America is the Great Satan (at least until the election over . . .)
In the spirit of U.S. political meme-games, I thought I’d throw a dictator’s version out to our readers. You choose the originator of the quotes below: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad, or Vladimir Putin.
1. “Sometimes it seems to me that America does not need allies, it needs vassals . . . people are tired of the dictates of one country.”
2. “There are forces today that consider Russia easy prey. They bombed Iraq. They destroyed Libya. They are approaching Syria. They stepped all over the people of Yugoslavia. And they are now thinking about Russia and are waiting for a moment when it is weak.”
3. “The Americans are obsessed with the idea of securing absolute invulnerability for themselves, which, incidentally, is a utopia, for both technological and geopolitical reasons. But that is exactly where the root of the problem lies. . . . Absolute invulnerability for one nation would mean absolute vulnerability for everybody else.”
Sorry, trick question! All have been uttered by Putin and/or his viziers over the 2011-2012 campaign season. The point is that anti-Americanism has permeated much of the rhetoric as of late, in the form of denouncements of U.S. foreign policies or warnings against interference in matters of Russia’s sovereignty.
The standard trope in American journalism/punditry is to quickly sweep aside these attacks into the “Putin’s only doing it for domestic electoral reasons” category. Translation: 1. Russians remain deeply aggrieved by all things American in light of the Great Satan’s historical and permanent designs to cripple their country and economy and 2. Putin will benefit electorally from such remarks, but American-Russian relations will on the whole not suffer. Let’s break it down to see how much water it holds, and then examine a couple other possible effects.
On the one hand, this reading of anti-American diatribes holds invariably true for a sizable portion of the Russian population. Many reared in the Soviet Union have never shed their inherent distrust of U.S. motives and consume little information beyond state-controlled media that might convince them otherwise. From the very beginning, the Putin government quickly understood the instrumental value of exclusionary rhetoric, both implicitly and explicitly promoting the “besieged fortress” mentality as a path to national consolidation. Nationalists have enjoyed varying levels of approval from the government in the 2000s, in turn espousing hate speech, intolerance, and open aggression towards foreign states; often times this letting off of steam has boiled over into violence. Intervention in Libya (and potentially Syria) has indicated the West’s resolve to involve itself in the domestic affairs of foreign states, a scenario Putin desperately wants to avoid. Strong rhetoric helps shape popular opinion in the hopefully unlikely event that protests turn violent.
However, the tact may no longer resonate as much as it once did. Russian popular opinion of the U.S. has improved greatly over the last couple years, driven largely by the election of Obama and the U.S.-Russia reset. From 2009-2011, the percentage of Russians viewing the U.S. favorably jumped nearly 20 percentage points and has remained at roughly 60% (this just in: maybe opinion is more malleable than we thought). Much like the 2012 U.S. presidential election, this week’s contest is also not primarily about foreign policy. In fact, of the litany of policy statements Putin has written over the last two months, only the last was dedicated to security issues. It’s not just that voters are tiring of the confrontational rhetoric; many simply have deeper concerns about which to make their decision. This hand has been played expertly in the past, whether it be tragic but controversial terrorist attacks in 1999, or even deftly exposed assassination plots both in 2007 and this past week. What if the strategy backfires and pushes away overly satiated voters?
To break different ground, though, several other important points are glossed over once we stop at the “only for elections” hypothesis. First, Dmitri Trenin sums it up nicely, noting that the problems with Putin’s national security platform is its obsession with the U.S. as “Russia’s principal likely adversary.” It’s not just that harsh words are cavorting about; massive defense spending decisions align with the rhetoric. Much as Pakistan is blinded to the real threats to its existence by its obsession with India, Russia refuses to accept that its national security depends on a much broader and objective view of rivals and weaknesses. It’s not just that Russia leaders want to sway public opinion against the West; it may actually present a kernel of truth about their true fears.
Next, accusations of foreign interference provide ample cover for Russian state authorities to persecute independent civil society organization that they feel threatened by. When a random legislative deputy can open investigations into the funding and activities of basically entity he likes, we know that it’s not just the voters that are receiving signals. We saw this in December 2011 with the assault on Golos, the independent election monitoring organization that was conveniently accused of taking money from the West, Judas-style. This time around, independent media has fallen into the crosshairs, as the often times anti-regime Dozhd (Rain) television channel is starting to incur the wrath of state officials. This type of action has been officially sanctioned since the British spy rock affair from 2006, but a regular healthy renewal of anti-West sentiment helps cement the government’s authority to arbitrarily invoke “foreign interference” when trying to neutralize domestic opponents.
Lastly, Western diplomats may have thick skins to such berating, but it isn’t so clear that investors do. Bilateral investment and trade levels between the United States and Russia remain remarkably low for two such massive economies. Investors have a multitude options, even beyond the BRIC countries; political risk and international relations can quick shoot up the list of important factors affecting where to put your money. I give him credit; Putin tries to simultaneously provoke and assuage, writing in his last statement that economic cooperation should be a highest priority for the two countries. Russia owns a boatload of U.S. treasuries, which should ease the concerns of would-be investors, but the fact remains that we don’t have great data on how foreign businessmen process the castigations. One could easily make an argument that the bellicosity of foreign policy maps quite well onto insecurity of property rights and unconstrained, corrupt bureaucrats.