endorsing its claims and worldview. They may brand themselves “realists” or “restrainers,” but they all view Moscow’s loudly proclaimed geopolitical grievances as in some sense legitimate and therefore requiring dramatic concessions from Ukraine, the United States, and NATO to avoid armed conflict.
It's not about foreign influence – it’s more about vague instincts lacking broad U.S. public support
This observation about similarities between Putin’s worldview and some voices here in America isn’t a cheap personal attack against those voices on left or right that call vaguely for “restraint.” A sure sign that someone doesn’t have the courage of their own convictions is when they base an argument on ad hominem attacks and charges of foreign influence – and that’s NOT what we’re doing here.
Rather, we’re noting a much deeper phenomenon in America’s debate about itself, its own identity and its position in the world. Sometimes the criticisms levied against America by its competitors and adversaries in the world overlap with the increasingly diverse but frequently thin ideological debate over foreign policy taking place in America today.
For all the talk of an American retreat from the world driven by voters weary of two decades of “endless war,” there’s a notably strong consensus in America’s domestic political debate in favor of the Biden administration’s balanced approach to the crisis with Russia among Democrats and Republicans alike. President Biden and his foreign policy team have so far effectively combined firm diplomacy that rejects the Kremlin’s extravagant geopolitical demands with plans to militarily reinforce NATO allies and impose strong economic sanctions on Russia should Moscow invade Ukraine.
Though there’s little recent polling on the crisis – a mid-January Pew poll on attitudes toward Russia and its build-up on the Ukrainian border suggests most Americans have yet to pay close attention to it – polls over the past year suggest Americans would likely support the administration’s approach. The 2021 iteration of the annual poll conducted Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for instance, showed 59 percent support for deploying U.S. troops to defend NATO allies Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania against a hypothetical Russian attack. Similarly, a CBS News poll from last June revealed 58 percent of the public preferred President Biden to take a “tough stand” with his Russian counterpart.
The noise about a new wave of foreign policy being driven by “restraint” reshaping foreign policy over the past few years is so far just that: a lot of noise. Don’t believe the hype – a pretty solid consensus endures on U.S. foreign policy among the more moderate and balanced camps on both left and right. But that shouldn’t prevent us from exploring some deeper trends roiling the country’s foreign policy debate.
A strange new conservative love for Putin that dares not speak its name
American conservatism is a hot mess now on a range of issues, including its own stance on protecting America’s democracy and what sort of foreign policy America should have. When it comes to Russia and America’s right, a new affinity for Putinism has emerged over the past decade, driven by three main factors: domestic culture wars, neo-isolationism, and neo-authoritarianism.
1. Culture wars at home and abroad: Putin as a bastion of “traditional” values
It's been more than a decade since Putin became an icon among some American conservatives. Long-time right-wing neo-isolationist Pat Buchanan, for instance, started to sing Putin’s praises as a defender of “Christian values” and therefore an ideological ally of American social conservatives as early as 2013. Russia’s ban of same-sex marriages and Putin’s derogatory comments against gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals are key parts of his anti-freedom agenda – an agenda that’s gained plaudits from some on the right.
As the current crisis has unfolded, a number of Putin-friendly social conservatives have claimed that “so much of anti-Russian warmongering from US elites is about fighting the culture war by other means.” Much the same could be said of the pro-Putin conservatives making these very indictments, who see in the Russian dicatator an enemy of their own domestic enemies.
2. Neo-isolationism on America’s right – and drift among conservative internationalists
This is a curious development, since unlike some on the left hardline conservatives don’t have a residual history of ideological rapport with the powers that be in Moscow that compels them to defend Putin’s foreign policy – quite the opposite. But when President George W. Bush left office in 2009, many Republicans and conservatives found themselves adrift on foreign policy. This lack of direction allowed Trump and his “national conservative” supporters to do something new: establish the Republican Party as a beachhead for a Moscow-friendly form of belligerent isolationism.
It’s a development that’s baffled long-time Republican foreign policy hands like Richard Haass, who correctly assert that these Putin-friendly views are anathema to what were once mainstream Republicans like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. The end result is a Republican Party deeply divided on a wide range of national security questions – including Ukraine.
But after nearly seven years of Trump as the party’s standard bearer, it’d be foolish to imagine that Trump’s own long-standing sympathies toward Putin and his foreign policy haven’t percolated down to rank-and-file Republicans and influenced their views. Trump simply amplified pro-Putin sentiments that had already been in circulation among some diehard conservatives in the United States, extending their reach and elevating them within Republican and conservative circles.
3. Neo-authoritarianism on America’s right
Early in his presidency, Trump was challenged by right-wing broadcaster Bill O’Reilly over his strange respect for Putin. O’Reilly reminded Trump that Putin was a killer, and in Trump railed against America’s missteps and compared them to Putin’s own calculated crimes: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
In many ways, the affection Trump and many hardline conservatives have for Putin reflects what the anti-Trump conservative writer David French identifies as the conservative movement’s predisposition toward a cult of personality. As French argues, many conservatives are invested less in the cult of a particular individual personality and more in a “cult of a certain type of personality, one that is relentlessly, personally, and often punitively aggressive.” Donald Trump certainly fits the description, as does Vladimir Putin. Prominent Trump supporters certainly go out of their way lavish Putin with praise; Rudy Giuliani, for instance, fawned over Putin’s supposed decisiveness after Moscow annexed Ukraine in 2014, gushing, “That’s what you call a leader.”
For the most part, the response from elected Republican officials mirrors the fractured state of the party as a whole. As Axios reports, a number of long-serving Senate Republicans “are still making statements that sound more at home in the pre-Trump GOP.” But House Republicans hew closer to the neo-isolationist line espoused by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, as do a number of primary contenders angling for the backing of the party’s pro-Trump faction. It’s symptomatic of a political party still in thrall to Trump and his supporters, or at least of one sufficiently afraid of crossing them. With Trump acolytes mounting a strong effort to take over the Republican Party itself, the mainstream of the party on foreign policy has shifted toward the belligerent isolationism offered by Trump, Carlson, and other so-called national conservatives.
The GOP has some mighty tall challenges in sorting out its continued disarray on national security, and the current crisis with Russia represents an important test case.
“Blame America First” lurks on the left’s periphery
On the left, the few voices that come out sounding similar to Putin are largely driven by two dynamics – a sympathy that is grounded in socialist ideology and an” anti-imperialism” that’s been inside the tent for decades.
1. A deeper intellectual and ideological overlap
In the last two Democratic presidential primaries, a socialist who sometimes found it hard to criticize Russia and Cuba made a fairly strong showing – a reflection of ideological sympathies for self-proclaimed socialist dictators that has deep roots on the American left.
Historically, many on the left in the United States saw the Soviet Union in a highly sympathetic light. Even if they weren’t communists themselves, a number of left-wing writers and activists were prepared to give the Soviet Union a pass for ideological reasons. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. remarked in 1949, “Soviet Russia has become the opiate of the progressives.”1 The residue of this ideological narcotic lingers today, leading many on today’s far left to take a more-or-less benign view of Moscow’s post-Soviet foreign policy – whatever that foreign policy happens to be at any particular moment.
These vestigial Cold War-era ideological sympathies can’t fully explain the seeming Russophilia of present-day progressives, however. A fuller explanation can be found in the intellectual pathologies the political philosopher Michael Walzer perceives in much of the left’s foreign policy thinking: a reflexive embrace of oppositional politics, an “anti-militarism” or “anti-imperialism” that almost always focuses solely on the United States, and what Walzer calls the “politics of pretending” – “insisting on the reasonableness of people who give no sign of being reasonable.”2 Indeed, Walzer finds it particularly odd that some progressives and leftists subscribe to “something like the ‘realist’ position about spheres of influence. They defend Russia’s sphere, claiming that it makes for stability and peace and arguing that any strong Western commitment to, say, Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity is a threat to Russian security interests.”3
2. “Anti-imperialism” and “anti-militarism” that puts the blame on America
Many on America’s left loudly proclaim their opposition to what they consider “militarism” and “imperialism.” While these voices can play an important role in the country’s foreign policy debates, they all too frequently turn a blind eye to the dangers posed to global freedom by the Russias, Chinas, and Irans of the world.
Some progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) simply default to modes of foreign policy thinking that pin primary (if not sole) responsibility for the world’s problems on the United States. It’s a mindset that’s fertile ground for Russian public diplomacy and propaganda campaigns that proclaim Moscow’s own innocence and victimhood at hands of a perfidious United States.
As the historian Timothy Snyder recently observed, “The one consistent element of Russian propaganda is that Russia has suffered and that it is the West’s fault — your fault. When Russia does something inexcusable, you are meant to be shocked, blame yourself and make concessions.” Too many progressives today are all too ready to blame themselves for Moscow’s aggression and atone for America’s alleged foreign policy sins by making far-reaching but unnecessary concessions.
The common threads that bring the left and right together on the margins
Whether on the right or on the left, these voices also tend to share a certain style of argumentation – one relies on fearmongering and dichotomous thinking. In that respect, they’re quite similar to the isolationists of old. In 1941, for instance, Sen. Burton K. Wheeler (D-MT) expressed his opposition President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program of aid to Great Britain in lurid terms, asserting the legislation amounted to a “New Deal AAA foreign policy – plow under every fourth American boy.” Today, those opposed to a firm American stand against the Kremlin on Ukraine and in favor of generous concessions to Moscow frame the policy choice confronting the United States as between war with Russia on one hand and acceding to Moscow’s demands on the other.
Hence Tucker Carlson’s open promotion of the Kremlin’s line. Claims that any opposition to Russian aggression will lead to a global conflagration are nothing new; indeed, they tend to crop up any time the United States and its allies take a firm stand against Moscow’s geopolitical prerogatives and priorities. It’s a flawed line of reasoning about foreign policy that’s not confined to discussions about the current crisis with Russia. During the initial debate over the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015, for instance, President Obama presented the choice facing the country as “ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.”
Stuck in the middle with you: liberal nationalism projected abroad
The good news is that the Biden administration has struck the right balance on Ukraine so far – it has done a commendable job rebuffing the Kremlin’s absurd demands so far. It’s also left the United States better positioned to protect its interests and values in Europe than many of the alternatives on offer.
It’s important to reject the false choice between war and capitulation offered by national conservatives, restraint-minded progressives, and self-proclaimed realists alike. Recognizing there’s probably no real diplomatic solution to the crisis, the Biden administration has wisely pursued an alternative approach: robust diplomacy that rejects the Kremlin’s absurd geopolitical demands and works with America’s NATO allies to bolster the security of the alliance’s eastern flank and impose strong economic sanctions on Russia if it moves into Ukraine.
That’s a strategy that’s largely in sync with a liberal nationalist approach to Russia, one that can be outlined in three easy steps:
Stand up to bullies – and stand for America’s values and interests. Vladimir Putin amounts to nothing more than a bully with an army, and most Americans don’t particularly like bullies. It’s in America’s own interests to stand up to bullies that threaten war to intimidate other nations and get what they want, all the more so when those bullies target America’s friends and allies. That’s something many Americans understand at a gut level, even if they remain rationally ignorant about the ins-and-outs of complicated foreign policy questions. Worse still, international bullies like Putin stand in direct opposition to defining American values of freedom, equality, and self-determination. Liberal nationalists understand that his mafia-style approach to foreign affairs cannot and should not become a governing principle of global politics. They also have confidence in their own values and principles, knowing that it’s strategically unsound – as well as politically harmful at home – to act as if America is an exceptionally wicked and sinful nation chronically in need of repentance. A key part of standing up for ourselves is also looking to defend America’s democracy and create greater unity at home on foreign policy so that the Putins and Xi Jinpings of the world don’t continue to exploit it.
Support for freedom doesn’t equal war. Many voices on both left and right propagate a false choice between acceding to most if not all of the Kremlin’s demands and all-out war between Russia and the United States. As President John F. Kennedy noted during the Berlin crisis of 1961, the actual foreign policy decisions confronting the United States rarely if ever amount to stark choice “between resistance and retreat, between atomic holocaust and surrender.” Contrary to what many advocates of “restraint” and “realism” frequently imply, liberal nationalists recognize that it’s entirely possible to support the rights and sovereignty of imperfect democracies against the bullying of autocratic powers like Russia without necessarily or inevitably hazarding armed conflict. A liberal nationalist approach roundly rejects this false dichotomy, seeing it as an impediment to clear thinking about high-stakes foreign policy challenges that implicate American values and interests.
Pulling allies and partners together to solve shared problems. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the wartime Allies had been “forced to call out what we in the United States would call the sheriff's posse” to rid the world of “outlaws” like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Today, liberal nationalists similarly understand the importance of assembling friends and allies to confront common threats and solve shared problems like potential Russian aggression toward Ukraine. The Biden administration has done well to keep NATO united in the face of the Kremlin’s attempt to divide the alliance, but the crisis has also revealed that many of NATO’s European members still suffer from self-imposed limitations that leave them unable to contribute to the fullest of their potential. It will take time, but these shortcomings need to be addressed if America’s allies and partners are to pull their own weight and stand on their own feet alongside the United States.
Liberal nationalism offers a more refined and easier-to-explain version of this approach, a way to build an even more solid foundation for foreign policy that can withstand the uncertain days ahead.
Schlesinger, The Vital Center, p. 49
Walzer, A Foreign Policy for the Left, p. 26
Walzer p. 23.