Derek Eggleston is a first year student of International Relations in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His primary focus is American domestic politics and its impact on American foreign relations. Connect at: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/derekeggleston.
“In MSNBC’s Democratic debate on Thursday February 4th, occurring directly before the New Hampshire primaries, moderator Chuck Todd questioned the candidates on who posed the greatest threat to U.S. interests: North Korea, Iran, or Russia. Former Secretary of State and Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton elucidated the concerns of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter: “Russia is trying to move the boundaries of the post-World War II Europe…they are deeply engaged in supporting Assad because they want to have a place in the Middle East…Secretary Carter is seeing…we have to send a very clear message to Putin that this kind of belligerence, that this kind of testing of boundaries will have to be responded to” (Clinton quoted in NBC, 2016). Anyone who follows current American politics is unsurprised by this statement, it is clearly a pervasive thought amongst American policymakers that Russia poses a significant obstacle in the international system to American foreign policy objectives. However, it is necessary to ask, as this article does from several different perspectives, what is the exact nature of this threat? How does America exactly perceive the ‘Russian threat’ and what impact does this have on American foreign policy? This segment will first analyze the perceived stability threat Russia poses and then discuss the dearth of American expertise on Russia and how this impacts America’s response to the Russian threat before finally concluding on the nature of relations between the two countries in the current world.”
The Russian Threat: Instability
The current world is largely the product of American attempts in the 20th Century to consolidate a global order marked by: openness, a plurality of organizations, norms of cooperation, and free trade (Hurrell 2006, p. 3). The Cold War, to the United States, represented the manifestation of Russian opposition to this global order beneficial to the United States. This chasm created meant to the U.S a more fractured world in which it could not oversee its favored international norms. Similarly, current Russian behavior represents just this to Americans, a threat to a stable international order. Putin’s displays of Russian might and involvement in Ukraine are perceived by American government officials as destabilizing ‘saber-rattling’ which will only serve to hurt Europe in the long run (RT, 2015). But are these perceived threats taken as a serious risk to European stability or seen as just simple grandstanding by Putin? The former is the overwhelmingly pervasive view in American thought. American think tank Rand Corp. spent months elaborately simulating a Russian incursion into NATO territory in the Baltics. The report was conspicuously released just a week before the 2017 budget for the Pentagon was released and the policy manifestations of these fears can be clearly seen as the U.S. will: “Add a brigade’s worth of pre-positioned tanks and other heavy equipment in Europe” and “Quadruple investment in the European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion” (Vandiver, 2016). All of this paints a very clear and bleak picture of American perceptions of Russia. Not only do more than two-thirds of the American public negatively view Russia as a country (Stokes, 2015), but to American policy-makers, Russia represents an inherent threat to regional stability—particularly in Europe. America has and will continue to try and counter Russian power and its perceived threat with America power—a textbook security dilemma which, any IR student can tell you, may only lead to a burgeoning of tensions between the two countries.
Know Your Enemy
To understand the American perception of Russia, it is important to also understand the nature of Russian studies in the U.S. One benefit of the Cold War was a government devoted to better understanding the USSR and the Soviet government. However, as the U.S. celebrated its victory and enjoyed its freedom as the sole superpower, it neglected its vigilance in regards to understanding and relating to Russia. The U.S. has lost its focus and, in turn, its ability to deal with Russia: “Experts, lawmakers, and former administration officials describe a national security apparatus that, once teeming with experienced Russia specialists…now relies on looser regime of more junior experts who lack the reach to directly influence policy” (Demirjian, 2015). This dearth of Russian expertise has manifested itself in an inability to understand or predict what Russia does. Senior Senator and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-AZ) notes: “We’ve been surprised at every turn…we were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria” (McCain quoted in Koshkin, 2016). How can the U.S. manage reasonable and practical understandings of Russia and create sensible policy to deal with Russia if the U.S. is simply playing catch-up to a list of perceived unexpected and bellicose moves? The mantra is simple: know your enemy. The U.S. may not have gotten along with the Soviet Union during the Cold War but could at least target policy towards a long term strategic goal due to the fact they tried to understand their adversary and address the USSR’s goals as well in relation to their own. However, right now the U.S. is in the dark and cannot fully deal with Russia if it cannot anticipate Russia. Furthermore, if the U.S. cannot anticipate Russia this will innately characterize every move Russia makes as “sudden” and “irrational” which does nothing to relations but further alienate Russia and increase disapprobation of one another.
In the spring of 2014, I had the great pleasure of hearing former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul speak on bilateral relations between the two countries. He gave the bleak ultimatum that Putin sees the relationship in zero-sum terms and that true, mutually-beneficial progress cannot be made until there is a change in Russian leadership. Whether such an ultimatum is true or not is hard to know. However, it is hard to know because the U.S. has not done everything it can to manage relations with Putin in the status quo and try to establish and foster system in which Russian actions do not equate to the deferral of American interests. The U.S. must take the steps to once again concern itself with Russia who will not go away. Russia has and will remain a key player in international politics, and if the U.S. is to coexist beneficially, it must accept this and devote human capital towards better understanding and anticipating Russian behavior. Otherwise, this damaging game of catch-up will only continue. Russia will act in a way unforeseen by the U.S. who will then in turn respond with a show of its own might. This security dilemma will continue in perpetuity unless the cycle of ignorance can be broken by cognizance.
Demirjian, Karoun. 2015, “Lack of Russia Experts Has Some in U.S. Worried.” Washington Post. December 30, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2015/12/30/lack-of-russia-experts-has-the-u-s-playing-catch-up/.
Hurrell, Andrew. 2006, “Hegemony, Liberalism and Global Order: What Space for Would-be Great Powers?” International Affairs Int Affairs 82, no. 1 (January 19, 2006): 1-19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2346.2006.00512.x.
Koshkin, Pavel. 2016, “Lack of Experts Can Stimulate Russian Studies Programs in the US.” Russia Direct. January 6, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.russia-direct.org/analysis/lack-russia-experts-could-be-stimulus-russian-studies-programs.
NBC News, 2016, “What’d They Say? Transcript From Clinton-Sanders Debate.” NBC News. February 04, 2016. Accessed April 12, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/transcript-msnbc-democratic-candidates-debate-n511036.
RT, 2015, “Russia & China Are ‘challenging the World Order’ – US Defense Sec.” RT International. November 8, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2016. https://www.rt.com/usa/321194-carter-russia-threat-world-order/.
Stokes, Bruce. 2015, “Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World.” Pew Research Centers Global Attitudes Project RSS. August 05, 2015. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/08/05/russia-putin-held-in-low-regard-around-the-world/.
Vandiver, John. 2016, “Report: Russia Defeats NATO in Baltic War Game.” Military.com. February 5, 2016. Accessed April 14, 2016. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2016/02/05/report-russia-defeats-nato-in-baltic-war-game.html