‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before Election Day 2012. With the race still thought to be tight, he had come to the candidates’ final debate loaded for bear. Earlier in the campaign, his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, had had the temerity to pronounce that Russia was, “without question, our number-one geopolitical foe.” The incumbent president regarded this as an absurd anachronism. So that night, he brought the snark. Hadn’t anyone informed Romney that “the Cold War’s been over for twenty years”? Obama tut-tutted that this Republican nostalgia for the foreign policy of the 1980s was of a piece with the GOP’s desire to revive the “social policy of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Yes, that was your Democratic Party standard-bearer, what seems like only yesterday. No longer was this the party of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. To Obama-era Democrats, arguing that Russia was a real threat, that it longed for a return to Soviet hegemony, was akin to calling for the return of Jim Crow and the adoption of protectionist practices that helped ignite the Great Depression.
But then Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, and Democrats decided they’d best return that call from the 1980s, after all. Turns out Russia—the Russia against whose serial aggressions Obama took little meaningful action throughout his eight years in office—really is our Numero Uno geopolitical foe. Turns out the Cold War isn’t “so last century.” Since November 8, 2016, in ever-evolving Democratic dogma, Russia has gone from a quaint obsession of neo-con warmongers to an existential threat on the order of Climate Change!
As is generally the case, neither extreme of political posturing has been accurate. Romney was right that Putin’s Russia is a significant rival on the world stage. Whether it is “number one” on the tally sheet is debatable. To figure that out, we’d have to make judgment calls about all the threats we face—immediate versus long-term, forcible versus other forms of aggression, ideological versus transactional, and so on. No need to dawdle over that. It suffices to say that the Russian regime is a serious adversary. It has a formidable nuclear arsenal, as well as highly capable military and intelligence forces. Its default posture is anti-American (though it is biddable). It cooperates effectively with other anti-American regimes and factions. Its veto power in the United Nations Security Council complicates our government’s capacity to act in American interests. It has a Soviet iciness about the use of terrorism and forges alliances with terrorists in the pursuit of its interests. The regime is ruthless in its determination to remain in power, it has revanchist ambitions, and it is shrewd in testing the West’s resolve—or lack of same—to respond to incremental aggressions that implicate NATO and other commitments.
At the same time, Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Cold War really is over. We are not in a bipolar global order, rivaled by a tyrannical Soviet empire. Modern Russia is a fading country. Its firstrate weaponry, armed forces, and intelligence agencies scarcely obscure its third-rate economy, declining population, pervasive societal dysfunction (high levels of drunkenness, disease, and unemployment), and lowering life expectancy.1 Behind the façade of democratic elections and constitutional restraints, Russia has less a principled system of government than a marriage of rulers, oligarchs, and organized crime. To endure, Vladimir Putin’s regime must terrorize the Russian people. Nevertheless, it is a pale imitation of the brutal Soviet behemoth that imploded nearly thirty years ago when the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain lifted, and tens of millions of enslaved subjects broke free.
Does Russia have the wherewithal to “interfere in our elections,” as the media–Democrat trope puts it? If by “interference”—or its frequently invoked synonym, “meddling”—we refer to the ability to inject propaganda and attempt to influence the campaign debate, then of course it can interfere. And it does. That is what capable governments do to other countries. It is not only what the Soviet Union always did, and what Putin’s Russia does throughout the West and in other parts of the world of consequence to Russian interests; it is what our own government does.
This calls for a bit of international-law throat-clearing. The United Nations has long proclaimed, “No State has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any State.2 Yet, interference is not deemed to rise to a prohibited intervention unless it not only involves a matter committed exclusively to another state’s prerogative, but is also coercive. That is, as Creighton Law School Professor Sean Watts observes, “the operation must force the target State into a course of action it would not otherwise undertake.”3 Russia, of course, is alleged to have interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign by such “cyberespionage” operations as hacking email accounts and social-media messaging. Hacking is clearly a crime, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s staff theorizes that internet electioneering and propaganda by foreign actors may also rise to the level of criminal conspiracy.4 As an international law matter, however, Russia’s election interference, provocative and obnoxious as it was, cannot conceivably be said to have “coerced” the United States.
We must concede, moreover, that the United States is among the most active participants in the election-interference game. “We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947,” Loch K. Johnson, an acclaimed scholar of U.S. intelligence, told The New York Times in 2018. “We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners—you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.”5
Democrats, moreover, conveniently forget that they’ve historically welcomed such mischief-making. As historian Steven F. Hayward recounts, President Jimmy Carter used such emissaries as billionaire industrialist Armand Hammer and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to seek Soviet accommodations that could help in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan. This mirrored the tactics of the 1976 campaign, during which Democratic eminence Averell Harriman conveyed to the Soviet foreign ministry that Carter was anxious to negotiate and would be more agreeable to deal with than then-President Gerald Ford.6
By the 1984 campaign, it was the renowned “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy, pleading with Soviet leader Yuri Andropov for help in the Democrats’ futile effort to stop the Reagan landslide. The Hoover Institution’s Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter, provided details of the unabashed quid pro quo, outlined in a 1983 KGB memorandum. Through his confidant, former Democratic Senator John Tunney, Kennedy told Andropov, “The only real potential threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations.… These issues … will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.” Kennedy offered to visit Andropov in Moscow to provide Soviet officials with pointers on the challenges of nuclear disarmament “so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.” Having thus offered to update their propaganda, Kennedy further proposed arranging to have television networks give Andropov air time for “a direct appeal … to the American people.” Tunney went on to advise the Russians that, while his friend wanted to run for president in 1988, “Kennedy does not discount that during the 1984 campaign, the Democratic Party may officially turn to him to lead the fight against Republicans and elect their candidate president.”7
Now that’s some collusion right there.
There is nothing unusual about it, though. President Bill Clinton labored to ensure that Russia’s reformer President (and Putin patron) Boris Yeltsin would not be defeated by a Soviet-style Communist in 1996.8 President Obama sedulously worked against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first attempting to force progressives into his right-leaning governing coalition, then dedicating U.S. taxpayer funds to a failed effort to defeat Netanyahu in 2015. Nothing new there: Clinton had unsuccessfully tried to defeat Netanyahu nearly twenty years earlier, later telling Israeli television, “I tried to do it in a way that didn’t overtly involve me.”9
As these things go, it would have been shocking if Moscow had not attempted to meddle in our 2016 election. Putting aside the Russians’ general penchant for anti-American mischief-making, in 2011 Putin had publicly blamed then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting unrest following Russia’s typically rigged Parliamentary elections.10 So, the 2016 campaign was not just business as usual. There was an element of score-settling. And Putin being a canny strongman, the point was to sow discord and make life difficult for what he fully expected would be the new Clinton administration. There are good reasons to doubt the sincerity of assurances by Kremlin-tied operatives that Putin wanted Trump to win. Russia’s modus operandi in the West is to agitate minority factions it believes are going to lose—whether it would prefer to see them to win or not. That is how Moscow sows discord in the society and makes it more difficult for the incumbent government to pursue its interests. But even if we accept at face value Russian assertions that Putin wanted Trump to win, there is no reason to think Putin believed Trump would win.
Nobody did. Not even Donald Trump himself.” 11
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