If you have time, I suggest that you all take a few moments to read an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine by Keith Gessen entitled ‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’. Keith is the brother of Masha Gessen, who has acquired some fame as a result of various books she has written denouncing Vladimir Putin and the ‘totalitarian’ Putin ‘regime’. Keith is a very different kettle of fish. Seeking to explain why Russian-American relations seem to stay bad no matter who is in power in Washington, he is willing to consider the possibility that the answer might lie not just in Russian misbehaviour but also in the nature of the American state and the people who advise it about Russia. To this end, in his article he describes his conversations with the so-called ‘Russia hands’ (the Russian ‘experts’ within the American public service), and he seeks to determine how they view Russia, what policies they recommend, and how this affects politicians’ decisions.
The result is an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend to you all. Two points in particular struck me as I read it: the first relates to the structural incapacity of the American state to take Russian interests seriously; the second relates to the relative ideological unity among the ‘Russia hands.’ Let’s look at these in turn.
There are various models of how governments make policy. One is the top-down, rational actor model, which assumes that there is a single will in government which considers the relevant information and then makes a decision based on that. Another is the bureaucratic politics model, which sees policies as the result of negotiation and compromise between different parts of the state bureaucracy. And yet another is the organizational process model which sees policy as simply the product of how a given organization is structured. None of these models (and there are others still) provides a complete picture, but each contains a part of the truth. Gessen’s article provides some evidence for the organizational model. Here’s what one of the Russia hands interviewed by Gessen has to say:
The way the N.S.C. [National Security Council] is structured … the way the State Department is structured, is through a series of regional and functional bureaus. The question is always, ‘Who takes the lead?’ In Soviet times, when the entire foreign policy of the United States was oriented around countering the Soviet threat, the Russia hands frequently took the lead. In the post-Soviet era, with an increasingly irrelevant Russia, the reverse was true. Russia was unique in that it’s a country that was a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did, but it wasn’t in any place the most important factor. So you’re working on missile defense: Russia is clearly an important player in missile defense. But that process is not led by the person who’s responsible for Russia policy; it’s led by the person who’s responsible for nonproliferation policy. If you come to energy, Russia is obviously an important player in global energy markets, but Russia is not the most important player in global energy markets. That’s the Saudis and OPEC. So when you come to an energy issue, the people who are in charge of energy run that.
There’s a commonly held view among Russians that America is out to get Russia and pursuing a deliberate policy to weaken it. The comment above suggests something different: America pursues policies which Russia doesn’t like not because it’s hostile to Russia but because it simply doesn’t care enough about it to pay any attention to its concerns. And this lack of concern is hard-wired into the bureaucratic structure. As Gessen’s interviewee says of Ukraine, ‘Ukraine is not a Russia issue … It’s a Ukrainian issue. There’s a bureau for European affairs that overseas Ukrainian issues.’ So prior to 2014, US policy towards Ukraine was made by bureaucrats charged with European affairs. Russia experts had nothing to do with it. And the same applies to numerous other policy areas which affect American-Russian relations. It’s not that policy makers are deliberately undermining Russian interests. They just aren’t considering them at all.
This, I think, gets to the root of many of the current problems. Contrary to common claims that Russia is seeking to destroy the West, undermine democracy, completely reshape the international order, and so on, what Russian politicians actually say that they want is respect. They want their interests to be taken into consideration. What annoys them is that they aren’t. And if Gessen’s article is to be believed, this may be a deep structural problem.
The other point which struck me in Gessen’s article is the relative ideological unity among the experts who advise the American government about Russia. Gessen’s interviewees propose various ways of dividing the Russia hands up into different groups, but it’s clear that the divisions between the groups aren’t very great. As Michael Kofman of the Center for Military Analyses tells Gessen, there are really only two types of Russia experts:
There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.
An example which proves the point is former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. He began his tenure as ambassador promoting a ‘reset’ in Russian-American relations. But although this might seem to have put McFaul in the more moderate camp of Russia experts, as Gessen points out, ‘he was also an avid internationalist and democracy promoter, who had speculated in a widely circulated 2005 essay on the seven “factors for success” required for color revolution – the implication being that more such revolutions were necessary and desirable.’ Michael Kimmage, who abandoned academia to serve in the Obama administration, tells Gessen that there are just two strains in American foreign policy thinking: ‘The radical strain, associated with the neocons, called for a universal democratization, by force if need be … [and] the other [moderate] strain, which aimed to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia.’ As you can see, the distinction between the two isn’t exactly clear. Essentially, the division in the US foreign policy community boils down to radical liberal interventionists on the one hand and ‘moderate’ liberal interventionists on the other. But at the end of the day, they’re all liberal interventionists.
Gessen meets several Russia hands who are exceptions to this rule, Michael Kofman being the most notable example. But they are clearly in a small minority. What characterizes these people, Gessen notes, is ‘is less their analysis of Russia than their analysis of America.’ Dissident voices understand that America is in relative decline and needs to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy. This, though, is a deeply unpopular view within Washington. Instead,
Politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them. Many foreign-policy hands are eager to return to the Obama-era status quo, as if American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had, until the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, been doing just fine.
The result is an ‘absence of nuance on the Russia question – the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain’.
Judging by Gessen’s analysis, there is little reason to hope that America will adopt a more reasonable approach towards Russia in the near future. The roots of the present confrontational policies appear to run deep. This is a deeply pessimistic conclusion, but I fear that it is an accurate one.