Millions of people around the world learn English from courses broadcast over the Voice of America. One recent lesson was about the word “enemy.” An announcer introduced it simply: “Do you have an enemy? Hopefully, you don’t. An enemy is someone who hates you, and you hate them back. An enemy threatens you, attacks you or tries to harm you.”
Americans may be forgiven if, upon reading that definition, we think: Russia! For the last few years, and especially the last few months, we have been fed massive doses of “news” that push us to see Russia as the epitome of an enemy — not just an enemy of our nation, but of all that is decent and holy everywhere in the world. Denunciations of Russia have escalated from indignant to outraged to frantic. They have now entered the realm of surrealism.
According to the narrative we are now being spoon-fed, Russia is an incurably corrupt and aggressive power that threatens its neighbors and works relentlessly to undermine American interests around the world. Its domestic life is portrayed as corrupt and murderously oppressive. The latest addition to this feeding frenzy is the allegation that Russia interfered in last year’s American presidential election. Put all of this together, and it is not surprising that the recent proposal to impose new sanctions on Russia passed the Senate by a vote of 98-2 and the House of Representatives by 419-3. Russia’s response — expelling American diplomats — further escalated the tit-for-tat game.
Anti-Russia sentiment is deeply anchored in the American psyche. We have considered Russia an enemy ever since President Woodrow Wilson sent 13,000 troops to try to overthrow the Bolsheviks in 1918. With the exception of the few years during World War II, and a brief period in the early 1990s, Moscow has been our nemesis ever since. Now this emotion has reached a dizzying new peak.
It is far from reality. Russia does not threaten any vital American interest. Its policies in Syria and the rest of the Middle East are in line with America’s stated desire to crush militant fanatics. Its wariness of China matches our own. As for charges that Russia intervened in an American election, they are serious and deserve investigation — but hardly the basis for howls of anger from a country that is the world champion in manipulating foreign elections.
The Russia “scandal,” as we are told to consider it, plays perfectly into the hands of Washington power. It is the ideal distraction. Republicans love it because as long as it dominates the news, there is less space for coverage of stories like the effect of new immigration policies or the rollback of environmental regulations. Democrats are just as happy, for another reason. Embracing the fantasy that Russian interference cost them the 2016 election allows them to avoid facing the reality that their defeat was really the result of presenting a widely loathed candidate and a set of policies far distant from the concerns of ordinary voters.
In Washington, Democrats compete with Republicans to see who can be most anti-Russian. Liberals and conservatives alike share space on this runaway train. Think tanks, almost without exception, parrot the same line: Russia is the evil shadow seeking to darken a world that the virtuous United States is trying to pacify and enlighten. Dissent from this stereotype is considered treasonous — as evidenced by Senator John McCain’s charge that one of his colleagues was “working for Vladimir Putin” because he voted against admitting Montenegro to NATO. It is another reflection of how depressingly monochromatic our foreign policy has become.
The Russia episode, however, has done more than just illustrate once again the strength of the brain-dead foreign policy consensus in Washington. It has also revealed an ugly truth about the American press. Politicians could not sell their over-the-top fantasies about Russia if the press did not feed our distorted appetites. A recent series of reports about Russia’s sins on “PBS NewsHour” read exactly as if it had been prepared at the Pentagon or the Council on Foreign Relations or the Atlantic Council or the Brookings Institution — or the Republican or Democratic national committees. A New York Times series was another voice in the same ever-repeating chorus. Whenever the political elite joins to embrace a single narrative, the press is supposed to question it. Instead, shamefully, it is doing the opposite.
Fears that American democracy is becoming vulnerable to those who would like to destroy it are reasonable. The true danger, however, does not come from Russia. Democracy is weakening in the US because our government has fallen into the hands of the exceedingly rich. Russian hacking, if it exists, is low on the list of threats to American democracy. Physician, heal thyself!
Another terrible effect of the contretemps over Russia is that it has made any improvement in US-Russia relations impossible. Simply meeting a Russian diplomat for lunch would now be considered politically dangerous or worse. This suits militarists who need the image of an enemy to justify massive arms spending and provocative military exercises all over the world. It does not, however, fit with American interests.
Our interests are to lure Russia away from a possible strategic partnership with China; establish a security architecture in Europe that protects both NATO countries and Russia; and work with Russia to stabilize the Middle East. When emotion and prejudice are put aside, Russia is revealed as a potential partner of ours, not an enemy. In the present political climate, however, making that argument is almost suicidal. Washington’s mighty megaphone has told us that Russia is our greatest global foe. By treating it that way, we create an enemy where none exists.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.